Sunday, 19 August 2012

Cecil's Saga

Cecil is my Aunt, or more properly my first cousin once removed. She lives in the delightfully named Felix Lodge in a little village in the heart of the Home Counties. She stood as my godmother when I was a baby, is the only remaining strand of this part of the family apart from myself and Jen on this side of the water, and has always been an inspiration to me. She never married or had children, much to her sorrow, and worked at a variety of jobs during her life. She rose to the challenge of paying off all her father's debts when he died, leaving her and her mother bankrupt, and cared for her mother as dementia took hold, for as long as work allowed. Her final job was a custodian to one of our country's beautiful National Trust properties, Grey's Court, where she initiated one of the first tea rooms at a National Trust house, drawing great trays of delicious smelling cakes from her Rayburn to sell to guests. I had the pleasure of staying with her many times as a child and young adult, thrilled to be sleeping in "the Keep" one of the cottages in the complex that made up the Grey's estate, which was her home until she retired. She is that sort of middle class Englishwoman who are the backbone of  country life across the land - a keen member of the WI, active in the church, an arranger of flowers and mender of vestments, helper of friends and organiser of good works. When we celebrated her 80th birthday I was deeply touched by the number of her friends who told me what a kind and caring person she was, how often she'd helped others and how much she was appreciated and how little she expected for herself. This attitude might be sneered at now, derided as some sort of submission to an outdated expectation of woman's role.  In a culture more interested in individual rights, gripped by a consuming desire to have all, altruism seems to have gone out of fashion. I think that is a rather sad thing; it makes people unthinkingly unkind and seems to have brought a hard, uncaring tone into our lives. If we don't care for each other, who else is going to do so?

Here Cecil is, with her mother, me and my dear little mum, on one of our get togethers with each other, when I was somewhat smaller than I am now!

Last week I went to visit and help her celebrate her 87th birthday. She is getting old, her short term memory is gone, as I've mentioned before, and life is often difficult for her, despite having a very fine carer called Phyl, who comes in daily during the week to help out with the practical and to bring some fun, stimulation and interest into her life.

What do you give someone who is 87, who has all the things about her that she needs, and whose life is closing in? Well, Cecil has always been a very fine needlewoman. She and my beloved Ganna inspired my to stitch in my youth and she has always taken a great interest in what I've made over the years. Her house is decorated with a number of lovely bits of embroidery done by her with delicate and varied stitches, beautifully executed. She made me dresses as a child, and also clothed my doll, Amanda Jane, including this rather fine rose pink outfit with matching hat!

Well, Phyl, during one of the many "sortings out" that happen from time to time, came across a piece of embroidery that Cecil did when she was 23. It was done as part of a course she went on - sadly she can't remember quite what the course was, but they had evidently been tasked with some autobiographical stitching. So she created Cecil's Saga, a beautifully worked piece of stitchery which includes little vignettes of her life - or rather what small part of she'd lived up until then. I brought this home with me some months ago, delighted that it had been found and thought, "now, what can I do with this lovely cloth"?

As her birthday approached, realisation dawned. Of course; the obvious answer! What gives pleasure to those whose present is dimming? Thoughts of the past, that "other country" which comes and goes in our minds and has, in part, made us who we are. So, knowing of a rather good picture framers in Hastings who have done lovely work for me before, I took it along to consult. Of course they could frame it, what frame would I like? what mount? what size? I left it with them, in pleased anticipation, and when we collected it I was really delighted with the result. The framing was lovely and the mount really sets off the muted colours of the cloth it is stitched on. I brought it to her home wrapped in the Tie Dye quilt which both protected it and was taken to show and amuse in it's currently unfinished state. The cloth was carefully raised, like a stage curtain at the beginning of the play until, voila, the whole could be seen and the spreading smile and exclamations of surprise from her were just marvelous. The gift had worked, she was thrilled, here she is, holding it proudly, with one of her finest knowing smiles!

And, here, since it is rather large, are some of the details so you can appreciate their character and whimsy

Joining up toward the end of the war, moving from civvies to uniform. On the day war was declared "Daddy said, 'well, we'll have to get you back to school my girl'", so she was evacuated with her school from home and family in Sussex, down to the rural West Country. Then, when she was too old to be at school any more "Daddy said, 'come one Totty, time to get you in the army'". So Totty did as she was bid and joined up - terrified, but also glad to have her freedom and a comfort to other young recruits who'd never been away from home before

Commemorating the Battle of Hastings. Hastings had been home before the war as her grandmother (Nanya to me), and three daughters had moved there from Ireland in 1921 after Sinn Feiners, pistols at the ready, creeping though the house in the night, made staying in Arklow less than attractive.

 A delightful little group with their bicycle - Cecil couldn't remember their significance

and Great Aunt B with her cat.

The picture, as you can see, is rather large, and I was a bit worried as to where it might fit in her very small cottage. However, we found the perfect spot here

It is just inside her sitting room door, ready to greet her each morning as she gets up and takes her cup of tea there to sit and read the paper. I'm sure she and Phyl will spend time looking at it, talking about what each image represents, visiting the past and happy times. If you look just past her head, you'll catch a glimpse of the other gift I brought with me - an angel sun catcher with the word PEACE dangling below in rainbow colours, to hang on her conservatory door. I felt it was a good thought with which to start the day.

So thank you Phyl, for finding this gem and bringing it to my attention; thank you Empress Art of Hastings for giving it such a lovely frame, and thank you Cecil for always being the best Godmother and Aunt I could have wanted.


  1. What an excellent gift idea. And what a treasure, the handwork is most beautiful, and it looks perfect where it is hung for all to enjoy. I am glad you shared a little of your aunt with all of us out here in blogland.

    Blessings to you,


  2. What an absolutely enchanting post. I suspect there are or were Cecils in many families and perhaps it's only now, that some of us are recognising the importance of the role they play in supporting the fabric of our society. You made me think about the remarkable women in my family too.

    Incidentally, we visited Greys Court a few weeks ago, and the kitchen was the best room in the house - it felt really homely and loved - a legacy from Cecil?

  3. Thank you both for such lovely comments. Yes, she is a remarkable person, someone to treasure. She can't take credit for the Grey's kitchen though; those cakes were drawn from the oven in an octagonal kitchen with thick, thick walls with arrow slits for windows - very romantic to my youthful eyes!

  4. Sounds like a delightful, beautiful gift, for a delightful, beautiful woman. What a wonderfully inspired idea!

    1. Thank you Suzanne, I was so pleased to be able to give her something that mattered - not always easy at that age, but she was delighted, as was her carer. I've been lucky to have such a lovely godmother and it's good to be able to give something back

  5. How fortunate you are to have such a wonderful person in your life. The picture telling her story is delightful.

    1. Thank you for commenting Anna, I like to think it will give her a bit of fun each morning before she sits down with her cup of tea and newspaper.