Home > Stories > East to West: The End of an Era
East to West: The End of an Era

January 28, 2013

By Angela Jeffs, December 2012

It is a curious thing that has left me baffled but relieved.

After the deaths of my mother and sister in 2007, I lived in a state of deep anxiety about how I would cope emotionally when the last link to my childhood was gone.

Jo – my aunt and godmother – was my sole surviving older relative on either side of my family.  Born in 1914, on the cusp of the First World War, she was well on the way to her 99th birthday, and right until the last day we were joking about how much she was looking forward to that telegram from the Queen… or whatever it is that  British centenarians receive these days.

Much inclined to living in fantasy and creating drama from nothing, I would imagine her dying and feel hysterically bereft in my newly orphaned state. How would I manage? How would I bear not just her physical and emotional removal from my life, but the full weight of the family history left in her wake.

Stubborn, critical, demanding, but also warm, witty, uncomplaining and generous, she had been very pleased to see me in October.  She had gout in a finger and wanted a standing embroidery frame from her cottage, just along the road from where her sister (my mother) lived and I live now.  She then assembled it, mounted the canvas in place and once again began laboriously to stitch the half finished pattern of autumn leaves. Outside the real things were still falling from the trees, but not for long.

She was worried for me. What she called my “saga of woes”.  But while entertaining on a daily basis they also touched nerves, and she opened up about her childhood and career as never before. No longer did she tell me to mind my own business when I asked questions or dug for verification of tales told by my mother.  (It had been astonishing on more than one occasion to hear two completely different – even contradictory -  memories of the same incident.)

She talked of studies as a silversmith and glover (glove maker). Her experiments with weaving, patchwork (for which she won prizes) and historic textile renovation. Her love of horses and riding.  Nature and wildlife. She told stories from her painful childhood. How in a newly orphaned state at age eight and taken in reluctantly by three maiden aunts, she walked five miles a day to and from school, to leave at 14 with a good grounding in Latin and German and  secretarial duties. She typed her last business letter in late 2011… yet another acerbic attack on bureaucracy.  And wrote to me in Japan until the end.

She enquired about her garden – the third piece of paradise she had created in her life – and for the first time since choosing to leave her cottage to enter Kincarrathie (the care home) in February 2011, asked to see a photograph.

She also asked if I was keeping her writings together – clever often wickedly humorous  ditties in the main dating from the early days of her career, and which since settling into Kincarrathie she had been scribbling on request for various carers and staff members. Several had been published in the home’s internal magazine, which gave her great pleasure. As did the hanging of one of her impeccably beautifully embroideries, ‘Let there be light’ in one of the public spaces.

The gout spread to her feet; associated medications began making her sick. She stopped eating because, “What’s the point…”  And began to state furiously through pain and discomfort that she had truly had enough of ageing: “No fun at all.”

Over the next few weeks (I realise now) she lost interest in all the things that had kept her bright, feisty and active: reading, stitching, art classes and quiz sessions.  She gave up on the computer – tackled as late as 2011 and resulting in a large article in the local newspaper: SILVER SURFER AT 98! She even stopped watching news programmes on TV.

This letting go kept step with the slow but steady pace of improvements in my own life. Relieved when I was legally back on the road, she was thrilled when news of Akii’s visa came through.

December 11, I had never before seen her so diminished and defeated. She had not even tried to comb her hair.  I stayed all day, trying to help get her back on track with a visit from the doctor, a gentler regime of medication, a revised primary carer. She had not “got on with” the old one, which to me spoke volumes.

When my cousin (by my aunt’s marriage) and her husband came late afternoon from Dundee, I left. Jo was definitely more cheerful, sipping juice and making jokes. Good, I remember thinking as I drove back: now she will get better and then we can go on as before.  (What was I thinking? How can you “get better” at such an advanced age?)  But after I had gone, her legs had given away and she had been put to bed and made comfortable with a book and her daily crossword.

