Earth to Earthbyoggbashan©
Copyright Oggbashan April 2005
The author asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.
Edited July 2006
Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust...
I didn't attach any particular significance to my wife's maiden name until she started researching her family tree. Her father had died as a war correspondent in Africa when she was very young. Her mother had remarried and her stepfather had been a good father to her. He still is. Blodwen's mother, Abigail, had died about two years ago, hardly a shock because Blodwen is nearly 56 even if she only admits to 49.
Blodwen had been surprised to learn that her grandmother was still alive in a nursing home in Bournemouth. She had telephoned the home and asked about her. Apparently she was lucid but very frail, remembered who Blodwen is, and would be delighted to see her (and me).
So I booked us into a bed and breakfast. After a walk around the town this morning we were due to meet Cerys, Blodwen's grandmother, for lunch at the nursing home. I was slightly concerned. How easy would it be for Cerys, at her advanced age, to eat and talk?
When we met my worries vanished. Cerys was bedridden but as bright as a button and quite capable of managing things for herself. Her sight was failing but otherwise she looked very well.
Cerys told Blodwen many things about her family. Blodwen's father, Iestyn, had been the oldest of the family, born when his father and mother were very young. Cerys was reluctant to say how young until Blodwen pressed her.
"If you must know, Blodwen, you must. You could probably find it out anyway. There are no secrets anymore. Your father was still 19 when you were born. Abigail, your mother, was nearly 19. They couldn't get married until you were nearly two years old and Iestyn was twenty-one. Even then they had to have Abigail's parents permission. Your sister Ruth was on the way by then. At least Ruth was born in wedlock. Not that it did her any good. She died of polio before she was six months old."
I hugged Blodwen. She hadn't known she had had a sister. As far as she knew she had been an only child. There were more shocks to come.
"What were you told about your father's death?"
"He was a war correspondent."
"Fancy title! Nonsense. He was an apprentice journalist who was taken along as a bag carrier. He was only 25. He got in the way of a bullet meant for the cameraman who had taken pictures that might have embarrassed the local chieftain. The cameraman managed to swap his film for an unexposed one and handed that over. Too late to save your father though."
"So I was a bastard and my father was an apprentice?" Blodwen asked.
"Yes, girl. Nowadays people seem to be proud of being a bastard. When you were born it could have been very difficult for you particularly if your parents had stayed in Wales. They didn't. Blame my husband Ewan for that. He drove them away to England to take their shame with them. He should have remembered how it was for us. Silly old fool! Iestyn was born before we were married. If they had stayed they would have been publicly named and then they would have been forgiven. Forgiven, but not forgotten. They have long memories in Wales."
"What part of Wales?" Blodwen asked. "Your other children don't remember living in Wales or that you or grandfather ever talked about Wales."
"They wouldn't. They were much younger than Iestyn. We couldn't live in the village after Ewan had driven Iestyn and Abigail away. The whole village condemned us. We might have gone back after the war but the village was the cause of the deepest split between Ewan and me. I never really forgave him for it because it contributed to Iestyn's death.
"What did Ewan do that was so bad?"
"When Iestyn was driven away I gave him and Abigail all my savings to get them started in England. When your sister Ruth was ill, Iestyn came to me for help with the doctor's fees. That was before the National Health Service, you see. I couldn't help so I asked my husband. I knew he had inherited some money from his father. He had bought a car but there should have been a lot left. He said he hadn't got any money. He tried to sell his car but couldn't. Iestyn took the job in Africa because he had no other way of paying the doctor."
Cerys stopped talking and reached for a glass of water beside her bed. As she sipped it I noticed that a tear was rolling down her cheek. Blodwen reached out and held Cerys hand, giving it a gentle squeeze.
"It's OK," Cerys said. "It was long ago. For a while I hated Ewan. I couldn't think what he had done with the money Iestyn and Abigail needed so much. It took me a long time to realise that even with all the money in the world we couldn't have saved Ruth. I nagged and nagged about the missing money until Ewan admitted he'd given it to the village. I didn't know why. I still don't know why. Perhaps you two could find out. If you are tracing your family tree you will have to go to the village and look at the records there. I would like to know what was so important to Ewan that he gave his inheritance away."
