Some of you will know that I struck up a strong friendship with one of the very elderly ladies at the care home I’ve been working at for nearly 2 years. I always saw this job as a form of social art. I wanted to value a group of people who have in effect been shut away. In a way it’s nobody’s fault, but the truth is still, there are magical stories behind the doors of these homes that would blow your mind. Joan Mitchell did not just have one of these stories, she was also still a vibrant, humour-filled character when I met her at a sprightly 102 years of age. That fact alone – that she was soooo old and still zimmering along without much need of assistance alone made her my hero.
Then came her humour. She made me laugh so much. I plugged into her to give me energy for the day. She was interested in other people’s stories and open about her own – her old flames, marrying her older cousin, her enjoyment of the high-life in Sumatra, Indonesia – until the missionaries told her that it was not right to have servants, until the 2nd world war broke out and she was incarcerated under the cruel Japanese. To think I was sitting in front of a woman with so much history and experience. A woman who could wake up after a nightmare of being stripped and beaten that just had to be connected to the prison camp she was in 70+ years ago. To know that this woman devised a way of sending a message to her husband by hiding the message on the elastic of a pair of trouser she was given permission to send him. The nearly severed elastic would go and he would need to repair it and find the message – which he did. This is who I was sitting in front of. A highly intelligent woman who would have liked to have become a doctor. In stead she had to settle for becoming a pharmacist under her father’s training. This knowledge would come in handy during her 3 years in prison as she was able to make medicine from the herbs growing wild. There were so many things that made Joan special, but what I really fell for was her humour. After a bout of illness that knocked her out for a few days I walked her down the long corridor from the dining room to her living quarters. On the way she remarks “This corridor is just long enough, that by the time I get back to my room…” (I was expecting something about her being worn out, but I had to laugh when I heard the end of the sentence),” …by the time I get back to my room, my breeks are, just about to, you know, slip off! And at my tender age of 103…!” To hear words like this from a prim London lady like this is what made Joan exciting to be around. She was never too civilised! In fact, I did lead her down a corridor another day, when I heard her say from behind me in a posh London accent “Disaster!”. I swivelled round to find her green knitted skirt lying around her ankles! Thankfully the petticoat kept things decent.
Joan Mitchell. Rest in peace my dear friend. I hope I’ll meet you again some day.
PS. I and a local school boy are planning to make a documentary film about Joan in the near future.