Preparing for the next adventure in my life, I look around the house wondering what to keep and what to let go, and I realise there are some things I cannot be parted from. They own me and I am their custodian.
There’s the pair of wooden corkscrew candlesticks which belonged to my grandmother. They sat on her kitchen mantelpiece above the black range, and since they came into my hands, I have carted them around the world. She was a feisty little red- haired late Victorian lady who converted to the Salvation Army as a girl and went to the East End of London to help save souls and sell the Army’s newspaper, ‘The War Cry’ outside pubs at closing time – and got pelted with rotten fruit for her pains. Another of the stories she told me was about her grandfather, Captain Covell, reputedly the first man to sail a paddle steamer up the Thames in the early years of the nineteenth century, and that when he arrived at the docks he was given the Freedom of the City of London.
She told me how she was asleep with her sister Jessie in her bedroom in a leafy Kent town the night Woolwich Arsenal blew up in 1907. The sky was red, and the bedroom windows and the glass in her dressing table shattered.
“We fell on our knees, and prayed” she told me, “we thought the end of the world had come.” At seven I had never imagined the world could come to an end and was haunted by this terrifying possibility for the rest of my childhood (neither did I know what Woolwich Arsenal was). She always referred to World War One as ‘The Great War’ … her husband had fought in it and her only brother died in it.
She was a highly intelligent woman, who typically for her period in history, had no outlet for her talents, and my brother once told me he’d never seen anyone add a column of figures faster; while I, during my childhood, was the beneficiary of her large collection of books, including antique early editions of classics like Pilgrim’s Progress, Foxe’s Martyrs, and Robinson Crusoe (which I was driven to read by the time I was eight, for lack of children’s books). My sister inherited her feisty nature, my brother her piercing intelligence, and I, her bent for the spiritual life which never left her, her love of reading, and the candle sticks.
A treasured brass tray on the pine dresser was hammered out of the top of a shell case by my father’s batman. The batman had etched classic Egyptian figures into the brass, in their classic sideways pose. I don’t know how long they had served together… but my father had been a Desert Rat and escaped from Tobruk, while the alliterative names of his battles rang around my childhood, Sidi Bahrani, and Sidi Rezegh, Bardia and Benghazi… before then he had escaped from France three weeks after Dunkirk, and later, fought his way up Italy before returning to Egypt when the war was over.
I was a baby when he left, and nearly nine when he returned in 1947, to be posted with the Occupation forces to Belsen two months later. My tenth birthday was the first I ever spent with him, and he was so excited that he gave me my presents the night before… a string of pearls and a black fountain pen with a gold nib and clip… the last presents he ever chose for me himself. He died too young to know his grandchildren and great grandchildren, and before I was mature enough to want to know about him and his war, so the brass tray, the one possession of his that I have, is priceless.
The egg-shell china antique coffee set, white, blue and gold, was given to me on my wedding day by my step- grandmother who had also received them on her wedding day, and her book –Testament of Youth – she gave me to read when I was seventeen. In spite of Vera Brittain’s rather priggish voice to me, a child of the forties and fifties, I still dissolved into a puddle of anguished tears as I read it. And I understood from it much about this grandmother, who over a hundred years ago now, had waved her fiancee away, rainbow banners billowing in the north- country breeze, flowers flying, trumpets sounding, drums tapping out a triumphant tattoo as the exuberant young men marched through the village in 1914… never to return.
She was so beautiful that it wasn’t hard for her to find a husband even in a time when there were too few men, and she often reminisced to me about that distant past. She told me about the floating flowered tulle tea gown she wore to a garden party in Shrewsbury in the early thirties when she met the Prince of Wales; of the doctor who set eyes on her, and wanted to marry her, only to see her pushing her pram a few days later… the time her long frilly white petticoat suddenly fell to the pavement from under her long skirt, and how she simply stepped out of it and walked away…. memories that will disappear like gossamer shreds of tulle too, when I no longer remember them.
I will keep the tiny etching of Ripon Cathedral for a grandchild – it had once belonged his other great-grandfather, a padre who was badly wounded on a beach at D-Day. On the back in faded italic handwriting is its story. It says that when the North Transept of Ripon Cathedral was re-roofed in 1842, the wood from the original roof was used to frame this picture. The Cathedral, a work in progress on the site of three former buildings, was finally roofed in 1156. It takes up to a hundred and fifty years before an oak is ready to use in construction, so the mature oak used for the roof, and now framing the picture, must have been growing well before 1066, that dividing line in English history. So the wood in this frame is over a thousand years old.
Which makes me think of the span of years that my memories stretch across. Our formidable black-garbed great-grandmother was in her nineties when I met her as a four- year- old in 1942, which means that she was born just before the 1850’s, a hundred and sixty-five years ago now. By the time my eldest grandchild is in his eighties, sixty years from now, the span of generations will be two hundred and twenty five years… not long in the history of the world, but the span of two lifetimes have seen the world move from the age of steam, crinoline and candle-light, to this blog – one of over eighty million on the internet – and to travel in space among the stars… so where will the world be at the end of that third life-time in 2075?
