New year, last words

The peace that passes all un­der­stand­ing

Country Life Every Week - - Another Country -

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.

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