Christmas in California……..

I love the weather in California.  Yesterday  I walked to the village under a sun so warm that the light sweater I was wearing was too much.  The temperature rose to 80F (26.6 C) from 60F (15C) or below for several days the week before.  Nights are coldish to cool right now, which means I can sleep cozily under a light comforter.   And you always know that when it rains, or clouds gather, the sun will shine again in a day or two.

My mid-western parents, remembering the  weather extremes in their native Missouri, loved to brag about going to the beach on Christmas day, if you wanted to, to our landlocked relatives trapped “back east”.  I secretly wished for snow.

And this year, snow lingered on Mt. Baldy for several days last week, a reminder that it really is winter.  I took a drive up there to my favorite spot beside a little stream . Snow still huddled in the shadows.  I sat on a rock in the sun, warm and toasty.

I have met some interesting people here and am feeling like I will survive. I even had a small Christmas party.    So many concerts, plays, movies, art exhibits abound that I am almost overwhelmed.

But I hate the commercialism.  Holidays seem to be an excuse for marketing not only gifts but decorations,  tons of decorations, mostly cheap, plastic, gaudy, and tasteless.  Store windows vomit Christmas decorations as a stimulus to remember to buy gifts.   Two months ago it was pumpkins and skulls, then a nod to Thanksgiving with autumn leaves and turkeys, and now there is a whiff of chemical imitations of “Christmassy” spices wafting here and there. Every available surface is covered with poinsettias, garlands, lights, reindeer, Santa Clauses, elves, wreaths, Christmas trees.  Sometimes even the real thing. (except for elves and Santa Claus, of course.) I am told some people decorate every room in their homes.

What happened?  I feel like Rip Van Winkle, waking up after 23 years in Europe to find an overblown copy of  my homeland, the real one buried under an avalanche of  Things For Sale. Material values smack you in the face at every turn.  Where is the war on Christmas?  The war on Christmas, or the Christmas spirit, is in the encouragement of gluttonous buying.

England has Christmas decorations.  In Shere, they  peek out of store windows, poinsettias sit at shop doorways, a garland of lights wind around the huge fir tree in the square.   People gather on Christmas Eve to sing carols under that tree, bundled in scarves and caps against the cold. The vicar says a few words and leads a prayer, then everyone retreats to the pub opposite for mulled wine or to private homes for a gathering with friends.  Some people string up a few lights around the windows, and hang wreaths on doors.

So I am not against Christmas decorations.When my children were little I loved to decorate with a real tree, real branches of holly and berries, bake cookies and fill the house with the aroma of cinnamon, cloves, and orange peel.  The tree went up around mid-December and down after New Year’s day.

When I was a child,  the tree went up on my sister’s birthday, Dec. 17th or 18th, and came down the day after Christmas.  That was it.  A tree with balls and lights and maybe a few candles in the dining room. We all got a main present, and a couple of smaller ones.    Sometimes aunts and uncles came and we had turkey and all the  trimmings ,pumpkin and mincemeat pies, talked and laughed and ate.  After dinner the older folks pretended not to snooze in their chairs, and later we went for a walk before tackling the leftovers.

Call me Scrooge, call me an old woman who lives in the past, where everything was better. I don’t mind. I guess I am.  It was better.




Follow the yellow brick road —

You travelled down a  a pretty tree-lined street to reach Janet’s house – it might as well have been Oz to me, coming as I did from the other end of town where homes were a little more modest.  It had a small front yard and a very big back one, with fruit trees and flowers. It even sported a swimming pool just beyond the lanai, where we girls practiced hilarious water ballets, near drowning ourselves with laughter.

A buzz vibrated around the house because there was always something going on, usually spurred by her mother, Dorothy, who was full of energy and charisma.   Dorothy and her husband, Nylin,  hosted parties for  friends and business associates, and it seemed Dorothy  was always decorating for some themed party or other, for women’s luncheons, or for and with Janet, her sister, and their friends.  One year I remember the lanai  awash in bright fabrics, plastic pink flowers, leis, table cloths, palm trees, and coconuts for some event. That must have been after one of their Hawaaiian cruises.  No imagination was spared in pursuit of a happy atmosphere.

