Remembering A Life Well-Lived

A few years ago I was privileged to spend time in the English countryside in the springtime.  Honestly, it was like being dropped into a Beatrix Potter story except that she’s from the Lake District, and I was in Devon.  If there is a word in the English language that might express ‘superlative beauty’ adequately, then I might use it.  Pulcherissitude? I can combine the Latin and the English.

I was there for a dear friend’s wedding, and I was privileged to get to know her now husband and his parents although not well enough.  I wanted to stay longer and spend more time with everyone, but ten days was what I allowed which is far more than most guests are given.

John became my friend’s father-in-law.  In some ways, he was everything that we Americans might imagine educated, octogenarian Englishman to be.  He read at Cambridge in his younger years.  He had been a teacher.  He was infatuated with village life.  He was a gifted artist and potter.  We talked about Chaucer and his compulsion to make jams every year with the fruits from his orchard while his wife, whom I just adore, quietly looked on, a knowing twinkle in her eye.  I cannot describe how privileged I felt, even then, to spend time with John and his wife.

One morning, a few days before the wedding, I got up and made an omelette for the husband-to-be.  I detest eggs, but he said he wouldn’t mind a good omelette.  I thought I might contribute then to the household and cook! I, however, failed to dress for breakfast as I had arisen before most of the household.  I was still in my “dressing gown” or robe as we call it in America.  My friend’s soon-to-be in-laws lived on a sort of estate that was over 400 years old.  It was idyllic in many ways–the sort of place you might see in a calendar.  As with old buildings, however, this estate was not without its quirks like no heat in the winter! John and his wife lived in a building across from where their son lived so I had to trot across something of a courtyard to bring the groom his breakfast since he had gone to have morning tea with his parents.  In my defense, I warned the groom that I was not appropriately dressed to be bringing him his breakfast in the presence of his parents.  He assured me that it would be fine.  I could just pop in, hand him the plate, and run back and get dressed.  Hmmmm, I thought.  My grandparents always dressed for breakfast.  They were exceedingly proper Scandinavians.  In fact, I never saw my grandfather in his pajamas.  My mother was a rather rebellious person so she rejected everything her parents taught her about society, manners, and dress, but my grandmother had me learning etiquette as soon as I turned 4.  I had a feeling I was going to regret my decision to hand off The Omelette in my robe.

I quietly opened the door to the house across the courtyard and handed The Omelette off to my friend’s fiancé.  It was my intention to sprint back to the other house, The Farmhouse as it was named, but as I turned to sneak away I heard a loud, “Oh, these eggs are just fantastic!”   John exclaimed, “Where did you get that omelette?” His son proclaimed, “Well, from Jules here! She’s right here! She just brought them to me!” I was nearly out the door! John stood up and said, “Jules! Come in, come in! Don’t just stand there.”  I looked at my friend’s betrothed pointedly.  He grinned at me.  And then came what I was expecting, “Why, Jules, you’re still in your dressing gown.”  I looked at the happy eater of eggs again.  He looked at me and said, “Oh, why yes, she is!” I wanted to scoff.  It felt a bit like a joke.  John stood there assessing my dressing gown while I looked at him, so neatly attired.  Then, his wife came into the room.  “Oh, good morning, Jules! Can I get you some tea? Oh my, you’re still in your dressing gown!”  Silence ensued.  John looked at his wife.  She looked at him.  I stared at the floor and pondered their carpet.  They looked at their son who said, “Well, thank you so much for the eggs.  They were excellent.”  I looked at him with disbelief, I imagine.  Soon thereafter, John’s daughter energetically entered the room.  She was in town for the wedding.  “Good morning! I’d love some tea.  Oh, good morning, Jules, how did you sleep? Oh…you’re still in your dressing gown.”  Another awkward silence fell upon the room, and I looked at the man who catalyzed the entire situation.  He was smirking.  I think that he thought the whole Dressing Gown Debacle was funny, but the heavy silence in the room indicated that I had done something terribly wrong.  I had a very bad feeling about showing up with The Omelette in my robe…and Converse.  I knew better.  I’m a Southerner! We just don’t do things like that, but I’m a cook first.  And, dammit, but cold eggs are horrible.

