Many years ago, when I was little and living in Oxford, my aunty Prudence rang from Cumbria to say she’d put her mother’s name in a hymn book at St Olaph’s Church, Wasdale. My mum put down the old dial ‘phone and told us we now had somewhere to visit if we every wanted to pay our respects. I never met my grandmother (she saw me once when I was a baby- she loved babies and was apparently very sweet to me, although she was suffering with advanced Alzheimer’s Disease at the time). She had nine babies herself (one died just after birth) and brought them up on her own in a dingy town with no money, no job and a real day to day struggle for survival. No ‘Just About Managing’.
When we moved to Cumbria in 1991, my aunty took us to St Olaf’s several times. Almost every time the first hymn book she opened – out of many, identical red books scattered over the pews – was the one dedicated to my grandmother. There was something strange and spiritual in this – she cried, my mum cried. Today I went to find the book and it was gone – along with most of the old, inscribed editions. The church was the same: sheltered by yew trees, the graves mountain-shaped and the great peaks of Scafell Pike and Helvellyn towering over it, evidence of bats roosting and the old beams from Viking ships holding up the roof. I went through each book twice. Most of the them were mouldy, the moldiest ones now scrapped.
After the short walk back to the Wasdale Head Inn (an Edwardian Version picture of it above), a couple of drinks in the old back room and feeding a farm dog that ‘just comes in’, I felt I had to make it right. Her name’s nowhere else – no grave, no bench, no crematorium wall inscription. So I decided to write a poem – my fall-back option always. I hope it’s good enough to do her memory justice. She was a spirited woman, ‘always laughing’ and she must have had the strength of a bison to weather the dice she was thrown.
On the way back, a white mouse ran right across the path of the car and safely into the hedge. The lake was a black mirror. Sheep sat on the verge and in the road, eyes open and gleaming.
I’ve been working very hard this week. Christmas time seems to destabilise people’s mental health like a full moon. When I’ve written, it’s been about the darker side of Oxford memories. I’ve read and was very much impressed by Melissa Lee-Houghton’s Beautiful Girls which gave me the courage to write a few things I might otherwise have buried for good. I’m also reading All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. It’s stange to feel sad for no reason with a week of Secret Santa, buffets, Christmas jumpers and family gatherings approaching. Maybe the reason is what we cover up with these things, and I’m maladapted at keeping up the necessary joie de vivre. Maybe I just miss my dad.