Dorothy always greeted us with a smile and a chuckle, her dimples flashing, and often with a high kick into the air, putting us all to shame. When she was a around, you knew it, her presence bubbled through our lives.  She was always in charge without hovering, leaving a lot to Janet to do for herself, and she never seemed to think anything was too much trouble if it was a party.   She left us space, but was always welcoming.

After we graduated from high school I moved north and lost touch, I heard now and then through Janet that her parents were off cruising somewhere or vacationing in their air stream trailers in convoy with other air-streamers much of the time, enjoying their retirement with the same verve as before.   Then, after Nylin died, Dorothy and a neighbor friend got together to play  cards and travel.  She never seemed to let the tragedies which life holds bring her down for long.  And tragedy indeed touched her life.   She never dwelt on it.

When I saw Dorothy again after several years, she was still living in the house on the tree-lined street.  The house was much smaller than I remembered it, but the same otherwise.   As I pulled into the driveway, she kicked up her leg, as in the old days.  She must have been in her late 80’s or early 90’s by then; she still put me to shame with her flexibility and strength.

Janet, her daughter,  finally persuaded Dorothy it was time to move in with her and Art.    When I visited there a few times, Dorothy stayed discreetly in her own room reading until dinner time, and then joined us for her glass of rose wine before the meal.  After dinner, we sometimes played a word game, called  Quiddler, and she usually won.   In the morning, she was up watching  tennis matches, or  golf, up-to-the minute with the players, their place in the competition,  and the games.

The last time I saw her, I brought my grand daughter Gabriella with me.  There they were, both at the kitchen table, concentrating each one on their iPads, playing Solitaire.   I venture to say Dorothy was winning more games than Gabriella.  Dorothy was a mere 103 at the time, very much compose mentis and spouting her favorite Spanish greeting,  if no longer kicking up her heels.

A few days ago, while Janet and Art were visiting her in the nursing home where they finally had to lodge her,  she had a little dinner, closed her eyes, clicked her ruby red slippers, and was transported home.  She doesn’t leave an empty space, but a space filled with happy memories.



In With the New

I am starting anew yet again, this time closer to my roots.  Not France, or England or even North Carolina, but California.    Now, what I see outside the west  window of my study is a lush Jacaranda tree, not the ancient stone wall in front of the chestnut, fir and beech trees  of my 17th century house.  My condo here is 8 years old, hardly enough time to settle in and get the kinks out.

The north window frames a view of the San Gabriel mountains, folded and dark against a bright sky.  In the space of only a few miles  this range  juts up from Claremont’s elevation, 350 m. (1,150 ft), to the range’s highest peak, Mount San Antonio, at 3,609 m.  (10,068 ft.) .  However, most people around here refer to  Mt San Antonio as Mt. Baldy, as very little vegetation grows up there, and you can see its sharp, chalky slopes from several vantage points in the valley.  In winter it is often capped with snow, although the average temperature here is 17.22 C (63F).,_California

The near view to the north  is spiked with eucalyptus trees, a common sight in these parts, along with several varieties of palm and oak and elm.  In fact, there are 24, 187 trees in Claremont.  I don’t know who counted them.  Not me.   Some of the oak and elm are very old.    I am pretty sure the elms are not native to this area, and the oaks are live oaks, not the UK variety with trunks 5 feet thick which are hundreds of years old.   They are scrappier and shorter, with small, round prickly leaves which have a pungent, dusty odor.

I live a short walk from the village, as I did in Shere and in Tourrettes, but although it is a lot bigger, with a population of around 35,000, as opposed to 3,359 for Shere,  I am nevertheless  getting to know the local shop keepers and restaurateurs.  I often run into familiar faces, as I did in Shere, and in Fayence before that, one of the greatest benefits of a village.

There are several colleges here under the umbrella of Claremont University Consortium, and together they cover several academic disciplines.   But the permanent population is a healthy mix of ages, with enough old people around to make me feel that I belong, too.

My home town, Santa Ana, is 31 miles from here, but after 50 or so years it is barely recognizable.  The population is now 78% hispanic.  Most signs there, and here in Claremont, too, are in both English and Spanish.   Elegant, as well as not so elegant malls and housing developments have replaced the sugar beet fields, farmland, and pastures of my youth.     .

