Mrs Howard lived in quite a large, three bedroomed semi-detached Victorian villa, on a narrow, semi-rural road about 2 miles from the nearest town. Apart from the other half to her semi, there were only a few houses near to hers as well as - slightly bizarrely - a care home on the other side of the road, opposite Mrs Howard's house.
On Sundays, Mrs Howard used to go over the road and play the piano "for the old dears" as she put it, although she was older than most of the residents. Lesson number one: other people might be old, but you never are.
One of her sons and his girlfriend lived with her - or rather, the son lived in the house and his girlfriend lived in a caravan in the back garden. Their story comes under Part Two of this blog.
Mrs Howard's house was the dampest place I've ever been in - before or since. Upstairs, in the bedrooms, the wallpaper was peeling off the walls in great clumps. You could smell the damp in every room, and there was a lot of mould. Most of the sash windows had been either nailed shut, or were so badly warped that they no longer opened. The house had last been rewired in 1935, Mrs Howard thought, and many of the sockets either didn't work or could only be used for appliances with 'round pin' plugs. It had been her husband's family's home, and she'd lived there since she got married in 1929.
The only form of heating was the open fireplaces - and the fire brigade had banned Mrs Howard from using two of these fireplaces because she'd had so many chimney fires, and they'd been called out so many times, that these weren't safe. This left her with one working fireplace for the whole house, in what she called "the back kitchen."
She pretty much lived in the back kitchen, which spanned the width of the house. It had a small scullery to one side, with an electric cooker, a sink and a cupboard. In the back kitchen was a fireplace with a small range, a large dark wood round table with a thick blanket covering it, some dark wooden dining chairs, several very old easy chairs covered with bright, multi-coloured crocheted blankets, and other furniture - and the oldest dog, with the rheumiest eyes you've ever seen. She had a very low income.
Mrs Howard wore a blue nylon overall which buttoned all the way up, skirt, thick tights, and lace-up shoes. She'd had breast cancer - and a mastectomy, and she frequently showed the scar to visitors. One of the local council housing officials who was involved in the application to get her house renovated - a small man, with what appeared to be a bit of a power complex - would ring me every time he had to visit so I would be there to be shown the scar instead of him, and so save his blushes. I would to say to her, please don't feel you have to show everyone your scar, but she said she was proud of her 'war wound' and didn't think anyone should be afraid of it.
She also had the most ill-fitting dentures I've ever seen, and it was hard when talking to her not to stare as they rolled around her mouth. How they didn't fall out was a total mystery. I asked her once about her dentist and she beamed at me, dentures loose and gleaming, and said the old dears at the care home often complained that their dentures hurt them whereas hers were fine. I left it at that.
Mrs Howard took a liking to me, and I to her. So, because it was me, and because she wanted to give me a treat, every time I visited she would offer me a cup of tea. In those days - more than now - I drank tea that looked as if you'd crept up behind a cup of hot water with some milk in and frightened it by shouting 'boo' (very, very weak, in other words). In contrast, Mrs Howard made the strongest tea ever - almost orange in its concentration. And because it was me, and because it was a treat, she wouldn't add milk, she would instead put in a huge dollop of condensed milk and then - sticking in her finger and flicking out any stray dog hairs that were floating on top - she would proudly present to me the strongest, sweetest cup of tea on the planet.
It was so bad I couldn't always face it, so I would occasionally arrange to call in just after lunch so I could legitimately thank her and turn down the offer because I'd just had a drink. But she took such pleasure in making this tea for me that I didn't do that very often.
She was a very kind, very interesting woman, and one of the lessons she taught me was the importance of being able to receive that kindness. Many of us are good at being kind to others - but receiving it is an art form in its own right, and it's an important contribution that many very ill people make to life that goes unremarked. She made me the sort of tea she thought was the best treat she could possibly give me. And so she also taught me a little about what it's like to be on the receiving end of something another person thinks is best for you, when you haven't been asked. Both these lessons have served me well, in my professional life and personally.
But that wasn't the end of Mrs Howard's life lessons - there was an even more important lesson to be learned, and that's the subject of Part Two of this blog.