I’d like to introduce you to our neighbor, Dinah, who I mentioned in my article entitled ‘Come By For Coffee’ a few months ago. A lifelong resident of the village, she has lived in the house next door to ours for decades. She’s a simple soul who never married, and in fact the mere thought of taking up romantic residence seems to be quite beyond her imagination.
Dinah used to bustle about all day long from one elderly lady to another, doing their shopping and often a bit of cleaning as well, gathering up news as she went and keeping everyone up to date on village gossip. If we crossed paths on our shared walkway she would whisper a tiny hello, giving me a timid glance on her way past. Knowing her as I do now, she must have been bursting with curiosity about my sudden appearance next door, but was too shy to ask!
Because she is such an innocent in the world, my husband and I could not resist making up outrageous stories about her to each other. I would see her leave her house each evening punctually at 6:30pm and I’d report to Sem that she was going out to meet her bookie. Sem would come up with a more sinister errand that she must be on, weaving a sordid tale that would leave us both laughing. We created quite an exciting life for solid, mousy Dinah, who remained completely unaware of our nonsense. In reality her 6:30 “trysts” were to go to Margaret’s house to put her hair in curlers for the night. (“Margaret is awfy vain about her hair,” she once said to me in a moment of disparaging candor.) The truth of it is, there’s not a disreputable bone in Dinah’s body.
After I’d been here for about six months we noticed that Dinah seemed to have disappeared, and after asking around we learned that she had been diagnosed with asbestosis. In readiness for her return after months in the hospital, oxygen was installed in her house, and eventually a thin and wrinkled Dinah-shadow was brought home, frail and breathless, with a bone-rattling cough. At the time she was barely in her sixties, but she looked easily 20 years older, and seemed not long for this world.
But Dinah was made of stronger stuff, and she rallied. We were pleased and surprised to see her progress as she regained some much-needed weight and energy. When the good weather arrived I often saw her sitting out in her back garden in the “wee hoosie” she’d had built, her long oxygen line snaking back into the house as she took in the warmth, light and fresh air.
That was when I finally got to know Dinah better, and a few other ladies, too. You see, all of those years of caring for others had come back in Dinah’s favor, and everyone who could visit, did, in pairs or trios appearing daily for a chat. I’ve never seen anything like it – I can say, hand on heart, that in the almost-seven years since she became housebound, not a day has gone by without someone coming to see her. If ever there was an example of “you reap what you sow,” Dinah is it. Cousins, aunties, friends, you name it – someone is always dropping by for “a cuppie tea” with her. She doesn’t have to gather village news anymore – the news comes to her – and if I want to know what’s happening I need go no further than next door. Dinah knows all. It is remarkable.
An old-fashioned word for the Dinahs of this world is a “spinster”. While the word merely means an elderly unmarried woman, Dinah is the picture of the stereotypical spinster as well. She is grim-lipped with disapproval about many things: reading books (she prefers magazines, and you should, too!), teenagers kissing outdoors, the housekeeping tendencies of the lady who formerly lived in our house (“She wasnae much of a housekeeper,” Dinah said wryly to Sem when he moved in), cooking competitions “where people are horrid to each other,” and Gaelic. I don’t know how a language can be the focus of dislike, but I once asked her if she spoke Gaelic and she emphatically said, narrow-eyed and sniffing dismissively, “I don’t! Like! ‘The Gaelic’!” She is afraid of water, the dark, and anyone knocking on the door after sundown. But there is humor in her, and kindness, too.
Normally Dinah considers me to be passable company until someone better comes along – I say that with affection, but it’s true. I know where I rank in the pecking order of acceptable visitors, and I am often politely but handily dispatched when someone else more interesting appears for tea and gossip. I find myself being deftly maneuvered out of the house while being told in all sincerity, “Come by any time,” as the door is firmly shut behind me. Oh, Dinah!
One particular day, though, I was warmly invited in even though Mary (an exceptionally religious friend of hers) was already there. So it was that I took part in one of the strangest conversations I’ve ever had in my life. The discussion had turned to gay marriage, I believe because they were ruling on it in Scotland at the time. Mary, of course, was strongly and vocally against it. Words like… well, I don’t need to tell you the words. Unpleasant declarations delicately expressed in that way that people have where they make hideous statements and then look around the room expecting people to nod in approval. While I did not want to start an argument I said, with a hint of steel in my voice, “We love who we love, and if two consenting adults love each other, who are we to say anything against it, whatever their gender?”