These facts and figures make me feel that my sentimental memories and guardianship of these little possessions may not have any significance at all. L.P. Hartley wrote: ‘The past is a foreign country’, and for today’s generations this may be only too true. So I now feel that though I‘ll continue to cherish these objects linked to other proud and passionate lives – lives lived through some of the most turbulent times in the history of the world – in the future, these things may not be so precious to anyone else
To a generation who live in the present, preserving the moment in selfies and on Facebook, tweeting and twittering and texting, my past, our ancestors, and the last century must seem as far away as the days of the dinosaurs… ah well, I tell myself, ‘ sic transit gloria mundi ‘- ‘ So passes away earthly glory…
Food for threadbare gourmets
On a cold wet winter’s day when I read of summer blossoming in blogs all over the northern hemisphere, I think of this salad, which is good in any season in which you can find fresh fennel and hard green apples – preferably grannie smiths.
I grind 75 gms of walnuts in the grinder which I use for parmesan cheese, and stir them into a quarter of a cup of good quality mayonnaise, quarter of a cup of plain yogurt and the zest and juice of a lemon to taste. Slice two grannie smiths and a large fennel bulb into thin matchsticks, and then mix with the walnut mixture. A few chopped fennel leaves are good too. If you like ham, it’s good with it, but I just eat it with a hard-boiled egg and crusty rolls for a refreshing lunch.
Food for thought
These I have loved:
White plates and cups, clean-gleaming,
Ringed with blue lines; and feathery, faery dust;
Wet roofs, beneath the lamp-light; the strong crust
Of friendly bread; and many-tasting food;
Rainbows; and the blue bitter smoke of wood …
The first lines from Rupert Brooke’s nostalgic poem The Great Lover
34 responses to “These I have loved”
An excellent story of memories honouring your ancestors. Well done 🙂 Thanx Liz x
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Liz, thank you so much, much appreciated, Valerie
I was drawn into your memories and treasures from the first sentence. Congrats on your new adventure.
Lovely to hear from you… so glad you enjoyed it…
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I’m the custodian of several family pieces and hold many stories, waiting for a spark of interest from the next generation. In the meantime I add to my notes in a family tree program and wait, sometimes not patiently.
Hello Sandie, thank you for your comment… I resonated with your wistful words – ‘a spark of interest’… but I am now finding that grand-children are more receptive… or maybe more polite !!!!
What romantic and sometimes tragic pictures you paint with your words, Valerie. It really pains me to think what horror we have brought upon ourselves with wars. Having just had a huge clean out and re-evaluation of belongings, I have discovered new skills in that area. Rather than trying to figure out which things are no longer required, it is best to simply keep those things you love and let the rest go. It sounds like you already know that! Where is your new adventure taking you?
Thank you for your insights Ardys… yes, it certainly is a voyage of discovery, letting go ! And I’ll remember your words of wisdom as I hover over decisions !
My new adventure will no doubt figure in a blog !!!!
Is your next chapter happening soon? It’s so hard to pare down a lifetime of treasures. Great memories.
Thank you Kate, good to hear from you… the next installment of life will start soon, I think !!!!
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There are some things it’s very difficult to part with that carry such memories. It sounds like you have quite a few Valerie and I’m so glad you are making sure they’re part of the new adventure.
I find it difficult to understand how disinterested the generations below me are interested in the times through which members of their family lived. I devoured family history when I was young.(Yes, I know how long ago that was) and even now doing the family tree find it’s important to pick up on who was in the workhouse and why.My daughter and her cousins don’t seem to share that same fascination.
It sounds like me you’re the keeper of the family records, the history that may catch the imagination of generations to come.
xxx Massive Hugs xxx
isn’t it interesting that the next generation are so gung-ho about their parents’ past… but sadly I remember being that way with my father
I do now find that grand-chldren are much more receptive !
You’ve got it all in front of you !!!
Hugs to you, Valerie
Great memories, you took me their, Thankyou… Take care Barbara x
Hello Barbara, so good to hear from you, and so glad you enjoyed the stories, go well, Valerie
You’re tempting us with the promise of adventure Valerie!
And I’m intrigued and will sadly never know, what a pre-adolescent of today will be reflecting on with the same nostalgia when they look back from a similar distance, for I feel sure their memories and nostalgic thoughts will be as valid in the future as those born in the 20thC are today.
Hello Claire, so good to hear from you… yes, adventure looms…timing is not in my hands….
Yes, wouldn’t it be fascinating to know what memories later generations would accumulate … p’raps we could reincarnate as flies on the wall!!!
Nice! I would love to see a photo of the brass tray.
