Elopement: a Memoir by Maureen Helen is an engrossing read, which held my attention from start to finish. This although I had already read the story a couple of times, having edited an earlier draft and a later one. Maureen is a friend of mine, and I knew her during the years when she was living the life described here, and then writing the story of it.
It seems an unlikely story — two septuagenarians, Maureen and John, life-long friends, falling in love a couple of years after the death of John’s first wife, and deciding to elope rather than have a family wedding. An interesting and risky choice, as was brought home to them when their friends and family found out. But not one they regretted, as they enjoyed their honeymoon in Paris and the south of France. The falling in love happens slowly, from its tiny beginnings on a holiday together in South Australia, to its unfolding while they work together to paint and restore John’s beloved old yacht, Amigo Diablo, and Maureen tentatively explores the pleasures and risks of sailing. Falling in love and getting married is the easy part. The hard part is living together for the first four years in the house John and his first wife had shared, and where she died painfully of cancer, nursed by John. Not only does Maureen feel out of place in a house saturated in the past and furnished in a style and in a suburb she does not like; she has given up her own pretty house and garden, her car, her independence, won over many years as a single parent, graduate/postgraduate student and career woman in allied health. She has a large and close family, who all accept and quickly grow to love John. But John’s smaller family are still grieving for their mother, and resent Maureen’s new place in their father’s life.
The most engaging quality of this book is the writer’s honesty. She is very frank about her turmoil of feelings, her resentment, regret, anger, and despair, which are not unrelieved, but increasingly affect her health and their relationship. She becomes ill, and there is a crisis, which brings about a fresh start and the fundamental changes on both sides needed for their relationship to recover, for their ‘earlier, unexpected old-age-love’ to re-emerge.
There are several risks Maureen takes in writing and publishing this memoir. First, to write a story of their love and shared life together while in the midst of it, so to speak; and to do this at an early stage of their marriage. This is a story that couldn’t wait to be told, since Maureen needed to write, which kept her spirit alive, and ‘time and tide wait for no (wo)man’. To write such a memoir which gives a frank picture of a marriage and its trials and discontents, and of the tensions and discords with family members, is a courageous act. To do it with the knowledge and blessing of the partner speaks volumes for the strength of their relationship and commitment to each other.
The theme which emerges most strongly for me is that celibacy and independence, Maureen’s lifestyle choice before she fell in love, can be a happy, fulfilling pathway; she gave up more than she realised when she made the choice to marry. But Maureen is able to do things with John, like sailing, travelling in Australia and overseas, caravanning, that she would not have done alone at that stage of her life. The regret for what is lost that afflicts her through much of the years described is resolved, and a mutually satisfying balance is found.
The tension and empathic unease I felt through many pages dissolved, and I closed the book feeling happy, not only that my friend has found a new, fulfilling life, but that she has written a story of it which will engage, move and inspire readers.