Strong Spirit – Bright Beautiful and Beloved

Image result for capitaine bougainville

Another instalment of my autobiography before I revert to my normal blogs

I first saw Philippa as I stood in line at the chemist. Like me she was waiting for a prescription for her son. Unlike me, her four- year- old son was sitting in a push chair, obviously unable to walk, while around her, enfolding her exquisite Pre-Raphaelite beauty was a miasma of pain.

A few weeks later, I discovered at a parent teacher meeting that this unforgettable young woman was my son’s new teacher. As I worried about him, she told me fiercely that children from single homes were no more disadvantaged than children from two parent homes, which were often more dysfunctional than single parent homes.

A few weeks later when she was passing my gate, pushing her four- year- old spina bifida son, Mua, and her younger son Tane, walking beside her, I rushed out and asked her to come in for a cup of coffee. We became the closest of friends, and I marvelled at her amazing courage, tenacity and intelligence. She had married a Fijian-Indian, and gone to live in a Fijian village where life became unbearable with the birth of her handicapped son who everyone rejected. One fearsome night, as a tempest raged and floods rose, she seized the opportunity amid the fear and confusion, and fled taking both children, and returned to New Zealand.

On her first Sunday back with her parents, her father insisted that she go to church, knowing she had rejected their Catholic faith. She had the choice – church or banishment. Her integrity and courage intact, she left her home, rather than compromise herself.

Life with two pre-schoolers, one a toddler, the other suffering all the worst aspects of his birth defect,  needing constant operations, and having no financial support was an un-ending struggle. She could only cope by going back to teaching, putting her elder son in a home for other handicapped children during the week, and taking her toddler to play centre every day.

She loved coming to see me in what she called ‘my blue room’ and said how the life we’d made for ourselves  gave her courage that she could have a good life too. Every time she was depressed I’d raid my wardrobe to cheer her up with an exotic garment. She looked amazing in the orange quilted Chinese tunic I gave her to wear to parties, but which she wore with black trousers to school, and also the turquoise satin embroidered Indian robe which must have cheered up the staff room no end! Driving to school, I’d see a beautiful figure walking down the road in jodpurs or hot-pants and crane to see the front of this fascinating person, and it would be Philippa.

She agreed to me writing a story about the life she led, with no support or understanding from the community, in which even a bus driver bellowed at her when she was slow climbing onto the bus, carrying the inert body of one child on one hip, and the toddler on her other hip. He yelled at her: “It’s not my fault he’s handicapped.” So she never went on a bus again.

There were the hours spent waiting in hospital waiting rooms for surgeons to see her for another patch up operation on her child – “He thinks because he plays the harpsichord and drugs my child into a vegative state to numb his pain that he‘s doing something wonderful for humanity,” she raged bitterly.

I wrote about the misery of carrying her heavy child as she toiled up the steep staircase of the condemned house where she’d managed to find cheap lodgings – and even made it look like a home, with pretty bits of glass and pottery and coloured fabrics draped across the windows and beds. Amazingly, Philippa had borrowed a friend’s clarinet, and managed every now and then to get a lesson. This was her life-line, and she doggedly worked away at the instrument.

The effect of the newspaper story was magic. A charity sprang into action, helped her find a good ground floor lodging, and carpeted it, so her son wasn’t dragging himself around on a bare floor. They bought a washing machine and dryer for her, to cope with her son’s incontinence, and the play centre stopped charging fees for her toddler son’s attendance. Between her headmaster, her doctor and I, we were able to cobble together a living allowance for her based on a sick benefit, so she could rescue her son from the crippled children’s home which he hated, and give up teaching as her health was giving out.

From now on I also had a friend who would always have my children on their sick days or during holidays, which had always been my greatest anxiety. The four children all became close, and my two would go with Philippa to help her with Mua at his swimming therapy. Philippa now became accomplished on a clarinet which she bought on hire purchase, and began teaching at schools, to earn some extra money.