And yet, I find my old home in the quality of the sun early in the morning, when it is just beginning to warm the air.  I find it in these October afternoons, when it is hot standing in the sun, but chilly as you pass into a shadow.   I find it in the fog curling around the trees, then burning off by 11:00 am; and in  the spicy fragrance of eucalyptus’ and pepper trees.  But the fragrance of  orange blossoms emanating from the groves which used to cover acres and acres of land is missing.  They have been replaced by homes and businesses to accommodate the people who still pour into California from both the east of the US and from the south, from Mexico and Central America.

We have had two days of stormy rain and wind, now over.  The sky arches  blue and clear over the valley and at 9:00 AM the temperature is about 13C.  A high of 17C is predicted for today, going back up to 27C by Friday.

There is more to life than weather, as I repeatedly said when I lived in Shere, but in such a transition as this, with many days of missing my old life and coping with creating a new one, it must be said that it helps.

We are into a cold snap, 2010, But —-

Reprinted from The Times:


The winter of ’47: I’ve borrowed a balaclava helmet from Fred to wear in bed!

This winter seems bad but the freeze of 1947, the worst in living memory, tested the resolve of war-weary Britons to the limit,

The big freeze: Derbyshire bus stuck in a snow drift Photo: Hulton-Deutsch Collection
Dominic Sandbrook 4:43PM GMT 09 Jan 2010Comments

On the morning of Thursday, January 23, 1947, the front page of The Daily Telegraph made deeply depressing reading. “Bread Ration May Be Cut” read the main headline. “Less Bacon and Home Meat. Beer Supplies to be Halved Immediately”. After years of shortages and austerity, this was the last thing Britain’s weary people wanted to hear. But it was another small headline, hidden further down the page, that was to prove more significant. “Snow Falls in London” it said, and in those four short words, many readers had their first glimpse of Britain’s worst winter of the 20th century.

The cruellest cold snap in modern history could not have come at a worse time. In January 1947 Britain was exhausted after the long, valiant but ruinously expensive struggle to defeat the Nazis. The shelves were bare, the Treasury coffers were empty and the coal stocks were perilously low. On New Year’s Day the mines had come into public ownership, joining the railways, road haulage and utilities in the Labour government’s nationalised empire. But with the country already beset by shortages and strikes, the economy was dangerously close to collapse. And when the snow came down, life in Clement Attlee’s New Jerusalem ground to a halt.

In just a few days, so much snow fell on Britain that this week’s freak weather looks like a mere dusting. By the end of January, hundreds of remote Northern farms and villages were cut off by 20-foot snowdrifts, while a bitter 12-hour blizzard off the south coast brought shipping to a complete standstill. In Essex, the drifts were 14 feet deep; in Surrey and Middlesex, millions of commuters stayed at home. The railway network collapsed completely, and by January 29 the temperature in London – minus 9C – was the lowest for half a century, made worse by protracted power cuts. “Freeze up continues,” one Brixton woman wrote in her diary. “Thermometer has been at freezing point all day. Waste pipe in the bathroom and the geyser frozen … Even colder the forecast for tonight, so I’ve borrowed a balaclava helmet from Fred to wear in bed!”

There were plenty of tales of heroism amid the chaos: in the Essex village of Beaumont, the local postmaster trudged 16 miles through six-foot snowdrifts to collect rations for his famished neighbours. But for most people, facing the freezing evenings with the lights out and the heating off, the picture was unrelentingly miserable. “Wearing my snow boots and fur-lined coat I was not once warm,” recorded the upper-class diarist James Lees-Milne. “All my pipes, including WC pipes, are frozen, so a bath or a wash is out of the question. WC at the office frozen likewise … Even the basic elements of civilisation are denied us.”

Since many British cities, scarred by German bombing and years of neglect, looked pretty shabby already, the effect was like something from a post-apocalyptic fantasy. “This is a dying city,” one Londoner said bleakly to an American visitor. In the papers, headlines announced that Scotland was “cut off” and England “cut in half”. On the streets of the capital, some taxi drivers refused to venture north of Regent’s Park. And in the theatres, recalled the novelist Christopher Isherwood, actors took to the stage “heroically stripped down to their indoor clothes, while we their audience huddled together in a tight clump, muffled to the chins in overcoats, sweaters and scarves”.

