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  • Writer's pictureElaine Frieman


Updated: Jan 10

“Do not go gentle into that good night.” – Dylan Thomas

Life is full of unfair circumstances. It’s unfair that this time of year many great men have passed out of my life and the lives of those I love: my grandfather, my father-in-law, my cousin’s father-in-law, Michael’s grandfather, and now my family friend, Derek.

“Family friend” doesn’t encompass how I felt about Derek; his wife, Jenny; his daughter, Sarah; his grandsons, Thomas and Henry; the friends of theirs I encountered (Barry, Judith, Sally-Ann, and others); and their wider family. The whole family is made up of wonderful people who I have been lucky to know for decades. I’ve decided to call them “chosen family.”

I may not have had such a big impact in their lives, but to mine, they have been instrumental, woven into the very fabric of who I am.

That’s the happy accident of life sometimes, too. There’s the good and the bad. The tragedy and the comedy.

How I met the Leyland family

Once upon a time when my Uncle Tim was in uni and around eighteen years of age, he dated Jenny and Derek’s beautiful daughter, Sarah. Sarah and Tim grew up, of course, and went on to meet other partners (as you do) but fate changed my life.

They may have forgotten each other entirely were it not for the fact that Tim introduced Sarah to his niece, me! They used to take me out to do whatever it is they did on dates involving me. I’m sure my parents were glad of the break. One day when I was about three or four, Sarah and Tim took me to meet Sarah’s parents, Jenny and Derek. As Jenny tells it, I walked up the myriad of steep steps up to their side door and, shattered, held my arms up to Jenny (who is only a very small lady) who gathered me in her arms and I promptly fell asleep on her.

When Tim and Sarah split up, Jenny rang my mother to ask if she could look after me once per week, so every Thursday was my day with Jenny and Derek. And also for about a week every summer and sometimes when I was unwell. To me, their house and garden was like being dropped in the Secret Garden (without the nasty cast of stern maids). It had a magical, mythical, happy quality to it. Their home was sprawling and full of treasures from their travels.

Jenny was a school teacher (with the patience and kindness of Miss Honey but only a lot cleverer) and Derek, as a physicist, was a technical director at some sort of firm (but I don’t recall the full details) and he travelled often on business to the US and beyond. Barry was the headmaster of the school where Jenny worked (and is father to a famous English soap actress). On Thursdays, Barry would pick me up from Clarksfield Junior School and take me to Saddleworth (the posh bit of Oldham) to Jenny and Derek’s house.

The magical times at the Leyland house

Jenny bought toys for me but mostly I was allowed to play with anything, which included Jenny’s Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls from Sarah’s childhood, her own (slightly falling apart) doll Roger from Jenny’s own childhood, her expensive wooden chess set, a cast of Russian dolls, Portuguese cockerels, and other beautiful wooden carved figurines. These figurines got into all sorts of adventures. 

I’d also play pretend shops where Jenny would save the small packets of cereal boxes and tape them back up and various other items that I could “sell” back to her in my shop. Sometimes I’d run a library or whatever I was imagining that day (the house was also filled with books). I also treated Jenny and Derek to my “ballerina” shows which often ended up with me knocking over the lamps or bumping into other pieces of furniture.

I had a beautiful, big bedroom to myself that had once belonged to Sarah but when I was very little I’d sleep in their bedroom on the sofa bed where Jenny would read stories to me and we’d recite nursery rhymes before bed. Later, the room was converted for the grandsons with their endless Lord of the Rings figures.

I have a love of golden retrievers because Jenny and Derek always had one in those early years! As did Sarah. Riley, Harvey, Casey were the names of the dogs I could recall (but there may have been more).

Aunty Jenny, Uncle Derek, and Uncle Barry were a cast of characters that were from that point on, vital to my childhood. I had an amazing, happy childhood thanks to these three, my grandparents, my parents, and my own (biological) uncles. Even though I had a loving family of my own, my parents had long split up and time at the Leyland house gave me the stable home I lacked, a glimpse into a world where there were two “parents” in the home and what that might look like.

I first called them “Aunty” and “Uncle” when I was up on stage at a pantomime. Barry’s daughter was in the cast. It might have been Cinderella or Aladdin or another panto (I also recall getting a tour of the backstage with all the array of costumes and the “behind the scene” of how the magic carpet flew – and sitting in Cinderella’s carriage which felt magical). I was “selected” to go on stage and asked who I was there with and my eight-year-old brain said, “Aunty Jenny, Uncle Barry, and Uncle Derek.” That was that. They were my family. They were almost as old as my own grandparents but to me my uncles were magical and so were they.

