“Fancy a cup of tea?” a grand lady dressed head to toe in red asked me from her throne in the Balmoral Hotel’s Palm Court tea toom.
How could I resist? For many years we subsequently shared many cups of tea, shortbread and so much more. While she held court in the Balmoral Hotel, I learned that she had been a school teacher and that her husband had been an accomplished organist and this talent had been passed on to her son. I also learned that she loved the dozens of summer holidays that she and her family enjoyed at the Crieff Hydro in Perthshire. More than all of this, I learned about the true essence of compassion, kindness and thoughtfulness that she embodied throughout her long life that was dedicated to family and service to others.
Whenever I settled in beside her, she immediately inquired about my wife, our children, my job and much more. She also regularly produced newspaper clippings that would feature me or items that she thought I would find interesting.
I soon noticed that she was the only person in the Palm Court with her very own personal china service, thoughtfully provided by the hotel. I also noticed that she knew the names of all the servers and was just as interested in their lives as she was in mine.
She had begun her visits to the Balmoral Hotel many years ago and soon was dining there five days per week. Over the years this was reduced due to age and illness to one day per week and then one day every other week. During her final years she always held court on a Wednesday afternoon sitting near the harpist in the gallery.
One week, many years ago, I missed seeing her and learned that she had been injured when an automobile knocked her over. She ended up in hospital for many months and I was delighted when I learned that the Balmoral Hotel had delivered tea and short bread directly to her bed.
One day I visited her and she conspiratorially told me to close the door to her room and then she whispered to me “I need your help.” She reached under her hospital bed and extracted a large sheaf of papers. “These are my children’s stories. I wrote them for my children. I want you to publish them.”
I apologised and told her that I was a mere University professor and had no ability to publish her precious stories. She would not take no for an answer, thrust the papers at me and simply said “You have published books. Publish mine!”
I read the stories and was enchanted with her writing. Therefore, I accepted her challenge and contacted the Balmoral Hotel who kindly agreed to underwrite the entire cost of printing of her book which I had now agreed to edit. I then contacted a colleague whose son is an accomplished artist named Alex Hills and he agreed to illustrate the book free of charge. Finally, I contacted Sylvia’s favourite charity, St Columba’s Hospice, and offered them the opportunity to sell the book in their stores as well as through their catalogue. They were delighted to do this as over many years Sylvia had raised over £30,000 for this well respected charity. She raised these pounds by annually selling thousands of festive season cards and through her many other fund raising projects.
When the book was finally published, we held a book launch and signing at the Balmoral Hotel and she presented me with a beautiful Philip Merrier watch as a thank you gift. Then, when everyone had departed, she leaned in close and said to me with a broad smile “Now, here’s my idea for my next book…” I gasped!
William Sanders, Sylvia’s grandfather, was known as the Tweedside Laddie (1853 – 1945) and he wrote the words and music to The Soft Lowland Tongue. This beautiful song is a tribute to the Scottish borders where Sylvia and he family first roamed. This homage to her birthplace contains these words.
It brings back the scent of the heatherly braes (hills)
The soond of the wee birnies (stream) wimple
The laffin and daffin of youth’s happy days
When his cheek’s deepest line was a dimple.
The long time harpist at the Balmoral Hotel’s Palm Court Tea Room, Mr Iain Hood, would often play this song for Sylvia and she would always look up to the balcony where Iain was perched, smile and then applaud loudly. I do not believe the other guests ever knew of the unique connection between this song, their fellow guest dressed from head to toe in her trademark red ensemble and the land that she loved so dearly.
Sadly, we lost Sylvia’s bi – weekly presence many months ago when once again she became ill and was no long able to travel to her beloved Balmoral Hotel. In one of my last visits with her in the hospital I delivered gifts from the staff of the Palm Court and a video where the young folks who served her for many years wished her good health and happiness. She was delighted when she saw their familiar faces appear on the tiny screen of my telephone.
This past week on 12 March 2020 our grand lady finally left us for a place where I am certain she will hear many harps and I know that the harpists shall delight in seeing this precious angel in red amongst them. She leaves behind her treasures, her son, Ian and her daughter Katrina and a legion of friends.
How blessed we were to have her for so long as our angel in red upon this earth where she left her permanent mark of love, compassion, kindness, thoughtfulness and yes, resilience, upon all that she met, including this old professor who now writes these words with tears of happiness and joy upon his cheeks.
If you would like to remember and honour Sylvia by supporting her beloved St Columba’s Hospice, follow this link to https://stcolumbashospice.org.uk/donate/