Verity Bell-Irving : Memoria

VERITY.j # 1peg
Revised, March 12 2010.
Second Revision: April 29, 2021
Anton Dolin, who began his career with the Ballets Russes under Serge Diaghilev, asked Verity to join his new company - The American Ballet Theatre in l941. ABT in 2021 is still going strong despite the global Covid-19 pandemic.

His partner, Dame Alicia Markova, whose real name was Alice Marks, saw Verity dance in Seattle around the same time and told her, ‘you are coming with us’ when invitations of that calibre were rare as hen's teeth.

In l947 Verity took dance lessons from Nico Charisse in Hollywood. He was the husband to famed film star and partner to Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse. Verity did not stay, she would tell me years after we met. Her eyes twinkled telling me about the ‘casting couch’ reality that was her reason to leave California. It got a jolly laugh between us because her dance studio was across the street from the old Charlie Chaplin studios, next door to the Academy where I was studying in 2009. Theatre warriors with thirty-three years age difference.

This memory was written when she was 87 years old, and I was in what I call ‘The Gulag’ on Vancouver Island. One night, I don’t know how, I found myself at a small and elegant soiree of matriarchs — who had done it all, seen it all and were now in their 80s, recounting past love affairs over Gin & Tonics — hooting it up about what really happened during war time. Scandalizing whoever did not appreciate them painting their legs with brown water colour to make it appear they were wearing nylons.

Small towns can be like that - hiding in a corner across from the regulation Walmart where the denizens of the feisty cheap thrills shop. There are always a few strange little houses where World War II dames lived - who had been in the London Blitz. There’s always a give away out front. Planting pots from South Africa, Wind chimes from Germany. Curtains from Paris.

Verity’s blue eyes twinkled, that first night we met. She took one look at me, gleeful as a twenty-year old in a dance club and immediately recognized something in me she saw in her - inviting me over for ‘tea’ the very next day. Tea turned out to be two or three Gin & Tonics and an instant bonding, laughing deep into the night. How the vast decades of age difference translated into some shared experiences is still a delicious mystery.

I can only ever remember her as a Bell-Irving because it is those first stories of family- on Bowen Island, her first love, the grand first impressions of family castles in Scotland when she was 12 years old, mixing Martinis for the likes of Noel Coward in Chelsea where she lived with her eccentric aunt, at the same age. Those stories stirred my soul - because those stories so stirred hers.

She was still beautiful in her 80s when I met her. In photos from her youth she reminds you of Meryl Streep. But her feet were literally deteriorating after 3,000 more pirouettes than you or I have ever done. I see her still: slight and ballerina built - she commands the room at five feet 2 inches and one-hundred pounds of sleek, tight flesh. But those feet…

She was not supposed to walk on them; but refused a walker.
She was supposed to wear a boot that supported her calf; we both agreed too hideous. She was supposed to use a scooter - or get friends to drive her around; that was humiliating.

The tiresome parade of family insisting she behave wore her down. It’s depressing, she told me, to realize you are not allowed to be independent in your older age. We exchanged one of our looks. I happily became her co-conspirator.

I wrote in my journal at the time: “…All she wants to do is go bare feet in the ocean. No boots. No humiliation. No degrading looks directed at ‘that poor old soul. No one, of course, will let the poor woman do what she wants. That’s one of the shitty things about getting old…..”

Picking her up one day, after our successful book launch party at the Datoos she lamented, “I know who I am and what I can do! “

It was the first day of summer. I suggested we go to the beach anyway. Just to look at it at least, she proposed. After that we can suss out if and when beach feet would work out. Elated, we set out with our plan. I popped her in the front seat of the car. Even with hindered feet she slipped in as easy as Tinker Bell sliding onto a lamb’s ear leaf.

The sun, recalcitrant for days, suddenly guided our path with bright beaming light. Warm light, bouncing light - colours pinging off rainbows born in the car windows inspire heart, soul and….feet.

As soon as we got to ‘The Spit’ of land where the air force had a couple of buildings she gamboled out of the car - bare footed - like a young filly gated for too long. She would know - as she raised horses for ‘traditional British hunts’ forty years earlier.

In the moment her feet hit the sand, and her eyes meet the ocean waves, her feet that had commanded NO ten months earlier now had to rest their case, so her ankles, shins and dancer’s legs could be free. She was like a young foal. My heart pounded, happy, so happy for her to be released.

I can’t stop her even if I tried. And, I don’t really want to, I think at the time. As her co- conspirator - with a small token of a G&T under our belts - I am suddenly aware that I am responsible for ‘this little old lady, who has been told not to go barefoot without her foot brace. Stepping delicately across round, smooth pepples, slippery, big pebbles, I realize with a laugh that she has lied to me. She is not just looking at the beach. And I, apparently, am not letting her just look.

Now, I won’t stop her. As I watch the water sprite before me there is a catch in my throat. We’ve talked over dinner about death, when it will come, how blessed it would be if it would just be silent - a stealth entrance into her room - watching as she slides into that last sleep.

Funny how the same vowels and consonants come up with seniors when they talk about ‘not wanting to be a burden’. On the beach I look at my friend’s profile as she clings to my arm, her feet suddenly insane motorized wheels of action - loving to obey the slippery rules of rocks and pebbles undone by silly rules for the aged. I can see her eyes grapple with her memory of long lost days as a kid on memory’s beach; Gene Kiniski wrestling past convention - always reaching, reaching past convention.

My God, who am I to stop her? But what if she does die in the next few days and never had the chance to do what she loves best - what she is doing right now? I whisper to myself, “…oh, please don’t fall…”

Of course. She doesn’t.

We circle down to the ocean edge. Her feet suck up the sand. She teaches me how to squeeze the sand up into your toes by curling your feet on the sand bars. I’ve never forgotten. Her toes eclipse all bad rumours holding the sword edge of recrimination: It’s not good for you…Don’t do it….Stop it!…You’re too old!.

Nope. We’re not having any of it.

By the time we get back to the car, a half hour later, her face is Meryl Streep radiant. She smiles at me, like the first time we met - a bright penny that catches her eye again. She brings me close to kiss my cheek.

“No one else would have done that for me,” she whispers, the top of her head touches my eyes, hot with tears. We tremble in each other’s hold.

Driving back, “…we can’t tell anyone,” I smile at her and she smiles back, “…but you will have the best dreams ever tonight,” I conclude.
“It’s our secret,” she says squeezing my leg as I pull into her drive way.

A day later I call to follow up on our adventure. How did your body react to all that? Instead of Verity, a lady friend she’s known for fifty-one years answers the phone. She tells me Verity is on the way to the hospital. Oh? A shudder of panic ripples through me. She has to have her ankles drained, she tells me. Would you like to talk to her before we go, she asks?

Yes please I say. But I am nervous.

When Verity gets on the line she is calm and in control. “Oh dear, dear Verity. Did we go too far last night?”

“We’re not going to talk about it,” she says in a hushed tone. There’s a pause.
“I think it has everything to do with that swimming lesson I had the other day,” she says very loud for the benefit of her friend taking her to the hospital.
“I will see you later, dear,” she adds close.
Ever the in-charge, elegant, roller-coast rider of time, I breathe out relieved.

When I hang up the phone and look at the brilliant blue sky I smile. I would do it again for Verity.
I would do it all again, just to see that shimmer of relief and joy in her eyes for… those….few…minutes…she got out of Old Age Jail.

My friend Verity died May 15, 2017. She was 95 years old. Until the very end, she lived in her own home in Comox, Vancouver Island. I miss her, but oh, what joy in my heart at seeing her in this story again.

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