Hiding in Downton Abbey

Okay. This was pretty intriguing stuff.

When the long-running British series Downton Abbey initially began, I read about it and shrugged, uninterested. Midway into the first season, though, a coworker, Dani, who was enjoying the show, urged me to begin watching it. I remained unconvinced. “I’ve seen Upstairs, Downstairs,” I told her. “Life can hold no more.”

The show was well into its third season one winter, though, when a weekend snowstorm headed for Indianapolis. Not a blizzard, shades of ’78; just a plain old Indy snowstorm. High winds, falling temperatures, lots of drifting snow. The storm was supposed to begin late on Friday night. If the power stayed on (always questionable when high winds combined with snow), I’d need something to occupy my time over a snowbound weekend. I already had yarn and hooks for a crochet project, and plenty of favorite books to re-read. But I’d watched every DVD I owned multiple times to the point of utter boredom, while I had no cable package and basically hated every sitcom and drama then running on network TV. What to do?

So when I headed out for snowstorm supplies to stock my pantry, I chose to make a longer trip down to the highway. There was a used video store tucked in the corner of that strip mall. I could load up on groceries before shopping for a couple of shows.

The DVD store proved a bust, however. I either already owned or wasn’t interested in any of the videos they had. Except…the first season of Downton Abbey. Oh, well, I thought as I laid my money down. Dani would be happy. I’d finally caved.

The wind was already rising that night as I picked up my crocheting and fed the first disk into the player. Snowflakes danced in the darkened windows as the theme music played. The telegraph operator spoke the first line of the series:“Oh my God!” Okay, this was pretty intriguing stuff, I admitted a short while later, realizing that I’d become so interested in the drama that I’d botched two rows of the shell stitch that I could usually crochet in my sleep.

And then they carried the lifeless Turk down the gallery in the dead of night.

I finally stumbled to bed about two a.m., having watched the entire first season. When I at last arose the next day, I didn’t even spare a glance for the snow-blanketed landscape. I just made a cup of coffee and fed the first DVD back into the player to rewatch the whole thing.

The real blessing of my fascination with the series came in 2014, when my sister-in-law’s mother passed away. Paula, the younger sister, had cared for their mother for years, living there in the house with Ellen, and found it troubling to return to their empty home following Ellen’s death. So we three staged a weekend sleepover to reintroduce Paula to the premises, staying up the better part of the first evening watching Downton Abbey, using the familiar scenes and characters to grease the skids of Paula’s difficult transition into a home without their Mom.

The world turned and turned, and we tumbled into 2018; I received a diagnosis of uterine cancer. Numb with shock after the phone call from my gynecologist, I reached out to Paula, and she hurried to stay with me that night. Once again we pulled out the first season. Watching the well-known plot, hearing the memorable lines, I found myself encased in a comforting familiarity, like pulling a pillowy soft blanket over the gaping wound of my fear and shock. I continued to watch select episodes of the series throughout my tests and surgery and recovery that winter—especially the one in which Mrs. Hughes feared she had breast cancer. It was all ineffably comforting.

Over and over again, watching the special features at the end of the series and movie videos, I’ve listened as the cast, the directors and producers and crew members, remark that it has been a privilege and a pleasure, if not a wonder, to be part of something which has touched the lives of so many people everywhere in the world—a show so beloved, so appreciated, that it has woven itself into the threads of our culture. Each time I’ve thought to myself, “If they only knew….”

Then my friend of 32 years, living 900 miles away in another state, died…and no one told me. I learned of her death through a dream, à la Joseph and the Pharaoh, and the aegis of a search engine. Renée had already been buried when I discovered the truth; I did not even have the comfort of a memorial service to say my goodbyes to her.

And so, knowing that a cherished character of my much-beloved series was to die in the second movie, which I had not yet seen, I hurried out to purchase the video. For I needed a funeral. I needed to weep for someone lost. I needed to hear the trite truth that life goes on, and that time heals.

I needed these people who did not really exist in order to mourn the unbearable loss of one who had.

Yet one more time I pulled the enfolding blanket of the fictional world of Downton Abbey across my cringing soul.

And it worked.

May the new year bring better times for all of us, and countless blessings upon you and yours!

