TOur home in the forest
This is the last instalment of my autobiography before I resume my normal blogs
I asked the Salvation Army’s Missing Person’s Bureau to find my mother when I was nearly fifty. It took them three years, and when they did, I immediately flew to London to see her.
We met on neutral ground at the Tate Gallery, and sat on a leather bench in front of a masterpiece. I have no idea what the picture was, but the pattern of the red brocade wall- covering surrounding it is stamped on my memory forever. We stayed there for hours until the gallery attendant gently told us they were closing, and then we paced the Embankment trying to catch up on a lifetime.
In the end we never did bridge the gap of that lost time as she only seemed to remember the good times we had had, while I remembered the bad times, but what I learned about her broke my heart over and over again. Her father had left before she was born, and two stepfathers died of cancer.
When she was eight months pregnant with my younger sister she lived through the angst of waiting for her husband to return at Dunkirk. He didn’t. He escaped two weeks later. Two years after this, when he returned to do his officer training she became pregnant again, and gave birth to that child on her own as well.
And now, she met a farmer from the Channel Islands, who was working on Pluto – Pipe- Line Under the Ocean, a top -secret invention to supply fuel to the armies at D-Day. They planned to marry when the war was over and take us children to live on his family farm. There was an accident and he was killed. My mother was pregnant, and in despair she fled.
She couldn’t afford to keep the baby, adopted her, emigrated to Australia to start a new life, and eventually re-married a man she’d met on the voyage out. Back in London she had a daughter with her new husband, and when that baby was a few months old, this man went into a sanatorium with TB and when he recovered, never returned to her and their child.
She brought up that child alone, and became an efficient civil servant. On her retirement she sold her house in order to move and buy a house near her sister. Shopping for a new sofa, she learned from the hushed gossip in the local shop that her solicitor had hanged himself after embezzling all his clients’ money including hers.
She had a few thousand pounds left, which she blued on a trip to China, to fulfil at least one life’s dream. She had whiled away the long lonely years by learning Chinese, attending cookery classes, playing chess and listening to opera. And when I met her, she was living in a council retirement flat. She was a gentle, refined woman, and never at any time when I met her at intervals before her death, made any complaint about her life; and though she was sad, she was never bitter.
After a forty-year silence, I met my stepmother again too. And the weeks I now spent in her company were amongst the happiest in my life. All the dislike, hostility and coldness she had shown me had dropped away. And all the hurt and pain and anger I had felt at being rejected also dissolved. The love between us was so complete and miraculous, it felt as though we had transitioned to the next plane of being, when we see each other clearly, and recognise the love and beauty of each other’s soul.
My father died fifty years ago. He shaped the person I am today. Back from the war when I was aged ten, he used to stop at a second- hand book stall set up by his bus stop on Friday nights. There he chose his old favourites for me, like Lord Lytton’s ‘The Last Days of Pompeii,’ and ‘Harold’, Kingsley’s Westward Ho and my very favourite – read and re-read – Hypatia, the Greek woman philosopher and mathematician who came to a sticky end, thanks to men! Then there was David Copperfield and so many others.
When we moved to Catterick, he shared the books he was reading then, which included Sir Nigel and the White Company, Conan Doyle’s historical romances set in France in 1366, C.S. Forester’s Hornblower Books, and Napier’s History of the Peninsula Wars. And every night, when I’d finished my homework, he read aloud to my eleven- year- old self from H.M. Trevelyan’s ‘English Social History,’ setting up my fascination with history.
Still eleven, he taught me the value of money and compassion. Sitting at the dining table I had suggested my stepmother buy some sheepskin boots because her feet were cold, “they only cost five pounds,” I blithely chirruped.
“Look out of the window,” my father ordered. A worn working man with a deeply-lined face and shabby clothes covered in grime from a building site, was dragging tiredly past. “That man earns five pounds a week to feed his family”, my father grimly pointed out, and lectured me on extravagance in words that would have profited Marie Antoinette.
Later in Malaya, when I was sixteen, and we entertained the Indian quarter -master to tea with his wife in her colourful saris, and I had to give them my books on the Royal family who they loved, he demonstrated tolerance and the opposite of racism.
Back in England in the mid- fifties, he taught me to accept homo-sexuality at a time when it was scarcely mentioned. I commented on a strange man on the bus who wore a brown striped suit with flared trousers, a wide brimmed brown felt hat and thick makeup. He laughed, told me he was a wonderful old ‘queen’ and was such a punishing boxer that no-one dared jeer at him.
He demanded respect for all his soldiers, telling me they’d fought through the war, were bringing up families on a pittance, and were fine decent people. Like Abou Ben Adhem, he ‘loved his fellow men.’
