First Love

It was the end of the 1950’s. I was seventeen, in the Upper Sixth of the Grammar School. A gangly, spotty lad, and something of a lone wolf. Not much use on the football field and even less on the cricket pitch. Books were my escape, birdwatching my hobby.

Ours was a mixed school, but I was invisible to the girls and so I decided to let them be invisible to me. There were occasional exchanges of course, but on the whole nobody would have noticed if I hadn’t been there. Sometimes, that came in useful and I’d skip a particularly boring class so I could hide in the library, which was quiet and peaceful and I could lose myself in other worlds.

It was on such a day, when I was trying to think of something sagacious to write in my essay, that I became aware of a girl sitting a few feet away from me, at the next table. A sudden shaft of sunlight shone right onto her, a spotlight that lit up her head, and I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, a shiver ran down my spine, and my whole body was covered in goose bumps. Her hair looked aflame, and her face aglow. The rest of the room faded away in a mist and I could only stare at the vision before me. Did my jaw drop? Did I gasp? Did I whoop for joy? I don’t know. All I knew was, I was in love.

Did she feel me looking at her? Perhaps, because she raised her eyes from her book and looked straight into mine. She smiled, and the smile wasn’t just on her lips but also in her eyes. Then she went back to her reading. I floated back to the present, and dropped my eyes in embarrassment. Until the bell went for break, I didn’t dare look up again. When I did, she had gone.

It was a week before I saw that wonderful halo of golden hair again, and this time, to my surprise and pleasure, I realized that she took the same bus home as I did. My fevered brain invented excuses to speak to her, scripted long, involved conversations, devised exciting scenarios for interaction. Eventually, it was she who spoke to me, on the crowded bus: “Mind if I sit here?” All my clever responses dried up in my parched mouth and I could only nod and mumble an indistinct, “Sure.” She was sitting beside me! Her sleeve was actually touching mine! And then she turned those eyes like headlights on me, smiled that wonderful smile, and asked, “Are you any good at Latin?”

My opportunity, and I seized it with both hands. “Carpe diem!” I replied and she looked blank. So I cleared my throat and told her I was doing A-Level Latin and wasn’t too bad at it.

“Could you help me?” she asked. “I don’t understand the gerund.”

She was in the Lower Sixth, so fortunately for me that meant I was a year ahead of her and yes, I was able to explain both the gerund and the gerundive, topics which had not figured in any of my imaginary conversations, but in fact led to a perfectly normal, almost relaxed chat. Next time we were on the same bus, she made a beeline for me and sat down with a Cheshire cat grin on her face. 

“Thank you for helping me,” she said. “I got full marks for my Latin homework, and did OK in the test, too.”

I would have been chagrined had she not received full marks, but didn’t say so. Instead, I smiled back at her and noticed a dimple in the corner of her mouth that came and went as she spoke. All my prepared smart comments vanished from my mind. How was I going to impress her?   

“Any time,” I shrugged, “just ask, and … well, er, just ask.”

In the following weeks, I occasionally saw her around school, in a corridor or at the other end of the hall, once or twice in the library, but never had any chance to speak to her there. However, she made a habit of sitting next to me on the bus once a week, and for the fifteen minute bus ride, I coached her in Latin.

One day, after thanking me yet again for helping her improve her grades, she invited me to tea. I was over the moon! Sunday afternoon, high tea at 5 pm, at her home. Her mother greeted me kindly, her father looked at me as if inspecting an unidentified object left on the doorstep, and her little brother just stared at me with an inscrutable expression that made me feel very uncomfortable.

At about a quarter to six, her father looked at his watch and said, “Well, if you’re going to Evensong, you’d better be on your way.”

Evensong? I wasn’t a churchgoer, and in fact prided myself on my agnosticism. We certainly hadn’t discussed any plans other than having tea. I looked at my gorgeous angel, and she beamed her disarming smile. 

“Come on, then,” she urged me, “don’t want to be late.”

And thus I found myself walking beside her up to the lychgate of the parish church. Was I ready for conversion? Would I find my salvation here? Was I destined … ?

But a couple of yards short of the lychgate she stopped and turned to me.

“Thank you for coming with me. I hope you enjoyed your tea. I know you don’t attend church, so you can go now. Bye!”

And before I could say a word, she had flown those few yards and vanished through the gate. I stood stock still for a long moment in disbelief. Then my paralysis melted and I followed her tracks. I looked through the lychgate, and what I saw broke my heart. 