Their home was an enchanted world where I didn’t get told off, restricted, or asked not to do something. I could run wild and free in the garden eating strawberries, blackcurrants, and sour gooseberries (and sometimes we’d pick an apple from Uncle Barry’s apple tree).

I have memories of walks in the meadows behind their house, welly-shod, golden retrievers in tow, wading through streams.

I met their neighbour’s daughter, Kate, who was my age. Another link in the puzzle that is their impact on my life. We met because she heard me singing and pretending to be a princess in the garden next door. At teatime, Kate and I had “Ribena races” (to see who could drink our drink the fastest with those curly straws). There were Postman Pat pasta shapes (a lovely treat my parents never bought – apparently I told my mother I got “real kid food” there, which I presume Jenny bought because I asked for it). Jenny and I would curl up and watch soaps on TV (to watch Barry’s daughter, of course) and I recall watching The Wizard of Oz over and over. 

Later, I joined Jenny and Derek in watching Wimbledon as Jenny enjoyed her favourite players, Federer and Nadal, and Derek – prior to COVID-19 times – took Jenny every year to watch Wimbledon in person.

When I was young, Jenny and Derek paid for my expensive childcare costs in the best nursery (a place my mother could not have afforded at the time as she was a university student but later she had a good job with the council). Jenny would surprise me with party frocks and throw me birthday parties in the summer (inviting Kate and some girls around my age, Vanessa and Maria (of the names I recall), that Jenny knew via her friends). At these parties, Jenny devised “Smarty Hunts” where she hid Smarties chocolates (sort of like plain M&Ms for the American audience) around the house and all of us girls at the parties with our gloves, hats, and dresses would run around the house collecting our smarties back in the little boxes they came in. I was a gourmand when it came to chocolate (or any food really) so this was an extra special treat.  We also played pass the parcel, musical statues, and various other English party game staples. Jenny would laugh in years later that she’d find Smarties all over the house as we’d not always been the keenest hunters.

Jenny was an excellent artist and Kate and I have memories of drawing lots of cats (we both adored cats to distraction) but anything we couldn’t draw (to cut out and play with), we would ask Jenny to draw. And so we littered their house with all of our cut out drawings which would always be there the next week for Kate and I to play with.

From childhood, Jenny was always big on general knowledge (she’d be sad to know that my knowledge is appalling after schooling me for years). She used to spin her globe and have us name countries and capitals. She knew each country’s flag, random facts, the food, the language, the culture, so much. She taught me maths, patiently, even though I was an appalling pupil. I can still remember my nine times tables because of the finger trick she taught me (I’m sure you all know it).

When I was a teen and visited with my high school boyfriend (HSS as I’ve written about in other posts), Jenny, Derek, and Barry paid and booked for our hotel in London because they didn’t fancy us staying in a hostel. Also, on the trip, I remember us staying at their house when they were away on holiday (they generously allowed us the use of their house) and locking my things accidentally in the safe when I forgot the code (oops) which we had a laugh about when they returned and Derek retrieved the items for me.

When I showed Derek my new camera with a 16GB SD card and I’d said something flippant about having to download my pictures because I was running out of memory, he surprised me on the next visit with a shiny new 1GB SD card (this was back when 1 GB was probably out of my uni student budget). He was generous and thoughtful that way. Always wanting to help come up with solutions to things. A problem solver. But also a good listener.

They were generous but it was never about the generosity. It was about all the love they gave me and I will forever be grateful for those experiences.

My mother called Jenny my “fairy godmother.” My own family knew how much I loved the Leyland family and that it was an enrichment to my life, not a diminishing of their own love and attention.

My memories of Derek

I didn’t get to know Derek until I was older when I started to visit in university as he was gone on business trips on and off in childhood – and in the almost eight years I’ve been back in England – but I cannot capture him adequately in words. He was kind, funny, generous, encouraging, loving, and intelligent. And so much more. 

He never had an unkind word for anyone and he was universally loved and admired, which is rare. He was unimaginably intelligent to the very last. His brain was brimming with so much and he was so full of kindness when he spoke. He was just encouraging and without judgment. He had a thirst to learn.

As this Manchester Evening News tribute reveals, his cricket club wanted to make a commemorative bench for him because he was such a legend but he was so humble that he thought the idea was “ridiculous.” He was a local hero and a hero to his grandsons, especially, whom he adored.

