Poppies

Poppies

 

This blog entry has been mooching around my head for a while now, but I was finding it too emotionally painful to write down until now – so here goes.

During May there is an abundance of poppies – growing everywhere we look – in the fields and tracks around the village we live in. So, every walk, every drive we take, it’s hard to not ponder on the meaning that they have to us.

Poppies in the grave yard 2

For many of us, poppies are associated with death, especially as they are worn in the UK on Remembrance Sunday to honour the war dead that gave their lives for us. Summed up in this beautiful poem by John McCrae

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row

That mark our place, and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below

For me though, as well that as that symbolic reminder of the sacrifices made by those brave men, poppies also have a sweet, sentimental meaning for me.

When I was a little girl, and my maternal grandparents were both still an important part of my life, I could not say the word Grandpa or Granddad, so to make it easier they got me to say “Pop” which then became “Poppy”. So I spent the precious few years I had with him in my life calling him Poppy. Then even after he  died when I was four, I still carried on using Poppy and so did my mum and my nan  when they talked about him to me.

Poppies against a wall

So, the sight of poppies has always stirred up very fond memories of a time when I know I was happy and loved, as sadly my childhood did become very unhappy after those first early years, which means I struggle to recall happy memories at a later stage. But that’s a story that’s not for now – maybe another time.

Because of this, poppies can stir up very happy emotions in me – of a Granddad that I barely knew, but even so was an important part of my life.

But, they can also bring up real sadness in me too.

Rewind to April 2013 – my Dad was dying – we knew that – it was just a matter of how long he had  left. But then we had the shocking and terrible news that Ann also had cancer – also Stage 4. So, our visits over to Kent stepped up a notch. Having a life to lead in Hampshire – school for Sian, college for Ryan, work for Martin, and teaching for me, this was a case of spending as much time as humanly possible travelling to Kent on a Friday evening, making memories with Dad in his last weeks, and now also trying to take in this awful news about Ann.

What I remember most about those times was “The Triangle” between where James’ house in Margate, Quex camp-site that we stayed in Birchington, and Wayside mobile home site in Minster which was where Dad and Ann had ended up living once their France dreams were quashed by cancer.

The Triangle

So, at any given time we could be driving either over to James’s house from the campsite, or over to see Dad at Minster, or going to see Ann at the hospital which was just around the corner from James’s house. As you can see it’s actually more of a circle than a triangle – but at the time it felt like a  triangle – and still does.

The trip between the camp-site and Dad’s took us through a lovely little village called Acol – which we always thought sounded very French, with it’s lovely banks of poppies swaying in the wind. So, during much of these journeys I would just be sitting quietly, as the passenger, thinking, feeling sad, looking at the poppies and thinking how very tragic it was that dad would not be going back to France…..most likely not ever, definitely not to live, but probably not even to visit. Even when we were not in Kent, the poppies played a part. For the first time I noticed poppies at the side of the road on my running route, so every morning as I ran past the poppies, I thought of all this constant sadness, but also it encouraged me to keep going, keep running, keep trying and to be glad that I have a body that works, and that I could run, and that I should keep running to make up for the fact that some people no longer could. This thought spurred me on to do some fairly epic (for me at least) fund-raising attempts for Macmillan Cancer Support and Cancer Research UK including my first and only Half Marathon Half Marathon Medal

It was a surreal time in our lives, and as we played out the nightmare we were in, we honestly believed that once this was over, we could get back to normal.

But, no, life had more for us that just that sad episode. The poppy season two years down the line brought the loss of my step-dad at the end of May – so many poppies around that year too – there always is – I just didn’t notice it so much before.

And then, tragically the following May our young nephew lost his battle with cancer. In our messed up, upside-down-and-back-to-front family dynamic it has meant that through time and over time we have not only lost the people who died – but also some associated relationships have suffered the consequences – our inability to forgive a dad who failed his son, ex in-laws who find it painful to keep links with past family, a son who didn’t even try to do the right thing by his dying father. All those and more – people lost from our lives – they call it the ripple effect of death. More like a tidal wave in our case it seems.

Poppies are also associated with dreams –considered to be sacred to Morpheus the Greek God of dreams. All I know is that those days were so incredibly sad as we witnessed the dreams of one very lovely, very ordinary couple get shattered into a billion pieces.

Solo poppy

 

So, here we are…now in France – making our very best efforts to create our own dreams. Dreams that sometimes feel as fragile as the roots of those poppies, and are equally as amazing in the way that they seem to be rising up in a jungle of a wilderness – just like the poppies seem to be able to grow just about anywhere – on steep banks, and in ditches at the side of the road. Even next to spiders webs.

