Thursday, October 08, 2009

Sylvia Smith, December 14, 1939-September 15, 2009

Lindsell Hall was a University of London residence hall in Swiss Cottage. There were four houses of the “Upstairs Downstairs” variety, joined to two more on a couple of levels. In this photo you can see an outside bridge on the left. The houses were converted into a myriad of rooms, mainly by constructing a wall from the corridor to the middle of the handsome bay windows. I moved in about 50 years ago to the day. My room was on the ground floor, somewhere to the right of this photo, across the hall from the Lindsell Hall Dean, a Chemistry professor who wordsmiths must have had in mind when they came up with the phrase, “dour Scots woman”.

The prime rooms were on the top floor—once the bleak sleeping rooms of tweenies and housemaids. I had one in my last year with a glorious view over the housetops of Swiss Cottage and St. Johns Wood. The kitchen and laundry room were in the basement and there were a few student rooms down there, mainly, I think, in the left hand building.

It was from one of those rooms that music came pouring out as we explored on that first day—music that was alien to most of us who were just discovering the Beatles. The record was “Four Freshmen and Five Trombones”. The record player belonged to Sylvia Smith, and she quickly became a close friend. She assured me in a letter just a few weeks ago that she was also humming along at that time to a Bartok violin concerto, but it is the Four Freshmen that I remember. I loved the way she said “Scunthorpe” and she introduced me to a delicious bread, forever know as “Sylv’s mum’s plum bread.” Try saying “ moom’s ploom.” She visited my house in Enfield and intrigued me with details of her minor, Agricultural Economics.

She moved out of Lindsell in our senior year into a flat with Anne and Maggie and Jan. I don’t know how much they studied, but they sure had a good time.

Then came the year when I was working on my ed. certificate and Sylv lived in a minute flat on Haverstock Hill. She put her minor to good use working for the Pig Industry Advisory Board—“This is my friend Sylvia. She’s in pigs.” Later she was in sheep. She got to know my friends. I got to know hers. When I needed cheering up, she came to the rescue with a mushroom omelet.

Then for almost 50 years we lived thousands of miles apart. Our correspondence was sporadic. Sometimes there were gaps; sometimes the letters were frequent (Sylv refused to use e-mail.) We stayed in her house in London and Kate and Ron used it as a base for exploring London on their honeymoon. She reminded me lately that she had taken Al in when he failed to find a job in Paris. We usually managed birthday cards: her birthday was just four days after mine. She remained friends with many of my former friends.
Here she is (second from the right) when she witnessed the wedding of my classicist friend, Frances.

She remained passionate about music, traveling all over England and Europe to Music Festivals. I was forever getting postcards from Prague or Stockholm extolling the Mahler or the Mozart. She took advantage of everything cultural London had to offer. About 20 years ago she bought a second house, in Scotland. I never could pronounce Kirkcudbright, but I looked forward to the day when I could get organized enough to visit her there. When she retired and left London, she bought a second residence in Scotland, a flat high in a house at the mouth of the Clyde where she could watch the ships making their way up to Glasgow. Just as she was beginning to enjoy the results of the remodeling of the flat, she was diagnosed with cancer. She never told me: I am not entirely sure who knew the severity of her illness. I think it gradually leaked out and our mutual friend Frances kept me in the loop. It was easier to live on the one floor of the house in Kirkcudbright, so she spent most of her time there, refusing, in her Sylvia fashion, any intrusive treatment. Even more defiantly she bought a new car, attended as much as she could of this year’s Orkney music Festival and spent two weeks driving around the northern tip of Scotland. Then it was off to the hospice ward in Dumfries. I spoke to her there and she didn’t want sympathy. She enjoyed a lovely day in the sunshine in her garden when an ambulance and nurses took her back for a day. The last time I phoned, she was too ill to talk and a few days later Frances called with news of her death.

I have asked her sister for some recent photos of Sylvia. I don’t really need them. Her real face, the face of a young woman starting college, flashes before my eyes when I see the words Kirkcudbright or Scunthorpe, when I eat a mushroom omelet or when I hear a snatch of the incomparable Four Freshmen singing Angel Eyes.


Anonymous said...

What a lovely story. Thankyou
for sharing it. I wish I could have known her.
Glad you are finally making good on your promise to blog again.

Anonymous said...

Yes, a lovely story. Thank you. And I'm glad you're back at it again too, for stories like this.

Angel Eyes is perfect.

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