I was an infant, three months at the century’s half.
Never a time I didn’t know the word war,
The doll’s house wardrobe was my Dad’s ship
The doll’s house phone was Dad, in the ship,
He was a gunner. The phone was black
Like my Dad’s black hair.
My childhood was in the fifties. The books by Enid Blyton,
Malory Towers, St Clare’s, Famous Five, Secret Seven,
The Find-outers; also Frances Hodgson Burnett,
Louisa Alcott & Kenneth Grahame. I was Mole.
He was the most childlike, the least worldly,
Alone in the Wild Wood.
On the wireless they spoke of Suez and Anthony Eden
Dad got a car and a cine camera. We had a Highland holiday:
Lochs and pipers and my sister rode a horse
When we got back there was a new Prime Minister
And he had a Scottish name. Winds of change
Were sweeping here and there.
School was massive, Edwardian brick, and it took three years
For that fierce playground to be my safe domain;
I became an impresario and produced plays
Actors, songs, comedy in the classroom;
A bit of status before the sadness of puberty
In the new decade.
In the sixties, there was Coronation Street and the bomb,
Every day, I dreaded a nuclear war. My sister marched,
Aldermaston to London; then she was engaged,
Then away at college and I at my new school,
Twelve and overweight in a brown blazer,
Girls’ grammar, finicky rules.
At home I was like a lonely only child, Mum, Dad and me,
My grandmother and uncle died. Now there was death,
Besides the worry of the bomb and the new school
With homework to skimp, the inkwell and pen nibs;
I wanted to watch Dr Finlay’s Casebook
Across a hypotenuse.
Thirteen, fourteen, up to town with best friends
Followed by men old enough to know better
Wanting a boyfriend with intellectual heft
But at dances they were all hands and tongues.
The good news was a Labour government,
Wilson, the North, the Beatles.
Sixteen, seventeen, love, left wing activism,
Sex but not for enjoyment, more for politics,
Vietnam, Grosvenor Square, too much drink,
Antidepressants, psychiatrist, such nonsense,
Sergeant Pepper, No Satisfaction, Tambourine Man,
No place I’m going to.
I walked under the redbrick arch of the Arts Faculty,
1970, the fragrance of library books
Met my husband, conceived, graduated, married
Had a baby girl with a round little head and brown hair
Slowly she outgrew her delicate babygros, her cot,
Her Humperdinck musical bird.
Pregnant again, another baby, the girls play together
Toy koalas, Puffin married Gertrude the Hamster,
My own marriage hit the buffers and, apart,
We parented amicably to this very day;
Years and the Atlantic roll between us; the world shrinks,
The years fly fast as moths.
I had a lover who let his dog sleep on the bed;
In the wake of the Munich massacre and the Yom Kippur War
The Left parted company with Israel. Blasts of terror
Were heard in England and Northern Ireland;
On hearing a bat kol in Hampden Square
I forswore pig meat for ever.
David appeared in my life, carrying his little daughter,
His son close by; my girls eating heart shaped choc ices
The children played while we dated and loved
On New Year’s Eve his friends held a party
At the midnight hour, David said to me
‘The Eighties will be great.’
In 1980 we married, in a shul which is now a house,
I was pregnant and afraid of the bomb again;
In an Edmonton sports’ centre on Yom Kippur
An IRA bomb scare sent us all out of doors, swimmers in towels
Mingling where men held Sifrei Torah;
Fecund-nervous, I was first out.
Another baby girl, born that year and then,
In our third summer, a boy. David worked and earned;
Beautiful and charismatic,
He sang like a chazan, mellifluous,
Insecure sometimes, later depressed,
Fearing middle age, a great irony.
On a weekday summer night, he got us all in the car,
Drove us to Waggon Road, a vantage point,
Spelled Wagon at the other end,
To view a stupendous sunset where he said
‘M’lo chol haaretz cavodo,’
‘The whole earth is full of His glory.’
1990 he had cancer, wore an implanted syringe,
Traveled with it on the plane to Tel Aviv,
Amused our children in Jerusalem
Skipping along with the night time shadows,
A man sang Birchat ha Mazon at a shabbat lunch,
David joined in, v’imru amen.
On a Galilee tourist boat, his pain returned;
Back to London and more chemo,
My parents’ golden wedding party,
Hospital, home, diamorphine, summer,
World Cup, hospital, morphine, saline drip
Doctor, nurses, the end.
The nineties were still ahead of me.
The older children were adults
The younger ones fatherless,
The house full of their friends every day
While the grown up girls had boyfriends
And, serially, I had partners too.
I worked with salt of the earth colleagues;
We had microfiche in those days,
Biography of Diana selling hand over fist
The People’s Princess all around us
The dawn of Tony Blair, a fast car in Paris
Tunnel, crash, death, aftermath.
Eve of the Millennium, at a sedate party,
The guests played Who Wants to be a Millionaire
For chocolate prizes; the Eiffel Tower
Scintillated on TV, our hostess who sparkled
With lively, benevolent charm
Is gone now, gone too soon.
Some friends made an introduction
And a tall, moustached lawyer appeared,
He knew the Köchel numbers for Mozart
The names of Beethoven sonatas
Played the children’s untuned piano
Could speak Russian and French.
Lived with him ten years, married for eight,
Loved him for seven years, then things happened,
The solicitor’s office, even the Christmas lights
Which lighten the mood in the darkest days
At Enfield’s Palace Gardens mall
Could not lighten my eyes.
In the first decade of the third millennium
My parents lost their health. They moved
Into a residential home, house and contents sold
Except for old school reports, exercise books,
Receipts from simchas of long ago
And paper headed LCC.
Nine eleven, in Seville far from the news
My firstborn in London pregnant
The girls dialing New York and dialing again
The phones down, the stupor, the rolling dust
Their father in lower Manhattan,
Deo gratias, he phones from a safe place.
2010, the decree absolute
The new flat, my son’s wedding
The Maghrebi ululation
As bride and groom were lifted on chairs
Caught in the photographer’s flash
Above the dancers’ crush.
Mum and Dad’s seventieth anniversary
The carers made dinner for two,
Rose petals on the table linen
An interviewer from Radio4 asked
‘What is the secret of your long marriage?’
‘Love,’ said Dad, ‘Love, love love.’
The next year he died, ninety-four,
Righteous to the end. Unexpectedly
Mum strengthened herself and carried on.
I dreamed of babies and babies came
Two more grandsons and a baby girl
Renewed my days as of old.
Next week would have been Mum’s century
But she made it to ninety-eight
And I turn threescore years and ten;
Already I have longevity. Housman’s trees,
The sea, the sunset, the coloured lights,
I will miss them when I’m gone.
Populists and bigots now hold sway
But the divine sparks are all around
The sparks fly upward as seen by Job
‘Man is born unto trouble.’ Thus it was
From Patriarchal times until the present day
And still we reach toward the sparks.
Think I read this at the time but fancied rereading it. It’s really beautiful.
Oh Jo, thank you! Sometimes I forget about my poetry blog as I spend so much more time on the one that used to be bible but is now mainly politics.