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02 April 2008

by Caroline Chartres

Anno Domini

IT IS a year since my father died. I have been reliving the events of a year ago, which, as with all matters of birth and death, are engraved on my memory, and seem simultaneously both recent and long ago. As my brother pointed out, knowing so well how Dad would have reacted (he had clear likes and dislikes) makes him very present. There are all sorts of things I want to tell him about, but not because I wonder what he would have made of them.

We know that what turns to love survives, but I am realising that what we love is also important. My father loved music: he was a competent clarinettist, and, later, a church organist. He passionately loved Anglican church music, Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Gilbert and Sullivan, Carroll Gibbons . . . The list was a long one.

Growing up surrounded by music, we absorbed his love of it; because he played music all the time, we also knew exactly what he liked, and hearing it today powerfully conjures up his presence. Putting together first his funeral and then his memorial service, the problem was not what to include, but what to leave out.

It dawns on me belatedly that my children would be pushed to pick my favourite pieces of music. I have music on most of the time, but as a background — usually musical radio. Any service currently put together for me would, on the basis of frequency of listening, probably consist primmarily of advertising jingles.

No man is an island

I borrowed someone else’s computer recently. It had a screensaver showing a turquoise sea with a white-sailed yacht, cruising past a tiny island — no more than an atoll — surmounted by a couple of palm trees. I know that it is intended to be idyllic: a “wish you were here” picture, to distract from the pressures of daily life.

In fact, it makes me grateful for the urban jungle: desert islands are not my thing at the best of times (not good in the heat; too much a creature of the north lands). Yet, more than that, I find the picture of all that space — water as far as the eye can see, and no evidence of human habitation — deeply disturbing.

In middle age, I realise more and more how much I depend upon other human beings. In the same way as I no longer take for granted gardens, or blossom, or flowers in springtime, now I value increasingly the music of the human voice, and — most miraculous of all — voices that manage to harmonise together.

No nightmare vision

Once upon a time, I swore never to marry a clergyman — nor, if it comes to that, a man with a beard. I had a nightmarish vision of myself as the stereotypical clergy wife (bossy do-gooder; a bit too close to home). So the most startling thing about being married to a clergyman (or at least to the sort of clergyman I had sworn never to marry, i.e. a vicar) was the discovery that you are in some ways the antithesis of the social stereotype.

A parish priest has privileged access to all sorts and conditions of persons (the sort of cross-section you might otherwise hope to encounter only if you were, as John Mortimer once memorably observed, a criminal lawyer) — and that access is still extended to his wife. Drawbacks of all sorts there may be, but you have a place, as of right, at the heart of a community. Particularly in the middle of a big city, that is a rare privilege.

If your husband becomes a bishop, he is translated on to a wider canvas: suddenly, you no longer have that same engagement with the people with whom he is operating on a daily basis. For many, this feels like a type of bereavement.

Without wishing to reduce our children to the level of an audio-visual aid, I realised even at the time that I was fortunate that they were still so young: children also provide daily engagement with a local community — and you cannot possibly be grand with baby-sick down one shoulder.

Signing off

Your identity, however, can feel precarious and vicarious (as someone’s wife, or several people’s mother) — unless the editor of the Church Times happens to invite you to write a diary column. The spin-offs from this have been unexpected and immense. The column has helped me to make sense of my own life. It has given me a different perspective (when things have gone particularly awry — a broken ankle just before Christmas, for example — I have been able to console myself with the thought that it is all good material for a diary column).

Above all, perhaps, it has given me an identity of my own, and the sense that not only do I exist independently of the Beloved, but — perish the thought — I might even occasionally have views that differ from his. More than that, it has brought me correspondents and friendships in the most unlikely places: Church Times readers are generous in sharing their own stories.

When I first contributed to this column, I was expecting our fourth child; 15 years later, that baby is taking her first GCSEs, and two of her siblings have left school altogether. The column used to feel as if it wrote itself: it took shape from, and gave shape to, the general chaos that surrounded me. Now, belatedly, I feel as if I should be sorting out the chaos rather than writing about it. Perhaps it is time to make room for someone else.

Or perhaps it is just that I can no longer remember which stories I have used already, and I have tried the (infinite) patience of the editorial team for long enough. In any case, I am passing on the pen. But I have loved it: thank you for having me.

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