New year, last words
The peace that passes all understanding
WHEN I headed upstairs this morning, mug of coffee in hand, my husband had only six words to say to me: ‘Try not to write about Trump.’
This was an ancient echo. Half a century ago, my grandmother’s plea after reading every word I wrote was: ‘Can’t you write something cheerful? Take pity on this gloomy old world.’
In fact, this Christmas was a miracle of cheerfulness and joy. The house was full and the rhythm of cooking, eating, drinking, walking and singing, meant that, for five whole days, I stopped reading newspapers as though they were a black box that had been recovered and would explain how one country’s flight went so wrong.
Then, as soon as the last car was loaded and the final farewells and hugs were made, the lacuna of time that hovers over the arrival of a new year descended. This is usually a meditative time. The house is empty, but the larder is half full. The tree still smells of Maine and, in this age of genetic miracles, the needles are hanging on.
On every significant surface of the house is a crèche (the English call it a crib, which sounds less poetic to my ear), including a wooden one whittled in the hills of Kentucky and another in granite resin sculpted by French nuns, who take a vow of silence and spend their lives creating figures that are sold in cathedral shops.
It takes me a whole day to bring every Mary, Joseph, Infant Christ, shepherds, Wise Men, donkeys and sheep from the attic. I begin in daylight with St Matthew Passion and tea and end at dusk with Ella Fitzgerald and eggnog. I like to get maxiwhen mum spiritual bang for my buck, so these Nativity tableaux remain in place long past Epiphany.
This year, however, another thought wandered through my mind as I assembled the figures: who will do this in the misty future when I’m not around? Should I take pictures with my phone? Leave stage directions? My new daughter-in-law is in her fourth year studying medicine at Barts; her twin sister, now a junior doctor, was on duty in a Kent hospital and only arrived in Suffolk the night of Christmas Day. We reversed Boxing Day and Christmas Day so all she missed was The Queen’s Speech. Their future lives do not suggest whole days to set up heirloom Nativity scenes.
But the thought that the tradition of the crèches might go with me (that same grandmother liked to warn us, ‘I might die someday; 10 out of 10 do’) has lingered with me during this festive season, despite the fact that I haven’t got a single ache and suffer nothing more worrying than thinner hair and the odd fog that descends over names.
Still, the decision to photograph the Nativity scenes triggered the desire to create order. I realised my will needed an update and the addition passwords and PINS. I looked at my list of wishes. Treasures I considered precious 10 years ago now seem shabby. I also detected a new attitude. I felt like giving away a lot of the ‘good’ stuff now. Not in an effort to swindle the taxman out of probate, although that’s a thought, but for the rich satisfaction of giving while the giving feels good.
All this preparation for the new year felt like a higher realm of clearing my clutter, but then I went a step further: I decided to write my memorial service. Inspired by a trilogy of funerals in Advent, it felt wise and practical to put pen to paper while I still have my marbles and can remember what I like. This takes more time than you’d think and my husband was mystified by my morbid determination. He was also relieved to think that, should I go first, he wouldn’t have to worry about getting it right.
As with my will, I reckon I will revise this document regularly. Once, I wanted a wicker coffin, but now I think they are noisy and look like laundry baskets. The wool ones made in Yorkshire look heavenly, but they also resemble hatboxes. I’ve settled on a dark green, almost black, cardboard coffin with or without rope handles (note: handles on all coffins are purely decorative, expensive and unnecessary).
It’s possible that what I’ve written looks more like a concert than a farewell service, but I’m with Sir Thomas Browne, physician of Norwich, who wrote: ‘Happy are they that go to bed with grand music.’ I’ve even ordered the sheet music so no one has to scramble around for it. ‘Don’t worry,’ my son assures me, ‘it’s all available on Youtube.’
‘Who will do this in the misty future when I’m not around? Should I take pictures with my phone?’ ‘I’m with Sir Thomas Browne: “Happy are they that go to bed with grand music”
I finally finished on New Year’s Eve, I tenderly placed my ‘Memento Mori’ in one of those nice paisley boxes from OKA. I felt inexpressibly serene. I also felt it was a generous gift to those left behind— well, maybe not the musical requirements (Copland, Britten, Brahms’s clarinet concerto), but I hope I’ll leave a wad sufficient to fund musicians.
There is one small problem. In this house, we spend a great deal of time searching for important papers, so I’ve left copies in the gun safe, the drinks cupboard, various desks and drawers, plus a file on my computer entitled ‘Last Words’. Oh, thoughtful me.
With the peace that passes all understanding, I’m ready for the life that comes. I vow not to slip photographs of the crèche arrangements in the back of the box in the years to come. Now, I simply await praise: this page has been triumphantly—almost— Trump-free.