On the church steps, about to pass through the main door, was the girl I had been dreaming about for weeks, clinging to the arm of a young man wearing a ‘varsity scarf. As I watched, she put her face up to his and he kissed her on the lips. She gave him her most beautiful smile, and he hugged her. Then, holding hands, they went into the church.

*****

Through the years life has been pretty good to me, though there have been some rough passages as well as smooth sailing. I met and fell in love successively with a range of young women, married one of them, and then, realizing our error, we divorced. I had settled into my bachelor retirement and hoped for a few years of quiet pleasure pursuing my genuine interests rather than those that brought in an income, when a chance phone call turned my world completely upside down.

An old friend of my youth whose path had continued to cross mine at intermittent intervals rang to tell me he had run into an old schoolfriend whilst visiting family who still lived in our old home town. 

“And guess what, he lives next door to somebody who used to know you!”

“Who might that be?”

Of course, you have guessed the name he then spoke, a name that I had locked away in a never-to-be-opened compartment of my heart, and had never dared to mention in over 60 years. 

“Oh.”  That was all I could say. “Oh, really?” 

“She remembers you very well … hold on, I have her e-mail address here … “

Instantly I was seventeen again, suffering the agony of having my heart broken for the first time.

I wrote down the e-mail address but it took me a week to pluck up the courage to re-open a wound I had thought long scarred over. She replied the next day, suggesting a video call. I hesitated. I could see what Time had done to me – but could I stand the shock of seeing what the decades had done to her? Well, I decided, confront your demons: maybe this is the way to heal that pain that I have been repressing all these years. I made the call. 

The face that appeared on my screen stopped my heart. Those eyes, that smile, just as bright and warm as I remembered them – no, even brighter and warmer, with a glow that only maturity can give. The golden hair was now silver, but all I saw was the sixteen-year-old whose radiance had enthralled me sixty years before. I was in love again.

What did we say to one another? Strangely, I don’t recall any of that first conversation. But there were many more, and although we were now in different parts of the country we talked and shared our experiences as if we were in the same room and had never been apart. She was widowed, with grown-up, middle-aged children living far away. I was alone, childless, a retired teacher of Classics, still birdwatching, reading and playing chess on my computer. In our regular video chats we created our own world of comfort and common interests, shared and discussed all kinds of topics, and found that even where our views diverged, we could differ without arguing.

Finally, after about a year of video chats, we decided to arrange a meeting. I would travel to her place, and we would see whether we were as compatible in the flesh as we were on the screen. Did we have a future together? I was feverish with excitement, planning my long weekend, envisaging scenarios, packing and unpacking then packing again, until finally it was the day of departure. 

I was on the doorstep of my house, about to turn the key in the lock, when my phone rang. 

A voice I didn’t recognise spoke, asking if I was Mr D. I affirmed that I was indeed he, assuming this was yet another nuisance cold call, but then the speaker identified himself and my blood ran cold.

“I’m really sorry to have to break the news to you like this, but I need to tell you that my mother had a stroke and died this morning. She had written your name and phone number on her calendar for today, so I thought …”

I didn’t hear the rest of what he had to say. I stood there for a long, long moment with the phone in one hand and my suitcase in the other, as my mind replayed a scene from long ago. 

A golden-haired girl walking away from me, hand-in-hand with a young man wearing a ‘varsity scarf, into a church.

And silence.

I need a manicure …

As I was eating my breakfast, I noticed that my nailpolish was chipped so I decided that I’d remove it immediately after I’d washed up the dishes. My manicure stuff is in my bathroom cabinet but I can’t enter the bathroom without my bladder clamouring for attention. Sitting on the loo, I noticed that my bathroom floor wasn’t as clean as it should be, so I got out my Swiffer mop and other relevant cleaning materials  and gave the bathroom a thorough clean. 

Mop in hand, I moved to the only other room with a tiled floor, the kitchen, and there also left every surface sparkling – at least, as far as I could reach up on the cabinet doors. Tall people might notice a tide mark at the 6 ft level. Cleaning the kitchen, I noticed that behind the door there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in Horatio’s philosophy – but Horatio was a man, so he wouldn’t have needed to dream of ironing boards, aprons and recycling. There was also a fair amount of sorting out needed among my cleaning products and utensils, but now that job is done too.

As I bent down, the waist button popped off my shorts (yes, this is a sweaty job, shorts and a suntop are my indoors Mrs Mop gear) and without it, the zip kept coming undone so that button had to be sewn back on and my sewing things reorganised. 

