December 20, 2000
The same notation is marked in each afternoon of my day planner. Sometimes scrawled in soft pencil, sometimes in ink, once in a child’s purple marker. Write letter to Gwil, it says. By the fourth entry, it was abbreviated to L.O.C. Letter of Condolence.
These entries began more than four weeks ago and I still haven’t written to Gwil. I cried with him on the phone when Betty died, two days after Thanksgiving at 3:25 in the afternoon. Since words mostly failed me then-- what to say to this exhausted man who had just lost half of himself with his wife of forty years—I had felt I could at least write what I could not say. A Letter of Condolence to a man whom I hold in such high regard that it has raised my personal truth and decency standards for the rest of humanity.
Gwil and Betty were both from Manchester. They married young and moved to California in the sixties. Gwil had been at the jewelers bench since the age of sixteen. After his arrival in the US, he eventually went into business with another Englishman, an association that was destined for tragedy. The shattering of a large and valuable star sapphire ruined them financially, and the subsequent suicide of his partner, who drank a tumbler full of cyanide, finished the business for good. It was around this time that Gwil almost died of encephalitis. In fact, he had to relearn many of his goldsmithing skills when he returned to the bench after a long hospitalization. Gwil and Betty had two bright, sensible, potentially formidable daughters, the youngest of whom, Leslie, was at her mother’s side when she died.
Betty worked for Macy’s, selling men’s clothing to the pimply youths who prowled the teen department. She would chuckle throatily about the sweet young things upon whom she got to wait. When her health began to fail last year, she retired. She must have been one of Macy’s longest standing employees, had seen all matter of styles wax and wane, had seen the best and worst behavior in that microcosm of society she served all those years. She saw the seasonal help pass through the store, a photo album of unmemorable faces flipping by, many taking with them, she would mutter darkly, items that did not belong to them. Betty knew her merchandise. The little prats that waltzed through, between semesters, safe with daddy’s stipend, knew sweet fanny-adams, she would say. Betty, who in her entire life, had never expected a thing she hadn’t worked for, rolled her eyes and wondered aloud, as Gwil often did, what the world was coming to.
So this is the first Christmas season in years and years that Gwil won’t be holed up in his small work room above Johnson & Co. Jewelers in the Stanford Shopping Center. He won’t be getting out the season’s rush jobs, NPR on the radio in the background, the sound of the caustic soda bubbling away behind him, the spine-tingling hum of the ultra sonic, the soft hiss of the steam cleaner, the hurried steps of a salesperson, ingratiating, apologetic, asking for yet another favor, and could you, just this once, she needs it for a party tonight and I wouldn’t ask except that she might buy that big emerald in the front case if we can do this for her…
He won’t be there. He has been watching his wife die quickly and horribly of pancreatic cancer. He will be at home, wandering through Betty’s memory, going through forty years of things and wondering if his life can ever make sense without her.
I worked by Gwil’s side for six years. I have poured him more cups of tea than I can remember, even if I myself wasn’t having any. To this day I drink it the English way, with milk – though that’s just a small example of his influence on my life. We danced gracefully around the narrow, crowded room, never treading on each other’s toes, sometimes talking, sometimes quiet, sometimes connecting in the weird telepathic way that people do who have worked together a long time. He taught me everything about jewelry making that I could absorb. I never did develop the confidence to set the big gems, but on many occasions I watched Gwil burnish the final prongs down on rocks worth more than my yearly salary.
I sit and try to write this Letter of Condolence, during the Christmas season when, just a few years ago, I would have been at Gwil’s side at my bench, or standing at the polishing lathe, buffing up the days work and packing each in its envelopes before loading them back into the safe. Betty would soon be bringing in a huge tray of her famous sausage rolls and tiny mince pies. Gwil and I would wipe our buttery fingers on our leather aprons, turn up the music and get back to work. We’d be grinning, and, despite all the commercialization around us in the mall, feeling the Christmas Spirit upon us.
I think about all the other Letters of Condolence I have not written this year. Letters to Lawan, Pauline, Sean, Mickey, Mid. Then there are the Letters from years past that I never wrote that still haunt me but that I have filed away under an uncomfortable statute of limitations. I’ll write this letter to Gwil, pale echo of my feelings though it may be.
I am so sorry about Betty. I can think of no simple words of comfort -- except this: Betty chose to spend her life with you. You made her life wonderful, gave her two magnificent daughters, made her laugh, and helped her make a graceful exit when there was nothing else left. I can imagine no better definition for Soul Mate than that. She is hard-wired into you, your daughters and your grandchildren, and into those of us who were lucky enough to know her. Those of us lucky enough to know you, dear Gwil, are the luckiest people alive.