Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Carpe Diem
It’s rather a glib phrase isn’t? You see it on pots, cards and the sort of sundials you buy in those select ‘in the know’ catalogues for the aspiring middle class. It’s the names they give them that get me; “The Museum Collection”, “Culture Vulture”, “House of Bath” (based in Manchester by the way).
Well anyway, my darling did what E. M. Forster suggested you should do with clichés; she breathed new life into this one by seizing the day, the fatal day, before it even happened.
She had told me that there was a folder called ‘funeral’, but I couldn’t bear to look at it until she had left us – it was just too close. Even seeing the reduced person she was in the last few weeks of her life I knew that she would have taken a hand, she was, after all, amongst a host of other things, a brilliant event organiser – everything from the annual British Pharmaceutical Conference with a cast of thousands, to small discussion groups for mental health sufferers.
Well what I imagined would be odd suggestions about an order of service and appropriate tunes turned out to be much more. One of the mourners said to me “I think that was the most amazing ceremony I’ve ever been to!”
What she had done was to ‘organise’ the whole thing: order of service; script for the humanist celebrant; readings; music, and even left the catalogue number for the coffin. “I want a wicker coffin. I don’t want to be hemmed-in, and I’ve always been at least pale green in outlook”.
The three readings were ones that she had written about us, family and friends – typical of her; she would still be thinking about others from beyond the grave. We were to write the last reading, and she knew that Sam, our family laureate, would write a poem for the occasion.
So what I am going to do is reproduce as much of this ceremony as I can for you on her beloved blog. I will include an electronic version of the Order of Service designed by the lovely Jo who worked with Jean for over 20 years. She turned Jean’s order and Jessie’s suggestions into a simple, beautiful testament for the day. Then there will be the three readings which Jean left and the fourth which we put together in her memory.
At family funerals eldest son Sam usually plays a beautiful Irish air called ‘The tip of the Whistle’ on the penny-whistle - at the interment. He didn’t think he could do it on this occasion, but Joe, second son, recorded him playing it a couple of days before. Joe tells me that we can probably insert a link for that too. So we will try.
The only thing that we couldn’t do at the crematorium from Jean’s original order of service (the place was jam-packed with people standing on top of each other almost), was to get up and dance to ABBA singing ‘Dancing Queen’ (with bubbles). We did that at the local cricket club afterwards, so you will have to imagine it.
First reading
Read by Andree Mackay, Sister in law
The most important relationship in my life has, of course, been with Stewart. I met him at 15 and fell in love at 16, married him at 18 and though we had our ups and downs, thicks and thins, we stayed deeply in love right to the end. I wrote about our relationship on my blog, I called it
It's the thought of leaving my kids that brings the quickest tear to my eye; it just does. I try to think about leaving Stewart behind, but I can't formulate it in my mind. I think he will be coming with me and that is just daft. Certainly the he that is he that is us will, but he will be left and shattered and forever different. But I still can't conceive of it.

