My aunt Ray Wolf, who died last month at the grand old age of 99, was a pretty extraordinary woman. It didn’t seem to matter who you were, where you were from, what age you were, she would give you the benefit of the doubt, which is probably why she seemed to touch so many lives and make many friends.
At her funeral, we heard plenty about her life, but perhaps the most remarkable testament to her philosophy of life came from a short story written by Naomi Bennett, the cousin of Dee Robinson, a close friend of Ray’s daughter Francesca.
I was struck by the story and asked Naomi if I could post it here, just to make it available to a wider public. This was the response I received.
“I was terribly sorry not to be able to attend Ray’s funeral and honoured that something I had written years ago would be read at the funeral. Of course you are welcome to use it. Again, I’m honoured that you would want to do so.
“Ray was one of the kindest, most generous people I have ever known. She used to describe her brother, Christopher, as someone who radiated goodness. I always thought that was an apt description of them both. I can’t quite believe Ray is really gone. There will never be another like her.”
And so, here is Naomi Bennett’s short story The Room.
Whenever I stay with Ray at her West Hampstead home in London, England, I am given the little bedroom at the top of the stairs. It has a single bed covered in blankets and quilts to stave off the damp chill of life without central heating.
Examining the bed coverings is like being on an archaeological dig where each layer reflects a different civilisation.
The sheets are old and patched. They speak of a time before everything became expendable. There is a blanket from World War Two when Ray was in the WRENS. It is warm and woollen and unashamedly serviceable. There’s a quilt with embroidered flowers, sewn by Ray’s mother in the 1920s for those of her children still in the nursery.
I remember Ray telling me that she briefly struggled with embroidery, herself, during the year before her mother finally allowed her to travel in Europe to study singing; the year she was in a school where young ladies learned ‘housewifery’, which included needlework, the management of a household, and the genteel supervision of servants. There’s a cheaper quilt of a synthetic fibre, a Safeway’s special from Ray’s time as a secretary after her husband, Simmy, died.
On top is an Indian bedspread, one of the artifacts of her children’s hippy days. And next to the bed, there’s a small oak night table covered with a cloth from Simmy’s Polish-Jewish family, and flowers from the garden, in a small vase. A chest of drawers just fits next to a clothes rod with a curtain drawn round it. There’s a long string that pulls on a filament of electric heat on the wall. The rug on the floor is ancient. And there are two pictures on the wall, a landscape and a portrait of an old man, both in wooden frames.
I don’t always look at details in rooms, but I’ve spent hours trying to take this one right into my cells. Its shabbiness and beauty and history are almost like a song, a song that says what’s important is not lost and everything is sacred and yes, there is a home.
When I first met Ray, I was twenty-one. After she’d gotten me to climb over a fence because we had to see Kenwood, a London park, even though it was closed; and after she’d gotten me to lie on the ground looking at the daffodils from their own level right into their faces, and after she’d shaken up my belief system because I hadn’t known that people old enough to be my mother did that sort of thing; we went to 36 Westbere Rd.
Walking into that house felt like walking into the happy ending of a children’s story. We sat in the garden and talked.
She said: “One doesn’t like to hurt other people, does one?” and I, I who valued my rage more than anything in the universe, I who had not yet learned that it is love not power that transforms victimisation; I said to my astonishment: “No, one doesn’t want to hurt anyone.”
Because for the first time in my life, I believed someone didn’t want to hurt anybody and in response I didn’t want to hurt anybody either.
And that’s why I took in the little room at the top of the stairs as much as I could, that little yet infinite room at the top of the stairs. For it was in that room, I rediscovered faith.
Naomi Bennett is a psychotherapist who writes and paints. She lives in Canada.
And if you have memories of Ray, then feel free to add your anecdote below