With bathroom and kitchen gleaming, the carpet in the other rooms looked in need of attention so out came the vacuum cleaner. I love my vacuum cleaner. It’s small and easy to use and takes up very little room, unlike those I have had before with long hoses that refuse to wrap into a neat little parcel and hide behind doors or curtains (my apartment is small and short on storage). I had covered about two square metres when the battery died. 

Oh well, it’s actually recommended that you should dust before you hoover, so while the battery on my vacuum cleaner was recharging I dusted all the surfaces in my living room, including all the picture frames and little knick-knacks (yes, I did pick each item up and dusted under it, unlike the last cleaning lady I had, even though she was Swiss!), polished the mirrors (I have several, not because I like looking at myself but to reflect the light and make the room look bigger) and other glass surfaces – but resisted the windows this time.

After this some  pictures were hanging crooked, so I tried to straighten them but the nails holding two of them fell out; my walls are concrete, and it’s a devil of a job to get a nail to hold without drilling but if the picture isn’t heavy and nobody breathes within a metre of it, the nail will usually hold. When the nail falls out, though, it tends to leave quite a large hole. Out came the mastic and as I was smoothing it into the holes with my finger, I noticed that my nail polish looked really bad …

Well, the vacuum cleaner battery is fully charged now, so I’ll just finish off the living room and start on the bedroom before I do my nails, otherwise the polish will get chipped again before it’s dry … And anyway, it’s almost lunchtime, so I’ll just remove the polish and come back to the rest later … I think …

Pots from the Past

Pots from the Past

Housework finished, I was about to sit down with a well-deserved cup of tea when the doorbell rang. NO! I thought, I am NOT answering. But I couldn’t resist peeking, and saw there were two women standing on the doorstep. Jehovah’s Witnesses, no doubt. Ignore them and they’ll go away. Only they didn’t. The bell rang again,  more insistently. I put down my cup and opened the door.

“I’m a Pentecostal,” I announced. That usually gets rid of them. These two looked baffled, however.

“I’m born again,” I continued. Jehovah’s Witnesses rarely argue with charismatics, I’ve discovered. But these two didn’t react.

“That’s nice,” said the taller of the two, a middle-aged lady with a pleasant smile. “I’m sorry for disturbing you, but I really couldn’t pass by without stopping to see if anyone’s in. You see, this used to be our house … when I was a little girl. I have so many memories …”

I felt myself blushing. 

“Oh dear,” I said. “I thought you were Jehovah’s Witnesses. I’m sorry. Please come in, I’ve just made some tea.”

I opened the door wide and they both stepped inside. Now I could see that they were very clearly mother and daughter, the middle-aged lady a younger version of the elderly lady beside her.

“My name’s Margaret Anderson. We moved away from the area a long time ago, but I  just happened to be visiting old friends and couldn’t help coming by to see if the old place has changed much.”

I ushered them into the living room, glad I had finished my cleaning. They looked around with interest and I invited them to sit down on the sofa while I added two more mugs of tea. 

“You’ve made it very cosy,” said Margaret. Her mother nodded and smiled. “It’s quite different in some ways, but I see you have kept some of the original features.”

“I like the old fireplace,” I told her, “Though of course it’s no longer in use.”

“Ah yes, we had central heating installed,” replied Margaret, “And wall-to-wall carpeting.”

 I looked down at the thinning carpet, and explained that we were about to replace it, a DIY job scheduled for the coming week

“There used to be oak parquet underneath,” Margaret said. “You might find it’s still there, quite fashionable again nowadays.”

 Since I had made the beds, vacuumed and dusted everywhere, I offered to show them upstairs. They rose eagerly, and followed me, Margaret explaining animatedly how it had been in her youth and who had slept where. 

“What do you use the loft for now?” she asked suddenly. 

I looked blank. 

“The loft? Nothing – it’s just roof space,” I said.

Margaret looked surprised.

“We had it made into a den for my brother. He used to spend hours up there!”

I looked up at the narrow trapdoor in the ceiling. 

“How did he get in?”

“There was a telescopic ladder fixed onto the trapdoor. It drops down when you open the trap.” She looked around. “We had a long pole with a hook on the end to open it with, but I don’t see that anywhere.”

I was startled. We had lived in this house for five years and nobody had ever thought of opening that little trapdoor or exploring the roof space.

As we returned downstairs, Margaret told me a little more about her family. The house had been built in the nineteen-thirties for her grandparents, and her mother had been born there. Her grandfather had been killed in World War II, and her grandmother had brought up her only child alone. When this daughter – Margaret’s mother – married, she and her husband had moved in with the old lady, and Margaret had also been born there. 

