She stood out. Not because she was noisy or wearing bright colours but because she was so still and calm.
She was sitting on the floor in a drop in gym session for toddlers. It was busy and as usual the mums were following their kids around, joining in the jumping, rolling and swinging or chatting to each other and checking their phones. No one was still. No one was just watching. But she was sitting calmly, hands by her side, hardly moving and just looking. She didn’t shift her gaze, reach for her phone or get involved with the little girl she was with. And yet there was something about her that felt totally engaged. The little girl was happy. She was enjoying throwing herself over the elastic ropes. She didn’t check to see if she was being watched, she didn’t call out ‘look at me’. She was focused on what she was doing and she couldn’t have been more than three years old. The woman was holding the space for her and she felt it. I guessed from her age that the woman was her granny. She had something of the many mothers I knew that had raised children in the seventies in North London. Her grey hair was not neat. She wore no make up. She wasn’t trying to hide her age and she was beautiful. She had brownish yellow skin and wore a khaki waistcoat over a cheesecloth shirt and loose jeans. She looked Japanese but I reckoned that she had been here a long time, long enough to consider herself a Londoner.
She had an alert, peaceful way about her but other than that she was hard to read. I wanted to find out where she was from and what she felt about what was going on around her but wasn’t sure if she would be open to that. As it turned out though, I was wrong. She did talk. Maybe she made an exception because she could feel my interest. Anyway, it was after the session had ended. We were sitting down next to each other putting on our shoes and helping the kids do the same when she turned to me and asked me about my daughter. Her accent was strong and she spoke quietly. She told me that her daughter, the little girls mother, had gone to school locally and was now in her mid 30’s. I learnt that her daughter lived with her and worked part time. She took care of her grand daughter so her daughter could work. The little girls’ dad was Brazilian. He didn’t live with them. “Things have changed so much since we were raising children” she said. “Not everything depended on having money. It didn’t matter so much whether you had it or you didn’t and we didn’t feel so alone. Life was simpler somehow”. She smiled as if acknowledging her own nostalgia. I thought about the other women I knew of her age that had come from all over the world to north London to have kids and raise kids in an easy bohemian way. They shared common ideals and they experimented with new ways of living.
Her daughters aloneness clearly touched her but she also saw the bigger picture. Times had changed and she felt this strongly. Her offering was a steadfast commitment to her daughter and her daughter’s child and a calm unhurried presence – an attempt to keep things simple maybe? As she turned to say goodbye, I wanted to tell her that it was OK, that even though the spaces for just being were smaller and the pressures greater, people were still finding ways to connect, to nurture, to love and to create in ways that didn’t depend on money. But then again I am sure she knew that already.