I just stood there in the middle of the room surrounded by the fragrance of black tea and toast and muttered, “I wanted his omelette to be warm.  I didn’t think anyone would see me.  I…”

Finally, John said, “Well now, we’ve all seen you in your dressing gown now.  What’s done is done.”  I sighed and nodded my head.  “Thank you.  I’m sorry.  I’ll just go get dressed.”  John interjected with a swish of his hand and said, “Nonsense! Come sit down now and have some oatmeal and tea.  I have this book of American poetry here.  I’ve picked out a poem here that I’d like you to read, and we shall discuss it while you eat.”  I had to stifle a laugh.  Really? We were going to discuss American poetry over tea and oatmeal? Oh, it was too wonderful for me and too much at the same time.  As John and I sat at the table discussing the poem, my friend finally came in for morning tea, and what do you suppose she said, “Oh my! Jules, you’re still in your dressing gown!”  I looked immediately at her fiancé who coughed while holding back a laugh.  She looked at him and then at me.  John swished his hand again and then said, “Oh, that’s all fine now.  We’re reading poetry.”

Funnily enough, when I knocked on John’s door the next morning for a cup of tea, as was the family custom, the first thing he said to me was, “Jules, you’re not wearing your dressing gown!” I was taken aback and replied, “Well, it’s not customary, John.  I want to do as is done here.”  He swished his hand again in the air and said, “Oh well, for you, Jules, I don’t mind it.  You can wear your dressing gown to breakfast.  It’s okay.”

The story of the Dressing Gown made its way around the wedding.  Perhaps the village now knows about it.  Strangers approached me and asked about it.  It was almost scandalous.  One couple would find me and relentlessly tease me about it.  I can look back on it now and laugh.  It just adds a certain spice to the entire experience and memory.  I’m actually wearing that very dressing gown right now! I had such a rich experience during my stay in Devon.  Every day was a new adventure.  A new experience.  A new conversation.  A chance to form a connection.

I spent as much time as I could with my friend, her husband, and his parents.  I returned home with rich stories to tell my family, and my stories were so good, apparently, that my daughters have said, “We feel like we know them.  We have to meet them.  We love them already.”

John passed away last December.  I have not written much about his wife, but she, too, is extraordinary.  Everyone in their family is in their own way.  They would have to be extraordinary because my friend is.  Only an extraordinary family would be matched to her.  It is very hard for me to write that John died.  I have not met many integrous, truly good men in my life, but he was one of them.  I could write so much more about him, and a lot of what I have to say would make you laugh.  As I said, he was the personification of the older Englishman complete with eccentricities, but I loved it all.  When he spoke to me about the speech that he was preparing for his son’s wedding, he told me that he felt compelled to speak of Chaucer.  He might just give the toast in Middle English.  I tried very hard to dissuade him of that.  If I recall, I think that he did, in fact, give part of the toast in Middle English, and when I told my friend and her husband that I, in fact, had persuaded John to give a shorter speech, my friend looked at her new husband and gasped, “She just said that he was going to give a longer speech than the one he gave! Can you imagine that?”

I find it to be almost unacceptable that the world is no longer home to John.  It’s a lesser place now.  I have a card sitting here for the family.  It is almost unforgivable that I have not sent it.  I have condemned myself repeatedly that I have failed to do the good and proper thing by not sending the minimum token of condolence and sympathy.  It just occurred to me today why I have not done it.  When I put a stamp on that card and send it on its way, then I will be acknowledging that John has died.  I will never see him again in this life.  I don’t want to do that.  I want to go back to Devon and see John sitting at that table having his breakfast.  I want to see his wife in her chair.  I want to walk the grounds of the estate with my friend and hear the wood doves coo, but I know that I will never do that again.  The family estate has been sold.  John is gone, and life has changed for everyone.  It pains me profoundly that I have been so far away, unable to do anything for anyone as they mourn.

Loss is hard.  I don’t like it.  It hurts.  If I can learn anything from having known John and his family, then let it be this: We can have a powerful effect for good in the lives of others even if we only know them for a short time.  One of the most powerful experiences I’ve ever had in which the love of God was revealed to me happened when someone served me breakfast as a child.  That’s it.  I’ve never forgotten it.

Life is made up of a chain of small acts linking together with other small acts.  This is how we build the foundation for everything else in our lives.  If a war can be lost for want of a nail, then the opposite is true, too.

Thus, on this Passover, I remember John and his life, and I will send that card.  I will be grateful for the time I had with John and his family and the time I spent on his land, and say unashamedly that I miss all of them, and hope that I, too, can live the rest of my life as fully as he lived his.