For many people, however, the trials went well beyond the experience of the cold. By early February, with the snow still falling, the railways silent and the roads shut down, there was no electricity at all for industry in the South and Midlands, and more than two million people were thrown on to the dole. At the pits, stocks of coal were frozen solid, while 75,000 railway wagons laden with coal were cut off by snowdrifts. “I say it’s the judgment of the Almighty on the British people for voting Socialist,” a “thin, scholarly-looking” man eating lunch in his overcoat told a reporter in one West End restaurant. But in a reminder of the deference and stoicism of the day, there was no panic and no disorder as factories shut down. “Britons were in a bristling, grumbling mood,” wrote an American journalist. “But they stood and took it again. The British national character and the British political mood stood out in their words and deeds.”

As many saw it, there was an obvious scapegoat for the crisis of 1947: the balding, outspoken, passionately Left-wing figure of the Minister of Fuel and Power, Manny Shinwell. Although Shinwell had been warned that coal stocks were dangerously slow, he had preferred to follow the advice of his friends in the National Union of Mineworkers, and had gambled on a warm winter. Now he found himself forced into the most authoritarian measures since the war. By mid-February, electricity to industry was cut off completely, while families were banned from turning on electric fires between 9am and midday or between 2 and 4 in the afternoon. Greyhound racing was banned, the BBC’s Third Programme and the new gimmick of television were cut off, newspapers were cut to four pages, and German PoWs were ordered to clear snow from the railways by hand.

Not surprisingly, many people were furious at the government’s measures. “Starve with Strachey,” ran a popular Tory slogan of the day, mocking Labour’s unpopular Minister of Food, “and Shiver with Shinwell”. The hapless Minister of Fuel was “a yoke around our suffering necks”, agreed one diarist, after recording the spectacles of 15-foot snowdrifts in Northumberland and “queues of professional women in St John’s Wood with buckets at a water-tap in the road”.

And yet despite all the restrictions and privations, there were no riots. Britain in the Attlee years had its fair share of spivs and shirkers, but by and large it was a society proud of its stubbornness and stoicism, and a society in which people rolled up their sleeves and managed to cope. Children in particular were often delighted by the extraordinary weather: one Sheffield schoolboy recalled “tearing downhill on home-made toboggans as we used the public highways as our Cresta Run”. And even at a time when the shops had run out of soap and people were using pneumatic drills to dig up frozen parsnips, celebrity culture still exercised a magnetic appeal. One woman recorded seeing huge crowds outside a Trafalgar Square cinema, desperate to get autographs from Laurel and Hardy. Despite the freezing weather and oceans of slush, she noted, “both were hugely delighted at their reception”.

By the end of February, the cold snap seemed to be easing, and there were reports of factories taking people on again. But then, with a cruel twist, the weather turned again. Ice-floes were spotted off the coast of East Anglia; at Westminster, MPs argued over the fuel restrictions surrounded by 10-foot snowdrifts. By mid-March, 300 roads were still impassable, while Scotland was severed from the rest of the country by 30-foot drifts. More than 20,000 acres of corn had been destroyed by frost, while thousands of sheep lay frozen to death underneath the snow. And before things got better, they got worse. On March 16, one of the severest storms in British history saw the Severn and the Thames burst their banks, the London Underground flooded and more than 31 counties inundated with water. The great frost had given way to the great flood; after months of shivering, Attlee’s Britain now faced months of mopping up.

As though to mock Britain’s exhausted people, the summer of 1947 was freakishly hot where the winter had been appallingly cold. But there was no escaping the winter’s terrible legacy. Industrial output was down by at least 10 per cent, while the cost of the damage was estimated at more than £5 billion in today’s money. At a time when it could least afford it, the economy had taken a fearful battering, and Attlee’s new Chancellor, Sir Stafford Cripps, was forced into a painful series of austerity measures, including stinging tax rises and cuts in domestic consumption. And, in the long run, the crisis took a heavy toll on the reputation of the Attlee government; although he did not lose office until four years later, it was the winter of 1947 that arguably did most to undermine Labour’s Utopian dreams.

