I’d like to dedicate this post to my dear, dear friend, Barbara Steel, who died last night at the age of 93. If ever I loved a woman, I loved this woman. She was the first friend I made when we moved to England the first time. I remember her working in the flowerbeds in the grounds of the flats we were considering moving in to. I asked her if the garden got lots of birds visiting it, and she rattled off in quick succession about a half a dozen different species. I as wasn’t familiar with British birds as I am now. She told me much later than when she found out we loved birds, she hoped we’d take the flat because she knew right then and there we’d be friends. I knew it too. I just had no idea how good a friend she would be.
We saw each other for coffee a couple of times a week. She lived in the flat below mine. Which meant our views out the window were similar. We’d quick, ring each other up when we’d see interesting birds outside our window so we could share them. I remember her calling me breathlessly one day to look out the window, and there was a sparrow hawk who had just that second taken a starling. We talked in hushed tones on the phone about how disturbing and how beautiful what’d we’d just seen was, and how life so often turns in a second in ways we could have never imagined.
When we moved away to Moscow for four years, the highlight of our trips back to the UK was time spent with Barbara over one of her famous snack lunches – always homemade soup and maybe quiche or cold ham and sandwich stuff, always lingered over, always delighted in, always finished off with coffee far late in the afternoon after time had flown by with discussions of far away places and past adventures and her life with her husband, John, long dead by then, and my adventures in Russia and my struggles to get published. Then there was the gossip from the flats – who was new and what everyone was up to.
One day I came to see her just before catching a night flight back to Moscow, and she loaded me down with a cheese sandwich an apple and some chocolate just to tide me over. She knew I adored good British cheddar and Cox apples.
Sometimes I called her from Russia just to talk. I missed her. I needed her level-headedness. She never treated me like I was inferior because of our age difference. I never felt mothered or condescended to by her, but I always felt like she was a friend whose opinions mattered to me and who celebrated my successes and my adventures as though they were her own.
Barbara was in her early 80s when I met her. She wasn’t in good health. She had heart problems and bad arthritis, and yet she never complained. She always found something to laugh about, something to celebrate.
When we returned to England and we moved into our home, Barbara taught me to garden. Wow, how she taught me to garden! She wasn’t able to do much herself, but a lifetime of experiences were there in her mind, and all I ever had to do was ask, while I sat with her over coffee and biscuits and we watched the birds flit and flutter at the feeder in front of her window.
The first time I grew tomatoes, I didn’t know how to prune them, and they’d grown into a bit of a jungle. Then Barbara came over. She insisted on showing me what to do. I remember her out in my back garden, holding on to my arm with on hand and point and telling me which shoots to pull and which ones to leave and why. That year we had a bumper crop, some of which Barbara made into her yummy tomato soup.
One of the things I treasure most about Barbara was that she read my work – not just the non-erotic stuff, but she insisted upon struggling through the erotica too, even though she laughed and said it wasn’t really her type of reading, but her friend wrote it, so she read it, delighted in my success. And when her legs became ulcered and the nurses were coming several times a week to change the dressings, she passed all my naughty novels around among the nurses and bragged about her friend, the writer.
I have very few pictures of us together. I wish desperately now there were more. What I do have, though, is a million memories of a woman who faced her health problems with courage and grace, more grace than any person I’ve ever known; a woman who loved nature, loved getting her hands in the earth; a woman who could take the most sickly houseplant and nurse it back to health; a woman who did exquisite needlework; a woman who took up watercolour painting at the young age of 84; a woman who periodically took me out to her flowerbeds with a garden fork and let me dig up plants and starts to take home for my own burgeoning beds. I have a million memories of the woman who listened to me moan about not being able to get my writing published, a woman who celebrated with me when I finally did. A woman who laughed and schemed with me about the Italian villa I would buy with my millions from my royalties, the villa that would have a suite especially for her and a very handsome servant to attend her.
The villa never happened. We both knew that it wouldn’t. I never got to give her that, but oh, what the woman gave me! I heard her stories, her wonderful stories about being phone operator during the war and directing the ambulances to the places in London that had been bombed, about her trips to Italy and Greece with her husband, the love of her life, John, about gardens and birds and flowers and insects, about the proper way to make shortbread, about the way we both adored the colour blue.
Barbara Steel was a woman no one could resist. She was kind and generous and always interested, and people were drawn to her because of it. I seldom came to her house for coffee without two or three people stopping by just to check in and say hi. Everyone loved Barbara. And me, I adored her. She was the best example I’ve ever known of a life well-lived and well celebrated even when her hands became too sore to paint or do needlework any longer, even when she could no longer walk in the garden or even get out to fill her bird feeders, she still found something to smile about, something to celebrate.
I’ll miss her terribly, but she left no empty space. She filled that space with the friendship and love and laughter and wisdom and sometimes just blunt honesty that only she could give me. She left no empty space. She left me so full of what’s best about being human. I’m a far better person because Barbara Steel was my friend. And I’m so very glad that she was a part of my life.