“It was always a very happy house,” she told me, and again her mother nodded and smiled. “We were sorry to leave, but you know how these things are. I never knew my grandfather, of course, but he worked for The Ruskin Pottery, works manager or something. He bought this house, brand new, with the money he got when it closed down and when I was small, I remember my grandmother still had quite a few pieces of Ruskin pottery. No idea what happened to them – they’d be worth a bit nowadays.” 

I hadn’t a clue what she was talking about, but politely didn’t let on. I noticed that the old lady was staring very hard at the corner of the room in the alcove next to the fireplace, but she didn’t say anything. I followed her eyes, but could see nothing unusual there. She noticed, blinked and smiled, then looked away.

After they left, I sat for a moment musing about my visitors. It must be strange coming back to your childhood home after so many years, I thought, and seeing how so many things had changed. 

Why had nobody told us about the loft? 

I was curious. I took a chair from my bedroom and placed it below the trapdoor. The catch was difficult to budge as someone had painted over it, but eventually I managed to open it and pushed the little door upwards. A cloud of dust enveloped my head, but I reached up into the opening all the same. Yes, there was a telescopic  ladder attached to the back of the door, fastened with a leather strap. I released it, letting the ladder down and bringing more dust down with it but I was too intrigued by my discovery to bother about that. I climbed up the ladder and through the hole.

To my astonishment, I realised that there were floorboards there, and dustsheets spread over what appeared to be items of furniture. It was very dark, but as I groped around I discovered a light switch on a wooden beam. Amazingly, when I pressed it, a light went on! 

Yes, the dustsheets covered chairs and probably a table. But the most surprising thing was that the wooden floor was covered in miniature railway tracks, and I could see several very dusty boxes piled up to one side with pictures of trains on them. Why had nobody told us about this? Surely the estate agent must have known that they were there?

When my husband came home, I told him about my visitors and my discovery. We hauled the vacuum cleaner plus a mop and several damp rags up into the loft, and removed quite a lot of dust. It was quite a comfortable room that emerged, and I could well imagine that a young boy and his pals might have been very happy playing with their trains, or lounging about reading their comics away from the adults. Yes, there were old comics there and my husband got quite excited as he realised that the comics as well as the trains and the railway track were still in excellent shape and probably quite valuable.

“I suppose this all belongs to Margaret,” I remarked. My husband shook his head.

“We bought the house and contents, so that includes anything that wasn’t removed by previous owners. Anyway, did she leave you a phone number or an address?”

I had to admit that she hadn’t, and I had no way of contacting her at all. 

“I think she said they lived abroad,” I said, trying hard to remember details of our conversation. “But they had old friends nearby.”

We decided to deal with the attic room and its contents the following weekend, and in the meantime I tried to find out more about Margaret and her family from neighbours and local shopkeepers. Nobody remembered them. The house had changed hands more than once in the past forty years, and even the estate agent we had purchased it through couldn’t throw any light on its history. 

On Saturday morning we climbed the ladder again, and made a more thorough inspection of our magical loft. In addition to the boy’s toys and treasures we also found an old biscuit tin with a string tied around it. Inside was a bundle of letters, still in their original envelopes, with strange-looking stamps.

“Wow,” said Mick, my husband. “Look, that’s King George on the stamps! These are ancient!”

Tentatively, feeling that we were intruding on very private property, we pulled a letter from its envelope. 

My darling Marjorie,
We are being sent overseas tomorrow. Please don’t worry about me, I’m fine and I’ll take good care of myself … we’re glad that we’re going to see some action at last. I love you and miss you. Give Baby a big kiss from her daddy … All my love, George xxx

No, I couldn’t read any more; it really was an intrusion into intimacy. The writer must have been Margaret’s grandfather, who had been killed in action in 1940, and Baby – well, that must have been the old lady who had accompanied her the other day. 

Mick, however, didn’t share my scruples. “We might find some clues here,” he said, “and be able to contact Margaret after all.” 

He took the biscuit tin downstairs and spent the remainder of the morning reading this heart-wrenching correspondence, but found nothing that pointed to a contact with Margaret.

“This is funny,” he called after a while. “Listen to what George says: 
‘I hope the pots are all safely stowed away in the hidey-hole and will not be damaged in case of an air raid.’ 
What do you think he means by that?”

