Betty John Cefn Llwyd

I had a lovely afternoon exploring my mother’s reminiscences with our village Mothers’ Union last week. They all remembered her as the elegant elderly lady who came to Evensong and were intrigued by the story of her childhood on a farm between Newport and Cardiff and her struggle to get an education. I have promised to go back again and talk about her time at university and the war years in Chepstow.

I rescued her reminiscences and put them on this site but on a page which talked about her last illness and death. Here they are again without that rather sad introduction.

Reminiscences of farming life in the 1920s

Education for the people

War Years in Chepstow

Larkfield Grammar School in World War II

An Honourable Estate

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Some more wedding photos – and another speech. Photos are all from the online album – lots more at  http://www.wedpics.com/album/GI4TGNZWGIZQ .

Here we are in the porch

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the amazing bus that Sean’s dad arranged to get us into Cardiff

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Rachel and bridesmaids playing around in the park

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of course there was a Pokémon in the park

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going into the reception

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the cake

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the statutory Top Table Selfie

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The two Best Men’s speech was great fun and very moving

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(Limericks to follow when we get them scanned)

Rachel and Sean’s first dance

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then it got a bit more freeform

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and the Happy Couple are now at an Unknown Location with blue sky, blue sea, Quiet Pool and a nice man who comes round every hour with watermelon and ices. Gosh, it’s tough.

The Excellent Mystery

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According to the old Prayer Book, marriage is ‘an honourable estate, instituted of God … and therefore is not by any to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God.’

Of course, no-one would now enter into marriage unadvisedly or lightly. You need to plan at least a year ahead to get a decent venue for the reception. Vicars tear their hair out when couples arrange the venue first and try to book the church as an afterthought. Being a determinedly contrary family, we did the whole thing for my daughter’s wedding base over apex by booking the organist first, having lengthy debates over hymns and readings and doing the reception in our National Museum. (It’s a brilliant venue. You get drinks in the Impressionists gallery – white wine only, please – then a meal in the great hall and plenty of room for dancing afterwards, all under the eye of statues and massive wall paintings.)

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We live only a couple of hundred yards from St Michael and All Angels, so the plan was for Rachel to walk to the church. After the reception they planned a ridiculous amount of time for photographs in the park, then we could go into the museum by one entrance as the great public was being ushered out by the other.

All we needed was fine weather. I was compulsively checking long-range forecasts, it looked as though it might be OK … then, the weekend before the wedding, Steve had a bad ocular migraine. After five days he went to the doctor, who sent him for tests – and we discovered he had had a stroke. His vision was affected, but nothing else as far as we could see. He was able to get out of hospital for the rehearsal but it sent his blood pressure soaring. He fought his way out again for the actual ceremony, had a rest, our lovely neighbour Nick took him into Cardiff for the reception, he did his speech at the beginning and Nick took him back to hospital. Of course, his blood pressure had now subsided! and he was allowed home.

Apart from that it all went well … glorious weather, great fun getting ready, lovely service. (All the photos in this post are Nick’s as well – this is what you get when you are a Prof of Operations Management. Multi-tasking.)

Here’s Sean waiting for the bride to arrive

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and here he is with the Best Men. (There are two. If you have two best friends, how do you choose?)

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Steve had chosen for his reading Christina Rosetti’s poem ‘That First Day’

I wish I could remember that first day,

First hour, first moment of your meeting me,

If bright or dim the season, it might be

Summer or Winter for aught I can say;

So unrecorded did it slip away,

So blind was I to see and to foresee,

So dull to mark the budding of my tree

That would not blossom yet for many a May.

If only I could recollect it, such

A day of days! I let it come and go

As traceless as a thaw of bygone snow;

It seemed to mean so little, meant so much;

If only now I could recall that touch,

First touch of hand in hand – Did one but know!

 

Alas, he couldn’t read it – couldn’t see to read it – so I had to.

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Then Rhys, one of the best men, read the Wedding at Cana, in Welsh. (Always my favourite Bible reading. Even Jesus has to do what his mother tells him sometimes.)

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Then we got to the important bit. They really said the vows with meaning

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and the kiss

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Here we are outside the church

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Rachel with her maid of honour / godsister

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Steve and me with the Canadian cousins

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And here is Steve proposing the health of the bride and groom.

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Steve’s speech:

By now, most of you know that I have been kidnapped by the National Health Service and held to ransom at Heath Hospital. I’m not actually here: this is a hologram produced by some CGI kit left over from Star Wars (a film the vicar and I bonded over). So we’ve moved the speech by the father of the bride to this point in the proceedings, because the beginning of the speech is a welcome and the end is a toast, and you’ve all got a glass in your hands.