There is a beautiful place near our French house called Limeuil, we went there for picnics by the river and for the annual pottery fair where we always bought something even though we had no bloody room in either of our houses. If you walk up the hill it's one of “les plus belles villages de France” but the wonder of it is the river.. . or rivers.. I should say, as it's where the Vezere meets the Dordogne and they become one river. They are both massive and brown and godlike; they rumble and bicker together as they meet then merge with little flurries over rocks and banks. Just a way up from the picnic site there would be no way of separating one from the other, their weeds are each other’s, the fish can't tell the difference. If one were to dry up there would still be all the life from the other - from before, that would be impossible to disentwine. So is that like us; yes and no; no because rivers can't feel and miss and want; yes because we are one miraculous, mucky thing, sometimes out of control and sometimes deep and beautiful; and, it has proved, always feeling the pull to be together.
Second reading – Denise Burns, friend
I can remember a blissful day when I was about 21, it was in a place with a bandstand and lots of grass. I was playing with Jeanie and Jamie: my niece and nephew and we were chasing around playing catch. I knew then I had to have some children of my own and have them quickly. We had been waiting until we could afford a house and I had finished my degree. Switch to another day, perhaps 14 years on when we were rattling along in one of our old bangers, with all four children aboard, Sam, Joe, Luke and Jess, through Shropshire I think it was. We were playing 20 questions and I remember thinking ,“ I don’t think I will ever be happier than this”.
Having children is an amazing thing, they sort of become part of you but apart; they are your life but more important than your life. They take over your being.
For me family memories revolve around food and eating, en masse, at our kitchen table. There were seven of us every evening, including my Dad. We didn’t have much money at all at first so it was often omelettes or spaghetti bol but delicious all the same. We would natter continuously as we chomped and it wasn’t just to drown out the noise of Dad’s false teeth rattling around. Often it was about politics, religion or the latest news. There was gossip and there were Luke’s questions to Sam: did Fred Astaire ever do shot-putting? Do I have to say I am a Christian boy at school even if I don’t believe in God; will you write a song about tap dancing on Rupert the bear. (he did)
Often we were joined by other members of the family: my Mom and her second husband the beloved Fred; Peggy and Eric - Stewart’s, Mom and Dad; Neil and Andree, my brother and sister-in-law and often Jeanie of the bandstand memory; Graham and Ruth and Grace, Stewart’s wonderful devoted brother, his wife and their lovely daughter. Later our kids brought their friends who became our friends, and then their partners: Tom; Aleks and her daughters, our step-granddaughters, Hannah and Chelsea; and Julie from France. Their parents and siblings too have become part of the family and with great joy recently their children: Harry and Danny and the twins Max and Charlie, and we must not forget Scoobie, Joe’s dog: oh what a difference they have all made to our lives. I cannot put into adequate words the complete joy that grandchildren bring.
All this was a wonderful mix of fantastic food and people we loved. I had had a very different childhood in many ways, we ate on our laps and it was often Steaklettes and Angel Delight or warmed up school dinners but I was given the most amazing grounding in political awareness, art, kindness and bravery by my Mom and Dad and a lot of laughter, what a pair they were. My wider family of aunts, uncles and cousins were all characters in their own right. I thank them all for making me what I was.
Of course I can’t bear to leave all of this family life and for there to be a gap at that table in the kitchen, but I know that they will all keep me alive in their hearts. I would love to have been around longer for my children and grandchildren but it is not to be. So, keep eating, loving and remembering my darlings.
Third reading- Ruth Harker, sister in law
Friendship and fellowship
The other big boon in my life has been the amazing array of friends I have had through the years. This all started in the black and white years of the 1950s with Lynda, Frieda, Kathryn and Ann, and the boys of course who we chased around Gleneagles Rd and in the playground; then on to secondary school where Berenice became and has remained all my life like a surrogate sister. At University I was a married woman and so not open to many of the frenetic friendships that went on but Doug and Gloria who came to live near us after University have remained fast friends as has Sue who was a weirdo scientist but we overlooked that.
I married into an amazing set of friends from Stewart’s school life: Duncan and his wife Maggie; Les and Jude, Mary and Mike, Lynn and Doug and Sue and Mick. For over forty years and most particularly when we were young and fancy free, and also since I became ill, they have lightened our lives and mixed in their own blend of experience and humour.
There are some friends who become something other, part of the family but different, your soul mates I suppose. They come and go but we have been so lucky in these sorts of relationships over the years: Nita and Tony; Rudy and Celia, and Richard; Pat and Dick (40 odd years and still going strong – in fact stronger); and in the last two decades Chris and Denise our inseparable mates. With these there is a silent understanding and an unbreakable bond. Some like Rudy and Celia split up but stayed close to us even though separated by thousands of miles.
We have been extremely lucky in living in a road for 30 years that is bursting with fellowship and community spirit. We have loved the parties and the fireworks, the quizzes and the neighbourliness. And when we were lucky enough to be able to buy our paradise in Maumont we found it there too, bathed in sunshine and bursting with bon viveur.
Friends also come because of kids and politics, Julie and Trudie are notable examples of these, guaranteed to make me laugh. So many others as well – it would take a book.
At work too I counted everyone I worked with, with one notable exception, as a friend. Work became a fulfilment and an obsession at times and the support and laughter I shared has been one of the best parts of my life. I know I was famous for lists, but I’m not going to make one now. You know who you are, and that I love you.
I have talked, giggled, drunk and danced with all of you, thank you so much for enriching my life and please carry on for those left behind.

Fourth Reading – From us to her
Sue Williams, friend
Apart from Sam’s poem all the words you have heard so far have been Jean’s words, and, true to character, they have all been about us, her family and friends.

Now is the time for a few words about her. We are not going to have the usual potted biography. We are all here today because we know and have been touched by the facts of her life. Suffice it to say that she was a clever brummie girl who had academic success and then devoted the rest of her life to making things better for others. In the seventies she ran a campaign exposing the pain visited on people, her mom included, from taking a heart drug made by ICI. They made a Panorama programme about her campaign. She got 14 million pounds in compensation for people – a fortune in those days – without a thought about personal gain. This was typical of her quiet determined nature.

