Late one Sunday afternoon during the second world war I was born in my paternal grandmother’s sitting room. My mother’s birthday book, which I read after her premature death, aged 43, simply read “My little Ann Carol born” I still have it…one of those treasures to be kept.My father was in the airforce and my grandfather on the Atlantic food run. He had been honoured with the Croix de Guerre in the first world war. We were proud of him. A lifetime naval man, he was to be invalided out of the navy just before the end of the second world war and died of TB when I was four years old. I can remember his downstairs bedroom (really a small back sitting room) with its open French windows into the back garden. 81 Channel View Road was a mid terrace house close to the seafront in Eastbourne. Mum and her new baby were strongly advised to move elsewhere. Eastbourne, lying under Beachy Head, was deemed to be an invasion point. So mother and little Ann moved to Bexhill-on-Sea to be near my other grandparents. We were lucky. We found a bungalow to rent and grandad was a butcher. We had occasional treats from him and we kept chickens (sadly to be lost to a fox just before the war ended.)
I, therefore, was nurtured on eggs and home grown vegetables, not to mention the cod liver oil and concentrated orange juice that was delivered with the milk. The cod liver oil was truly horrid but I daresay very good for me. Dad came home in 1946. My mother always said I was born old, and while I do not really know what she meant by it, it seems to have had something to do with books and being sickenly sensible and well behaved and responsible! Something I was later to regret but that is part of another story.
We stayed in Bexhill until two years after the war was ended. Dad was an electrician and mum had a part time job in Woolworths. We were allocated a council House back in Eastbourne. I was by this time at primary school and had acquired two younger brothers. My love affair with education is for another time but I eventually found myself as a qualified teacher of Religious Education in Northwest Harrow sharing a flat with Carol, a lifetime friend, now in Australia.
I taught in a large Secondary Modern School whose pupils were largely resettled Eastenders. I stayed there until that fateful night phone call telling me my mother had died suddenly of a heart attack. I made for Eastbourne driven by my landlord, the vicar of Harrow Wealdstone. The church was on the main road not far from the Kodak factory…. He was a gentle giant of a man, an evangelical with a gorgeous curate with whom I ran a youth group. Sadly, (at the time) my attempts to win the hand of the handsome curate failed but they were good days.
There are of course huge gaps in this story which spans the fifties and early sixties and some gaps will be filled in, but you may well be wondering why I see all this as having anything to do with ageing. I firmly believe the foundations of our futures are laid in the early years of life. Most parents give of their best to their children and my parents were no different. Being the firstborn almost automatically brings with it responsibilities. Both my parents worked and I was often left in charge of the boys, giving them tea and organising the going-to- bed routines. My triumph was having the washing up done and the boys in their pyjamas by the time my parents came home between six and half past. It was during these years I started going to church. I took to it with a natural aptitude for hymn singing! i also wanted to teach in the Sunday school! However, perhaps because of all that and a love of Biblical studies, I ended up marrying a widower with two children more or less my own age. Of course I thought about the considerable age difference and because of that I said ‘no’ to his regular proposals over about nine months before ‘giving in’. We married in a side chapel of Salisbury Cathedral one frosty December morning at 9am. I was 31 and a teacher in Salisbury. Other than the people who were especially invited to this quiet wedding we told no one other than my head mistress. We were married on Saturday and I went back to school on Monday. My only regret is that I had not told my upper sixth form theologians. I don’t think they ever forgave me that!
We were happy. We had much in common. He was a sensitive man, intelligent and a Canon of the Cathedral. He had left a parish church to look after his sick wife; buying a lease on a house in Salisbury’s Cathedral Close in order to do so.
Sadly we only had six years of marriage. They were good years. We took the car to France ( he didn’t want to fly) we drove over Britain. He loved Cornwall, the North East and the Lake District. We visited his son in Edinburgh and there were always the restaurants! He had an abiding passion for good food. We had always agreed that if either one of us wanted to bring someone home for a meal we could just do so…and we both did from time to time. We had people in to meals or drinks. Our own private ritual was having a gin and dubonet every evening. At Christmas time we always had a big party. The house was full! I learned to cook…it was essential.
The last year was hard. He had two strokes; the second eventually proved fatal. That last year was marked by real trauma for him and far from easy for me. He became doubly incontinent which he absolutely hated. There was of course a lot for me to cope with but when you love someone that is what you do. In retrospect it was an enormous privilege. I had good neighbours. I remember calling in a retired bishop from the street below the bedroom window to help me lift him when he had slipped off the edge of the bed. Funny in retrospect, not so at the time.
He was at home until the last few days of his life. I can still remember walking home from Salisbury Infirmary (then in the centre of town) playing , in my head, with the words…’Ann you are a widow.’ I was still under 40.
I think it was all this that has taught me not to see age as a barrier to happiness. All life is fragile. My mother died at 43. My husband was a lot older. Loss is always painful but if we think like that we tend to forget the gift of life having the potential for great joy.
I have always, it seems, carried responsibility. It is my experience and may not be yours, but what each individual has are the gifts, either acquired or God given through which to express real love, the greatest gift of all. I always wanted to re marry and would still do so although that seems unlikely now….but the need to give and receive love does not cease.
Having said I would think about the Psalms in the introduction to this blog I would rather think of two Old Testament characters. The first is Abraham, who in the narrative, is called from Haran to go on a great journey when he is 75 years old. I believe there is still a journey in front of me be it long or short. That journey will be shot through with the purposes of God whether it eventually ends its path on earth with joy and great fulfilment or in loneliness, suffering or that most difficult of all things, dementia. The other example is that of of Jeremiah who in his teens felt the call of God to go and preach a hard message to his people. When he says to God, “I am too young”, the answer he gets is “How dare you say you are too young?”…get on with it. God calls us to follow him wherever that may lead. He will give us both the strength and the gifts that are needed for the journey. In my journey I have met many wonderful people and I am grateful to them….Age has of course impacted on my relationship with some of them but it has never in itself been a less than rich experience. The impact of age (my own and others) on my life has been entirely positive in the tools it has given me for the journey and the friendships that have been mine. I thank God for all these people and what they have given me.