“Oh,” I said, as my conversation with Margaret came back to me, “He was employed at a pottery before the war. Margaret said they had some valuable things but she didn’t know what had happened to them.”

“Well, there aren’t any pots in the loft. What kind of pottery?”

I racked my brain, trying to remember the name of the pottery. Russel? Rankin? Finally it came back to me, and I cried triumphantly: “Ruskin!“

“Never heard of it,” said Mick, reaching for the laptop. “Let’s see what we can find.”

Wikipedia was quite helpful, and we found that the Ruskin Pottery in Smethwick near Birmingham was an art pottery studio producing highly valued ceramics in the Arts and Crafts style, that had closed down in 1935. Certain items could fetch very high prices even today. All the formulae for the very complicated glazes and all documentation relating to the pottery had been deliberately destroyed when the studio closed in order to preserve the unique Ruskin effects. 

“The owner didn’t want anybody replicating the glazes,” read Mick. “Bloody incredible! And you say the old man worked there? Did Margaret tell you anything else?”

“Not really,” I replied, “She did say there’s 1930’s oak parquet underneath this carpet. What about taking it up and having a look before we go out and buy new laminate or something?”

Mick agreed. “Can’t hurt,” he said. “It’s a job we’ve got to do anyway. But it’s probably completely ruined, so don’t get your hopes up.”

And so we began the dusty unpleasant job of removing the fitted carpet that had served several previous owners, and yes, there was indeed oak parquet underneath. No, not very beautiful any more, but Mike was jubilant and very optimistic that with a bit of sanding and varnishing he could restore it to its original glory.

As we reached the last corner in the alcove next to the fireplace, Mike paused. 

“That’s weird,” he muttered. “See? There’s an area here that looks like a trapdoor.” 

I remembered instantly how the old lady had fixed her eyes on this corner while we were talking, and felt a shiver run down my spine. I squatted down beside him and saw very clearly what he meant. “Can you open it?” I asked. Mike poked a screwdriver between two pieces of parquet, and up came a square about three feet on each side from the floor. It was hinged on one side, and was indeed a trapdoor. Underneath was a dark space. We looked at each other. 

“Quick, shine a light in here,” said Mike. I shone my phone into the space, and directly below we saw a large box roughly the same size as the trapdoor we had discovered. 

“How do we get it out?” I asked. “Has it got handles?” 

Mike muttered something under his breath, then put his hand down into the space and felt along the top edge of the box.

“It’s a tea chest,” he said. “My parents used one of these for years to store stuff in. Maybe the lid is loose, and I can get my hand into it.”

The chest was covered in a thick layer of dust and dirt, but after a moment or two, Mike was able to shift the lid slightly aside and reach inside. 

“It’s full of something – things wrapped in paper, I’d say. I don’t think we should try to get the whole box out like this. Better to take some of the things out first and see what they are.”

It wasn’t easy but with great care we managed to pull out several oddly shaped parcels wrapped in brown paper. Off came the wrappings, and we were looking at an array of multicoloured vases and bowls.

“This must be the hidey-hole and the pots George wrote about,” I said. “Ruskin pots?”

“Must be. Careful, they are probably a hundred years old or more.”

It took some time, but eventually we had removed all the contents of the tea chest and Mick was able to pull the chest itself out of the space beneath the floor boards. We shone the phone-light once again into the hole, and saw that rough boards had been placed to form a kind of protective little room for the tea chest.

“How long do you think they have been there?” I wondered.

Mick was looking inside the tea chest, making sure we had really removed everything. 

“Hey, look! There’s something else here,” he cried, dipping his hand deep into the box and bringing out a rectangular parcel wrapped in oilcloth. 

Very cautiously he unwrapped it. Inside the oilcloth was an old-fashioned leather-bound ledger with a name inscribed on the front cover: The Ruskin Pottery. I opened it.

“Did you say that all the documentation and glaze recipes had been destroyed?” I asked.

“That’s what it says in Wikipedia.”

“So what do you think this is?” I pointed at a page headed “High-Fired Flambé Glaze – N° 6”. Beneath the heading was a list of chemicals and quantities, followed by notes in a flowing copperplate handwriting.

“We have to find Margaret,” I said. “She really needs to see all this, even if we are the legal owners. If she hadn’t dropped in the other day …”

To my relief, Mike agreed. We wrapped everything up again very carefully (the brown paper was old, but the tea chest had protected everything from dust and dirt, so it was still all very clean) and placed the precious bowls and pots back in the chest. Then we closed the trapdoor, tidied up the room as well as we could, and called it a day.