Mary spluttered a bit but I’d said it with a smile, albeit one below eyes hard with anger. She was left without much to say in rebuttal, and then Dinah chimed in, which is where the fun began. This woman, whose living room is decorated with bespectacled teddy bears in pinafores, knitting tiny teddy bear sweaters, this prim and fastidious maiden lady who is down on hand-holding, loud laughter, and kids having fun, shocked the socks off me by saying, speculatively, “Well I don’t know… I canna really see why two men would be together, but…” (I held my breath, wondering ‘what next!?’) “…I CAN imagine two women together much more easily. I think that would be all right.”
I was tickled to bits, folks. I smiled widely and said, “Women are beautiful, aren’t they?” Dinah agreed, and Mary nearly fainted. But the little conversation-bombs were not finished raining down yet! Dinah considered things for a moment and then she said with utmost certainty, “Other than a man who came to the village once years ago, I don’t know any gay people at all!” That, friends, was Dinah’s innocence flooding right back to the fore, because one of her relatives is wonderfully and unmistakeably gay. I love him loads; he is one of my favorite people on the planet. But Dinah would never imagine in a million years that he is homosexual, and her confident declaration was nearly the undoing of me, as the giggles fizzed inside, seeking release. Mary, on the other hand, suddenly decided she had to be somewhere else. I’d like to hope we opened her mind up to a bit of tolerance that day, but probably not.
For the last few years Dinah has presided over her household like a maiden queen, bossing her brother around during his multiple daily visits, directing his gardening efforts with exasperation and sighing with resignation when he doesn’t do things just how she wanted them. They squabble like any other siblings but he is always there for her, maintaining her oxygen generator, hanging up her laundry, and turning her back garden into a flowerpot-filled explosion of color. So life has gone on, each day bringing visitors who come by and are offered “a drappie tea” and something sweet.
Sadly, over the last year or so Dinah has started to decline again. Her appetite diminished and her world-view, always narrow, has become focused ever-inward. We’ve occasionally gotten phone calls asking us to go check in on her, or she has phoned us herself if she is in distress. Last time she called, upset and panicking, she and I talked about whether she should go to the hospital where she wouldn’t have to be alone, as she is so afraid to be on her own. She was in a shocking state, all skin and bones clothed in fear, and I sat with her until her recently-arranged home help came to take over. “I have no interest in anything anymore,” she said that day. “I wait all night for the morning light to come back. Oh I hope that I can make it to springtime, and get better. Maybe I will.” Her hand fluttered over her heart distractedly and I tried to help her to calm her breathing. I thought it might be the last time I saw our Dinah, yet she rallied a little once again; later that same day I stopped by and she had three visitors, all cheering her up and sharing a pot of tea and gossip. Even so, I was not altogether surprised when a few days later I saw the ambulance in front of her house.
I ran out to see if they needed me to move our car away from the gate but the EMTs had already carefully loaded Dinah into the ambulance. Her brother was there, speechless with worry and grief, while her cousin stood stoically by, hiding her tears and giving a cheerful and robust wave as they shut the back doors, saying, “We’ll be along to see you shortly, Dinah, you just rest now and don’t worry!” The ambulance pulled away and her cousin turned to me and said,“She won’t be coming back.” Dinah’s brother just covered his face in his hands and wept, pushing past us into the house.
As I write this, two weeks later, Dinah is still in the hospital, and they are talking about moving her to a care home. Our shared walkway is quiet, with no visitors wandering in and out, and while I didn’t see Dinah every day, I miss her already. We will go to see her next week, if she is up to it.
It’s a very sad note on which to end this story, but what I take most of all from Dinah’s life so far is the kindness, goodness and steadfastness of Highlanders. In a lot of places, someone like Dinah would have been completely overlooked, lost in the whirl and chaos of daily life. But people have long memories, here. When she was healthy our prim, disapproving, opinionated spinster neighbor was hardly ever home, so busy was she, helping others every day of the week. Unexpectedly and cruelly her life changed forever and she found herself to be the one in need, and Highland folk have answered the call, for years on end.
There’s something to be learned from that. If we do it right, maybe we do reap what we sow. Perhaps one day I will find myself alone and in need, and whether or not there will be anyone steadfast in friendship with me remains to be seen. It is very much up to me, and how I behave towards those around me. Dinah’s example, in caring for others when they couldn’t do it themselves, is one that I will not forget.
Wouldn’t the world be an amazing place if we all looked out for each other simply because it was the right thing to do?