Friday, September 30, 2011

Goodbye, Vi

I wanted to note the passing of a person who was very special to our family, Viola Bye.  She died several weeks ago after a massive heart attack.  Today, September 30th, she would have reached 90 years old.  In fact, we were supposed to attend a very small party this evening at her daughter Yvonne’s house, who is our neighbor.

Vi lived for several years in the house next door with Yvonne and Peter, Yvonne’s brother and Vi’s son.  That’s how we became acquainted.  She was a wonderful person to know.  She walked very slowly, slightly stooped, and used a cane to help her around, but the brightness of her attitude, and the energy she radiated from within, made these physical impairments seem more like adopted mannerisms, like a disguise that she could throw off whenever she wanted.  She reminded me of a cross between Yoda and a hobbit, and I say that with pure respect and admiration.  Her wise eyes, curled body, and cane conjured up a visual similarity to Yoda, while her gentle, friendly, unassuming nature, and the absolutely most delightful British accent ever to tickle an American ear, would have put her right at home with Frodo, Sam and the rest in middle-earth.

Vi was British, both by birth and constitution.  Although, when I say British, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly which part of the British Empire to plunk her down in.  She lived in England, but she also lived and/or traveled extensively in Africa, India, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and probably anywhere else that, at one time or another, has saluted the Union Jack.  Her adventurous past was a great source of interest to Elizabeth and me, and as passionate travelers, we were fascinated by her itinerant life.  What is it about the British disposition that makes them such fearless and prolific ramblers of the planet?  Whatever these qualities are in their national character, Vi embodied them.  We would have loved to have teased every story from the immense library of experiences and impressions contained in that tiny body, if only it hadn’t been so difficult to hear her when she spoke.  Aside from the occasional inconvenience of her accent and the minor differences in vocabulary, she had the absolute softest speaking voice I have ever heard.  When we had the opportunities to talk for an extended time, we were mostly limited to chatting about our superficial, day-to-day concerns.  Sustained and substantial discussions were just not possible because even the smallest disturbance, like the sound of a dog panting, or a spoon clinking a plate was enough to crumble whatever conversational edifice we were trying to construct.  The expression of intense concentration on my face when we tried to talk, especially over the last few years, must have made her think I was a nut. 

She and my father-in-law Lew, who passed away at the end of 2008, used to enjoy each other’s company and would engage in fascinating conversations.  They were usually about two completely different subjects, but that didn’t seem to matter at all.  Lew had absolutely no problem making himself heard, but he himself couldn’t hear anything below the sound of an air-raid siren.  Each year, Vi would come over for our annual Christmas party, and they would sit in the back room, with the television blaring, people mingling and conversing all around, and twenty-some kids of various ages caught up in the throes of Christmas Eve excitement, yelling and screaming and running between them, and talk as though they were sitting down to tea in a quiet English garden. 
She seemed to take great delight in watching our daughters grow; first Jessica, and then Maria, although by the time Maria came along, she and Peter had moved into an apartment just to the west of us, and so we didn’t see her as often.  I feel badly about that, like I feel badly about all the people I should have made a greater effort to see and spend time with in my life.  I think she knew that we were willing to do anything she asked us to, I know we told her so every time we’d meet, and we would help her with little things here and there.  But she was proud, and wanted to keep doing as much as she could for herself.  Yvonne was there to take her shopping, or to the bank, or doctors' appointments. 

Then, a few weeks ago, Yvonne stopped me as we were unloading the car.  Her eyes told me everything.  Vi.  Massive heart attack.  Went quickly, the way she wanted to.  More words that were even harder for Yvonne to say than they were to hear.  I gave her a hug, told her that I would tell Elizabeth, and that if she needed anything, to please let us know. 

Today she would have turned ninety.  And yet, there never was a time I saw her when I didn’t notice the youth between the wrinkles of her face.  Some people are just like that. Time may corrode and even cripple the physical conveyance, but the beauty of their being just seems to grow stronger, more vibrant in response.  I’ve been close enough to the rapacious, unrelenting effects of aging to know that the physical reality of growing old can never be graceful, but it’s the spirit within, the peace you make inside, or don’t make, that really decides the issue.  Looking at Vi, she has always given me hope for the possibility of aging gracefully.  What a gift she was. 

Goodbye Vi, friend and neighbor. 

I still want to hear your stories.

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