The following afternoon, I was very surprised when the doorbell rang and I discovered Margaret Anderson standing on my doorstep again. 

“I don’t believe it!” I gasped. “I have been trying to trace you, but nobody remembered any Andersons.”

“No, they wouldn’t!” she laughed. “That’s my married name. I just wanted to come by before I fly home, and thank you for showing me around last week.”

I asked her in and led her into the living room, where she looked taken aback at the uncovered old parquet flooring and the tea chest standing in the corner.

“My goodness, you have been busy,” she said. “This floor brings back memories. My grandmother loved it, and my mother hated it! Polishing, you know? The first thing she did after Granny died was to have wall-to-wall carpet fitted.”

“Did you know about the hidey-hole?” I asked. Margaret looked puzzled. 

“What hidey-hole?”

I pointed to the trapdoor. “Under there.”

“No, Granny had a little table in that corner with a Chinese rug under it. I didn’t know there was a trapdoor there.”

“That’s where we found the tea chest.”

Margaret still looked puzzled. “The tea chest? What’s in it?”

With a smile, I showed her one of the vases we had found in the tea chest. Margaret’s eyes opened wide as she recognised an item from her childhood. 

“Granny always had that on the front windowsill,” she whispered. “There were always vases, bowls, dishes – oh, all sorts of things all around the house when I was small, but they all vanished when Granny died. I thought my mother had given them away or sold them … but … are there any more?”

“The tea chest is full,” I told her, “Have a look.”

Margaret couldn’t keep the tears from flowing as she saw the pottery she remembered so well. I explained that I had managed to get into the loft, told her about the things we had found there, and showed her the biscuit tin with her grandfather’s letters. 

“Mike read the letters, looking for clues, but we both felt we had no business intruding into their lives,” I explained. “Still, we wondered what he meant when he asked if the pots were safe in the hidey-hole, and when we found the trapdoor and the tea chest, it all made sense. If the house had been hit in an air raid, they would still have been safe there. 

Look, Margaret, I know that we bought this house together with all its contents, but we don’t feel it’s right for us to keep these things that nobody knew were there. Obviously, you have to have your grandfather’s letters, but we’ve got to sort out who owns the trains and comics and Ruskin pottery too. They’re probably all very valuable.”

 “I have to sit down,” she muttered, flopping heavily onto the sofa. “This is all too much. Yes, the letters – they are important to me. But the pottery – honestly, I don’t know what to say about that. I suppose it’s valuable, and that little vase – well, maybe I could keep that in memory of my grandmother. My brother died last year, so I’m the only one left. Do you want to keep it? Or sell the lot, and share the proceeds? Do I have a claim on it at all? I suppose we’d better consult a lawyer.”

“I think we’d better have a cup of tea first,” I suggested. “Mike will be here soon. Then we can talk about it. There’s also the ledger – I haven’t even mentioned that.”

“Ledger?”

“Glaze recipes!”

“What?!”

I explained about the ledger. Everyone believed that Mr Howson Taylor, the owner of the pottery, had destroyed all the glaze recipes, but it seemed that Margaret’s grandfather had rescued at least some of them. This was going to be a sensation in the art world. Margaret looked as if she were about to faint, so instead of a cup of tea I poured us a glass of brandy each.

“It’s funny about the hidey-hole,” I said. “Your mother kept staring at that spot all the time the other day, but she didn’t say anything.”

Margaret gave me a peculiar look.

“My mother?”

“When you came last week, with your mother. She must have known about the trapdoor and the pottery in the hidey-hole, but she didn’t say anything.”

Margaret shook her head and took a large swig of her brandy. She grimaced.

“She’s the only one who could have put all that stuff away down there before the carpets were laid, so yes, she would have known about it. I suppose she remembered my grandmother putting the pots there for safety during the War,” she said. 

“But – I came here alone last week. My mother died 15 years ago.”

22/2/22

This is far superior to my intended post to celebrate this palindromic date – so check out my lovely friend at Poetry Fluff! And do please follow up her post for 2.2.22 – some more nice little snippets about British vs American English.

Poetry Fluff

Photo by Jeswin Thomas on Pexels.com

(Arguing the other side)

Five little ducks came out to play
On the western world’s new palindrome date
One little duck said, Hey, UK!
Thought you drew a line for the USA?
22/2 is what you say
2/22 is the co-rrect way
The line ‘twixt each is carefully placed
Thus, that’s
not a palindrome date

You’ve got duck egg all over your face

***

If you’re fairly new to this blog, you’ll have missed the previous similar but notthe same post, 2/2/22.