Poppies and spiders webs

 

It’s still a constant worry to us that our own dreams will be shattered – not this time due to ill health hopefully – but through the political mess that the UK has found itself in. It hurts to the core when people who seem to have no real concept or understanding of what their actions are doing to our dreams say such utter nonsense like “it’s only scaremongering” or “it will be alright”. They have no idea what it feels like to know we are only just 2 steps away from being homeless. If they did understand it, surely they would not keep saying those things – but perhaps they want to hurt us for daring to want a different life for ourselves. We have nothing (in terms of property or material things)  in the UK and if this all goes horribly wrong for us we will not be able to live in the something we have in France.

Like the poppies we are trying to put down our roots – in a place where those roots don’t quite belong – but even so we want to get those roots firmly planted – we want to live here – in France, in our crazy little corner of this sweet little village, the fields surrounding which now look so reminiscent of that lovely village Acol we used to drive though. In the same way that the impact of death has rippled out and added to the loss in our lives, so has the division in our country of birth. We find it sad that people who we once loved seem so alien to our own beliefs and we feel scared for the future of both the country we were born in and the country we now live in…resulting in more loss of friends and relationships.

 

We hope that we can be as resilient as those poppies in the wind  and just say “damn you Brexit and all those who follow you! We will grow where we want to grow and we will be strong”.

Apparently to dream of poppies suggests that you are about to meet a new, younger love – or that it is time to move on. I really don’t think Martin is under any threat of me trading him in for a younger model (who would put up with me) so I’m taking it that it is time for us to both move on, and leave the past hurt behind, give up on relationships that are too difficult to continue to fight for, and forge this new life for ourselves in  our own (Poppy) Field of Dreams.

 

 

 

Vive La Difference! But….we have more in common than that divides us

Vive La Difference….but, we have far more in common than that divides us

100 years ago, the guns silenced, marking the end of the First World War. Today, in a sleepy little village in South West Rural France about 150 people from various countries marked that occasion in a manner not dissimilar to other events held elsewhere in Europe.Memorial procession

Confusingly for me, although the church bells rang out #ATouteVolee at 1100the chatter did not stop, and the hustle and bustle of the Autumn Fayre continued. As Martin and I walked up the high street he persisted in talking about something until I snapped “are you NOT going to observe a minute’s silence?”. He hadn’t realised it was 1100. We both noted that it was strange, but we figured the silence would take place at the start of the memorial event at 1130. But it did bother me….all my life I have stopped and taken that minute’s silence at 1100. So, I asked people “why not silence at 1100” and the answer was simply that, typically in France the memorial services are at 1100 but here in rural South West France there are other events going on so people are needed at more than one event, so the events are sometimes staggered. Notably, the Bastille Celebrations that should be on 14th July take place in Villefranche du Perigord on 13th July so as to not compete with the larger, neighbouring events.

Ah, so that answered my nagging question. Another difference was the lack of poppies, which of course are a Royal British Legion thing -intended to raise money for that particular cause. So the poppies were few and far between, and none to be sold in the preceding weeks of course. I did spot a few blue poppy shape stickers, which on research afterwards I realised are Bleuet de France – the French version of Poppies.Bleuet de France

I still wore my perpetual bling crystal poppy brooch that I bought years ago – considering at the time that the cost of this would be my donation to the RBL for many, many years, but now actually in hindsight it is a good thing to have so I can mark 11th November in the way that I like to.

The memorial service was lovely – all in French of course, and I listened intently to see if I could pick up more of what was said that I had been able to during the one in May….a little bit more I think. Most poignant was the reading of the names of “Nos Morts” by a couple of young children – who proudly read aloud the names of those who had given their lives in the 1st and 2nd World Wars. I had a few tears with the emotion of it – just as I always have done on previous occasions. We are always reminded of the sacrifices made – no matter where we are in the world – on days like this.Nos Morts

After the main service we went over to “La Salle de Reunion” where the choir sang a song in French – it may have been a popular song – I do not know, it was not familiar, but it was lovely to listen to. Then the choir sang the British National Anthem – which made me stand tall and proud and I sang, albeit very quietly and awkwardly under my breath, feeling a bit out of place. Then, this was followed by La Marseillaise – the French National Anthem which then made me feel a little embarrassed that I do not know as single word of this iconic song!! So, I vowed to learn it by the next memorial event. In saying this to my friend who is in the choir, a conversation then arose by the end of which I had agreed to give the choir a go!! Oh dear – what have they let themselves in for? Still, this will be a good opportunity to learn some French, and integrate with some new people which is so important in such a small community.

