I don’t know. What do you think about during funerals?
I suppose you could think about your own life, and whether this many people would ever gather in one place just to say such nice things about you. But I’m a writer, so for me funerals are ALL about the character. What went into making that person who they ended up becoming? What kind of main character did their story have?
The last two funerals I attended were for the first two people I met after moving into the tiny village in the north of England. They had already been friends for decades (the phrase “partners in crime” came up often) when I met Margaret and Marion my first morning in the Castle. I’d arrived from the States the night before, and only had time to learn one thing about castle life—the meaning of stone cold—before collapsing in a jetlag coma.
I’ve always thought our friendship was based on the purest of human emotions: pity. First I met Margaret, who must have taken one look at me, gaping up at thousand-year-old walls, and still wearing what I’d slept in—which was, basically, everything I could pull from my suitcase, as explained here— and felt sorry for me. She introduced herself as my landlady, the owner of the castle, and informed me that it was Wednesday—which, to be honest, I couldn’t have sworn to. With Wednesdayness established between us, she took me to my first Village Coffee.
There Margaret introduced me to a lady with an accent so posh it could probably etch glass and a surprisingly wicked look in her eye. American wannabe-writer Barb, meet doctor/intellectual/PhD/90+ year old character Marion. And my life in the tiny, perfect village in the North of England officially began.
I couldn’t begin to list all the experiences the two of them introduced me to over the next several years. First, there was the Village itself. With no actual commercial entities—not even a pub!—entertainment was homemade and varied. But no matter the event, there were two things you could count on—there would be raffle tickets to buy (lots), and there would be alcohol to consume (more than lots). There were gala reenactments of the Queen’s Jubilee and the Royal Wedding, Progressive Suppers (which involved the entire village getting progressively sloshed), garden club “walks” (see progressive supper results), dance/casino/quiz/archives/garden show/you-name-it nights, and of course, the Christmas Show.
But that was only the beginning. As owner of a medieval castle, Margaret belonged to something that probably had an impressive title, but which I called Castle Club. In England, you often drive past tall stone walls and lines of trees with the occasional crest-topped gates. Well, she took me inside some of those gates, up the long drives, and into the castles and stately homes you couldn’t even see from the road.
[Digression: In my family, what’s going into my will is more of a threat. (As in, “Okay, kids: last one to call me on Mother’s Day goes in my will for that Elvis on velvet painting from Great-Aunt Mo.) So it was an amazing window on a new world for an American from the suburbs to hear people debate the best way to install a roof that will last for centuries because you don’t really own the place; you’re only borrowing it from your great-great-grandchildren.]
Then there was their generosity. Both Marion and Margaret raised charity to an art form, and invited me along. In the name of their favorite causes, I got to help with this proper victorian tea party, a ceilidh dinner dance, castle tours, and so much more.
And they showed me the England they loved, which most Americans never see. When I told Margaret I’d never been to the Cotswolds, she joined me as my guide in a week-long driving tour which culminated (I’m so not making this up…) in joining Prince Charles at his home for tea.
Although Marion’s sight was going and her memory wasn’t what it used to be, she also happily accompanied me on jaunts all over the county. We even took a memorable road trip to the Royal Heritage Society gardens at Harlow Carr, where she took an unholy glee in informing the ticket collectors that she had a life-membership (fact) which entitled her to take guests in at no charge, including afternoon tea (not even close to fact). They meekly ushered us in. And no outing was complete without stopping for lunch where Dr. Marion would ignore all of her health restrictions to inform me that I wanted to have a drink and a sweet, to which she would of course join me.Decades of friendship notwithstanding, their disagreements were the stuff of Village legend, as Rock debated Hard Place in the most polite of Oxbridge accents. Of course, their eccentricities were legion, as the Villagers dodging bicycle or electric-scooter mounted octogenarians could attest. They gardened with passionate intensity, took care of those in need both across the street and across the globe, and taught a misplaced American to speak a version of British that hasn’t really been used for half a century. (They would “spend a penny” when they went to the loo, price things in crowns, and institute a cone of silence while they listened to The Cricket on the radio.) They were the kind of British women who show up in movies and books, indomitable and secure in themselves—characters like Hepburn’s Rosie in The African Queen and Judi Dench’s M in the Bond films.
At each of their funerals, I joined crowds who gathered to remember and share stories about these two remarkable characters. They told of amazing generosity and hilarious eccentricity. Some shared Margaret’s triumph over severe physical limitations that were supposed to end her life as a child, only to have her stubbornly confound every imposed limit. Some talked about her charming, eccentrically-English husband, who I never met because he died just as they bought the castle, leaving his relatively young widow to raise their large family and run their company.
I heard about Marion, daughter of a Nobel Prize scientist who had “Sir” before his name. She went to medical school as a young woman, and then served as the only doctor for over 160,000 people in what was then Tanganyika. Along with her delight in forbidden alcohol and sweets, Marion particularly loved her birthday. As we celebrated the day she turned 93, I asked Marion to tell me about her favorite birthday ever. “Considering the alternative,” she told me, “Every birthday I make it to is the best one ever.” So of course, I asked for her secret to a long happy ever after. She answered right away.
‘Have a lot of friends who remember you even when you can’t remember their names.’ A few minutes later she added, ‘Don’t say no to sweets.’ And finally, ‘Don’t look back.’
For me, Margaret and Marion will always be the ones who introduced an American stranger to England—village, castle, estates, country, and even future king. As a writer, I got to view characters and settings I could never have imagined. As a friend, I’ll miss them every day.