I suggest you check it out for context.

NOTE

I might have argued your case, America, but I couldn’t bring myself to use the incorrect format in the title. Some traditions live totwo too deep.

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Two Sisters

Ella Helena Sommer, our grandmother from my last post, had a sister, Amalia Margaretha (Malchen) who was seven years older than Ella. Despite the age gap, they were close and in their later years of widowhood almost inseparable. I only knew Tante Malchen as another little bent, black-garbed, white-haired old lady, but she shared that same indomitable spirit that I wrote about a few years ago in my post Daughters of Kunigunda.

These are the two little girls, firstly as babies and then aged about 14, at their respective confirmations, gazing out confidently at the world, unaware of the turbulence that lay ahead in the twentieth century. They spent their entire lives in the same village where they were born, where they knew everyone, and everything about everyone. In fact, Malchen only ever lived in one house, that of her parents, which was later passed on to her son. She once asked me, shaking her head in disbelief when she heard we were moving to Switzerland, “How can you go and live somewhere where you don’t know anyone?” It was a rhetorical question: she might as well have been asking me if it was possible to live on an iceberg.

Ella Helena 1900

Amalia Margaretha 1893
Amalia Margaretha 1907 (Confirmation)
Ella Helena 1914 (Confirmation)

As a young girl, Malchen fell in love with a slim, dark-haired young man called Rudolf. They were both only 17 when they married, on 21 July 1911, and for the sake of convenience they moved in with her parents. Their son Friedrich Ludwig – named for his two grandfathers – arrived in September 1914 but this was no reason to prevent Rudolf from being drafted into the Bavarian Infantry to fight in the trenches of World War I. He never saw his son again.

Many years later, Malchen showed me her little box of souvenirs, containing a dried red rose, a photo, some letters from Rudolf during his military service, and the notice of his death: killed in action in Flanders on 25 April 1918.  He was the great love of her life, and she remained in mourning for him until she died in her eighties.

It was lucky for Malchen that she continued living with her parents, however, especially when her son fell ill with polio. This left him with a lifelong disability, although he was intelligent enough to be able to train as a bank clerk and diligently work his way up to become the manager of the local bank. Malchen was very proud of his achievements, especially as despite all the odds he married and had a daughter. He was able to have the family home extended by having an extra storey built onto it, and so there was room for all four generations to live together under one roof.

The two sisters grew even closer in the early 1950’s, after the death of their parents, followed by that of Ella’s only son and her husband in rapid succession. When I first met her, Malchen would trot up the hill to visit her “little” sister practically every day, and they would exchange news and items of interest – no, please don’t call it gossip! 

Later, when she was less mobile, she would sit by her window looking out onto the main street, watching the world turn and chatting with every passer-by. She was probably the best informed person in the village and she remembered everything she heard. Her sister came a close second. Both of them could tell a tale, and it was a delight to listen to them delivering their versions of local current events – the “hatched, matched and dispatched” – as they wove them into their memories of days gone by. God rest their souls, they could have written a wonderful local history book. 

“Well, you know, X never had a chance of success. Just look at how his father lived! And I remember when his grandfather was a young man …”

Mother’s Day Thoughts

It’s Mother’s Day here in Switzerland, and once again it falls on my mother’s birthday. She made it almost to 101, and would have been 105 today.

She was a lover of flowers and we made it a regular habit to visit a bluebell wood on her birthday (or as close as we could get) which always brought her great joy. England has plenty of bluebell woods, even in urban areas, and we usually didn’t have to go very far to find one. It became a tradition, and the 9 May will always be associated in my mind with woodland and bluebells. In fact, I wrote about her very last birthday trip to a bluebell wood here.

My mother in the local bluebell wood (her 96th birthday)

Yesterday, as I walked into the village I passed a garden with bluebells growing in its undergrowth – Spanish bluebells rather than English ones and not exactly a bluebell wood like you’d find in England, but a tiny vignette of one: a small gift gratefully received. Bluebells aren’t a traditional Mother’s Day flower, but for me they will always be associated with my mother. 

Actually, her favourite flower was lily-of-the-valley, which also could be found blooming in Mom’s garden around this time.  If it wasn’t, I would buy her a potted plant with the tiny white bells.