And then she met a handsome French sea captain, who was as good as he was kind. He adored Mua, and took the whole family off to Sydney where he was based on land for a year. Philippa attended the Conservatorium of Music, and Jean took the children skiing, having secretly taught Mua to balance on his calipers to surprise his mother. Jean bought a state of the art wheel chair for him and the only car big enough then to accommodate the wheel chair. When they returned to Auckland the following year, Philippa was pregnant and even more beautiful. But I was terribly concerned. I wondered if she was going to die in child birth. I felt there was some awful fate awaiting her.

I was right. When the baby was a few months old, the family embarked on what Philippa had decided would be their last sea trip across the Pacific with Jean before settling into their house and children’s schools. It was their last trip. After a happy evening in the company of musician friends who came on board and made music with Philippa, who played the expensive new clarinet Jean had bought for her – his ship, the Capitaine Bougainville – sailed for the Islands.

A few hours later a vicious storm blew up, and in the pounding seas further up the coast of NZ, a tool fell off the bulkhead in the engine room, and cut the fuel pipe, feeding the engine. The engine caught fire, and there was no way of putting it out. The life boats were lashed onto the roof of the engine room, and Jean had to make a decision to wait on the burning ship to be rescued, or  leave the flames and escape in the lifeboats before they were destroyed in the fire.

His Mayday message was never received, so he had to take the dreadful decision to launch into the mountainous seas. A sailor took each one of the children, but each time the life boat capsized, another child was lost. After three hours Philippa died of exposure and exhaustion and slipped from Jean’s grasp as his feet touched sand.  He was tossed and tumbled in the surf, vomiting salt water before collapsing on the sand. He told me he had to resist turning back into the sea to end his life then, rather than face the years without Philippa. But forcing himself to get to his feet, he ran to the nearest house where he found a holidaying family at breakfast and raised the alarm.

A few survivors made it to shore, but twelve sailors as well as my friend and her children were drowned. A few days later, Mua’s little body was washed up, and we drove the five hours up to Whangarei for his funeral and for his mother, brother and baby sister Jasmine. Jean then travelled to the islands visiting the families of all his sailors who had drowned. In the months that followed, Jean often came to stay with us at our new home in the country where we now lived with my new husband. His pain was terrible.

Eventually he returned to his home in Brittany, and captained a cross channel ferry to England. He married again and returned to this country a few years ago to be present at the ceremony marking the monument being erected on the beach, in memory of those who had been lost. He wrote a long poem straight after the tragedy which he sent to my children… he wrote of saying goodbye to my bright beautiful beloved friend before she stepped over the gun-wale to reach the bucking life-boat below: ’Your smile and your serenity, Your only luggage for eternity’…

To be continued

Food for threadbare gourmets

 I didn’t get the food back home quick enough and found the frozen peas were too soggy to go into the deep freeze. Chagrined, I couldn’t bear to waste them, so made a quick and easy pea soup with a chopped onion zapped in the microwave and added to a generous helping of chicken stock.

When the stock was boiling I tipped in most of the peas and cooked them until the peas were soft but still bright green. After being whizzed smooth in the blender, I added cream… and the soup ended up being sipped for lunch, and the other half ended up in the deep freeze anyway!

Food for thought

“It is not the strength of the body that counts, but the strength of the spirit.”
J.R.R. Tolkien





Filed under consciousness, cookery/recipes, human potential, life and death, love, music, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life, Uncategorized

38 responses to “Strong Spirit – Bright Beautiful and Beloved

  1. What a heart wrenching story and so beautifully told. I am so sorry that you lost your wonderful friend and Jean his precious wife and children. xx

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I need to find a couple of hours to catch up with the last few episodes that I have missed. If this were a book, it would be one of those that I couldn’t put down until I had read every word. xx

    Liked by 1 person

  3. OMG what a story! You couldn’t make that stuff up could you? Thank you for sharing


  4. This supports what I often say: The difference between a romance and a tragedy is where you stop. One so wishes that this tale could have continued on that upbeat, with the family going from strength to strength as, for Phillipa and the kids, had been so richly earned by the earlier hardships. Beautifully told, and great credit goes to you for your part in their lives.

