Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
I’ve been metaphorically away for a few days because of the death of someone near and dear to me. Her name was Gina Lake. She’s the woman in the family photo above, which I took when I was twenty.
You can read more about my introduction to the Lakes, and to England, in this post, but I just wanted to acknowledge my dear old friend, Gina, with a special word. She was only ten years older than me, as it turned out, but she was a wife and mother and well into her adult life when I was only getting started. I’d been assigned to her family as part of a program called “home-stay,” which allowed new foreign students to spend a couple of weeks with Actual English People before beginning the academic year.
As soon as I walked into her house, Gina started feeding me. Fish fingers, baked beans, and the tallest heap of mashed potatoes I’d ever laid eyes on (or had ever been expected to finish). A bottle of HP sauce on the side. “You’re too scrawny!” she declared. “Let’s have a look at you.”
And as soon as she started feeding me, she also started making me laugh. She was a talker, a storyteller, a comedian, a teaser, and a master conversationalist. We talked all day long, every day, as we went about her daily business of caring for her five-year-old son, Jason (who is about to turn forty-five), running errands, meeting friends, and preparing her husband Derrick’s supper. Days never flew by so fast.
I knew I had one of the best hosts in the program, but I also guessed that I had a friend for life.
Over the years we’d write letters back and forth, talk on the phone occasionally, often on New Years Eve when it struck midnight Greenwich Mean Time. I’d get passed from Gina to Derrick to Jason to Gina’s mum, Derrick’s mum and dad, and back, in the end, to Gina. To think that my random assignment to this particular family would send down such hardy roots.
I went back to visit several times, Gina always greeting me with, “Aren’t you becoming quite the handsome old gent!” My wife was honored to be the maid of honor at Jason’s wedding, and we were both delighted to attend the seventy-fifth birthday party of a friend of the Lakes last time we made the trip, much dancing, drinking, laughing. But when we said goodbye to Gina and Derrick in their flat in Chatham, Kent, we couldn’t have dreamed we’d never see Gina again.
Someone touches you in a certain way, at a certain time, and it’s the kind of gift you know the value of from the start. You have to relish it, and I have, and that’s one reason it’s been hard to think of anything but my old friend this week, who died at the now-too-young age of sixty-nine.
I’ll miss her, but she holds quite a bit of real estate in my heart and memory, so I imagine I’ll visit often.