Blodwen looked at me. I nodded.
"We'll do what we can, Cerys," Blodwen said. "We can't promise anything. After all this time maybe no one knows..."
"They'll know. They have long memories in Wales. Will you find out and tell me?"
"We'll try," I said. "But where is the village? No one has mentioned it by name."
Cerys whispered in Blodwen's ear. I'm not giving the name of the village even now. We would like to keep some family secrets.
Cerys and Blodwen talked for another hour before one of the nurses brought us tea and cakes. After that Cerys seemed to make a decision.
"Hugh?" she said to me, "Can you open that display cabinet and bring out the urn and the package underneath it, please?"
I did. I handed them carefully to Cerys. She turned the urn round to show the inscription.
"This contains your grandfather's ashes. He wanted them to be strewed in his home village in Wales. I didn't arrange it..."
She stopped to think.
"I'd like to say I didn't do it because it didn't want it done by strangers and I couldn't do it myself. That isn't true. I hated that village for coming between my husband and me and because what he thought the village might think had made Ewan drive Iestyn away. I held on to the ashes because I wanted to punish Ewan. Now I should forgive him. Will you take these ashes to Wales and put them somewhere appropriate?"
"The package contains a couple of books in Welsh. I found them after Ewan died. There are inscriptions in the front which might help. Unfortunately my eyesight had faded too much and there is no one here who can read Welsh. Take them. Blodwen, you can keep them as an heirloom from your Welsh ancestors."
Blodwen thanked Cerys and kissed her on the forehead. After that Cerys seemed to tire very quickly as if she had been holding her strength together just for us. Blodwen hugged and kissed Cerys again, we said goodbye and left.
The next day we drove to North Wales. The first part of the journey was easy. The later part was so difficult that we stopped at a roadside motel shortly after it became dark. Neither of us liked the idea of the unfamiliar Welsh mountain roads after dark.
After an apology for an English breakfast we bought a large-scale map and headed into the hills. It was just past noon when we arrived in 'the' village. We stopped outside the public house and went in. I was surprised that there was a public house. There didn't seem to be much to the village – no shop, a few straggling buildings and then the open road again.
In the bar there were a couple of locals and a young barmaid. We ordered drinks and I took them to a table while Blodwen tried to pump information from the barmaid. Blodwen joined me.
"Over there," she nodded in the direction of one of the locals. "She says he is a good person to start with if you buy him a pint."
We did. We went over and introduced ourselves, making a point of Blodwen's maiden name. The local smiled broadly.
"You have made a bad start, ma'am. Your family are chapel. They would never be seen in the bar. If you are going to see them you had better keep quiet about coming in here. They might not forgive you, or if they did, they'd pray over you in open chapel. That might be worse. You should go to see the minister. He's at the manse, the last house in the village. You can't miss it. It has 'The Manse' writ real clear. Don't go smelling of the demon drink or he won't let you in."
We were drinking fruit juices. I was driving and Blodwen rarely drinks except wine with a meal. We were free of the demon drink. I took the local's advice and moved the car to a place less incriminating than the pub's car park.
I rang the minister, explained that we were seeking information about Blodwen's ancestors' and asked for an appointment. He was willing to see us at two o'clock. We risked his wrath by having lunch in the pub before we walked to The Manse.
When the minister opened the door my heart sank. He was a young man, probably in his late thirties. What could he know about events so long ago?
"I know you must be Blodwen." He said. "We have photos of your mother and father and I can see both of them in you. Welcome to the village. And you must be Hugh."
"I would like us to go to the chapel. There is something there that Blodwen should see. I have asked a few of the older villagers to meet us there. None of them are really old enough to remember Ewan personally. Their parents would have done."
We followed him across the road and into the chapel. It was a stone built building with a slate roof. Over the door was a date. 1874. The foundation stone was in Welsh.