    Liked by 1 person

    • What a fascinating idea , ‘the difference between a romance and a tragedy is where you stop’ … much food for thought there…
      And yes, so often I have wished that Philippa’s idyll with Jean could have continued…thank you as ever, for your perceptive comments which I always love reading….


  5. Jane Sturgeon

    Heart breaking, Valerie and so beautifully told. Tears poured and my heart goes out to everyone. Jean’s courage is inspiring. How everyone gathered in Philippa’s time of desperate hour of need is loving, so very loving. You lost your precious friend and her wonderful light, Valerie, and I know she is still with you. ❤ xXx ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dear Jane, lovely to read your heart-felt words … so understanding in every way… yes, I know that our loves never really leave us… but I would have so loved for Philippa and Jean’s story to have lasted longer… and of course, I know that everyone chose the lessons they wanted to learn no regrets – if possible !!!!


  6. Such a sad story. It is tragedies such as this that brings out the strength in some people and the weaknesses of others.

    Liked by 1 person

    • So good to hear from you GP, and thank you for your perceptive thoughts…yes, rising to the challenges that life brings is one of the sources of strength…and I often think leads us to the next good thing !!!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. You befriended this unfortunate woman during in her greatest need and saw her through some of her most difficult days. How proud she must have felt in that quilted Chinese tunic and turquoise Indian robe; you gave her dignity, warmth and friendship: something she sorely missed in her situation. What a story!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ronnie, what a lovely comment – thank you so much… I loved the way you recognised the importance of the Chinese robe etc !!! We both loved clothes, and one day when I dropped in on Philippa, dressed for my office – I admired the turquoise T- shirt she was wearing, and she loved the white top I was wearing. So then and there, we took off our respective tops, and swapped them and put them on !


  8. We each have a destiny, a solitary moment when we move on. Your story is a poignant reminder to embrace those around us, for the only destiny in which we have certainty is in the moment. Our narrative is defined by transitions and transformations, influenced by the strong, bright, beautiful and beloved. May we have a smile and serenity when we approach our next journey. Hugs coming your way…

    Liked by 2 people

    • I can see that transitions are on your mind at the moment, dear Friend… I have read your latest, and am coming back to it…and I love your phrase that our story is defined by transitions and transformations – which give our little lives such dignity and poignancy…
      Wasn’t that a lovely phrase too, of Jeans… ‘her smile and her serenity.’.. serenity being one of my ambitions !!!!


  9. Dearest Valerie,

    First I applaud you for what you did for your friend. I can only imagine your own intense grief at her loss. You paint a beautiful picture with your words. I can frame it only with my appreciation of your generous sharing of your life. Love to yourself and himself.

    Shalom and hugs,


    Liked by 1 person

    • What a lovely loving comment good friend… thank you so much for your generous appreciation of Philippa’s story and of mine… and yes, I still feel sad, though it happened so long ago…
      Himself is out in the winter sunshine measuring up to make bookshelves for my hundreds of still unpacked books… and I will pass your love on to him…with love from me, Valerie


  10. I am thinking that you didn’t just help Phillipa and her children’s quality of life while living, but raised awareness for disabled people and their families for generations to follow. There is still much to be done. This is such a sad story, but also heartening that the potential for turning life around seems to always be with us. xx

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your lovely comment Ardys.. though I’m not sure that I had much of a hand in changing awareness for disabled people and their families… I think it’s one of the signs of progress in our societies that we are more aware these days, providing entrances and facilities for the handicapped…that was a lovely comment that the potential for turning life around is always with us… it’s wonderful the way people do come back from despair and transform their lives…as even Jean did, by remarrying and starting a new career…

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I am crying. Every word is beautiful and sad and so sad and just so sad. I am so so sorry for you and the lovely Captain. Sigh!


