In my early twenties, I babysat the son of a famous multi-millionaire. I say babysat, I basically stopped this nightmare of a child from trashing the hotel room whilst his parents were at dinner. The following day, the entourage visited a stately home outside London. The child ran riot amongst the antique furniture. The staff asked the parents to tell the child to stop. The parents ignored the staff and laughed at their son’s antics. The staff told the child to stop so the parents shouted at the staff. I didn’t get paid. Instead, Multi Million Dollar Dad gave me one of his books. It was my first taste of realising that money can buy private jets with your name on the tail-fin, but it can’t buy good manners.
My parents had a modest bank account, but they knew the value of good manners and drummed them in to me: saying please and thank you; knowing when to speak up and when to keep quiet; to be polite and kind and thoughtful; not to look bored when sitting with elderly relatives; to write chatty and prompt thank you letters, even for knitted bobble hats in luminous colours.
Although I didn’t appreciate it at the time, teaching a child good manners are skills for life: sitting quietly in a stuffy room whilst the grown-ups talk about Great Aunt Nessie’s hysterectomy, occasionally firing a random non-ovary related question in your direction such as: “What do you think of Harry Secombe?” is good training for sitting in endless marketing meetings and Powerpoint presentations, disguising your boredom by pretending to take copious notes (in reality playing Bullshit Bingo), when out of the blue you are asked for your opinion on the market validity of Super Mario baked beans.
I particularly loathed post-Christmas thank you letters, slaving over the Basildon Bond, my hand aching from clutching my ink pen, trying not to smudge my handiwork, something that was always a possibility given that I am left-handed. What child doesn’t, especially one with lots of relatives who need thanking? But I disagree with an article published in The Guardian late last year, written by Peter Ormerod, which put the case that children should not be made to write thank you letters, because for the most part they are dishonest and insincere. Of course I hated the bath cubes which reeked of lavender toilet freshener and left gritty bits on the bottom of the bath, thereby simultaneously cleaning, deodorising and exfoliating my nether regions, but I wasn’t going to hurt Aunty May’s feelings by telling her this. I wrote and told her that I loved them, which of course meant I got a set every year.
Presents, invitations, acts of kindness: they should all be acknowledged with a prompt thank you letter. I’m not a complete dinosaur; in some circumstances a chatty email or a decently worded text is fine, but sending one simply saying: Tx 4 £ xxx is not appropriate. Ever. And if circumstances mean that you can’t be as quick with your thanks as you would like (being struck down with post-Christmas Ebola-like flu for instance as happened this year), remember, better late than never.
So, have you got all this? The insistence on writing a prompt thank-you letter? How rude I find people who don’t acknowledge acts of kindness? That my nickname name should be Ms Manners?
Dear reader, I have a confession: it has taken me four years to write a thank you letter and when I finally did, I got it so wrong, I burn with shame at my crassness.
That terrible day on the beach on the 27th February, 2011, amongst the circus of people who gathered to watch my husband drown and the heroic attempts to rescue him – some because they were there at the wrong time and had no choice, others because they were voyeurs – was a small snowy-haired lady in her sixties who I shall call Vera. Vera comforted me on the beach, came with me on that terrifying ambulance ride to hospital and accompanied me back to the hotel. At the end of the week as I was leaving to fly home, convulsed with tears and terrified, Vera hugged me and said, “Don’t send me any flowers, because I get hay fever.” I told her that I’d be in touch, that I’d let her know how I was getting on.
Back home in London, I wanted to write to Vera, but I couldn’t. I physically couldn’t. It wasn’t through laziness: I sent hand-written notes to everyone who had written to me, and that first Christmas I sent out cards. It wasn’t that I forgot: I thought about it constantly. I just couldn’t write. I think most of us who have lost someone lock a bit of what has happened away – it’s the only way to cope – and I knew that writing to Vera would perhaps unlock some of that terror. Time marched on. I told myself that I would write to Vera when I had some positive news or when I was feeling better or if I met someone else or moved house. All those things happened and yet I still couldn’t write to say thank you.
At the end of last year, I felt I couldn’t start another year without writing to her, so I sat down and without stopping, wrote this:
I am sure this letter will come as a surprise to you, it being nearly four years since that terrible day in Barbados when my husband, JS drowned, but I can honestly say that I have thought of you every day since the 27th February, 2011. I have continually wanted to write to you, but thinking about it and putting pen to paper were two quite different things, the latter bringing back memories which whilst never can be forgotten, felt too difficult to face. (That kamikaze ambulance ride! I thought we were both going to die and whilst I couldn’t care less about me, I did about you). I have often referred to the message you wrote on the back of the card you gave me in Barbados, the ending of which read: You will be strong again. I did doubt it and I still have my moments, but you were right!
Life has moved on dragging me with it (kicking and screaming at times!) and I was determined not to let another year pass without writing to you. What I have been wanting to say all these years is quite simple: Thank you. I would not have wished the events of that Sunday morning on the beach on anyone, but had I been able to pick someone who was not only kind, compassionate and comforting in the face of the unfolding tragedy and its aftermath, but who also showed great courage and put their safety on the line for a complete stranger, I could not have chosen a better woman than Vera Hamilton.
I moved out of London last year and am now in Royston, Hertfordshire, living with Ian who was widowed five years ago when his sons were teenagers. It has been a huge change for all of us, and I am still adapting to life outside London after living there for thirty years.
Mike and Josephine were incredibly kind to me after JS died. Another regret is that I didn’t keep in touch with them. After the adrenalin of trying to keep going for the first year or so, I rather cut myself off from life. I know that you sometimes saw them at the races and in Barbados, so if you do see them, please could you pass on my good wishes and thanks? They were so lovely and welcoming.
Once again, thank you.
Wishing you and your family health and happiness in 2015 and beyond.
With love, Helen x
I didn’t expect Vera to reply. I didn’t need her to reply. I had finally done what I should have done four years before and sent her a thank you letter.
Even though when I put the letter in the post box I didn’t expect a reply, I started watching the post. Perhaps Vera would send me a New Year card with a note? She didn’t. Perhaps she would write to me on the 27th February, the anniversary? She didn’t. I began to wonder if Vera was even alive. Perhaps something awful had happened to her meaning that she couldn’t write to me. I looked her up on Facebook. It was interesting that although I stalk everyone on Facebook, I had never looked Vera up, never even considered it. She was easy to find and very much alive, posting pictures of her holiday. I checked that Vera hadn’t moved, that she was still at the address she had given me. She was. Like a teenage girl waiting for a text from a potential boyfriend, making excuses that perhaps his phone is out of battery or hers isn’t working, I wondered if my letter had got lost.
And then I looked at the date I had sent the letter, the letter that was four years in coming.
The 23rd December, 2014.
And it hit me and I felt – feel – deeply, deeply ashamed.
Writing to Vera after four years was no longer about thanking her. It was about closing a door for me. I had given little thought to how she might feel to receive a letter on Christmas Eve reminding her of the 27th February. As well as everything she witnessed, Vera (like me) was injured taking JS to hospital. She said to me later that she had never been so terrified in her life, and yet here I was, popping up behind the Christmas Tree to remind her. We are all selfish in grief, I believe it’s part of the process of grieving, but four years on, I’m ashamed that I didn’t realise until it was too late that writing to Vera was all about me.
Better late than never?
Not in this case.