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Grandma to a Village

Friday, 25th May, 2001

At their heart, funerals are a realisation of the passage of time. They celebrate a life and mourn the passing of it, as a life thread finally snaps. Somehow, I've found that often the realisation comes in very surprising ways.

Yesterday I attended the funeral of possibly the kindest soul I've ever had the privilege to meet, my first funeral since my father's and a very different one in almost every possible way.

Ten years ago the church would have been full to overflowing, but at 85 years of age Minnie Smithies outlived most of those who would have attended in her honour. It's a testament to her influence that there was still a respectable congregation. At 57, my father left every possible attendee every chance to still be alive to turn up.

I knew my dad like very few others, naturally, and I certainly knew Minnie, but looking back I realise that I didn't know her that well. I didn't meet her until she was in her sixties and haven't swapped more than basic pleasantries for many years.

Yet I still felt drawn to her funeral in a way that I've only felt a couple of times before. I may not have known her well but she meant something very substantial to me. The person that she was publicly was the same person she was privately - she had no false front for the world. The genuine article in every way, she would do anything for anybody. She was one of those very rare people who leave the world a better place for their presence.

Every memory I have of her underlines that.

She used to buy a stack of pulp romance novels every time the charity bookstall I used to run made a public appearance, but they were never for her. She was buying for her sisters and for others she visited in hospital or nursing homes.

Way back when, I was introduced to the Yorkshire delicacy known as parkin, a form of gingerbread. Minnie baked the stuff and I'd bought some that she'd donated at some village fair or other. She didn't forget my reaction and promptly gave me an immense slab of the stuff for Christmas.

Most bizarrely, I have no memory of her whatsoever that doesn't involve something that she did for someone else.

My dad did plenty for the people of Barkisland, but what he did was as part of many roles or positions that he assumed: as head teacher of the school, as churchwarden and parochial church council member. He took these positions very seriously and he did his job. Minnie did less for Barkisland as a place, but she did more than anyone for Barkisland as a community. Everyone knew Minnie and I'm sure everyone had experienced her kindness first hand.

Yesterday, someone up above must have been paying attention because it was a warm day in Barkisland for Minnie, with no other weather but a refreshing light breeze. The semi-mythical ball of fire in the sky blazed down in a way that it only ever used to do for Sports Day. After all this is a village infamous for its horizontal rain.

The last time I was here was for the Remembrance Day service at the war memorial outside church; that was as typical a Barkisland day as yesterday wasn't. The rain sliced viciously, the wind whipped away the words of the priest and the elements howled their disapproval of we mere mortals daring to venture outside in November.

It was, of course, a fitting environment to remember those who gave their lives in conditions even worse, just as yesterday mirrored the warmth of her heart and the refreshing breeze of her soul.

I remember seeing Minnie at the war memorial on many occasions, and at all the meeting points of the village: the school, the church, the cricket club, the post office. Her presence permeated the village to its core. She wasn't the only one, of course. The village elders when I first arrived there twenty years ago are still the village elders now, but the place has changed irrevocably. New estates have more than doubled the population and the town was starting to become a yuppie paradise even when I moved in. Now younger generations of locals move out because they cannot afford the mortgages.

I'm a Barkisland ex-pat now. I played my tiny part in the history of the village and moved on when my life took me elsewhere. And that's why the village is changing. These village elders have lived here for their entire lives; many can track their families back generations, all centred around the village. Minnie's family is woven deeply into the fabric of the village, reaching out to merge with other Barkisland families. She didn't just leave children but grandchildren and great-grandchildren too.

But my generation have moved on and out as life draws us to pastures new. With each new death, the village I remember dies a little more and disappears slowly in reality. I haven't seen many of yesterday's attendees for ten years or more - sudden recognition brings sudden realisation of the passage of time. Only in our hearts, minds and memories does it live on, and it's a powerful enough entity to live on like this for a long while. It is the one place in my life thus far that I will always return to.

When I visit my father's stone in the garden of remembrance and keep his memory alive, I'll remember Minnie too, with just one stone between them. Hers was a kindness that should never be forgotten.

Barkisland still has some of its organisers, its workhorses, its characters. But as granddaughter Ruth said during the service, it's now short of its grandma.

Home - Writing - The Million Word March Mail Hal C F Astell - Site Map