Family – no longer two families – including godparents and friends, Croeso, Welcome, Bienvenue (Sean, what’s the Swedish for Welcome?). At this point, having greeted you from Wales, the rest of Britain, Canada, France, Sweden and America, I would greet family from New Zealand by performing a Haka. BUT … this would of course embarrass Rachel.

But isn’t that what the father of the bride is supposed to do?

So – no haka. And I won’t be dancing. I won’t be singing Mariah Carey’s Greatest Hits. I won’t be telling embarrassing stories about Rachel: because whilst I know some, I don’t really know any about Sean (I’ll leave that to the Best Men’s speech). And this is supposed to be a toast to the Bride And Groom. (Gender equality.)

So no stories about giraffes, or anything I promised not to mention. I did ask Maddy how I could embarrass the bride and she said ‘Just turn up’.

Which only leaves a tiny bit of audience participation – that’s you lot. (Audience groan.) Don’t worry, nobody’s turning out the lights. Ladies and gentlemen: if you are married, or have ever been married, please raise your hand. (Pause.) Rachel and Sean will now memorise all of you, and if they ask, you will be able to tell them what marriage is like. (Thank you. Hands down.)

Thank you all for being here. Some have crossed oceans and continents, others are from places rather nearer; and we think of those who are unable to be here. I think we have to give the furthest distance prize to those from New Zealand because if they travelled any further they would have gone the other way.

Wedding guest lists are often dominated by the past. People Sean knew and Rachel knew before they knew each other; families they were born into; godparents and a god-sister they were blessed with; but a little secret. When doing guest lists, there are a lot of things to keep in mind. For some people, being invited is important, even though they know they won’t be able to get there. One of several criteria Rachel and Sean used when drawing up their list was that they wanted guests who would be part of their future, not just their past.

No pressure!

So, today, in the nowness of now, in the hereness of here, a wedding. The formal start to a marriage. And marriage is the classic paradox. Like other people’s marriages, but Sean and Rachel’s is unique to them. Two people trying to live as one. Two people trying to see both sides of things from the point of view of one.

Rachel’s mother Maddy has many accomplishments. I’m going to say something nice about her, which she hates, as a sort of revenge. The one accomplishment that Rachel admires most is Maddy’s ability to put up with me for the past 45 years of marriage.

The old Book of Common Prayer called marriage ‘an excellent mystery’, where ‘mystery’ meant the skills to be learned, the knowledge to be gained, like the ‘mystery’ of a medieval guild.

Finally, then, A Poem What I Wrote. (The toast is at the end – so be ready!) The theme of this speech is also the title of the poem, because I wrote it that way.

Marriage is a mystery to be learnt.

Walking side by side,
talking face to face,
hold each other tightly
but give each other space.

Read each other’s faces,
learn the language of the eyes,
listen to the silences;
then, thoughtful
becomes wise.

If you fail to remember,
or if you forget some part,
it was a flaw in your memory
not a fault in your heart.

Cherish each other, be happy, be joyful;
balance each other, be open, be hopeful.

At future wedding receptions
you will stand amongst the guests
as a couple who are married.
And when the host requests,
you will raise your glistening glasses
as the toast rings round the room:
‘Ladies and gentlemen. Rachel and Sean – The Bride And Groom!’

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The speeches by the groom and best men will need a separate blog post – as will the rest of the reception including some rather wild dancing. Well, if you have a Bollywood dress you have to try to live up to it.

What a day.

O God, who hast consecrated the state of Matrimony to such an excellent mystery, that in it is signified and represented the spiritual marriage and unity betwixt Christ and his Church: Look mercifully upon these thy servants … O Lord, bless them both, and grant them to inherit thy everlasting kingdom.

On leaving memories behind

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I now have my mother’s ashes in a neat little box on my bookshelf, between Ralph Griffiths’s Principality of Wales in the Later Middle Ages and the skull of a medieval nun from Cambridge. It’s a very small box to hold so many memories. Going through her clothes and papers was an amazing experience and I need to write another chapter of her life with all the things she never told me.

My daughter’s boyfriend Sean Wolfendale (@KingWolfy) helped with some of the most difficult bits – all those shelves of handbags and scarves. We still haven’t tackled the top shelf with its old letters and boxes. Sean wrote some poems about the experience, and then about the funeral.

Ninety Nine Boxes

She was put into numerous boxes

And stacked on all the surfaces.

Facing her was an eventuality

That they took on all at once

Before she became a permanent resident.

Picking her apart paper and page,

Evidence of her history and times,

Left over medicines and memories

That are ordered and divided

For decided removal

To provide some order

In a future without her.

Ninety Nine Bags

We dug through handbags,

Far too many for regular use

With some even retaining tags.

