I have been scratching my head, and I don’t think I’ve been to a memorial service before, but I went to one this week, for my father’s first cousin Rosemary, whose death I mentioned in my April 5th blog. The service once again brought home to me how – I was going to say ‘fissiparous’ – what the hell – fissiparous my family is. Splits all over the place. Rosemary and my father did not meet, I suspect, in the last 20-25 years of his life, because he stuck to his father’s injunctions about relatives. If my grandfather struck someone off his list, my father seems to have followed suit. I could not tell you why. There is no reason for grudges to run in generations. It reminds me of that story by Saki, ‘the Interlopers’, which is about two men whose family have an ancestral suit about land. The story has them stalking each other until caught in a storm, at which point a tree falls and traps them. Forced into each other’s company, they talk, and, within a short while, recognise and dismiss as nonsensical all their differences.
The tension of the story is maintained by the eagerness of each man becoming more and more anxious that his own supporters and servants will rescue them both, and that this ‘winner’ will be able to show the greater magnaminity. show the greater generosity. Feet are heard in the distance. One of the men is trapped so that he cannot see into the wood; the other can make out who is coming. ‘Who is it?’ asks the badly-trapped man with great urgency. The last word of the story (which we used to beg to be read, at school) is very carefully calculated by Saki. It is, ‘Wolves.’
Anyway – at the memorial service, I found that I was the only relative. (There had been none at her actual funeral.) Her father’s relatives – none. Her mother’s – one. (This is not to suggest that she was ignored – she had an adopted family, that of the friend with whom she lived for half a century, and whom she loved, but it certainly doesn’t say a lot for the Greenwells.)
Rosemary, who suffered from Parkinson’s, did a very brave thing – donated her brain to Parkinson’s research (and her possessions to charity). This is a kind of selflessness to which I tip my hat. I don’t know if I could do it (I had another more distant relative, a centenarian, who donated her whole body to science). Perhaps I should have the courage of my lack of religious convictions.
There was a double connection to Rosemary. Her brother, Bill, killed in World War II, had been my mother’s boyfriend, some ten years before she met and married my father. There was always a belief (alas, untrue), that I had been named for him. I have the impression that there was rivalry between them, too, and that my father may have been a little more of a louche individual at the age of twenty, whereas Bill was a sensitive letter-writer (he carried on a correspondence with her in the war, although he was no longer her sweetheart). But perhaps this is a misunderstanding. There is one (very) grainy picture of them together:
Something – everything! – about my father’s attitude suggests that the rumours were true.
Rosemary had picked out all the hymns. By an odd coincidence, they included the one my own mother liked least: ‘O Worship The King’, by Sir Robert Grant, which contains the line ‘Frail children of dust, and feeble as frail’. But she had a good reason to dislike it. Her surname was Frail, and the hymn was used to tease her.
I also have to say that I learned more about Rosemary today than at any point in the last fifteen years – including that she had a slightly scandalous unpublished novel, and that – inevitable in war-time, with her surname – she was known as ‘Bomber’.
I’m glad I broke the cycle of rivalry. RIP.