Over the course of the past week, the element of water in various guises has played a significant part in my waking hours. I have been close to the ocean in Cornwall and Dorset, I’ve sat beside a lake at a National Trust property in Surrey, and walked along the towpath in one of my favourite locations, the Basingstoke canal.
Firstly, I enjoyed a truly delightful walk on the coastal path that hugs the headland near Crantock in Cornwall. I was with my daughter Stella and my four month old grand-daughter, Grace. The sun shone from a cloudless blue sky, and we heard skylarks high above. The sweet, high piping sound of the larks took me back to my childhood. I told Stella,
“When we were young, mum and dad used to pack up a picnic, and we would head off to a field close to the old airfield at Wisley. I remember the sunshine, the larks, and picking little bunches of wildflowers for mum. She taught me their names – ragged robin, star of bethlehem, bird’s foot trefoil and so on”.
As we walked it struck me how quickly the years have passed. It’s a long time since I was the young mum of two children; I guess I am now a matriarch, enjoying my own daughter being the young mum of two children.
Life experience allows that I have apparently arrived at a position of maturity and wisdom!
There was a special kind of joy as we walked along in the spring sunshine; three females at entirely different stages of life, embracing our femininity, our maternal joys and trials and in Grace’s case, simply enjoying being carried in a sling, close to her mum’s heart.
Acquired wisdom is not confined to me however, for during our walk Stella told me something I didn’t know before, that the origin of the dandelion’s name comes from French;
‘Dent-de-lion’ means ‘tooth of the lion’, reflecting the jagged shape of the plant’s leaf. Thank you, Stella. You underlined nicely that your mum is never too old to learn!
You also told me that as a mum you feel that you are simultaneously a ‘carer, protector, shield and warrior’ – a very good way to describe motherhood.
As we rounded the headland we looked down on a cerulean blue sea that shone and sparkled in the sunlight below us, foamy white waves hitting the rugged Cornish rocks below us. It was quite magnificent, elemental and an illustration of natural power at its finest.
A couple of days later found Shaun and I arriving in Lyme Regis in Dorset. We joined a gathering to commemorate the passing of my dear friend Sylvi; an informal ceremony that saw her daughters, sisters and husband committing her ashes to the ocean. Sylvi and her husband Tim lived in France where she sadly passed away last Autumn. Her funeral had taken place in France but her wishes were that she would be brought to Lyme Regis. This was one of her favourite places, significantly for Christmas morning picnics with the family, regardless of the weather.
We drew together from near and far; family, colleagues and friends each holding our own memories of Sylvi as mother, grandmother, sister, wife, friend. We walked and talked together as we navigated the very uneven pebbly beach, gravitating to a quiet spot that Tim chose as the place where our informal committal would attract least notice.
Again we were immensely fortunate with the weather and the sun shone brightly, glittering off the sea.
We gathered round the family and stood at a respectful distance as Lucy read some well-constructed words and we were handed yellow roses to throw into the water.
Lucy, Hollie, Tim, Sylvi’s sisters Hazel and Annie each took a turn to commit some ashes to the sea.
This started off with sombre decorum, but before long Lucy and Hollie kicked off their shoes and braved the undoubtedly cold water to lovingly send off their mum.
There was something incredibly, powerfully, touching about watching these two strong, beautiful young women standing in the shallows and little by little, saying such a personal and utterly connected goodbye to the mum they so dearly loved. The ebb and flow of the tide would carry her away gently and silently.
Afterwards, Hollie wrote (and I share with her permission)
“Holding my mother in ashes in my own palm was a strange but unique feeling; she had held my hand, held me and held my heart more times than is possible to count and today was our turn to hold her and let her go.
… My lesson from today for myself and others is enjoy every minute with your loved ones, make the effort, say how you feel and don’t be afraid to say or show it”.
Water gives life, it sustains life, and in this case, it absorbed the last remnants of a life in a spiritually uplifting, natural way. It was so good to see the repression usually associated with modern grief being cast aside in favour of such a memorable and simple committal to nature.
Throwing our roses into the sea allowed us to share in the precious and unique event and send our messages to Sylvi’s waterborne spirit.
Afterwards we all walked along the seafront, threading our way through the Easter holiday makers to reach the pub where a room had been set aside for the 35 or so of us who had gathered. We gradually relaxed and reminisced, sharing our favourite recollections of such a very special lady.
The day’s individual setting and sequence of events typified Sylvi, who always cared about the impression she left, with everyone who knew her.
Sylvi’s wishes were not to leave anyone mourning gloomily with dark thoughts of the three years she lived with cancer. Rather, she wanted those who love her to remember her with fondness, joy, laughter and compassion, which is what we achieved on the day and will sustain us all, as we go forward with our lives.
Sylvi was an exceptional woman who instilled in all who knew her an appreciation of making the most of life, whatever the circumstances.
The following day, I felt in reflective mood and had a need to connect with nature again.
We went to Hatchlands, a local National Trust property, and enjoyed a long walk. There is a small lake in the grounds and Shaun and I sat on a bench watching the breeze ruffling the water. All we could hear was the sound of the wind in the reeds at the edge of the lake, and the birdsong in the hedgerows. I found myself praying for Sylvi and her family, and hoping that they all feel, as I do, a sense of having commemorated her life and her passing in the most positive way possible.
Anyone who knows me will be familiar with my love for the stretch of the Basingstoke canal that is near our home. I find my walks along the towpath healing and restorative. There is something about being close to the water that is nurturing and peace-inducing in equal measure. I walked there again the day after Hatchlands and felt that I was casting away the cobwebs of sadness at the loss of my friend.
Over time I have gradually learned important lessons about the nature of water. We cannot live without it; indeed our bodies are made up of 50-60% of water.
It is a life giver as well as a life taker.
It sustains, it restores, it calms, it balances.
It supports life for every species.
It blesses with baptism, and curses with torrents and drought.
We cannot survive without its provision for our most basic needs.
We need to respect the water in all its many forms.
The four environments – ocean in Cornwall and Dorset, lake and canal in Surrey are entirely separate and diverse but they all provide the same sense of being at one with nature. Each experience of these four very different days has underlined for me our human need to love and be loved, and to learn from every single life lesson that we are lucky enough to be taught.