I was a poor man’s Indy

Digging out bric-a-brac,

Being attacked by fluff and mould.

An abundance of used tissues

And nail files hidden in folds,

I boldly dug deep to discover,

She was who we knew,

But from these things I take it,

Ready for runny noses and prison breaks.

Ninety Nine Pages

When the archive is explored

I’ve found an abundance of notes

That are bound by moments in time.

This letter! A first-hand account

Of the mounting tension lived

Before bombardments in World War 2.

But despite diamonds hidden in compartments,

For every gold filled memory

Is an old bill or drivers licence,

Empty envelopes that have lost their worth

And could we only stand the cold

They would not turn to firewood.

Ninety Nine Steps

She’s been resting for days now

This near centurion we’ve carried

Through fire and across fields

Through storms of feelings and tears

To a place where the wind is strong

And she can be released.

As our march comes to an end

And the blend of sieges upon our hearts

And honours upon our shoulders

Only bolden our movement to the future,

Whatever it might be that will harry us,

Through it she will carry us.

How my grandmother chose her husband

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Things do come in threes.

Once there was a king and he had three daughters.

There was an ewe had three lambs and one of them was black.

There was a beautiful young woman and she had three suitors.

Reading through my mother’s reminiscences, I realise I haven’t told the story of how my grandmother chose her husband. She was brought up on a farm called Llanwensan, between Peterston-super-Ely and Llantrisant in the border vale of Glamorgan. Even at the end of the nineteenth century, the children of farming families didn’t marry early: they tried to save up enough to put down on a farm tenancy if they could. So my grandmother was in her early twenties, a beautiful young woman (you can see her picture, with the man she eventually married, at http://heritagetortoise.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/reminiscences_of_farming_life_in_the_1920s1.pdf), and an accomplished housewife. She was particularly known for making cheese.

Choosing a husband in the farming community means choosing a business partner. Blue eyes and rippling muscles are all very well but what you need is a capable farmer. She had three suitors, and how could she choose?

So one Sunday she invited all three of them to tea. She set before them bread of her own baking, butter of her own churning and cheese of her own making, and she sat and watched what they would do.

The first young man took his knife and cut the rind of the cheese. She thought ‘I won’t have him – he will always be wasteful and extravagant.’

The second young man ate the cheese, rind and all. She thought ‘I won’t have him – he will always be mean.’

The third young man took his knife and scraped a little of the rind off the cheese, and that was my grandfather.

I am writing while sitting with my mother and listening to her shallow breathing. She has said she wants to go, and she is now completely sedated and pain free, but something within her still refuses to give in. It’s the same stubborn determination that took her to grammar school and university, through the war and the difficult years after.

One flew east and one flew west.

Our family are scattered all over the world now but Mum’s final days have brought us together again: we have had emails from cousins in Australia, New Zealand and France as well as all the family in England saying how much they loved her, how good she was when they were young, remembering holidays they spent with her, looking for fossils on the beach at Southerndown or playing on the farm where she spent so much time with her own cousin Lynnus. Their memories are her memorial.

The dying of the light

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If you teach death and commemoration, it’s a very strange experience caring for someone through the end of life. My mother – 99, brain like a steel trap but everything physical is failing – has decided to move to palliative care. She’s at home with us (she has lived in a granny flat attached to our house for some years) and we are nursing her with the help of district nurses, occupational therapists, private carers and some wonderful, underpaid, overworked, wonderful young women from a care agency via Social Services. Here in Wales we have good support in nursing the elderly in their own homes (Jeremy Hunt, please note – we spend our money keeping our old people OUT of hospital!) but as she has gone down hill more of my own time and emotional energy has been involved with her.

A week or so ago we had a couple of those very difficult conversations where she explained that she felt she obviously wasn’t going to get any better, she was afraid of the point where she became bedridden and could no longer manage her own body, and she wondered what she could do. She is of course at the point where virtually everything has to be done for her, and she didn’t want me to do anything I could be prosecuted for.  We talked through options like leaving the top off the emergency bottle of Oramorph and putting it where she could reach it, but she wasn’t sure she could manage to take it. She admitted she no longer wanted to eat, so I said ‘Well, don’t’. So she has gradually stopped eating, and after talking it through with the doctor she has stopped taking the medication that was propping her up. It has been a very difficult process for her, because she’s always been independent and knows exactly how she wants things done. All the family now want to come to visit and she has found it virtually impossible to let go instead of keeping strong so that she can entertain them properly.