Here then are some words that family and friends have to say about Jean.

Friends say:

“She was so brave, funny, clever and kind.”

“She was an inspiration to us all, not only in the dignified way she coped with her illness but also as an example in life – as a mother, a wife, a daughter and a friend.”

“I will always remember her as being full of life, kindness and strength, and I always looked forward to being in her company.”

Neighbours say:

“There will forever be a void in Livingstone Road.”

Workmates say:

“Jean was special to all who worked with her. She was always confident and made up for all our inadequacies. She was always supportive, never seriously critical, and when she was with you everything seemed manageable.”

“Jean was a wonderful person, warm, fun to be with, a great friend and colleague. She was immensely talented and achieved so much.”

And now to her children;
Joe wrote:
I have been asked to say a few words about my mother Jean, but there are no words. There are no words to describe what a wonderful wife, mother and friend she was. There are no words to describe how we will all miss her sunny, positive disposition, her wisdom and council in times of pain and uncertainty. There are no words that could ever do justice to the way we loved her and the love she showed to us all.
Luke wrote:
Around the time my Grandma Peggy died, I was very sad and approached my mom with questions of the here-after and whether Grandma was in 'heaven' It took real devotion and love from mom to tell me truth, that no, we could not make everything seem better and easier by palming this over to a 'god'. She told me that what lives on from a person is the memories we have shared and that when a person dies they are not really dead because the memories of that person live on in the minds of those that love them and are passed on throughout the ages. Aldous Huxley wrote that 'Every man's memory is his private literature'. With memories of my mother we all have a library of inspiration.
From Jess:
My mom was everything I am and everything I am not. She taught me to be a friend, a mother, a grafter, a feminist, a wife, a socialist; a women. What I didn’t learn was her grace. I didn’t learn to fight quietly, to let things go and to pick my battles. Her greatest skill was to fight and win, love and be loved without anyone realising she had done it. She was a master of the art of diplomacy.
My mom was like medicine. When I was pregnant and scared she made it seem like nothing to be scared of. When I wanted to quit my degree she did all the bloody work for me. When I lost my rag (all the time) she calmed me down. When I had nothing to wear she made me feel a million dollars; which probably is the amount she spent on clothes, holidays, haircuts and lunches for me. She made me feel like it was a privilege to be my mom.
Now I face the fight and the fun without her, however she gave each one of us, me especially, so much of herself that I have credit in the bank. I have enough love to make sure that she carries on as Jean the activist; Jean the friend; nanny Jean; My Mom.
The final words about Jean come from her husband of 43 years:
Stewart said:
Simply this:
She was my going out and my coming in. She was my loaves my fishes, my heat my light, my longing, my desire.

Sam’s poem:
A Mother’s Words

To read the last few pages of a book
And find out how it ends before the story
Gets there, is what the worst kind of a crook
Would do, you said, it was like voting Tory.
But sometimes something makes me want to look –
A kind of narrative momento mori.

So when I teach my own kids how to read,
Can I forget these last pages you read
To me, the way the words began to bleed
Into each other as the reader bled –
The way the paper turned into seaweed
And held fast to the rocks beached in your bed?

There are books we’ll always read again,
Just for the joy of putting off the end,
Knowing that the words – these gingerbread men
In our mouths – will fail every time to fend
Off the fox – the tongue darting from his den –
As he’s the gingerbread man’s fastest friend.

“I’m all gone!” he says, but it’s a joke.
An all-gone gingerbread man doesn’t speak.
And yet, it doesn’t change the fact he spoke
Or the miracle of his triumphant streak.
Each time you read that ending, my heart broke,
And leapt to hear such existential cheek;

Then Dad would have to read it too. So now
Each time I teach my kids an English rhyme
You taught to me, I’ll tell them who and how
You are. I’ll use the present tense, and time
Will have no choice but to accept my vow
To help another incy wincy spider climb

Another spout again. And when I reach
The last few pages of the book and try
To say how your fox ate you too, I’ll teach
My children the first and the last thing I
Was taught by you; that is: the gift of speech
Exists because a mother’s words don’t die.

Tip of the Whistle

Hope it all works. Can't seem to upload Jo's lovely Order of Service at the moment. Will do that later.


  1. Beautiful service for a one-of-a-kind woman. She will long be missed.

  2. Thank you so much for posting this. I enjoyed the flute playing. It may be hard to receive reminders long after your dear friend Jean's death. A beautiful memorial to her and all those that were part of her life.