Our family Bible came from our mum’s side. But our real missals were her poetry books – Come Hither, edited by Walter de la Mare, and The Golden Treasury, edited by Francis Turner Palgrave. Now I have these same books, and they are indeed full of treasure – not least, the pleasure of remembering shared readings, with special emphasis on wordplay and on the almost sensual pleasure of drenching ourselves in emotion.
Many of the poems were the source for rhymes and phrases woven into Mum’s daily speech, often accompanied by meaningful looks to underscore their importance. Sighing and shaking her head on hearing that a well-known person had died, she might remark, ‘All, all are gone, the old familiar faces’ (Charles Lamb, ‘The Old Familiar Faces’). Or, with a curl of her lip at a history programme on TV, ‘Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair’ (Shelley, ‘Ozymandias’). Struck by the beauty of the hilly landscape while walking across Hampstead Heath, she might refer to ‘thoughts that oft do lie too deep for tears’ (Wordsworth’s ‘Ode on Intimations of Immortality’, a poem whose title she enjoyed rolling around her mouth). Seaside trips might lead her to declaim ‘Break, break, break, on thy cold grey stones, O sea!’ (Tennyson, ‘In Memoriam’), while a big hug might conclude with ‘How do I love thee? Let me count the ways’ (from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s ‘How Do I Love Thee?’). Naturally, she was a sucker for the Barrett-Browning love story, though I am not so sure that she was au fait with Tennyson’s stifled love for Arthur Hallam. That didn’t
matter, since ‘Oh that ’twere possible/ After long grief and pain/ To feel the arms of my true love/ Round me once again’ (from Tennyson’s ‘Maud’) meant far more to her in her grief over my father’s early death than the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of remembrance.
My parents were potty about each other, though this often manifested
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