Acknowledgement and Thanks

People deserve to be thanked.

I wrote the thank-you notes following the funerals of each of my parents. In Mom’s case, I wrote them knowing that my Dad would almost certainly fail to do so, and that, even if he did, his handwriting was so execrable that no one would have been able to read them, anyway. But writing letters of appreciation for flowers and contributions was just one more small responsibility I could take from his bowed shoulders.

Eleven years later, on a rainy December afternoon, I wrote similar courteous messages to those who sent contributions and flowers in Dad’s memory. Penning the notes carefully in my clearest handwriting, trying over and over to achieve a slightly different manner of saying the same thing, I attempted to express that the cards, the flowers, the contributions, someone’s presence—all were appreciated. They helped. They proved to us that Dad was loved, thought of well; that his life meant something; that he would be missed. For two and a half hours I wrote; addressing and stamping and sealing envelopes, and finally delivering them to the post office. I found the action healing. It put a period to the long sentence of my Dad’s failing health, and to the difficulties and resentments one experiences as a caretaker, and that had been such a shock to my consciousness.

But that afternoon also made me think: think of the times that I, and others, had not received either acknowledgement or thanks in similar situations. I recalled one funeral in particular, that of Cathy, who had been a member of my “Monday Night Group”, a discussion and meditation forum that I’ve attended for years. I wrote a bit about Cathy’s passing in an earlier blog post (Cathy’s Roses, July 24, 2018). Her death in a car accident was shocking, devastating all of us who knew her. Cathy, who was energetic and dynamic, riding her bike everywhere. Cathy, who in her 70s had hooted off to Nepal one summer and provided massage therapy to a Sherpa’s wife; who trotted off to Mexico to have extensive dental work done on the cheap. Cathy, who said, “If you stop moving, you’re dead”—and then ended up on life support after the accident, life support that was discontinued when there was no hope. Cathy, lively, vigorous, and often tactless, who took in waifs and strays and gave them a place to live. It seemed impossible that she was gone.

Her family arranged a memorial service outdoors in a park on a stiflingly hot day in July, and many of us from the group attended. There, hearing from them about the time that she had planted 6,000 trees in a single season to help the environment, we of the Monday night group discovered the perfect way to memorialize our companion: we anted up funds to have several trees planted in her memory in a National Forest. Meanwhile, I personally, speaking with Cathy’s daughter, mentioned an incident that had occurred following her mother’s passing—a surprising occurrence that, her daughter agreed, could only have been her mother’s spirit, reaching out. I explained that I planned to memorialize her mother in a blog post, and promised to send her a hard copy once it was published. I also promised to send her Cathy’s Talking Stick—a branch, decorated with charms representing the deceased, that would be passed from person to person as we group members spoke a few words about her in our private memorial ceremony. The post soon appeared on this blog, and I duly sent Cathy’s daughter the promised copy; her mother’s Talking Stick was dispatched to her, also.

Months later, though, all of us, comparing notes, realized that no one had received any thanks. The group’s gift of trees in Cathy’s memory went unacknowledged; I’d received no response at all to the article in her mother’s remembrance, or the Talking Stick.

Sighing, we all agreed that receiving recognition was not why we had made the effort. We’d given our time and money and actions to honor Cathy, not to be thanked.

But now, having for the second time spent an afternoon writing appreciatively to those who acknowledged the life and passing of a parent, I believe that outlook is wrong. Granted, those who have lost a loved one (and, after two years of Covid, they number in the hundreds of thousands, and we are all, every one of us, weary of loss) are often numb, in shock, and painfully unable to fulfill societal expectations of courtesy and etiquette. Nevertheless, as I found, making such an effort is, in the end, healing. It benefits the one expressing thanks even more than the recipient. And, given that people grieve differently, while it need not be done immediately following the passing of a loved one, it does, after all, need to be done. People—friends, family members—deserve to be thanked. They are entitled to acknowledgement of their efforts to care for the bereaved in their time of sorrow.

Three years following Cathy’s passing, it’s safe to assume that such acknowledgement will never be made. And that is a travesty that can never now be remedied.

If you would like to know more about the Talking Stick ceremony, you can read, “Another Talking Stick”, which you can locate in the Archives dated December 10, 2017.