“10. I am grateful always to have had courage, gaiety and a light heart.”
Barreling full-tilt along black country roads with hi-beams on is not without its risks though most of this seems to have been absorbed by the local badger population of whose corpses I see strewn at regular intervals along the wayside. My aunt Diana is driving, she is nearly 80 and has lost none of her vigor behind the wheel. We are hungry and bound for a bite to eat in Barton.
“2. I have people to love.
- I am so fortunate to have my families staunch love and affection.”
Diana is a retired P.E teacher and for almost half a century, at one time or another, I have found myself trudging behind her through muddy fields with a rotating cast of collies and shelties, all of whom I’ve known by name. Today it is Amy, an eight year old re-home of black coat and amiable disposition, and Chaz, a big, handsome collie with a tan coat and plaintive eyes, rickety in his thirteenth year from years of agility training.
“22. I am grateful for life and health in others, and wonderful things to do.”
My aunt is a formidable lady in robust health with green eyes and a clear complexion. Her hair, greying at the temples, still maintains its dark colour, and her gait, though stiffened with age is remarkable for someone approaching their 8th decade. In any kind of weather she will be out exercising her animals at least three times a day as regular as a monk is to prayer. She lives in Barford St. John, which is about a fifteen-minute drive from Banbury. Her cottage is quiet and old and cozy. Surrounded by green fields and winding country lanes bordered by bramble, hedge and dry-stone wall.
It is on my first evening with her that we were going through old albums full of pictures she’d taken over the decades. My mother. Their parents. Dogs and horses they’ve had along the way. At some point she handed me a folder which she described as being ‘various odds and sods.’ In it I found some loose photographs and newspaper clippings of family events and in amongst all this miscellany There were four hand-written pages on paper once white, now yellowed with age. It’s a list written by my grandmother who in failing health took it upon herself to take an accounting of the things she was thankful for. It is titled, “Counting My Blessings” and she wrote it in February 1958. I felt a flash of excitement when I came across this, like Carter uncovering the door to Tutankhamun’s tomb. It is in pencil and must have been written over a period of days, even weeks as the sharpness and gauge of the pencil differs, as does the clarity of her writing. There are places I found it almost impossible to decipher. My aunt was able to help to a degree but some sentences truly stumped us. I would take breaks and return to it later at points over the next couple of days and then, like those posters that were so popular in the ‘90’s, the ones at which you had to stare through, focus behind the picture, until eventually your eyes would adjust and a crude 3-D image was revealed, so it was with her hand writing.
“1. I can see and hear.”
Old habits die hard, and like any good teacher Diana has organized an itinerary for my stay. On my second morning, first thing, it is a run with her neighbor John, an engineer in his mid-fifties and a veteran of endurance runs with swim and cycle.
This is an inaugural excursion for my new gait which I have been trying to adopt at great cost to wallet, time and patience. It is my first proper run in a month. We set out uphill and turn off onto a right of way through the fields where we startle a roe deer who bounds off into the early morning mist. The rain has been merciless around here of late and though it is clear today the ground is soggy and our feet squelch and sump in the slough as we plod along.
“11. My fervent gratitude for being blessed with a sound mind that can reason”
It is unsurprising, given my peripatetic nature and the details of my life thus far, that I should feel equally at home in three countries, but I had quite forgotten how in love I am with Britain’s countryside and I’m flooded with warm memories of summers spent as a child in these parts and the decade I spent living here in my twenties. I love the animals, sheep and horse mostly around here, the jackdaws and magpies that make a ruckus and flit along the stone walls and in the eaves of cottages.
“5. I love all the beauty around me.”
I remember the smell of the fields and that of stables, hay and manure, oiled leather and smoke from wood fires. A red-tailed kite teases the air above us, its triangular tail feathers manipulate the air like a ship’s rudder does the water, and its undercarriage gleams silver as it catches the rising sun which today is bold and bright and is cause for jubilation, as is this run with a companion I’ve only just met, for it has reminded me also, why I love to get up early of a morning and put kilometers beneath my feet before most have risen. He leaves me to run the last stretch alone and as I cross a small stone bridge I upset a clamor of rooks who burst into flight and squawk their protest at this inconvenience. In the field below my aunt’s house a horse eyes my approach and I stop and pat it and I remember that there is nothing softer in the world than a horses’ muzzle. We are beneath the old English oak that I can see from the bedroom of my aunt’s house. It is without leaves at this time of year, though sheathed in ivy, and from its thick trunk great boughs emerge at all points of the clock, each with its own tributaries of branch and twig that curl inwards at their ends like a pig’s tail. I have spent hours staring at this tree over the years, trying to decipher its secrets. I’ve always thought it had a story to tell, just as I do now, but today I feel compelled to tell my own story, about a thing my grandmother wrote over 60 years ago.
Towards the end of her list I could see her resolve waver, her blessings becoming pleas.
“24. My blessings are legion. I pray pain won’t interfere with this clean thought.
- I pray for courage and patience to ever come, quelling these catastrophic happenings to my health.
- This stark pain caught me off guard, self-pity crept in. Never again.”
I feel the tidal pull of the emotions that govern us as I transcribe all of this. Her heart laid bare. Her pain. Her fear. Her flashes of humour, very much a shared trait, as in one of the last entries/entreaties :
“29. Write myself a letter. Ha! Ha! Anything to help morale.”
I feel chided by her lack of cynicism, when faced with such “catastrophic happenings to her health.” On the last page of her list. Written vertically in the margin are three sentences of unbearable poignancy given that she would die mere weeks later.
“I feel better daily.
I will get well.
So often writers tamper with truths to suit a narrative, yet here I find myself confronted with startling fact and ill-equipped to properly catalogue the expanse of my feelings but I do know that at some point many of us find ourselves barreling down a black road. In this instance, as I write, I feel my grandmother’s hand on mine, steering my pen, illuminating the darkened way.