But the overriding impression of the great freeze of 1947 is not the grumbling, the misery or even the sheer cold. It is the spectacle of a tired, threadbare people, never happier than when they were grumpy, dragging themselves by sheer grit through the worst winter in living memory. Britain in 1947 was a country that loved complaining, but it was also a society in which people, to use Churchill’s immortal phrase, “kept buggering on”. “Britain Can Take It!” had been the patriotic slogan a few years earlier. And as the winter of 1947 amply proved, it could indeed.

The Anchoress of Shere, Christine Carpenter

We had our very own Anchoress back in the 14th century. She lived in Ash and Willow cottages down by the Tillingbourne , the river which runs through the village, and her father was a carpenter by the name of William. Her name was Christine; the cottages are still there, lived in by generations of other families.

There have been more famous Anchoress’ in Christendom, at least one of whom became a saint, but I think they are all saints, willingly closing themselves off from the world to devote their lives to God. In 1329, our Christine asked to be perpetually enclosed in a cell attached to the wall of the village church, where the opening through which she received her food still exists.

She can’t have been much more than a teen-ager when she made the decision, a decision which was so binding that to change your mind was tantamount to excommunication, thus everlasting hell. But the church fathers investigated her, her family, her life, her friends, to assure themselves that she was indeed chaste and virtuous before they would allow her the privilege of being shut up in a cell. No therapy to help her decide if this ambition was what she really wanted, of course, just proof that she was good enough.

After their investigation as to whether or not she was worthy of such a splendid sacrifice, the then Bishop of Winchester, wrote:

That, whereas she desires for the fulfillment of a better life to remove herself, and spend her life in the service of God and in all sanctity and chastity in the churchyard of the parish church of Schire aforesaid, alongside the church there, striving with her whole heart to endure henceforth perpetual enclosure; we are please to grant her our consent in this matter…”

I often walk along the path in Albury Park, where livestock graze on each side of the fence in spring and summer. There are ancient oak and chestnut trees with trunks several feet in circumference, which she might have seen as younger trees; would have seen the same view as I do across the valley to wooded hills, and seen the spire of the same church. It is a beautiful world, inspiring and soothing. I can almost imagine her gratitude to her God for creating such a world, and to believe an even better one awaited the faithful.  I can understand her wanting to make this huge gesture with all the idealism and passion of a young teen-ager, not fully aware of the consequences.

Then, too, I can imagine that the lives of women were not so inviting to an intelligent and ambitious young woman, as I imagine she was to take such a step. She might have married a labourer , borne several children, half of whom would die, worked hard every day to keep up with the necessities of a large family. Or she might have become an ordinary nun, living in a convent, spending her days in prayer and contemplation with other nuns. But that would not have been enough for Christine.

So she was enclosed.

But in 1333 there is another document. It is a request for the re-enclosure of Christine. She had changed her mind, sometime between 1329 and October, 1332. Letters were written for her (she probably couldn’t write, females not being educated), requesting to be re-enclosed. We don’t know how long she was out of the cell, only that she “had left her cell inconstantly and returned to the world. Now with God’s help changed in heart, wishing to return to her former abode and calling, she has humbly petitioned us that she may be treated mercifully by the Apostolic See. Mercifully!!!!

The letter asked that she be permitted to return to her cell “lest by wandering any longer about the world she be exposed to the bites of the rapacious wolf and, which heaven forbid, her blood be required at your hands”.

Further, if she behaved herself after being re-enclosed, she would be granted a “penance in proportion to her sin; if, however, she neglects to come to you ….. henceforward she shall lapse into the sentence of excommunication. ” So “the said Christine shall be thrust back into the said re-enclosure”, there to contemplate her “nefarious” sin, and be saved .

It is difficult for my 21st century mind to wrap around the language of censure in these documents aimed at a young girl who changed her mind about being shut up in a cell for the rest of her life. Nothing could be more understandable. But it was breaking the vow which was such a huge sin; she might have lost her virginity, too, out here in the big, bad world, and thus her immortal soul!! There must have been tremendous pressure in the form of certain hellfire and guilt for a sensitive and religious young person to return to her cell. Cells and isolation in our day are forms of punishment. Back then, punishment for being human? For being susceptible to temptation? For being young and full of vitality? Was it a true choice for her to go back in?