And, I will undoubtedly never get rid of that dressing gown even if it falls apart.

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The Farmhouse

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7 thoughts on “Remembering A Life Well-Lived

  1. Wonderful timing to read this, on the cusp of celebrating three years of marriage! Thank you. Over the last few days I have been pretty tearful, walking around the ‘estate’ (don’t like that word!), watching spring set the place ablaze with glorious yellow (thousands of daffodils planted by John) and now the inky blues of bluebells.

    When I go into his empty pottery studio and look at the pots of special ceramic paint, glazes, bags of clay and sculpting paraphanalia, my heart yearns for him. When I look over the fields, down to the stream, and across to the neighbouring fields that rise up, from the other side of the stream, I remember him. He loved this place so much. Looking out over that view he would say to me ‘why would anyone ever want to move from here?’ Over the past few years, there was an increasing necessity for him to sell up and move into town. James and I knew that he wouldn’t make it. We are so thankful that he died before having to live what would have been for him, a lesser life.

    The swallows are starting to return to this part of England. Friends of ours, further up the valley, also in a rural setting, have had their swallows return this week from their African adventures. We have opened the shed doors this week, in eager anticipation. There are blue pencil markings on the shed door, with the dates, every year, of the swallows’ arrival and departure. In John’s inimitable hand-writing. This year, who will write the dates?

    I have never met a man like John before. I doubt if I ever will. He inspired me to love. I remember being a visitor, when dating James, at the village church. A very traditional Anglican (Episcopal?) Church. When saying the ‘peace’, John took my hands, smiled deeply, gladly, with his entire heart and soul in that smile, and said ‘PEACE be with you’. It bought tears to my eyes. It touched me so profoundly. Such love and acceptance.

    Around the place there are random pieces of pottery nailed to walls of various outbuildings, that John painted, then etched poems onto, then glazed and fired them. One, as follows (by WH Davies):

    WHAT is this life if, full of care, We have no time to stand and stare?—
    No time to stand beneath the boughs,And stare as long as sheep and cows:

    No time to see, when woods we pass,Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass:

    No time to see, in broad daylight,Streams full of stars, like skies at night:

    No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,And watch her feet, how they can dance:

    No time to wait till her mouth can Enrich that smile her eyes began?

    A poor life this if, full of care, We have no time to stand and stare.

    John was a man who stood and stared. And loved and appreciated and enjoyed. May we all have time to stand and stare and love, appreciate and enjoy. xxx

    • I read your comment as I was preparing the seder plate for our Passover table. I just cried, but not so much out of sadness. I felt such gratitude for having spent time with you at Wood. I remembered you being here with us when we laughed and ate the Passover meal on my grandmother’s china. I remembered being at your wedding. I remembered James taking me out on that midnight badger hunt, hoping to see a real badger! I remembered John making GF bread and my decorating your wedding cake. And I just remember feeling overwhelmingly blessed to have shared in the wonderful moments of your life. I know that it’s not perfect. None of us have that, but it gives me peace to know that you are in the company of truly good people and share in a blessed legacy. I don’t mind it being said for all the world to see on my blog that I miss you and thank God for you. It is because of our friendship that I was blessed to know John and Myra and your cheeky, wonderful husband and his sisters. To think, they saw a badger AND a hedgehog!!

      God bless you, Susie Q, as you take this next step in your quite wonderful adventure. I can’t wait to see what happens next. I hope the wonder of John goes with you. I hope it goes with me, too.

  2. PS thanks for the photo too. I will REALLY miss this place. So thankful to have spent 3 happy years here. Learning to be a countrywoman from James. Learning to grow vegetables from John (his style of teaching: ‘oh yes, just throw them in, they’ll grow’. Ha!). One day I will finally know the difference between a piece of ash and a piece of sycamore!

    • Oh, you are so welcome. Thank YOU for your hospitality! It is one of my favorite memories and places in the whole wide world. Okay…what IS the difference between a piece of ash and a piece of sycamore in terms of gardening?

      • hmm its late and I think my syntax is probably not great! The context is going for walks with James, and he points to a stick of wood on the ground that has invariably fallen from one of the trees on our property, and he says ‘Susy, do you know what this is?’ (not just a twig or a piece of a bough, but what type of tree its from!). I just guess! One day I will REALLy know! 🙂 xx

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