It was St Francis' day, just 4 months after my birth, when my parents brought me to baptism. They had waited a long time, 11 years, for the gift of a child and they both knew the reality of ill-health that gave us an uncertain future together.
It would, perhaps, have been sensible to choose god-parents who were parents of small children too...to make tacit preparations for the day when they themselves might not be there to love and nurture their only child.
But they didn't.
They took loving risks – and those risks paid off 1000 fold.
Each of my three god-parents gave me something different, something precious which has stayed with me all my life – but of them all, J was the person whom I loved most in the whole world, after my parents.
She was a teenager herself that October day...and I cannot remember a time when I did not adore her and want to be like her. That might be expected in a small girl, glimpsing the glamorous wonder of young adult life as J and her friends appeared each summer, like a flock of exotic birds who brought colour and music and warmth to the rather adult world in which I moved. Of course I idolized her. To my child-self she was perfect – the prettiest of her group, her laugh the most joyful, her hug the best at mending wounds of any kind. But as I grew up I realized that her beauty and charisma was not just the product of childish admiration. It was who she was.
Later I would joke with my parents that if she found herself dropped suddenly in the middle of the Gobi desert, someone would materialize and offer to carry her luggage...J had the gift of making others long to do things for her, though most often she would be finding ways to do things for them.
When she fell in love, while working as an au pair in Denmark, and married out there I was, of course, both delighted and desolate. Her family (my unofficial extended family) still lived just down the road from mine but inevitably her trips home became less frequent. In time she brought home her first baby and that summer on the beach his Moses basket was part of the luggage of our shared family encampment – and I fell in love all over again, composing lullabies on my recorder and pouring over him, enthralled.
All my memories of J are of summer and sunshine. Though she was there, too, as an essential part of the Christmas celebrations of my childhood , it was, and is, in the sunlight on the waves that I will think of her most. She was no stranger to hard times too, losing her own father before she was grown up, and dealing with a broken marriage and, no doubt, all sorts of other sadness that she preferred to protect us from. I can see her, bursting with life and beauty as she stood beside Daddy's grave on the day of his funeral...pregnant with her beloved daughter, her blossoming a sign of hope and continued love as we grappled with the reality of loss.
That summer as Mummy fled to her favourite cousin, living in Holland, I too crossed the north sea and went north to Denmark, where J and her new husband were beginning work on the country cottage that was to be their home from then on. Things were quite basic that first year...but I loved it all so much...sleeping in the gypsy wagon at the bottom of the garden, watching J milk her goat and make a wonderful smokey goats cheese, picking tomatoes and collecting eggs, sitting drinking beer in her garden late into the long summer evenings...Even the rainy days were wonderful as I sat at her kitchen table, beside the range, with a delightful tabby kitten (“Jens Pussykin” by name) curled up on my lap and J and I talked and talked and talked – of life and hopes and dreams and sadness. I felt understood on every level there could possibly be...known and loved to my very core.
She was a natural Franciscan – finding and celebrating God in all creation, rarely talking about the Creator but sharing His love with a directness that might have seemed naïve until you were exposed to it.
My resolve to be “just like her when I grow up” was probably confirmed unconsciously that first summer in Denmark and so many of the things that have brought me most joy in life – my children, my animals (the chickens were in part her birthday gift to me last year) the huge skies of the Welsh borders, the light playing on the waves , the sound of the canal water lapping against Polyphony on a summer evening – are things that I've loved and shared with her.
I remember her excitement and delight as I prepared for Cambridge, the long letters in her beautiful italic script that would arrive so regularly through my student years and beyond...
How did she ever find time, with 3 children, a husband a small-holding and a job? - but somehow she did.
Why haven't I saved them all? That saddens me now, as I know they brimmed over with her warmth.
When things have been tough, we've cried together.
When they have been joyful, we've celebrated.
On my wedding day, it was J who took the place of my parents, dead then some 7 years, standing beside me in the “receiving line” so that I had someone to call my own as the endless stream of my new family and my old friends wound past...Her daughter was my bridesmaid – and my best J memory of that day was finding her surrounded by happy children, enabling them to play safely beside the swimming pool at my in-law's home.
When we lived in London, I took my own children down to Sussex in an echo of those summer days of my childhood – and remember one golden day in Eastbourne when it was Hugger Steward's turn to be the baby in the basket as J, staying with her mum for a few weeks, played with Hatti Gandhi, helping her to find those sea-washed fragments of glass that we called mermaid's tears.
I never had to pretend with her. The unconditional love that she had offered to my child self continued through to the very end.
Is this all true?
Is love painting an unrealistic picture?
It's certainly true for me...In asking J to be my godmother, my parents gave me one of their greatest gifts and I'm blessed by each memory of her. In her last months, she phoned regularly and we talked about what lay ahead, about hopes and fears and where to look for strength . Her last card to me speaks still of future hopes – of seeing us this year, of spending time on Polyphony. Whenever I go aboard now, I will give thanks for J, and smile through my tears as I remember again that love is stronger than death.