By Helen Stone
Amid the negativity of fighting and wars, and anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, I feel the need to share a very special family story.
My mother’s first cousin, Lilly Clyne, died two months ago, aged 105. Lilly came here as a Jewish refugee from Germany in March 1939, working first as a domestic servant and then getting married to Joe, with whom she had a daughter, Regina. She died peacefully in the same three-bedroomed, semi-detached house in Willesden Green in which she had lived for the past 54 years.
But when she was 99, Lilly fell and broke her hip and everyone thought she would have to move to an old-age home. However, Lilly had other ideas. After a long period of hospitalisation and rehabilitation, she returned home.
Regina, married to an American, lived 3,000 miles away and, for the past 11 years, had been given huge support and relief from anxiety about her mother from a surprising and unexpected source.
When Lilly was still a sprightly 94-year-old and pottering in her front garden one day, she got chatting to her new neighbours: an extended Pakistani family of 14. The parents, Mohammed and Shamin Islam, had come to England in 1977, living first in Middlesbrough.
They were highly observant Muslims who prayed five times a day and the women wore the hijab and, in keeping with their traditions, could not be alone with men who were not family members.
An essential part of their religious belief and moral code was an immense respect for elderly people, regardless of their religion. The youngest member of the family, a girl aged two, took to Lilly immediately and began to call her “Grandma”. From that day onwards, the Islams and Lilly became firm friends and they adopted her as their own.
Mohammed would pop in frequently to do odd jobs in the house and garden or just to chat over a cup of tea. Shamin and her daughters would bring food and check up on Lilly daily and kept in touch with Regina to reassure her Lilly was being well looked after. At Lilly’s 100th birthday party, her Pakistani neighbours were honoured guests and had pride of place at the top table.
Until just before her 105th birthday, Lilly was still independent and managing to cook and look after herself. When I visited her I would take my grandchildren and she would watch with delight as they played in her garden.
On her 105th birthday, three members of the Islam family, Imresh, a young married woman, her two-year-old daughter, Zayna, and her sister, Taneem, came in with a very special birthday card. On the front was a large photo of Lilly and around it were photos of various members of the Islam family. Inside was written: “To Grandma. We love you.” I watched as Zayna gave it to her with a huge hug and a kiss.
Lilly begin to find life more difficult a few weeks before she died. Her neighbours started to come every morning to help her wash and dress and returned in the evening to help her get to bed. When she became too weak to climb the stairs, two of the girls moved her double bed downstairs, settled her in it and called Regina on Facetime to show her what they had done.
Even after Regina came from America to take care of Lilly, Shamin and her daughters took it in turns to help her twice daily, as they did before. Regina knows she owes them a debt she will never be able to repay and that they will remain in touch for the rest of their lives.
Seeing the love, care and respect they had for Lilly removes all notions of a barrier between age groups, religions or races. I wanted to share our story because, in a world in which we hear much about conflict, differences and divisions, this story of a truly loving relationship between an elderly Jewish lady and her Muslim neighbours has succeeded in lifting my spirits and renewing my faith in the essential goodness and kindness of human beings.