I’m sitting on a bench, just behind a garden I used to play in. Technically it belongs to the neighbours, but they’re fine with this. It’s a small garden space, with a sheep pen to one side. The sheep are docile, and will happily let you scratch behind their ears for hours if you’re prepared to. They belong to the couple who’re about to move in to this property. But it’s an open expanse of green; it’s a nice space which isn’t enclosed with a high fence but a large enough fence to delineate the property. This is a house in a rural village, not particularly worried about blackguards and rapscallions jumping over fences in the night to commit vile or mischievous misdeeds. And it’s a lovely sunny day, summer turning into autumn with an occasional cool breeze rudely interrupting the lazy warmth. It’s one of my perfect times of the year. And there, in the middle of this open, green space three poppies catch my eye, almost rudely intruding on the meditative powers of this space and almost demanding attention with their vivid redness despite their relatively small size. And with it I feel hope, poppies being a symbol of memory and life growing even from death.
I’ve come here to gather my thoughts after my gran’s funeral. It’s been a fitting send off and celebration of her life as it should have been. There’s been little sadness; she lived a good long life of just under 95 years and was active and independent right up to the end and her death was a merciful end after a stroke led to bleeding deep in her brain. Each of us who mattered to her – both her daughters and their husbands, we four grandchildren and a few other friends and family – got to say our goodbyes, even if she could barely speak. The end, when it came, was a mercy and, by bizarre coincidence, on my other gran’s hundredth birthday. A day or celebration and mourning, though the birthday party was a definite tonic after ten days of waiting for an inevitable end. The funeral has gone as magnificently as it can; we four bearers (three grandchildren and one of her neighbours) have supported her into the church, we grandchildren have managed to deliver our tributes without cracking and we’ve all been able to remember the joy of her life and pay tribute by singing her favourite hymns. And afterwards we retired to the British Legion clubhouse over the road where a splendid spread awaited. With gran you’d get nothing else, Welsh grannies would never knowingly see you underfed ever from the afterlife.
In truth I did nearly well up a few times before the service whilst we waited at her old house. Wandering through a place filled with the happy, secure memories of childhood, ornaments and artefacts imbued with memories and reading cards and tributes from everyone who’d known her. You know what she meant to you, but you can’t know what she meant to others. And all the memories spoke of joy, even if derived from a tough life. By the age of 21 she had a premature child to look after and a senile father to cope with and all without the presence of her husband who’d been called away to the war efforts in India, Iran, Iraq and eventually up through Italy. In the week leading up to the funeral we’ve been going through his old photos of exotic, long gone places, experiences we could have never known. Those photos range from boy kings to executions of criminals, though of the most significant event he was present at there is no record (the stringing up of Mussolini). We never heard from our grandpa about these events and even those closest to him were only ever told tales of the camaraderie of army life, such as him ending up being the designated driver for those of his colleagues visiting Baghdad’s brothels (and his subsequent amusement at their having to confess to where they’d caught the clap from). And later, in 1966, when they moved from Ebbw Vale to Offenham, how she cried to be leaving her home. I could never imagine my gran crying, she and grandpa were never that type. They were old-fashioned in that way, dealing with life as it came with the handy aid of humour and a sense of the absurd and providing happiness and security. And always there was a sense of pride in our achievements. She didn’t need to say anything (though she always did). You’d done something that pleased her and that was all the reward you’d need. This sense of happiness that I associated with the house, of security and strength that I still felt there despite her absence… this was the sadness. That I might not come to the house again, that part of childhood was passing forever.
We’ve been asked if we’d like any of her possessions as souvenirs. For me this is easy and perhaps a touch bizarre; it’s her old whisk. For some reason as a toddler I loved that whisk and took it off to bed with me. It still has my toothmarks on it from that age. I vaguely remember that the shape of the whisk made me think it was some robot – it has two legs and an arm and I used to pretend that was what it was. I was once told it would be written into my gran’s will that I’d have it. In the end she didn’t as she thought it a touch silly, but I know she’d kept it for me. It’s something I’ve always wanted to have but, with the circumstances of how I got it, never wanted. I can’t think of anything else I’d want on the day bar an artist’s portrait of my grandpa at Totterdown, the old farmhouse where he worked. And a picture of my gran and grandpa as I knew them, but that could wait to be chosen.
So I’m sat there, considering life and death. And the poppies catch my eye, symbolising remembrance and life going on as they did in the French fields after the world wars. And these insignificant flowers bring a tear to my eye, reminding me that life continues and that the dead are never truly gone as long as we remember them.
It’s a beautiful day.