Originally published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette June 4 2021
“A single rose can be my garden… a single friend, my world.” Leo Buscaglia.
I’ve been lucky when it comes to friends and family. A large clan network surrounds us without much notice, yet appears when duty calls. True friends astound us, like found treasure or God’s love.
Finding pals at an early age is a boon, to reconnect a kind of blessing. Long separations potentially cause lost friendships, but everyone has stories of picking them up without missing a beat, though the world has taken many a spin. Often, serendipity shows up to restore long lost friendships.
In the 1990s, Maureen and I packed tennis racquets on trips. One day, in Swindon, England, Maureen met an old schoolmate. Between games, she asked about her grammar school best friend, Joan, who lived in a nearby village. The very next day we made contact with Joan and her husband, Les Morris. The couple turned out to have like interests in classic Hollywood movies, visiting country pubs, and rambling walks. We visited their 300-year-old restored cottage in Bishopstone—a postcard village surrounding a natural pond. Most mornings we awakened inside an English pastoral, birds chirping and happy schoolchildren playing at recess.
Les was a talented carpenter who built full-size wooden tank decoys for a military college. Les had taken his love for film to the nth degree by digging out his tiny cellar to create a miniature theater. It was complete with old movie posters, opening curtains, and seats recycled from a local cinema. Les owned a collection of favorite movies. Also, he and Joan were amateur thespians, starring in a village theater group’s annual show. They’re both gone now, but we rejoice in our memories of dear later-life friends and the times we shared. Following one trip, I memorialized our friends’ hospitality:
“Les & Joan, upon their natural stage.
Music and films only hint at love; here
It springs in torrents. Stereo. Wide Screen.
Two strangers we were, but for a minute,
Afore a Wiltshire welcome drove the days.
Americans gifted again to glimpse heaven’s
Fond miniature: garden, pond, pets, Ye Olde
Kinema: perfection a la Post Cottage. Once a
Village shop, now a home—atop Eden’s fair isle.”
Our connection to England has been strong since Uncle Sam in his wisdom shipped a young airman there in 1952. I wasn’t yet twenty and, in my Irish father’s phrase, wet behind the ears. I’ve been blessed with time to cure that condition. One friend that I count on is my brother-in-law, Paul Stone, a retired headteacher in Cambridgeshire. We’ve joined Paul and his wife, Jan, on memorable holidays; their warm welcomes to visiting family and friends deserves to become legendary.
I was reminded of it when Maureen came across a letter from the late Smith College professor and master sculptor, Elliot Offner. We knew Elliot and his wife Rosemary through mutual friends. In 1989, I learned that Eliot was to be a visiting professor at the University of Cambridge.
We connected Elliot to Paul. Soon afterward, we received this elegantly handwritten missive:
“Dear Jim & Maureen, Today was really quite a wonderful day. I spent the entirety of it with the Stone family, with of whom I liked immensely and each of whom was extremely kind to me. As the bulk of my life here has been ascetic and hard-working, I welcomed a chance to get away to the country. And what beautiful country that part of Cambridgeshire is. Paul drove me through several lovely villages and then we had a superb lunch in a pub. Katie, whose maturity and intelligence was impressive for a child of only 16. And I liked their Dan, whose principal interest at this time is soccer, as it should be. Susan gave us a wonderful dinner at day’s end.
But more significantly, we got on as old friends, in mind & spirit. There was never a shortage of things to talk about, from education to politics and on to the arts & television. Even lettering & calligraphy, my special small obsessions, turn out to be of interest, with many shared points of view, even mutually known people doing this work.”
Yours in friendship, Elliot.
Rereading this decades-old letter makes me think that email will have a lot to answer for in future! A few years passed. Elliot surprised us with a signed print of his Great Blue Heron sculpture. It reads, “love, in thanks for all of the years we have known you, 1960-1993.”
In response, and aware of his new grandchild, I sent him a poem titled One-Off. Which ends: “Consider: A newborn child, or, the shape of a Heron Blue, rising from God’s creative hand—into flight.”
What are friends for? The small comforts we bring to each other.
Jim, Joan, Maureen, Les Morris: Post Cottage, Bishopstone, Wiltshire, England.
Writer and poet, Jim Cahillane, lives in Williamsburg. Jim and Maureen stayed friends with Les and Joan, Elliot and Rosemary, for life.