This flower is a traditional gift in France on 1 May – a nice legend here, by the way, that goes back to the Renaissance. It was a custom to give flowering branches to friends as a way of driving out the hardships of winter. In 1560 King Charles IX was visiting the Drôme where he was offered a spray of lily of the valley. On 1 May of the following year, he presented every lady in his court with a spray of this fragrant little flower as a token of good luck. 

On my table today is a vase of bright yellow, fragrantly scented roses, a gift from my daughter who visited me a couple of days ago. The number of mothers in our immediate family has grown to four, with my daughter sandwiched between the generations, so today she is fulfilling her role as mother and grandmother rather than as daughter. I hope – and am pretty sure – that her children and grandchildren will have shown their love and appreciation for all she does for them (far more than anyone could expect).

It has been a bright, sunny day, filled with the song of the blackbirds who seem to have nests all around here, also celebrating their motherhood, no doubt. I have also been able to chat with my granddaughter and newest great-granddaughter. I am feeling very blessed.

Simon Armitage’s poem on the funeral of Prince Phillip and his generation.

No introduction needed.

Cathy's real country garden

The Patriarchs – An Elegy

The weather in the window this morning
is snow, unseasonal singular flakes,
a slow winter’s final shiver. On such an occasion
to presume to eulogise one man is to pipe up
for a whole generation – that crew whose survival
was always the stuff of minor miracle,
who came ashore in orange-crate coracles,
fought ingenious wars, finagled triumphs at sea
with flaming decoy boats, and side-stepped torpedoes.

Husbands to duty, they unrolled their plans
across billiard tables and vehicle bonnets,
regrouped at breakfast. What their secrets were
was everyone’s guess and nobody’s business.
Great-grandfathers from birth, in time they became
both inner core and outer case
in a family heirloom of nesting dolls.
Like evidence of early man their boot-prints stand
in the hardened earth of rose-beds and borders.

They were sons of a zodiac out of sync
with the solar year, but turned their…

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Making Sense of Easter

Recently, I have been reading a book by NT Wright called “Surprised by Hope”. I can definitely recommend this book, but it has to be read slowly and carefully, in bite-sized pieces or all of this food for thought might give you a kind of spiritual/mental indigestion. NT Wright is a well-known theologian, and among other things a former Anglican bishop of Durham in the north-east of England. He has a lot to say about the Resurrection, and in the very last chapter he writes:

“The  forty days of the Easter season until the Ascension might be a time to balance out Lent by taking something up, some new task or venture, something wholesome and fruitful and outgoing and self-giving. You may be only able to do it for six weeks, just as you may be able to go without beer or tobacco only for the six weeks of Lent. But if you really make a start on it, it might give you a sniff of new possibilities, new hope, new ventures you have never dreamed of. It might bring something of Easter into your innermost life. It might help you to wake up to a whole new way. And that’s what Easter is about.”

This idea struck me as worth trying out. What can I do to make every one of the coming 6 weeks productive, to give of myself in some beneficial way? 

Do the little amigurumi animals that I made for my great-grandchildren count? They were certainly well received, and are giving pleasure to their owners, so I’ll take that as my first contribution. I also now have several documents to translate for a good Christian cause, so that is my next “venture”. I’m sure that as the weeks progress, I shall be provided with opportunities to do something “wholesome and fruitful and outgoing and self-giving”, and I’m looking forward to recognising those opportunities. 

Yes, a much better way to celebrate Easter and all it represents than simply gorging on chocolate eggs!   

And finally – yes: the snow has returned, blotting out all the lovely spring blossom, and contrary to my prediction it is sticking. It’s still falling now. The snow plough has just been to clear our road and forecourt of our house. It is very beautiful, but such a pity for the birds, animals, flowers and fruit trees that were enjoying the warm sunny temperatures last week.

 

Freedom For and From Religion — Laughter: Carbonated Grace

This post was in my WordPress feed this afternoon, and I really feel that I should share it with you all. Eileen writes so movingly about something that she knows about from her own life experience, and she puts her case with dignity and empathy.

Another post that was in the same feed – on a different topic – has a reference to Galatians 3;28: There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

For Christians, surely that should sum up our attitude towards any kind of racism, sexism, ageism, or other kind of discrimination on the basis of inherent characteristics, and warn us against prejudice.

Freedom for and from religion are the same thing. It is important for all of us to protect that freedom. As a “born-again” Christian and mother of two gay sons and with a grandchild who is transgender, I appeal to you to not foster the misunderstanding, prejudice, and persecution of future generations by ignoring that […]

Freedom For and From Religion — Laughter: Carbonated Grace