We don’t know when she died. But I wonder, how long can you live without sunshine?

Another Remembrance Day —


I watch from my window this morning as the man who lives across the street sets out for the church. He is slightly bent over, but walks briskly, dressed in a neat, pressed black suit instead of the soiled gray anorak he usually wears. Bernard and I follow a few minutes later, poppies in lapels, for the chilly 5 minute walk to the war memorial. It stands in a little square just outside the churchyard, inscribed with the names of sons of the village who died in the first and second world wars.  This November 11th, people are gathered for the annual service of remembrance.

Four ancient but upright men with colorful medals across somber jackets stand at attention before the memorial, two of them holding flags. The vicar, Nick,  leads us all in a short prayer, then wreathes are laid at the foot of the monument by the British Legion, the girl guides, and the boy scouts. Flags-tips lower humbly onto the steps around the monument as the vicar begins to read out the names, so many from the same families, especially from the first world war; some of the names are the same as people we know in the village, still there, still honoring sons, fathers, brothers and sisters. 

A white-haired woman in a wheel chair struggles to her feet as the service begins.  She stands the whole time, head bowed, her grand daughter holding an umbrella to shelter her from the rain.

Our neighbor steps forward, straight as an arrow now, and says:

They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old. Age shall not weary them, not the years condemn, at the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them.

The last post is bugled, then silence, broken only by the whisper of rain falling around us.

At last Reveille sounds, clear and clean, bringing us back to this misty, cold morning, the blood-red wreathes against rain-drenched gray stones, the silent crowd of villagers.

A memorial service continues inside the church, where we pray for peace, within ourselves, with our neighbors, and between nations. We pray that there will be no more maimed young men, sorrowful mothers and fathers, children and siblings.  We know there must be a better way  for humans to live together on this planet than rivers of blood.

Later on in the evening, B nd I are watching the results show of a favorite program, Strictly Come Dancing. It’s  an entertaining, if frivolous display of healthy bodies, smiles, energy.   But still, they acknowledge the day and the sacrifice with a song by a trio of soldiers in uniform, the studio awash with lights of red poppies, while two professional dancers enact an appropriate and moving routine. 

Each year, I am struck by the universality of respect shown to their soldiers by the English.  For a week, I have seen poppies in the lapels of most people on the street, on television presenters and in shops.  It isn’t an act, here, to prove how patriotic you are, but a heartfelt and reverent appreciation.

Battle of Britain

It is the 70th anniversary of Britain’s entry into war against Germany, and the battle of Britain took place.   In honor of the brave young pilots who fought so valiantly and brilliantly, a Hurricane and a Spitfire landed at one of the airports used as an airfield back then.  It isn’t too far from us; in fact, my son Matthew lands there when he flies his boss over here.

If we had known in advance, we would have gone to see that landing, as it is by now legendary, thanks in part to Winston Churchill’s memorable words:  “Never in the field of human conflict have so many owed so much to so few”.

It wasn’t a long battle, as it turned out. It ended when the Germans turned their attention to bombing London and other industrial sites, instead of fighting an air fight which was costing them dearly.  The RAF planes were outnumered 4 to 1  when the Luftwaffe began bombing the radar and airfields on August 12th, 1940.  The battle ended on August 30/31, 1940,by which time the RAF had lost 792 planes and the Luftwaffe, 1,389.

I recommend Googling the Battle of  Britain for a fascinating read of the full statistics, as well as checking out the 1961 film, The Battle of Britain.  BBC showed it last week, and it is a classic, with Laurence Olivier, Trevor Howard, MIchael Caine (as a young, and I mean young, pilot), and a German actor who nobody under the age of 70 will remember, Curt Jurgens.

I wondered why the RAF couldn’t fight off the  bombers when they attacked London, but the Germans bombed at night, when the planes at that time were helpless.

Here is a suggested site:

Land of Enchantment

The path where I walk in the coolness of early morning runs beside a stream at the bottom of steep banks.  It is water diverted from the Rio Grande River, which people who live here use  for irrigating their fields.  It has been here for so long  that carp spawn here in spring, and  the water is thick and roiling with their sinewy thrashing. Now, in full summer, there are no fish at all .