Later when I was twenty-one, he suggested that my outlook was a bit narrow, and that I should read The Manchester Guardian. Back then it had a reputation for fine writing, tolerant humane values, and wide culture. I became a sensible feminist, reading Mary Stott on the women’s pages, learned about good food, enjoyed witty TV criticism, discovered avenues of musical appreciation, and acquired a burning social conscience, which cut me off from all my family and many of my friends!
When he retired from the army at forty-five he commuted/cashed up his army pension to pay for his youngest son’s expensive schools, and so condemned himself to working to support his family for the rest of his life. But he died in 1968 at fifty-four.
I wonder if anyone will remember me, fifty years after I am dead? At the moment, I am far from dead, and know that he would have loved to know what risks I have taken to live my life as fully as I can and to be able to love as deeply as I do now.
When I began blogging, I inadvertently stumbled on an unusual blog when I was looking for some poetry I’d enjoyed. When I left a comment on this rather beautiful blog, which was not poetry, the writer replied with such courtesy that I was enchanted. In the science fiction writer Robert Heinlein’s words – I ‘grocked’ him. Which meant I felt I knew him, and recognised him, and understood him at a very deep level.
We began ‘following’ each other, and our comments reflected a mutual admiration. My new follower wrote exquisite remarks on my blogs, but when a rather malicious stalker I’d attracted from the day I first began writing, began sneering at my “followers massaging my ego,” I feared that he might recognise the underlying message of love in the sensitive, perceptive words my new friend wrote on my blog. I feared that my stalker’s spite could spoil this friendship.
So I wrote to my friend, suggesting that we write privately instead, to avoid any unpleasantness. Two years and two thousand letters later, my friend – now my love- left his country, his home of forty- five years, the job he loved at a world-famous observatory, his family, and his friends and came to begin a life with me.
I read recently:”I don’t think genuinely falling in love is negotiable. The heart goes where the heart goes. Age has nothing to do with it.” This is true – he’s much younger than me, cherishes me the way I’ve never been cared for before, we share the same spiritual values, and revel in a life of love and freedom.
Like me, he had left behind not just his home, but most of his assets too, so we looked for a place where we could afford to live, that would give us the environment we both wanted. It was waiting for us. Just as out of over eighty million bloggers we had found each other, so we discovered the perfect place that we could not only afford, but which turned out to be a haven of beauty, peace, and community.
We bought a tiny one room log cabin set on forty acres of covenanted podocarp forest, where we look across a valley like an amphitheatre and gaze up to our own mountain. We listen to our streams tumbling over rocks below, and hear birds singing from the dawn chorus in the morning to the moreporks/owls through the night. Our property is home to various almost extinct species of frog, lizards, geckoes, to more than three hundred species of butterfly and moths – or lepidoptera as I’ve learned to call them – and to rare plants and trees. People come from the universities and world-wide societies to study these precious vanishing species in this time of the sixth great extinction.
Our neighbours, hidden in the forest, have a shared environmental commitment to keeping the sprawling hills and ranges free of pests and to nurturing the creatures who’ve made their homes here for milleniums. These neighbours come from all walks of life – an architect, a musician, zoologist and landscape professors, a geologist and several engineers, a restauranteur, a painter, a therapist and others. They are all nationalities, Swiss, English, Australian, Belgian, Dutch, Maori, Russian, Mongolian, American.
Behind our high wrought iron gates, we share a civilised social life, and work together to preserve the forest. On our property, we’ve extended our original tiny dwelling, planted fragrant flowers, created architectural flights of steps, made melodious bells from diver’s tanks, re-cycled doors and windows and other found objects, and live a blissful life of creativity and harmony.
I wake in the morning and look out of the window to where the dawn shines gold on the peak of the mountain. I turn to my love and whisper, “the sun is on the mountain.” And another day begins of a quiet mystical life of love and beauty.
Food for Threadbare Gourmets
I love Indonesian food, and a friend gave me a little booklet of recipes years ago. One page in particular is stained and dog-eared… with the recipe for sambel goreng telor on it – this means eggs in coconut milk.
For two people hard boil four eggs, cut them in two and put in a deep dish. Fry a chopped onion, and when soft add tomato, clove of garlic, half a red pepper, a table spoon of brown sugar and salt to taste. When they’re soft, add half a cup of coconut milk, heat and pour over the eggs. Delicious with plain boiled rice.
Food for Thought
Hear our humble prayer, O God, for our friends the animals, especially for animals who are suffering; for any that are hunted or lost or deserted or frightened or hungry; for all that must be put to death.
We entreat for them all thy mercy and pity and for those who deal with them we ask a heart of compassion, gentle hands and kindly words.
Make us ourselves to be true friends to animals and so to share the blessings of the merciful.
Albert Schweitzer, doctor, humanitarian, writer, musician, organist and organ restorer