  12. Angela

    Valerie I remember this so well…my husband & father were both in NZ Customs & knew Jean….we were all devastated…I never knew Phillipa but knew of her story. I have a photo of the ship after it was brought back to Whangarei….so so sad. Then I first read of her actual life in your book Heaven is a Place on Earth…you’ve woven through my life for years bless you!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Dear Angela, so good to hear from you always – how interesting that you knew Jean… yes, it was a memorable and heart-breaking time for everyone who knew them both… they were so happy… and it was a real tragedy that their time together was so short.
      Thank you for being around me too… it’s always lovely when you pop up, so warmest blessings to you too… love Valerie


  13. Juliet

    What a heart breaking story. When you write about people Valerie they live on the page with such vividness that as a reader I feel their joys and pain as if they were my own kin.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Dear Juliet,
      Thank you so much for your generous words… as a writer too, you would know how precious words of appreciation like yours are, I shall treasure them.
      Yes, Philippa’s short life, and extraordinary destiny was heart-breaking…
      I’ve sometimes thought what a magnificent older woman she would have become…

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Such a tragedy. It is good to have your friend’s story recorded, so we can put ‘faces’ to the numbers on the memorial. What a brave and wonderful woman she was.


  15. Valerie, this took my breath away – I can understand why the two of you became friends, as you strike me as both having that same strong spirit, but it is such a tragedy what happened to Philippa and her children. I’m glad that at least before that she had some help and good friendship.


    • Andrea, thank you for your heart-felt words … yes, her extraordinary life and destiny often give me pause for thought about the meanings of our time on earth, and the lessons we choose to learn. Our friendship was an important chapter in my life and my children’s, and years later, when my daughter was helping a desperate penniless refugee with cancer, she used to say to me ‘Selvin is my Philippa’…

      Liked by 1 person

  16. What a spine tingling true life story and tragedy, Valerie. Beautifully told! At least Phillipa had some good friends and met her true love before her life was ended and the children had some excellent care and help.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lovely to hear from you Lynne, and to know too that as a writer, you enjoyed the telling of it, in spite of the tragedy. Yes, it seemed like a miracle at the time, when Philippa met Jean, and he was so wonderful to her and the children and they were both so happy…That was the one comfort

      Liked by 1 person

  17. Philippa’s story is heartbreaking. You two were meant to be friends, since you were equally strong and intelligent. I like the fact that the man who finally was good to Phipippa was French. He must have been devastated to witness her death and her children’s too.
    Tolkien is freakin right.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Lovely to hear from you Evelyne… yes, Tolkien put his finger on it, didn’t he… and Philippa’s spirit was so wonderful… I used to be in awe of her courage and integrity… yes, Jean was a fine Frenchman, loving and strong, and absolutely broken by the loss of all his family. And being a great spirit too, he re-built his life, and career and re-married… though he never forgot his lost loved ones…


  19. Georgia Carter

    Hello Valerie,
    My husband Joseph and I are having a bit of a cry reading this.
    Joseph’s birthday is tomorrow (he will be 69 yrs old) and we were talking about family and Phillipa in particular. Joseph is Phillipa’s younger brother and used to babysit for her.
    When Joseph introduced me to his Mum 25 years ago, the first thing that she did was turn to Joseph and say “Who does she remind you of?” They both answered in unison, Phillipa.
    Thank you for your beautiful words which have allowed me to get to know Phillipa just a bit more……..
    Phillipa’s birthday was 15 February so we will be lighting a candle for her and her children.
    Much love and light to you, Georgia 🏵️🧡


    • Dear Georgia,
      I rarely check my blog, because I’ve got shut out of it, and have to jump through all sorts of hoops to get in and write a blog these days.
      But something made me check in today, and I found your comment.
      I too had ‘ a bit if a cry’ when I read your words.
      Thank you so much for contacting me. I will remember Phillipa;s birthday too.. it’s also the day before my daughter’s birthday.
      She loved Phillipa too, and I shall send her your message…it’s amazing how people’s spirit continues to shine across the decades…
      With much love to you and your husband,


      • Georgia

        Amazing ……yes, so agree.
        Her spirit does continue to shine and Joseph has always said how he felt particularly connected to her growing up. She influenced him in a way he hadn’t really realised until now.
        Thank you for replying and for some reason, I’m not surprised that you checked in today. It was meant to happen I think!!
        Lots of love Georgia & Joseph xo


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