Saturday, July 12, 2008

End of an era

That's a bit of a cliché, but when a 96 year old great aunt dies you're allowed to use it. My grandmother will shortly be 99 and so I may be using it again within the next year or so, but M got there first.

We were the only ones to call her M. Her initials were MDLWG and her family had always called her L. Her husband, G (who we really did call G, as in the initial, the seventh letter of the alphabet) decided he preferred M instead so that's what later generations called her.

Her eulogy at yesterday's funeral was eye opening. I knew she had been a Wren during WW2. I didn't know that before the war she had been earning a living as a single woman, and owned a car, and was able to strip and clean an engine. And I certainly didn't know that during the war she commanded 1000 Wrens decoding stuff at Bletchley Park. You don't often think "bloody hell!" during a funeral but this occasion was the exception.

I shouldn't have been surprised. She spent nearly 20 years almost blind, with audio books her salvation. A couple of years ago I recorded The New World Order for her as a present. I let her know I was doing this and she was delighted. "If you could put it onto CD for me, that would be perfect," said this frail, elderly lady in her nineties ... Wow, I thought, then. And now I know why technology never held any fears for her.

In fact, even G didn't know about her involvement at Bletchley Park until it was declassified - whereupon, after what must have been over 20 years of marriage, she calmly told him a few home truths about various missions he had been on during the war which he hadn't known she had known about. Where is a good fly on the wall when you really need one?

She it was who was Chief Wren in Ceylon (Sri Lanka to be) after the war. When she reached the rank of Commander she wrote to her brother, my grandfather, pointing out that being of equal rank but in the senior service she now took precidence. He wrote back to say that when she could spell precedence, she could have it. Knowing how meticulous she was about, well, everything, that must have rankled.

She had a firm Christian faith, which apparently she got when she sensed God's protecting presence as she lay in a hospital ward, too ill to be moved, in London during the Blitz as the bombs rained down around her. Hard to argue with. She had a much more traditional Anglican outlook than I did - for instance, she always lamented my generation's disregard for olde English translations and ceremony, and I remember discussing/arguing about Confirmation with her. Her outlook was that it's better to be confirmed than not. I had seen far too many contemporaries go through it and take some pretty important vows just for the presents afterwards, and so my view was that it's really better to mean it first. However, she was fully in favour of women priests, remarriage of divorcees in church and other things that still give the C of E hangups. In other words, her faith really was a faith, something that lived and breathed within her, rather than dryly following the rulebook.

Everything she did in life she did quietly, without fuss and without complaining, and she did it resolutely and well. On a beautiful summer day last month she pottered about in the garden, felt a little unwell, went upstairs and quietly died.

There was one more thing that I learnt yesterday, something she had never mentioned to me, which might be grounds for being nervous. If there's any member of the family I would trust to have a prophetic word, it was her, and apparently she always thought I would go into the church ...


  1. Wow. A beautiful, touching post. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. How do you feel about her 'inkling' about you and the church?

  2. I do have a moderate involvement already, and I'm telling myself that's what she meant!

  3. Thank-you for sharing this.
    We learned some interesting things about my Grandad at his funeral - he was sent for to go fix an electrical engineering problem at a secret location that turned out to have been Bletchley Park. Reading between the lines, I think he may have been fixing Colossus!

    I wish we'd learned some of this stuff sooner.


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