The morning shadows are deep and sharp, and the sun has not yet reached the burning intensity which it will achieve in an hour or so.  A slight breeze ruffles the leaves of the cottonwoods like the sound of waves on a beach; birds chatter as I pass, and prairie dogs chirp  warning cries  as they scurry across the path and disappear into their holes.  Cattle egrets, snowy and elegant, lift soundlessly into the periwinkle sky.  I pass a twisted tree, long since dead, its bare branches piercing the sky, where sometimes a red-tailed hawk perches, its plaintive call cutting through the air causing a storm of prairie dog warnings. Further on,I hear the deep honk of  a bullfrog, then a splash.

This morning music greets me as I pass, confirming that small life teems around me, and I am a part of it, all of it,  the earth beneath my feet, and the sky above me, all quivering with vitality. At moments like this, it is enough just to be.


Last Sunday, lugging a heavy suitcase, I took an expensive taxi to Waterloo Station from the hospital where Bernard was in Chelsea.  The streets thronged with people jostling for places to watch the Remembrance Day procession, which made my expensive taxi ride even more expensive.  But I was impressed that so many people, most wearing red poppies, turned out for the ceremonies.  And that all the tv presenters and news readers wore their red poppies, even on Strictly Come Dancing, all week. .

It has been an especially poignant Remembrance Day. For the first time, none of the World War I veterans are alive.  Dear old Harry Patch, bright  thoughtful, and glowing with humanity, died this year at 110.  He had said, “War is the calculated and  condoned slaughter of human beings.” The numbers may have been smaller in subsequent “conflicts”, but the principle is the same for all of them.

Another event made this day special this year.  We were invited to a service at our grandsons school.

St. Edmonds school is in the Surrey countryside where my step-grandson Matthew attends along with his little brother Louis.   Their mother invited us to the Remembrance Day service held in the chapel of this red brick Victorian structure, built in 1900.  It is a “new”school as schools go in Britain, but old enough to have lost “:old boys”, as former students are called here, to both World Wars and recently, Iraq.  We were one of  15 adults to attend, as Matthew was selected to read a war poem he had written entitled, Too Late.  Unfortunately, I forgot to wear the red poppy we bought a few days earlier.

The walls of the huge reception room were covered with notices of school events, sports results, competitions, and art work, like schools everywhere, and the children – mostly boys, though now there are a few girls as well – were lined up to enter the chapel. Their teachers herded them in, class by class, and then we slid to our benches in the back.  At a signal from the headmaster, the children sat down as one, and the boys’ choir began to sing Kyrie eleison  from Messe Basse by Faure.

I’m not sure why I find the collective voices of pre-adolescent boys so moving.  Maybe it is simply their youth, the innocence represented by the as yet unchanged soprano voices, and the awareness that those young soldiers who died were like these.   The soloist, probably 13, didn’t miss a note of this very difficult piece, and the choir followed suit.

I felt as though I were participating in centuries old ceremonies.

We all sang hymns, except me, as I didn’t know them, but the words were appropriate to the occasion, like, I Vow to Thee, My Country, and The Servant King’, and the music beautifulThe Reverend Witheridge, headmaster of a much older nearby school, Charterhouse, gave a simple sermon pointing out to us that the young men lost in the wars had sat on these same benches, played the same games, learned the same subjects, as the children occupying the benches now.

I looked at the children, praying they would  grow up in a world at peace; thought of my own boys, and how grateful I am that they didn’t have to fight, and of the parents who did lose sons and daughters to the horrors of the battlefield.

Then Matthew and two other boys read their poems, all sensitive and well-written, and we were proud of him, at 13, writing a poem an adult might have been happy to write.

The headmaster read out all the names of the öld boys killed in battle, a too-long list for a small school, including a 19 year old fallen in Iraq.  Eyes were moist for the two minute silence, and then the melancholy sounds of a trumpet playing “The Last Post”” sounded through the chapel.

Finally, we all sang God Save the Queen, including me, because I could.

After more prayers, the choir sang The Lord Bless You and Keep You, and I was nearly undone completely.

I will not forget to wear the red poppy again.