Many years ago my good wife was au pair to the families of a pair of sisters, whose mother was one of those ladies often described as 'indomitable'. The kind on whom the British Empire was built. I had the privilege of meeting her once but could happily have done with more. She died at the age of 92 and on Friday we were at a thanksgiving mass for her life.
Born in Kenya, she apparently had this recent exchange with a Kenyan immigration official:
"How long are you staying in Kenya?"
"I don’t know."
"Have you visited Kenya before?"
"How long did you stay then?"
Anecdotes about her life included finding a gun lying around in the house of one of the suspects in the White Mischief murder. "Don't ask," she was advised, so she didn't, and quietly put it back.
A lovely service with some good tunes: 'How great thou art', 'I, the Lord of sea and sky' (a surprisingly modern choice) and, um, The Battle Hymn of the Republic. I'd quite like that last one at my own funeral, but for me the only version worth having is performed by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the vicar might have something to say about that.
Anyway. I was moved by the service and also by something else even closer to my heart. There’s a biblical passage where we're enjoined not to take the seat of honour at a gathering, because someone more important may turn up and we’ll be hideously embarrassed to have to go and sit somewhere else. Instead, says Jesus, sit at the back so that you can be guided up to a more important position by the host.
Which is exactly what happened to us. All prepared to sit quietly at the back, one of the grandsons that Beloved had looked after as a small boy firmly guided us further up the church, assuring us (well, her) that we're family. That was just the start of an afternoon that made me feel truly privileged, because men and women she hadn't seen for decades were falling on her and hugging her and thanking her for coming, and I realised how much she had touched their lives way back when, and now I have the blessing of being married to her.
And the Knight of St John? He was actually the priest conducting the service. I noticed this strange cross a bit like the Blue Max bobbing at his throat as the service went on, but as he probably wasn't a German WWI fighter ace I had no idea what it could be. Afterwards we shook hands, and I asked, and he told me. Cor, knock me down with a feather.
The Reverend Father knows, let's say, how to work a room. Voice trembling with emotion – he was an old friend of the departed – he told during his homily how, on the day she died, he had been driving in the country, and stopped for a sandwich, and a little robin alighted upon his arm, whereupon he fed the small creature a few crumbs and it flew off again. "I don't know what you think of that," he finished.
Later the oldest grandson privately told us exactly what he thought: "I think you’re a f&^%ing liar, Father!" But he said it with a big smile, and grandmother would have had a good laugh.