In the house slightly uphill from ours were a retired designer and his wife, together with her mother. I'll call them Mr and Mrs Keen. I think Mrs Keen's mother was the first person I met who likely had a form of dementia. I didn't meet her straightaway: in fact, I didn't really get to know Mr and Mrs Keen until I was around 9 years old and accidentally lobbed a tennis ball over their fence. This was the introduction to what would become one of my most important friendships, growing up.
Mr Keen's design work had been mainly concerned with exhibition stands. At some point, as a student, he'd trained alongside Henry Moore - which was massively impressive, even to a 9 year old, not least because I'd seen photographs of some of Moore's sculptures of 'people with holes', as I thought of them. He was also a very skilled furniture maker, and had made his wife a beautiful sideboard as his wedding gift to her. Now he'd retired, he spent every morning out in his garden, growing flowers, fruit, and vegetables, and, in bad weather, looking out at the garden from the comfort of his greenhouse. They had a cat, who'd turned up in the back garden one day - a huge black cat who was now so old his fur had faded to dark brown. The cat spent a lot of time in an old rabbit hutch raised on a platform that Mr Keen had adapted, taking out the door so the cat too could sit inside in bad weather and look out at the garden, also in comfort.
They hadn't had children, although Mrs Keen did once tell my mum it hadn't been through choice. Mr Keen had had mumps as a young boy and she thought it was likely this had been the cause. Of course, in her day, it had always been the woman who was 'blamed' for being infertile and I think she had found that very upsetting at times. She had very poor eyesight and on medical advice had to wear dark glasses when she was outdoors, even in the winter. In the 1970s, this must have looked very odd indeed.
Our friendship developed over cups of tea after school in her back kitchen and, later, Saturday evening TV drama programmes in her sitting room, where the beverage of choice was Birds Mellow Coffee Powder made up with hot milk.
We always found plenty to talk about, not least as I got older because Mrs Keen had been to what was now my secondary school. She thought it was very funny that the 'New Wing' - that really had been new in the 1920s when she was a pupil - was still known by that name into the 1980s.
Sometime before my dad died, Mrs Keen's mother died, and then sometime after that Mr Keen died too. So Mrs Keen - an only child - retired, in her 70s, now living alone, was without parents, spouse, children or grandchildren. A recipe for loneliness? Perhaps, but not inevitably.
Mrs Keen had two major things going for her. The first was that she was good company - she was kind, and thoughtful, and patient, and calm. She remembered what you'd told her, and she was interested in people. She was good at living on her own and, regardless of her eyesight problems, never seemed to find it a particular difficulty, perhaps because - and this was the second thing and the most important of all - whenever she was invited to do anything or go anywhere, she always said 'yes'.
Her view was that if you said 'yes', the worst thing that might happen is that you went somewhere for a few hours, got a bit bored, waited for it to finish, and then went home: so that didn't feel very bad at all, not to her. And, of course, you might instead have a very nice time, mixing with people, finding out about something new, and perhaps having a bite to eat and drink.
But if you said 'no', in the end people would stop asking you - and being on your own all the time seemed to her to be much, much worse.
It was - and is still - a powerful lesson for any of us. Saying 'yes' opens up opportunities, where saying 'no' closes them down. When life is hard - as it became for her, dealing with the loss of her remaining immediate family in a relatively short space of time in her 70s - it is tempting to turn down invitations because saying 'no' and staying at home often feels the safest thing to do. But saying 'yes' - scary though it can feel - exposes you to precisely the sort of things you need to get your life back on something approaching an even keel: things in the diary to look forward to; company; learning something new; sharing food and drink; the potential of making new friends; and the step-change needed, when life alters significantly, of doing things you wouldn't have done had your circumstances remained the same.