My Dad often told me I was “born responsible”. I was the kid that didn’t need much “watching over“ as I grew up. I was in the middle, the only girl and getting in trouble never interested me. (And that doesn’t mean I never did, get in trouble that is, but not often. My brothers used to say I was just smart enough not to get caught.)
Responsible though was an identity I grew into easily. Neighbours wanted me to be their babysitter. Teachers and Brownie leaders gave me extra responsibility. I was the don at university. Even in friend groups, I was the one, you know, that was expected to make sure we stayed out of too much trouble. (Again, I was NOT an angel.)
But when thinking of a secret I kind of keep, it happens that I felt some shame around a time when I wasn’t responsible enough so I haven’t talked about it much. And it had big consequences for someone else.
I had left home for school in London when I was 19. I lived with roommates for 4 years. Once I graduated, I did as I have often done, I slipped through the backdoor, and into my first fulltime job. I had been a teller, actually a Customer Service Representative, at the bank in my last year at school and once I graduated it was easy enough to apply for their management training program, so I did. It was different times back then. Full time jobs with benefits weren’t too hard to come by after college or university. And although banks didn’t start their trainees earning very much, it was enough to move out on my own.
I remember the apartment so clearly which is weird because I do not have a particularly precise memory. I remember that period in my life maybe more clearly than any other time. This writing has me wondering if my memories are clearer because it was a time when I only felt responsible for me.
Anyway, the apartment was in the old downtown area of London. The building was old and rock solid. I had a junior one bedroom over the main entrance, which meant no balcony. The parquet floors and black and white tiled bathroom were in good shape, even if out of style. I painted wooden furniture, bought cheap art that made me happy and loved my little space. The building was a mix of young working singles and elderly widows.
On days when I had meetings downtown, I walked to work, which meant I didn’t go to the underground parking where my aged Buick rested. I went out through the lobby. It was bright and tidy and I think at one time would have been considered elegant. Just like the lady that I used to find sitting on the lobby bench, just inside the door, so often.
On the mornings I was heading to meetings early, I would wonder why this elderly lady would be up waiting for a ride so early. She always smiled but had few words. Dressed in a pale pink coat, with a rough weave and usually it had a broach on it and on her head, a fancy hat, like a pillbox or a tam. She always had on her cloth gloves, nylons, and sensible dress shoes to match. And her Grandma purse sat on her lap. She was perched ready to go. She seemed contented. Sometimes when I returned later in the day, she was still sitting there.
Once I asked the superintendent about her. She confirmed that Tillie always thought someone was coming to take her out, but I don’t think that happened often, if ever. She often locked herself out of her apartment in the process.
That Halloween weekend it had been my turn to work Saturday at the bank helping young people buy houses and old people invest their money. Bob, my -friend -turned -significant- other, had come to London for the weekend and we were heading to a party, one of those awkward ones where you are not in school anymore and everyone’s friend groups are diversifying out to include people you don’t know.
Bob and I had dinner out and took a cab to the party. We had fun. I met the fellow who would become my brother-in-law. We sipped Stroh’s Light all night and could stay up way later than I can now.
Being responsible we cabbed home and retold funny stories of the night. When we got into the elevator at my apartment it seemed I could smell smoke. Bob and I investigated a bit but didn’t hear any alarms going so dismissed it as our imagination.
We woke in the early hours of the morning to alarms and flashing lights outside my second story window and we didn’t evacuate. We were told the fire was contained to one apartment. This old building was solid. I looked down and saw the stretcher being wheeled into the ambulance.
As it turns out, Tillie loved candles and must have left them burning. She died in that fire. What an awful way to die. Tillie probably shouldn’t have been living on her own still and definitely shouldn’t have been burning candles anymore, but that didn’t stop my shame for not being more responsible that night. She deserved a gentler end.
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Banker turned stay-at-home mom turned full-time pastoral care worker and youth minister. Mom to three young adult daughters (Shy Liza, Amy and Liv); a wife to one amazing guy; and a caregiver to many. Laura is a firm believer that staying connected with your people, a good cup of coffee, a good book, and a good day by the lake is good for the soul.
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