What really struck me with this event is that there was maybe 150 people there – which represents quite a significant proportion of the local population. All those people turning out to show respect to the people who laid down their lives so we could stand here today. By comparison, the last Armistice Day I attended was in 2016, in Southampton – a huge city with a population of 254,000, and yet there were only about 20 people turned out at 1100 to stand in the rain and mark their respects. Admittedly, that was during a week day and not all employers would allow staff to just take their tea break outside – but at the time I was a bit of a rebel and just done my own thing anyway!!

I may have been feeling a particular need to show respect that year as it was the year that I finally went to visit the grave of my Great Grandad Hubert Doe in his final resting place at Cabaret Rouge Cemetery near Arras. His death in the 1st World War was what I now believe to be the trigger point for a whole load of weird family dynamics that subsequently occurred in our family. His death broke my Great Nan Louisa’s heart, and of course my Nan Winifred lost her dad as a young girl. Louisa then went on to marry a friend of his – Alfred Coggin. He had lots of issues from the war – probably shell shock, and became a not-so-nice step dad to Winifred and then later a dad to Stanley. We don’t think that he was much missed after he died in the 1930’s. Then Stanley grew up and joined the Royal Air Force and within a few flights was lost on a bombing raid to Mannheim May 19th 1942. StanleyThe loss of first Hubert, then Alfred and then Stanley to Louisa and Winifred caused them to view boys as more precious than girls, which then in turn led to my own mum Patricia feeling less important than her brother as they grew up. Then even me as I grew up wondering why my brother could get away with so much more than I could. Of course, back in those days with the great British stiff upper lip, neither my Great Nan, or my Nan spoke about feelings which would have meant that all this strange stuff was never interpreted for what it was, just feelings of inadequacy were felt with no associated rationale. It’s only in recent years when me and Martin with our curiosity in war time history and my need to unpick and understand every complex reasoning behind behaviour, that we have perhaps unravelled the root cause of our own rich tapestry of crazy family life! We also came across this very poignant audio clip  when digging up wartime history – it’s the sound of the bomber that Great Uncle Stanley made his last flight in – leaving the UK. It’s hard to not wonder what our family would have been like had that plane not been shot down that night. But we ALL have this shared history – every single one of us has someone in our past who was affected by those wars – and that has shaped who we are – whether for good or bad, and whether we like it or not.

It’s things like this that make me truly believe that we should not live our lives from behind a filter and we should open up and share our vulnerabilities and ask for help when needed – after all we are all human, and surely none of us sail through life without any assistance at all – even if that help is just the occasional wind behind our sails – encouraging us to continue forward – or maybe choose another course.

And that’s why I found myself doing something that I rarely do these days – sticking up for someone I don’t even know in real life on Facebook. This lady blogs about life as a mum, but unlike some of the perfect air-brushed yummy mummy bloggers, she tells it how it really is. And one of her posts had been a hilarious account of how she tried to get her boobs to fit in to a backless bra. A very unkind other mummy had really had a go at her for doing this, and in reading the resulting onslaught I felt compelled to express my own opinion which was quite simply “she is writing about HER life! And if you don’t like it then unfollow her blog, don’t read it”. And that is exactly how I feel. We all only have one life, and the way we life it will determine lots of things, including our own happiness, and if people don’t like us for living our “real, unfiltered life” what should we do? Pretend that our life is different, and more appealing to the people who don’t like us for our “real life”. Or, find people that do like us for living our own “real, unfiltered life”. For me it’s got to be the latter – I would get totally exhausted if I were to be living two life’s – it’s hard enough living one. And the people that like the way I live my life will enjoy being with me and want to spend time with me, and the people that don’t like it will drift away from my life. But, my life – the good, the bad, and the ugly – will be lived – true to myself, real, and unfiltered. ( if you fancy following her she is blogging on Facebook as – Knee Deep in Life )

So, our new life in France is sometimes challenging, and sometimes in finding our way we express frustrations, and I suppose sometimes that might seem as if we might prefer to be living our old lives in the UK. But, that’s not the case – we love our lives in France – we love the simplicity of life – although sometimes it is that simplicity that drives us crazy, we love the natural beauty of the countryside – although the extremes of weather that allow that beauty are sometimes worth grumbling about in a typically British fashion, and we love the slow little village that we have chosen as home, that gets so sleepy in Winter that we have to resort to playing scrabble!! And the people that are all co-existing around us – many of them have been on the same journey, some of them are still wondering why they made that jump across the channel 11 years ago, some will feel that their lives are now truly French, and some will be one foot in the tunnel ready to hop back if Brexit hits the fan.

All of us humans are unique, but as the late, great Jo Cox (murdered MP) once said – “We have far more in common than that divides us” so I think we owe it to each other to embrace our differences and allow each other to be ourselves.

©Sharon Rees-Williams – wordpress.com/thislittlepieceof.land, 2018 

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