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Requiem in Crossbush

It was Friday 13th. Gran had never been keen on that date. So it was ironic, or perhaps appropriate, that date came to be the occasion of her funeral. The universe likes a giggle.

At 10 o'clock in the morning the family and friends of Averil Bessie Jenkins gathered at the Poor Clare's Convent in Crossbush, near Arundel. Home of Sister Pat; aunt to me, sister to my mother and my aunts, daughter of Gran. Averil had been a Jenkins, a Frame and a Luxford over the course of her life. The building was filled with people who had known all three.

I'd travelled down with my sister Kirsty from London that morning by train, where our brother Peter met us at Arundel station. Mum had primed me beforehand and so I found myself clean-shaven, dressed in a black suit, wearing a tie and smart black shoes. It was very unlike me. Mum was delighted. Aunty Frances took a photograph.

The chapel at the Convent had high ceilings and was painted white. Windows high up let light stream into the room. As I stood near the entrance I could see the coffin sat in the centre. It was surrounded by tall candles and draped with flowers. One of the windows in the chapel was etched with memories of Kevin James Frame. Kevin was Gran's son. He had died young; at the age of only 20. I'd never met him; Kevin having died before I was born. I can't imagine how painful that must have been for Gran. Aunty Pat would say at the wake later "Your mum's not supposed to die. She's supposed to go on forever." That's a sentiment I can dig. I feel it. But what's far worse is your child going before you. Having a memory of Kevin etched into the window of the room where we were going to remember Gran, made me feel something. I couldn't tell you quite what. Some emotion I can't articulate.

I was to be a pallbearer. Alongside me were my brother Peter, my cousins Patrick, Dominic and Matthew, alongside my cousin Laura's husband Calum. We were arranged in height order and drilled by the undertakers until we understood what we would need to do later on.

It had been a difficult year. Lisette's mother Annie died last year. She wasn't my mother but I loved her very much. Gran died this month. Likewise I loved her very much. Gran was a constant in my life. I didn't see her a great deal. But she'd always been there. I was missing Annie too. I didn't go to her funeral. It took place in Mallorca and someone needed to take care of the boys. I was wearing cufflinks that Annie had given me some years before. I liked having something from Annie with me.

I sat in a pew with Aunty Kathleen, Bob and Calum. Behind me were my parents. Bob gave me the order of service. With it came a picture of the farmhouse gran was born in. I knew the picture from having seen it on Gran's mantelpiece. Seeing the image brought a rush of vivid emotion.

The chapel is used all day and everyday by the sisters at the Convent. It's part of their daily life. They had arranged chairs around the coffin. Aunty Pat sat next to it. The candles were lit.

I could hear voices raised in song. As ever, my father's louder than most, intoning "Be thou my vision". I found that I couldn't sing without getting choked up. I didn't want to sob, so I didn't sing either. I became aware of Dad's voice dropping away here and there. I wondered if he was similarly afflicted. The emotional Reilly men, perhaps? I put it to Kirsty later. She said "No, Dad just stops singing when he can't hit the high notes. And because he's so loud in the first place you notice his absence". So perhaps not.

The funeral was Catholic. My mother's side of the family generally are. It's not my tradition, but there is much in it I appreciate. The service was taken by Father John, an elderly priest who had in fact married Gran and Grandad some forty years previously. (Gran having lost her first husband, my biological grandfather, when I was a baby.) Father John lead us through the service. There were songs, there were prayers. There was communion.

Mum and Aunty Frances walked to the front, turned and stood next to the alter, facing the congregation; family, friends and, of course, Aunty Pat's fellow sisters at the Convent. Mum and Fran alternated sharing memories of Gran. Telling stories of her life. And their lives. How Gran had met her first husband James Frame, by throwing a bucket of water over him. How Averil was born in a farmhouse and lost her father when she was only eight years old. How, as a grandparent, Gran regularly hosted and cooked roast dinners for twenty to thirty family members. Where large quantities of food would be consumed, and then the family would slowly wander around the farm to help the lunch go down. When Gran's first husband died, how she carried the burden of ensuring that Aunty Frances still got to be a child. How Gran had not given up when she lost her son and her husband in quick succession. How she had married Brian Jenkins, the man I have always known as my grandfather, and in many ways started again.

Frances read words written by my cousin Tracy, sent over from Canada, recalling childhood memories of staying with Gran. Tracy said "Gran wasn't very cuddly" but then told a story of when she was had become very scared at Gran's house and how Gran held her until she wasn't. Mum and Fran spoke of many kindnesses. Of many determined acts of love.

Life was not always easy for Gran. What was abundantly clear was this: Averil did not do defeat. When life gave her lemons, she quietly made lemonade.

Myself and my fellow pallbearers came forward. We bowed towards the alter, then, instructed by the undertakers, lifted the wooden coffin into our hands and then onto our shoulders. It was heavy. Very heavy indeed. Gran was a sturdy lady who had played hockey for Horsham. As her coffin rested upon our shoulders and we shuffled forward there was little doubt of that.

Gran died at age of ninety. She was at home in bed and was surrounded by her four daughters who loved her greatly. To be surrounded by a family that loves you at the end of your life must be a tremendous comfort. Death is hard. I'd say that it was made more bearable for my aunts and my mum in that they had each other. We need one another.

Emotions are not like they are in films and on television. They're not straightforward. It's less like a consistent feeling of sadness and more like an ebb and flow. You surf the waves of your mood. And at times of grief, the height of the waves is just that much higher. Or lower. One moment you're just fine. The next you're feeling highly charged emotion. Maybe you're crying. Maybe you're delighted. Perhaps you are overwhelmed by a sense of love. All told, there's a lot of emotion involved. It's tiring. Mr Spock had a point.

Directed by the undertakers we carefully manoeuvred the coffin into the hearse and slid it into position. We stood back, massaging our shoulders. For a moment, the sun shone upon us all.

Everyone got into their cars and followed the hearse out of the convent grounds. We travelled in convoy to the Catholic church in West Grinstead. Gran was to be buried in the same grave as her son and her first husband James. Next to the grave of Aunty Pat's husband Tony.

The hole had already been dug. Across it lay two wooden struts which supported the coffin. Father John lead prayers. Aunty Kathleen stood with Grandad as the struts were taken away and the coffin was lowered to its final resting place. People took turns blessing the coffin using a cut of rosemary that Aunty Pat had harvested from the Convent garden that morning. You could see small purple flowers along the length of the rosemary.

The church bells rang out.

The wake took place in a pub in Henfield. Everyone gathered. And drank. And ate. And talked.

There was a lot of hugging. Whilst Gran may not have been the most cuddly of individuals, her family have taken a different path. I like that we hug. The last time I saw Gran was the Saturday before Christmas last year. Gran couldn't move much by then. She was hugged and kissed by many children and grandchildren that day. Although Gran wasn't the most expressive of people, I believe she enjoyed it.

Laura brought out her phone and showed a gallery of photographs of our family over the last forty years. There were images I hadn't forgotten. But that I hadn't remembered enough. I've had a wonderful life. Truly. Each picture was full of love and smiles. Happinesses remembered.

I felt tremendously grateful. As I looked at the pictures I realised that in each one I represented the youngest generation. I'm not anymore. When those photographs are taken now, I'm the grown up in the picture now. I'm not the child. And one day, God willing, I'll be the oldest generation and there'll be young faces in the pictures that I haven't yet met.

That's what I hope.


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