When someone is that old, you know for sure time is limited. Yet when that phone call came in darkness at 3am the next morning, and I found myself driving the 30km to Perth through the silent by starlit night, it seemed inconceivable that she might die. But she did, my cousin holding one hand and I the other, at 5.20, with not even a glimmering of dawn on the horizon.

The staff on duty opened the windows. The crossword (paper lying on the floor) was completed, the room empty, cold and clear. Jo – the energetic force that had driven her through the toughest and happiest of times  – had gone.

I had not been with my father, mother or sister when they died. I was grateful and happy to be with Jo. Yes, happy.  When my cousin left to go home, I stayed while Jo’s body was prepared, and until the undertakers came to take her away.

It was an extraordinary time, and I believe that is when a great healing took place.

I cried later of course. Wept sitting in her garden to see no hand waving at the window of her sunroom.

Wept when it became clear I would be alone at the funeral. The weather was foul, it was too close to Christmas for either of my children. Akii’s flight was booked and our removals in their own final days.

Wept following the wickerwork coffin woven with flowers from the funeral home in Blairgowrie to the crematorium in Perth.

Wept driving home, when all was said and done. A beautiful funeral everyone said; Jo surely approved.

Then the tears stopped.

I did not cry at Christmas, even though I was alone. I did not cry in the new year – a fresh start in so many ways – when I collected her ashes in the tastefully designed eco-friendly cardboard container. They are on the windowsill of this room as I write, with candles, flowers, and a favourite cuppa and chocolate biscuit. The tea is Earl Grey, naturally, and in the requisite china cup.

A few Scottish eyebrows have been raised. But I find comfort in such rituals, and in accordance with Japanese Buddhist rites, will continue for 49 days, that is Tuesday next and Akii’s 62rd birthday. We will wait until Spring to scatter the ashes in the pool above the home she built with her husband in the 1960s, and where his own remains were deposited after his death a decade on.

We had talked about her death and funeral. Pragmatic to the end, she did not care she insisted: “Just put me in a box and go through the motions”. But she was 100 per clear that she wanted to be with Charles.  In fact, it was her only real concern.  Everything else – her home, her papers and effects? Sorted and cleared; no longer of interest or relevant.

She was so admirable. My role model as a child.  I remember thinking, ‘Wow, a woman with her own flat, money and independence. That’s what I want!’ And now she has gone. And I am left with boxes and boxes of papers and photos, not just her own, but belonging also to her sister and all the other members of her family. On my father’s side also, boxes and boxes…

Hard to know what to do with them all. Where to go from here.  But a steady sifting is taking place, slowly, carefully, gently… with those pieces of memorabilia no longer seeming relevant being sent off ceremonially on the fire.

Some have said Jo waited for me to return and stabilise… get my life on some kind of promising track. She was fully aware how important she was to me, and I to her; each other’s next of kin. But she was tired, and as soon as she knew Akii  was on his way and the year would end with reconciliation,  she could let go.  In an amazing piece of synchronistic timing, she closed the door on her life and also my own.

The end of an era in more ways than one. The last knot tied on the timeline of past, present and future.  And curiously – curiously because it is all so surprising, I am for now at least totally accepting and not at all upset.

Late summer 2012 writer and journalist Angela Jeffs moved from Japan, where she lived for 25 years, to Scotland from where she reports monthly on how her life is changing. This is the fourth installment. See here for part one, here for part two, and here for part three.

About the author: After training in theatre and Laban dance, Angela Jeffs stepped sideways into London publishing. She worked freelance as an editor from 1973, then reinvented herself in Japan as a journalist and writer from 1986. She was a weekly columnist for The Japan Times for 22 years, and Japan Correspondent for Asia Magazine in Hong Kong from 1989-1996. Her book Insider's Tokyo, commissioned from Singapore, was published in 2001. Since 2005 she has been developing and facilitating a programme of therapeutic creative writing under the title Drawing on The Writer Within ( Her new book, Chasing Shooting Stars: A South American Paper Trail into the Past, was just published and can be ordered via
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