Inside were several elderly men and two women. They stood up to greet us in English. For some it was an effort to speak English. One of the women spoke.
"Hello, Blodwen and Hugh. I am Dilys. Many of us are not so good with our English. If you want I will act as your translator."
"Yes please, Dilys," Blodwen said.
"OK. The minister explained to us that you wanted information about your grandfather Ewan. The most obvious piece of information is inscribed over there."
She pointed to a large wooden board with an inscription in gold lettering. The only things we could decipher were Ewan's name and two dates, 1932 and 1987.
The minister explained.
"That board records the community's thanks to your grandfather Ewan for his help in 1932. At that time the village was in dire straits. Most of the men were unemployed after the slate mine closed down. The chapel had mortgaged the building and the land to pay for food for the village's families. In 1932 they couldn't even pay the interest on the mortgage and the bank was going to foreclose on us."
Dilys was translating this into Welsh for the others. They were nodding in agreement.
"Ewan drove into the village in his car. It was the first car anyone had seen actually in the village. He seemed like an apparition from another world until some people recognised him. He talked to many people, some of whom were not exactly his friends, but he learned enough to see that the chapel was in real trouble. He came to see the then minister and the committee running the chapel. He asked outright how much was owed. They told him.
He climbed back into his little car and drove to the big town. There he went into the bank, demanded to see the bank manager, and paid off the mortgage, redeemed it completely. If he had been a week later the bank have would owned the chapel and the chapel's land.
He then came back to the village and gave the deeds of the property to the minister. He wrote us a cheque for one hundred pounds to help buy food for the villagers. Then he drove away and we never saw him again. He heard that he had died in 1987. This board, erected in 1935 when the slate mine reopened, was restored in his memory.
Your grandfather Ewan saved this village from slow starvation and saved the chapel and, perhaps more importantly, the land for the community. On that land now stands the village hall, the football pitch, the school and its playing field, the car park, the toilets and the information centre for visitors to the National Park."
Blodwen reached out her hand for mine.
"I don't understand," she said. "Did you know that he never told his wife about it?"
Dilys translated Blodwen's question and the replies.
"Didn't he?" One of the old men asked. "I think I know why. Iestyn was chapel. Cerys was Church. She made him join the Church. She might not have liked the thought that he had given money to the chapel."
"He didn't actually give it just to the chapel," Another man said. "The chapel had been helping the whole village. They hadn't made a distinction between families who were chapel or Church or neither. Ewan's money has benefited the whole community."
"Dilys?" Blodwen asked. "I have these two books both with inscriptions dated 1932. The inscriptions are in Welsh so I couldn't read them. Could you tell me what they say?"
"I'll try," Dilys said.
She read the inscriptions aloud in resounding Welsh including all the names signed at the end of each. There were exclamations from all the locals present after almost every name. Then Dilys translated for us.
"This prayer book is presented by the Church and congregation of (name omitted) in thanks to Ewan (name omitted) for his timely salvation of the village. He and his family will be perpetually in our prayers. The signatures are from every man, woman and child in the congregation in 1932. There is a note that Granny Jones signed it on her deathbed an hour before she died.
This hymnbook is presented by the members of the chapel of (name omitted) in heartfelt thanks for his assistance not just to the chapel but to the community of (name omitted). We hope that the hymns within will remind him of his native place. The signatures are in two parts. The first are from members of the chapel. The second are from all other members of the community."
There was a silence after Dilys stopped speaking. The inscriptions seemed like voices from the past. The minister broke the quiet.
"Blodwen, there must be some reason why you have come now. Can you tell us something about Ewan after he left us?"
Blodwen had to speak slowly and carefully so that Dilys could translate. She explained about Cerys, about Cerys' pain that money hadn't been available for Ruth, about Iestyn and Abigail driven out by Ewan, and finally about Ewan's ashes.
