Rachel Spanglett (1914 – 2008), known to many as Rae, was a remarkable woman; one that I feel blessed to have known.
Aged 94, she had lived alone for over twenty years since the death of her partner, Nick. It was a loss on which I was always aware that she dwelled – not only each and every day, but every waking and sleeping hour.
Rae had been housebound for almost a decade. She was visited every other week by her daughter, Shirley, and son-in-law, Manny – who lived outside of London, but made the trip into town to see her, and called each day to check up on her. Several years back, I volunteered through Jewish Care to visit her too; living as I was at the time, just round the corner from her in Bethnal Green.
Despite being confined at home, Rae was always able to see beyond the four walls that kept her physically isolated. She constantly kept abreast of news, through TV and the telephone; her lines to the world, friends and family outside.
Though I knew her only for a few years, we both felt that we had known each other for ages longer. Over that time, for which I am thankful, she sadly only ever left her one bedroom flat when she was taken to hospital. To see her in the Royal London, where inevitably she would be admitted, I would claim to the Ward Sister that I was, alongside Clive, her other grandson.
In such cases, her admission was often because of a fall – as she tried to traverse her flat by clinging on to whatever she could grasp – from walls to radiators. She stubbornly refused to use her zimmer frame, and though we insisted, she always knew best. Though we joked about it once she had recovered from her bruises, I truly felt a duty of care that was familial, even filial. It was in her nature though, to never rely too heavily on support – she was very much of independent means.
I could not say for certain whether she or I enjoyed my visits more. It is a tonic that I would recommend to anyone, an opportunity to spend time with an older person and to garner a whole other perspective – one informed by wisdom, accrued through age and experience. At times, my visits would include a literal tonic too, always on offer, sometimes with gin when the occasion merited, or when we just felt in the mood.
Rae grew up on the Boundary Estate in Bethnal Green. She took proud in being able to name each of the buildings around the Arnold Circus bandstand, when she reminisced about her time playing as a little girl. But as a child growing up between the wars, her life was not easy. Her mother was a traditional Jewish housewife, and her father and brother, carpenters. The wardrobe in her bedroom, the sideboard in her lounge, which looked brand new today – were fifty years old or more – made by their hand. It demonstrated the love, care and attention that she gave to everyone and everything.
She recalled with pride her own jobs, working during the war in a munitions factory in Scotland, and then after the war, in a number of manual occupations around London. She did not shy from what was considered men’s work. She was always willing to do what was necessary, whether to help herself or to help others, whether family or friends.
When Rae met Nick, she met her soulmate. She would always remind me, that regardless of your age, you never know when lightning or love might strike. As a man still single in his thirties, her optimism game me the faith that she kept too throughout her years – through both good times, and hard times.
Despite being a decade or two his senior – she readily admitted that she always had an eye for younger men – they bought together the council flat in Bloomfield House in which Rae had been living. She inherited through him a Greek-Cypriot family, and a love for the Mediterranean. She shared his passion for food, that he developed as the manager of a dining club in the City, and that she learnt from her mother. She loved the fact that he liked more the fish that she fried, than that on offer at his own restaurant. The thought of it, would bring a smile to her face, but also a tear to her eye.
Every Shabbos – the Jewish Sabbath on either Friday night or Saturday – I would climb the three flights of stairs at Bloomfield House on Old Montague Street, off Brick Lane, where Rae continued to live. Many of her neighbours were now Bangladeshi, the predominant community living in the area today. However, she had moved in there when most were Jewish and white working class. Though those around her changed, she remained forever the same – open, respectful and tolerant of all. Her closest friends were those that lived, or were living, around her – regardless of age, colour or creed.
Her warmth was shared with all those that, like I, had the good fortune to meet her. Her smile was enough to brighten your day, however rotten it had been. The best medicine, always on offer, was a cup of tea and a listening ear. Whatever the problem, she would always be happy to give generously of her time and open up her heart, and her forever plentiful tin of jaffa cakes.
When I left to New York last summer, I knew that there was a chance that it might be the last time I would see her. I returned though to London in October, and again in December, and was lucky each time to visit her again. On my return to America, each time I would phone her, she would always first ask where I was calling from. I wished that I could have said London – that I would be around in five minutes – but each time, I had to say New York.
Though I could not be there with her in person this last year, I was always there with her in spirit. I still am today. Each week I would say a meshiberach – a get well prayer – in synagogue to Rachel bas Chaya Basha – Rachel, daughter of Little Bird – remembering that her mother’s name had been changed as a child, to ward off illness that had taken prematurely the life of six of her siblings. She had been the only one that survived to grow to adulthood.
Evidently what Rae shared with her mother was a fierce will to survive. That she herself lived till 94 was remarkable. Fifty years earlier, she nearly died from a massive haemorrhage from earlier surgery. At the time, she was carrying heavy bags of vegetables to her brother’s – a task that she completed, before collapsing. To me, it summed up her spirit; fighting, to the end.
I wish I could speak to her one last time, to tell her how much I will miss her. Though, there are some things that will always be left unsaid; some that never need to be said. My thoughts, and prayers, will forever be with her; as they are with all her family, and friends, that she leaves.
Rae is survived by her daughter, son-in-law, two grandchildren, and a great-grandchild – all of which I know she was proud – and countless friends, amongst which to count myself I am immensely proud too.
Rachel Spanglett died at 5:10pm (BST) on Tuesday 27th May 2008.
I post this obituary as a virtual memorial to Rae. There previously were no results returned when searching online for Rachel Spanglett. Today, there is at least one.