My old friend Gerry is dead. He died peacefully, fortified by the sacraments in his ninety-first year. Although a self-confessed, life-long hypochondriac (he would keep his X-rays like holiday snaps, and once showed me his gallstones in a jar), he had had great fear of a long drawn-out hospitalisation, and the Lord spared him this trial.
That fear was more to do with his sense of modesty, which to some would appear old-fashioned, but which psychologists have redefined as “boundaries”, and spiritual people recognise as a sense that the body alerts us to its own dignity if this has never been outraged. Until he went into the care of the Little Sisters of the Poor six months ago, he was living independently and, though slightly deaf, otherwise undimmed.
I could write a book about Gerry; not least, because with him dies a couple of hundred years of received history of which he spoke so often, so fondly and so vividly. He came from a world that had something of a medieval quality about its continuity, its attachment to a particular place and community and the predominance of Catholicism, for it was a world within the ambit and patronage of the Abbey of Downside.
He was from the wonderfully named village of Stratton-on-the-Fosse in Somerset, and to the end of his life there was a slight Somerset burr to his accent. His great-grandfather moved there when the monks did in 1814 to be the abbot’s coachman. Gerry’s maternal grandfather worked at Downside and helped to build St Benedict’s; the village church in which Gerry will have one of his requiem Masses. He showed me pictures of his grandfather, a formal photographic portrait of a bearded Victorian patriarch in a frock coat with hands thrust into the pocket of a waistcoat adorned with a watch-chain. He stands tall and straight next to his bonneted wife. They were married for 76 years.
Among Gerry’s effects I found the notebook of the local friendly society founded by his grandfather, the subscriptions recorded in a round hand so neat it looks like a fancy computer font. Gerry recalled that as a small boy he went into his grandparent’s cottage one Christmas morning to find Cardinal Gasquet, who had been the Prior of Downside before becoming the Vatican Librarian and receiving the red hat, “chatting to the Old Man and peeling the potatoes”.
Gerry was the last of a line, the only child of parents who married late. He was educated in the village school by the Servite Nuns, for whom he had the fondest regard. Their pedagogy must have been pretty good, because although he left school at 14, Gerry’s life-long passion was history. He not only had an encyclopaedic knowledge of English history, especially military history, but he was an accomplished historian himself, researching and publishing articles and guidebooks.
Before the war Gerry worked at Downside, as an office boy for the bursar. His tasks included distributing various “goodies” to the monks: tobacco and cigarettes, different brands for different monks – Guinness for one who needed building up, or even some choice side of game sent to another from his landed family.
Gerry’s formative years were marked by happy memories of family, parish and monastery and, like all old men, he reminisced or “yarned” often, telling the same stories often enough for me to recall them well. For example: how his mother, who came from Stratton, could write to her fiancé in Midsummer Norton by the morning post inviting him to tea, and he would receive it in time to keep the appointment. He would laugh at the time when a trainee altar boy put a dust cover instead of the humeral veil on Abbot Ethelbert Horne’s shoulders, and he flung it to the ground in rage.
He had no children and few surviving relatives. As I prepare for his obsequies I feel as if in some way I have become a custodian of these memories. And never before have I understood quite so fully the simple words of St Paul to the Romans: “The life and death of each of us has its influence on others.” Gerry certainly lived for the Lord, with a deep-rooted faith. May he rest in Him.
This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (19/6/15).
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