Tag Archives: purposeful aging

Sandra of Kirriemuir, Ten Years On

In the summer of 2011, when I was feverishly researching my Scottish great-grandmother’s story for a historical novel I was writing based on her short yet dramatic life, I decided to go directly to the source — first, to the General Register Office on Princes Street in Edinburgh for solid documentation; then, with copies of those old birth, marriage, and census documents in hand, to the place my Scottish ancestors called home.

So one sunny morning on that fateful trip to Scotland, alone and operating only on faith, I took a train from Edinburgh’s crowded Waverly Station north to Dundee, then a bus to Forfar, then another bus to my destination: Kirriemuir, a lovely little village of winding, narrow roads and shoulder-to-shoulder red sandstone weavers’ cottages, unchanged since my great-grandmother’s day in the 1860s.

As fate would have it, with only a few timid inquiries on my part and generous help from   kind locals, I was soon put in touch with the perfect person to aid me in my quest – Sandra Affleck, the town’s foremost historian and author of three books on Kirriemuir and its most famous son, Sir James Matthew Barrie, author of Peter Pan. 

On that afternoon Sandra dropped whatever she was doing to take me, a complete stranger and foreigner, on a long walking tour of the neighborhood where my great-grandmother, Helen Reid David; her husband-to-be, William Black; and their schoolmate, and no doubt childhood friend, James (“Jamie”) Barrie, once lived.

As we walked the hamlet’s sidewalks side by side, I felt a strong kinship with Sandra, a grandmother, retired primary school teacher, writer, and J.M. Barrie scholar, who, with her supportive husband David had raised a family in Kirriemuir and knew the territory well.

That evening, when Sandra drove me back to my hotel, I asked her one last question: “Do you think it’s crazy of me to need to walk where my great-grandmother walked – and to feel that her spirit is guiding me on this journey?”

“I don’t think it’s crazy at all!” Sandra insisted. “You must follow your heart.”

In the following months, which grew into years, Sandra cheered me on as I wrote and ultimately published my historical novel, Jamie’s Muse (Nighthawk Press, 2018), based on my great-grandmother Helen’s story. Sandra became for me every writer’s dream, a stalwart alter ego, ever ready to review drafts, encourage, and applaud. In our frequent e-mail correspondence over the years, she has referred to herself as my “Sister Across the Sea.”

So when I began my WOW blogpost in 2014, I knew I had to interview my role model Sandra, who was then seventy-one. When I asked her in that interview one of my standard questions — what she found to be some of the advantages of advanced age — she shared these wise thoughts:

“Experience of life and people — having seen some things before and having learned how to deal better with them. Realizing more clearly what is important and what not so. Knowing that material wealth is an empty objective and that good reciprocal relationships with the people around you matter more than anything. Learning not to take one’s good health for granted but appreciating it daily.”

And when I asked her what sustained her, she was quick to reply: “Coffee, chocolate, and my husband! Oh, and in J.M. Barrie’s words, ‘A certain determination about not being beaten.’”

(For the full interview, go to: https://blog.bonnieleeblack.com/sandra-of-kirriemuir/.)

I saw Sandra again in the summer of 2018, right after Jamie’s Muse was published, when I did a series of readings from the book in Kirriemuir. Sandra’s beloved husband, David, had just died, and she was in mourning. But she did the kindest thing: She interred a copy of Jamie’s Muse (in a Ziplock bag) with David’s casket when he was buried in Kirriemuir’s Hill Cemetery – because my great-grandparents Helen and William Black had emigrated to South Africa in their twenties and mysteriously died there without a trace. They never returned to Kirriemuir to be buried with their fellow townsfolk. My book, Sandra knew, was a way of bringing them home.

It’s been ten years since that first WOW interview with Sandra, so I asked her recently in an e-mail for her thoughts on the subject of aging, now that she’s eighty-one.

Sandra at a recent birthday tea

Here, in her own words, is what Sandra had to share:

“So many people of my vintage are incapacitated in one way or another, not least through dementia, I feel it is almost my duty to live my life as fully as I can, if only because they can’t.

“In this last decade both my sister and I were widowed and have had to learn to live again. You have to believe that your life still matters and then you have to make it matter. To have had our own interests, activities and social circles previous to solitude proved great scaffolding for us both.

“Music, singing, acting, writing, public speaking and a sense of humour have been great blessings all my life. Fortunately, opportunities exist in my community to continue with these and I have benefited from them all hugely. It gives me great joy occasionally to make other people laugh as well as give them a hug when they need it.

“But I have been blessed with relatively good health. The mechanics of my body could do with lubrication but I have as yet been spared any serious illness.

“If Covid taught me anything it was how valuable social contact and laughter are. So I fend off decrepitude by smiling!”

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NOTE: In last week’s post, “Ten Years,” I mentioned I’d be terminating my weekly WOW blog in May. I’ve since arranged with the blog’s host company to keep  past posts alive and available to readers, as well as keep open the possibility of my writing a new blogpost from time to time. The link to use to get to my posts now is: https://blog.bonnieleeblack.com/ (scroll down to “Search the Archives”).