When I’d go to visit, he and Jenny would greet me at the door. 

“Come in, Lainey,” Derek would say and they’d give me a hug in turn and kisses on the cheek. I’d deposit the flowers I usually bought for Jenny in the kitchen and sometimes bring a bottle of wine for Derek, especially if Michael had bought a wine for me to take to Derek for his approval (he and Michael always talked about wine and recommended things to each other). 

They’d usher me into the lounge, often with the log burner going (or the conservatory) and Jenny would go and make the cups of tea (with tea leaves, of course, and milk that gets delivered still by the milkman). My offer of help was always declined. Derek would find some biscuits or sweets and offer me one, which he knew I’d never refuse. He’d ask me how things were going at work. He remembered details. I’d ask about his beekeeping. 

Sometimes I’d come for Sunday lunch and I’d be encouraged to “eat up” as I’ve always had a hearty appetite. Sometimes we’d go out for lunch or tea – and just last summer we met at Hollingworth Lake for lunch and a short stroll. 

When I’d visit England during my uni days, Derek would go out of his way to pick me up from wherever I was staying even if it was a two-hour round trip. I’d stay over a night or two – Jenny would pop the electric blanket on to warm my bed in colder months – and I’d wake feeling rested and happy. In the morning, I’d join their routine of eating muesli, yoghurt, and grapefruit for breakfast. I could sit for hours in their company (and often did), chatting comfortably, curled into their settee.

On my visits to their house, Jenny would come into the lounge and Derek would get up to help her bring in the tea things and we’d catch up as they asked after each of my family members – from my grandparents to my parents to my sisters to my cousins. They are that kind of people – always thinking of others, always remembering the details. They may tell me about how their family members were doing, all the ways they were proud of their grandsons, how they loved their girlfriends, news of friends, or their latest travel adventure and recommendations.

Jenny and Derek sat on chairs on opposite sides of the room. Their interactions with each other weren’t of passionate embraces (not around me at least) but subtle gestures of support. They looked at each other when the other was speaking, they helped each other, and they took pride in caring for each other in little and big ways, each playing to their strengths. They laughed together, shared an interest in travel, and supported each other’s hobbies (Jenny tutored children, embroidered, gardened, read avidly; Derek did his beekeeping, squash, walking, admin, reading, computers).

And each night in winter, Jenny would turn on that electric blanket to warm up the bed for them where they’d sit companionably reading before light’s out.

Derek’s bees would produce the absolute best honey I’d ever tasted. He was always one to be careful with money but he laughingly confided in me that it was much more expensive to produce the honey than he ever hoped to make (if he’d sold it at a market) but he didn’t mind. I expect he mostly gave the honey away as I must have had at least half a dozen jars or more. I was lucky enough to receive a jar from Derek when I saw him last. I even had a recent conversation with my mother about how delicious Derek’s honey was when I visited her – and she said there was tremendous benefit in eating local honey, apparently. I didn’t get a chance to tell Derek that. He may have already known as he knew so many things but I’m sad to know I’ll never get to share it! 

Jenny and Derek were there when Michael and I got married. Part of my speech discussed the impact they’d had on my life and how if Michael and I could capture some of the happiness they had, we’d be lucky. 

Jenny and Derek have been generous to me over the years and have celebrated my successes. They’ve seen my highs and lows of life – from poor uni student to my first marriage, my divorce, my career trajectory (when I started earning peanuts) to now, and my current happiness with my forever husband. 

When I’d visit their home, I just felt this cosy, happy, safe feeling. Some people give you that sense of reassurance. Solid institutions. Places that have had no bad memories. Places that give a solid foundation. Happy places. Their home was filled to the brim with my childhood memories (they even have photos of me scattered around the house at various ages and Jenny keeps a scrapbook of my “drawings” over the years). Every now and then they’d pop on the video that Barry had made of various stages of my childhood, reminiscing about seeing me at that age. Having a niece, two nephews, and my cousins’ children to watch grow up and sometimes have over at my house to stay, I understand this feeling. You can love these children and the joy they bring to your life. I’m glad they gave me that. I’m thankful that I have had that decades later, too.