The group listened carefully. Dilys' voice struggled when she translated the part about Ruth's death and Cerys' accusations of Ewan. When she stopped everyone else started speaking in passionate Welsh. The minister had to shout to get them to calm down and speak one at a time. Slowly they began to express themselves formally, one at a time.
Dilys couldn't translate. She was crying openly. Blodwen put an arm round Dilys' shoulder.
The Minister listened carefully to all that was being said. Then he turned to us.
"There will be no problem in burying Ewan's ashes in the village. Everyone will be proud that he has come home. The only difficulty is that he was Church and we are chapel. He should have a church funeral that we would like to attend. When he lived here that wouldn't have been possible. The fact that is possible now is partly due to what the people of the chapel did in the 1930s and what Ewan himself did. We need to speak to the Church authorities and arrange things with them. I can speak to them this afternoon but the arrangements will take some time. Are you prepared to wait?"
"Of course," Blodwen replied. "His ashes have been around since 1987. A further wait won't matter."
"OK. Perhaps Dilys can show you around the village while I make a few calls. Dilys?"
The rest of the day was amazing. It seemed that almost everyone in the village wanted to meet Ewan's granddaughter. We had more cups of tea than I could count. Even Dilys admitted that she had never seen the inside of so many people's houses in a lifetime of living in the village.
Eventually we ended back at the manse for high tea. The minister had arranged a possible date for the funeral – Earth Day. The church would conduct the service but the whole village would be invited to participate. We agreed to everything, including the offer of a video recording of the proceedings that we could show to Cerys.
We left Ewan's ashes in the care of the minister.
A few weeks later we were back. We stayed overnight in the pub. The minister had reassured us. The public house was no longer seen as an irredeemable den of iniquity although most chapelgoers still avoided it. After breakfast we heard a brass band. We looked out of the front door. Despite the morning mist the brass band, dressed in their best uniforms, were playing Welsh hymns.
The event was more like a pageant than a funeral. We walked, with a dozen or so villagers, to the chapel. There were people standing at the back. The hymns were wonderfully sung and the minister's address was fascinating. He was extremely worked up, as were the worshippers. We didn't understand a word.
The brass band preceded the procession to the church. As we walked more and more people joined us and the hymn singing became louder. They were obviously enjoying themselves and the singing seemed almost competitive.
Once inside the church we could see a male voice choir to one side and the schoolchildren on the other. The male voice choir started the first hymn a capella. The schoolchildren did the same for the second hymn. The third hymn was one we recognised to the tune 'Aberystwyth'. The whole congregation really let rip with that one and 'Cwm Rhonnda'. The Bishop's sermon was in Welsh with each paragraph then repeated in English, presumably for our benefit.
At the end of the service Blodwen and I followed the coffin. It was a coffin even though it only contained Ewan's ashes. At the graveside the Bishop conducted the committal in English first and then repeated himself in Welsh.
Blodwen moved forward to throw earth on Ewan's coffin. The Bishop's words 'Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust' were nearly too much for her. She grabbed at my arm. I held her up as many people threw a handful of earth into the grave.
After the burial we all walked to the village hall. This time the hymns were sung joyfully.
The villagers had provided the funeral feast. All seemed to be enjoying themselves. Blodwen and I shook hands with everybody and were hugged and kissed by almost everyone as well.
The minister asked for silence, at least that is what I assumed he did. He asked Blodwen to come forward. Then he asked her to take a casket to Cerys.
"This casket, made in the village, contains Welsh earth from the land Ewan saved for us. We hope that it will give her comfort. Tell her that when her time comes we have reserved a place at her husband's side. She will be made as welcome as he has been."
Blodwen couldn't answer. I answered for both us that we would do as we had been asked. I thanked the village from us and from Cerys. Dilys translated what I had said. When she had finished there were cheers.
The rest of the day passed in a blur. There was a lot of singing. The brass band became noisier as pints of Welsh beer followed one after another down their throats.
Dilys had the last word as we staggered back to our room in the pub.
"We haven't had such a good funeral for years. Earth to earth on Earth Day seems a good omen."
We hope it was.