Thank you Bruce, I’d love to send you a pic of the tray, but alas I’ve lost the knack of using my camera, and am waiting for a grand child to come and re-train me…
So I’m having to re-cycle my existing pics….
Valerie – that is so lovely! Thank you for your fascinating reminiscences…… What is your ‘ new adventure’? I haven’t seen Victoria in such a long time, I don’t know what’s happening in your life. You are leaving Leigh? Anyway, best wishes on this next stage from Joe and me Xxxx Aline
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Aline, how lovely to hear from you and thank you so much for your sweet words. I had no idea that you ‘followed’ my blog! And so encouraging that you enjoyed this one…
Yes, I will be leaving Leigh… not quite yet… but am limbering up for the next stage !!!
So good to hear from you, love Valerie
These women also loved You, as did your father. Emotions transferred into tangible things. Just for you.
A very lovely and sweet post.
Thank you dear friend… we understand each other !!!
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Ah Valerie, this was a treasure trove. Thank you for the beauty of each of your memories. Like you I have many treasures I have treked with, many I can’t let go of. Finding members in my family who will love them as I do, that is a challenge.
Dear Val, thank you for your lovely words as usual…
I know what you mean about finding the people who will love your treasures, and am intrigued by how many fellow bloggers seem to feel the same…
My joy has been the realisation that my grand-childen, all grownup now, do seem to value our family past ….maybe that joy is awaiting you !
What lovely stories you have that go with your keepsakes, Valarie. Each one is a history lesson and like you, I’m afraid the younger ones just don’t have a clue what we would be talking about. But we must offer or at least try. I have already stretched it with my children. We have coined our family phrase, “Ancestral Guilt.” I must try your salad dressing. I didn’t realize I could use ground walnuts for parmesan cheese.
Lovely to hear from you…
Yes, from so many comments, it seems we’ re not alone in our regret that younger generations don’t always seem to be interested in their past and their ancestors…I like your phrase ‘ ancestral guilt ‘!!!
I didn’t use the walnuts instead of parmesan… I just used the parmesan grater instead of blitzing the nuts in a processor or whatever people’s machines are called !
I feel the need to thank you, for sharing snippets of your delectable family stories, each introducing an extraordinary ancestor. These today tech gadgets are only crutches, for those unschooled in the arts of talking and writing. A roomful of contemporary techies would be mesmerized by any of your featured ancestors, I am sure. Oh, and the heirlooms, precious, forever precious.
Dear Jeffrey, How lovely to hear from you and to read your beautiful comment… knowing your appreciation of beauty, your words mean a lot… thank you Valerie
The next adventure…… I can imagine. I loved this post and am sorry I am not replying as usual. You will understand I know when I say I am looking after Mr S. His knee is causing problems such that he can do nothing so, as we have always shared all jobs in the house, now I am doing everything (as he did for me when I was recovering from my op) and I am just so tired. I send you love and hope your sorting and sifting brings you many more delicious memories as above – but, oh, it is so hard to part with some things. 🙂
Lovely to hear from you Sally – so glad you enjoyed the stories…
I can understand how busy you are, what you describe was my life for a number of years…
I hope you get your energy and time back soon… though I don’t know how you keep up your regular wonderful posting..
My head seems to be sinking below the sea of events swirling around me, but I keep on swimming !
So lovely to be in touch when it seems right… Love Valerie
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You have lovely treasures and even lovelier memories. I don’t envy the process you face as you sort and pack. I did the same thing and faced parting with things that traveled with me through many moves when I made the move across the country. I left so much behind. And when I got here, I parted with even more. After a while, what seemed so precious lost its pull on me. The memories are light and take up very little space. Those I kept. The things, well, I found that eventually they could go to different homes and that was fine with me. I kept a very few items from my past life that still fit with my new life, but those are few indeed. Somehow, though, my closets are still full! 😉
Lorna, your comments were wonderful.. like a light in front of me reminding me of what I know and forget, and re-;learn reading your words.
I know who will receive what in the fullness of time… just waiting for the right moment to hand the things over !
And I definitely know what you mean about the clothes… those I love far too much to part with !!!!
40 years ago I knew the words Desert Rat and Tobruk. Twenty years ago I was with my father traipsing around El Alamein, and ,searching the coast line of Egypt for places my father had heard of, looking for the graves of his friends. This year, now almost in my 6th decade, I am scouring the internet, discovering the burial places of two relatives, both of whom died at Sidi Rezegh on the same day. To my great sadness, one of them is commemorated at El Alamein and we didn’t know to look for him when we were there. Learning to love and understand our family history and the signifcance of keepsakes seems to take time. But there is always someone who takes up the role of memory keeper and story teller. Our societies don’t prosper without them.
All the best with your sorting and new adventures.
Good to hear from you Amanda… I found your stories fascinating… and yes, you’re right – someone usually does take on the role of record keeper… I think it tends to be the women !