Jenny and Derek had known each other since childhood, dating for four years before marrying, and had been married for 57 years. Can you imagine? Over 60 years together. They were so in love. So happy. They had only one daughter, Sarah, who they adored. Sarah adored them back. They had the closest bond, that little trio, and the two very loved grandsons, Thomas and Henry. Jenny and Derek couldn’t have been prouder of their grandsons and all they accomplished – and the kind of men they have grown up to be, men like Derek: kind, humble, loving, and well-mannered. 

Jenny and Derek recently told me about their amazing trip to Egypt. I’d never known a couple who had travelled to so many places on every continent. Derek planned their trips meticulously, to take Jenny to see the world. She trusted him to guide their life. And what a magical life together it has been.

Goodbye too soon

On a random Tuesday in the new year, eight days before they were meant to go to Mexico to celebrate Derek's 83rd birthday, Derek did his usual routine of going on his 12-mile hike on a Tuesday. Another day each week he played squash. He was remarkably fit – and not just for his age. He could still play squash like men twenty years younger. His eldest grandson had only just begun to beat him at games. He still did the log cutting, beekeeping, gardening, tinkering, and fixing. I thought he’d go on forever. I expect everyone thought that.

The weather had been particularly bad in the North of England for weeks. His walking club decided not to join but he drove to park at the squash club, popped on his walking clothes, and set out. Except this time, he didn’t make it home. I can imagine all the times I’ve been at that house to see him come in the side door, windswept, squash bag in hand.

I couldn’t sleep when I heard he had gone missing from worrying. He was still sharp and he always came home – and as time passes, your hope gets less and less but there was a glimmer because I (let alone his family) was not ready to let the universe have this man. How can this legend of a man pass from the world so shockingly and unexpectedly on a Tuesday in January? Before the anniversary of his birth (16 January 1941). 

When I visited Jenny and Sarah this past weekend, I learned that there was not a single mark on Derek’s body when they found him, almost in repose legs crossed at the ankles with a hand over his heart. There’s no official report of what happened yet but I hope he passed peacefully from this life, knowing what a great impact he had on so many, knowing just how loved he was, and how deeply he will be missed by all. 

Words can’t describe the impact Derek had on my life and especially his family’s lives. I’m trying but everything I have written does not capture his essence. This is what this man meant to me. He will be many things to others: to his wife, children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, friends, former colleagues, all his loved ones. And I grieve with you all. Doesn’t it seem that we always lose good people at the prime of life, when you wished they’d have more time and could go on?

I didn’t know that when I visited Jenny, Derek, and Sarah in mid-November before my America trip that that would be the last hug I’d give Derek with the hope of “see you after Christmas and our Mexico trip.” I suppose we never do know.

The butterfly effect

The butterfly effect impacts us all. For better or worse. If my Uncle Tim hadn’t dated Sarah… If Jenny hadn’t reached out to my mother… If we’d all made different choices at different points in life… Even my moving to the US for years allowed Jenny and Derek the space to give attention to their grandsons, which left room for me in their lives later. 

All of these events happened by chance. The flip of a coin. And the impact ripples out like a stone breaking the calm surface of a pond.

I was talking to Brittany about this butterfly effect right after I found out. I was the last person to see my father-in-law, George, before he took his own life and if I’d given him my full attention that morning would it have changed events? I only hurried by with my cup of tea in hand ready to get back to work. I gave him a quick kiss on the cheek (which I usually did) and was off. I didn’t hear him leave and drive away.

A friend told a story of her friend in middle school who wanted to talk to her after school but she said, “We’ll talk tomorrow. I’ll miss my bus” and hurried away. The little girl was hit by a car. She didn’t go to school the next day or ever. My friend wondered if she’d stayed to talk would things have been different?

A split second. Unfair moments in life. Tragic consequences. Devastating effects.

There’s no use speculating an alternative timeline of Derek making it home safely (as much as I wish that this wasn’t my reality – or his family's reality) – but it, unfortunately, illustrates life. Just life. All its ups, downs, tragedy, unfairness. And all the trite ways we have to say to “cherish every moment” and “you don’t know when it will be your last.” But, sadly, no one lives that way. We get angry and upset. We are busy and hurried. We say and do the wrong things. We are human. We don’t realise that time will be our final goodbye. 

We can just hope that the people we love know, deep down, they are loved by us.

I send well wishes and love to all who knew Derek. He was a legend. A great man. A true English gentleman in every aspect of the word. He was so much greater than I can ever capture in words. 

We always say, “he lived life to the full” but Derek truly did.

To Derek and his ever-lasting memory. “Do not go gentle into that good night.”

*Originally published on my Substack

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