I’ve been surprised by how common her experience is and how much help and support is available. When I told the doctor she had decided to stop eating he went immediately into end-of-life care mode and even had all the relevant paperwork. Several of her carers have also said they’ve looked after people through similar decisions. Ironically this has all happened during the parliamentary debates over assisted dying and the reviews of Atul Gawande’s book (http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/oct/22/being-mortal-medicine-what-matters-atul-gawande-review for the Guardian review). I’ve come across the idea of giving up eating as a way of hastening the end of life but newspaper reports always present it as an extreme and terrible thing to do, starving oneself to death. In fact, for a lot of people, on heavy medication for things like arthritic pain, eating becomes a struggle and it’s almost easier to give up. There are medieval parallels as well – the endura of the Cathars, the belief in the western Catholic tradition that after receiving the last rites you had to turn your back on life. The much-maligned (and much misunderstood – both by the media and by some of the people tasked with implementing it) Liverpool Pathway is actually nothing new. What we need now is to be able to talk more openly about these issues and how they can be managed. We might then be able to move gradually to a position where more could be done in the way of sedation and pain relief even if it shortened life. We have already moved on a long way since my father’s death of cancer in 1970. He died in dreadful pain with the doctors unwilling to give him enough morphine in case it damaged his health. Really … with his bones rotting under him … things are better now and they could get better again without actually confronting the difficult prospect of assisted dying.

My mother had an amazing life. I have to remind people that when this intelligent and capable woman was born in 1915, women didn’t have the vote in parliamentary elections. She was in her teens before women had the vote on the same terms as men. Her generation weren’t the absolute pioneers – more importantly, they were the wome who made good what the pioneers had achieved and made it the norm. So they were the women who insisted on the right to a grammar school education, a University degree, a profession, the right to remain in that profession after marriage, the right to return to work after having children, all those things we value but perhaps too much take for granted.

Her reminiscences of her upbringing on a farm between Newport and Cardiff, her education and her life as a teacher in Chepstow in WWII are a remarkable document. They first appeared in the Gwent County History Association’s newsletter and used to be on the Association’s web site but they seem to have vanished (probably yet another consequence of the merger) so here they are again.

Reminiscences of farming life in the 1920s

Education for the people

Larkfield Grammar School in World War II

War Years in Chepstow

 

The Women’s Race for Life

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Well, the tortoise and hare thing didn’t work, but we had fun anyway. About 2,000 women running, jogging and walking 5 km around the park in Cwmbran to raise money to fight cancer.

We like the Cwmbran Race for Life because it’s nice and relaxed, we can miss the pre-match warm-up and the silly young men in tutus, and we can run with Cara the pilgrim dog.

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In previous years I’ve been the one who wanted to keep running and my daughter got out of puff. This year she has been training so we ran for 2 km, walked and ran a bit, then she said she wanted to run so off she went. But I made it back only a minute after her – 34 mins to her 33. Cara would probably have done it in 15 mins, and she’s older than me in doggy years.

The Race for Life gives you the opportunity to run to celebrate someone who has survived cancer, or in memory of someone who has died. My daughter ran this year ‘for boobs’ – as well as working for a public health charity, Ash Wales, she has this year been a student volunteer co-ordinator for CoppaFeel. This is a charity which encourages young women to look after their breasts and teaches them how to check for signs of cancer.

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I ran in memory of my old friend Paul Courtney, the archaeologist, who died in May. Paul was one of the cleverest men I know, a leading expert on medieval archaeology and the theory of material culture. In spite of all this, and a publication record that most of us can only envy, he never had a ‘proper job’ – he kept going on badly-paid freelance contracts and occasional media work. Apparently this was because as a young man he was heavily involved with CND and the Young Communists – and when he was newly qualified and looking for work in the 1980s he was clearly ‘not one of us’. Self-censorship by the academic establishment goes back that far – and it was their loss.

On the way home I started wondering whether Race for Life had been about for long enough to qualify as ‘intangible heritage’. Intangible heritage is things like events and customs, rather than places and objects. In Wales, it could mean the Eisteddfod, the Mari Lwyd or the rugby internationals. Elsewhere it includes things like Mardi Gras, the Mexican Day of the Dead, Up Helly A and the Venetian carnival. My colleague David Howell, who tweets as @Kasuuta, runs an online newspaper on heritage issues and another specifically on intangible heritage – http://paper.li/Kasuutta/1347263108 and http://paper.li/Kasuutta/1347264840 for examples.

It’s a long time since I’ve done any serious running. My knees got more and more creaky. The real crisis came when I knelt down in front of a class to fix the computer and couldn’t get up again. It took the 2 strongest lads in the class to put me back on my feet, and my colleagues made silly remarks about how I’d only done it to get (insert name of cute student here) to give me a cuddle. So that was the end of running. Instead I go hill walking but somehow that uses different muscles.

As does crawling round church floors looking for medieval tombstones. But the hill walking is probably better training for pilgrimages.