Sunday Birthday

I’m seventy-seven today. It’s Sunday and I went to online Mass at St Pat’s at ten. Fr. Phil wished Happy Birthday to everyone who has one today. I have flowers and cards and John’s making a modest chocolate cake, so I’ll get a wish. To be honest, I can’t believe I’m still alive. Eric and Ella stopped by on their way to the park to give me their card and my birthday book – called ‘A Monster Calls’.

St. Pat’s is Our Lady and St. Patrick Roman Catholic church in Oldham. It’s a ‘gem church’. And it is. Fr. Phil knows I hover over it as a closet Catholic.

When I was eleven, I asked me Mam and Dad if I could become a Catholic. My friends and primary school  playmates of many young days all went to the RC church on London Road and I used to wait at the entrance gate for them to come out – wondering about the mystery of Saturday evening confessions. My Dad didn’t mind one way or the other, but me Mam climbed up on to her Methodist wagon roots and said a firm No. So that was that. My first taste of anti-Catholic bigotry.

At fourteen, I was given permission to join the C of E and was duly confirmed in Blunham village church by the Bishop of St Albans. It’s amazing what ‘passing the scholarship’ can do for a mother.

And so it was that I stopped going to the C of E after my divorce years later, as divorcees were not welcome. Living on Langley Estate in North Manchester with my children Ria,  Dom and Chris, I took to going back to a C of E church – All Saints & Martyrs – where I was lucky enough to get to know the curate, Fr. Alan Cooke. I used to ask him to read through my essays – part of my induction to the Y.M.C.A., my employer – in Manchester. He was always helpful and positive. We’d have a coffee and a few fags and a good natter. He’d visit us at home and loved my children.

When I married John in 1982 and came to live in Oldham, I lost touch with him.  Yet lo and behold, some years later, glancing through church notices in the local paper, I found that St Mark’s C of E in Chadderton had a vicar called Fr. Alan Cooke!

I found the church, with vicarage alongside and walked up the path to the huge wooden front door – loving the climbing plants around the garden – and knocked. The door opened slowly and that  familiar face smiled at me. He asked me in for a cuppa and showed me his front room, with two sofas, bookshelves and fireplace. Then to his kitchen, a minimalist, simple area to cook and eat. I recognised again the monastic qualities in the man.

From 1990 and for twenty five years or so, St. Mark’s was where I went to pray and contribute to it’s small community. There will be many people, dear Reader, who have never known the blessing of a good priest. Fr. Alan was much loved by local people. He walked in streets whenever he could, rather than take transport and was not short of the abuse some wretched souls save for the clergy.

I discovered his lively interest in the Arts – a lover of music and poetry and a man who could write and deliver a sermon which meant things to those people lucky enough to hear it. A Mancunian, born and raised in Droylsden and familiar with Rome, where he trained as a Roman Catholic priest at the English College for some time. After this came a decision to work for C of E.

He prepared Dom and Chris and Hinnie for confirmation and was there for us all when Dom died. He and his friend Fr. Paul Plumpton, led Dom’s funeral in 2011 and stayed close to us throughout.

Like me, he is retired now. He lives in Sliema, Malta. We write to each other from time to time  and he probably meets up with old parishioners when their cruise ship docks in Valletta. He is happy there, with Fr. Paul and their adopted son Matthew.

I still miss his ministry. And I hover over St Pat’s and Fr. Phil because I still haven’t found the courage to become a Roman Catholic. It would be a treat to land in Malta, find Sliema and knock at his door again.

In the Garden – October 2011

He stamped his feet and looked down
At the unlaced familiar boots
And their soil. How he welcomed
Its clinging, its living, its smell
Of earth and its companionship
On this journey of dying.
Like that year in its autumnal grace
Of harvesting and planting, he was
Harvesting his loving kindness from
His midsummer field – and planting
Pale tulips of hope
To stand like sentinels at the door and
To gaze upon the silence of
This coming Infinity and
This long goodbye. I say hello.

Leigh Cook, Sliema, Malta, 8.11.2013

For the Brown Ones

Let this, then, be my object of obsession
my indiscreet fetish
my own Privy Counsel
my recurrent peccadillo:

lay out the leather
for the naked workers
to skilfully put together
by patched moonlight;

and trim and thimble-stitch their clothes,
lit by eyesight and attentive candle,
in return for the grace
of a mid-life insight:

to do the deeds done
for those who can never repay them
and admit the singing of the rule:
the rule of the love of the doing.

Dominic Mathews

Reasons to be Cheerful

Here’s a poem I used to read to my children. Ria loved it and always knew it by heart.

The Lamplighter

My tea is nearly ready and the sun has left the sky,
It’s time to take the window to see Leerie going by;
For every night at teatime and before you take your seat,
With lantern and with ladder he comes posting up the street.

Now Tom would be a driver and Maria go to sea,
And my papa’s a banker and as rich as he can be;
But I, when I am stronger and can choose what I’m to do,
O Leerie, I’ll go round at night and light the lamps with you!

For we are very lucky with a lamp before the door,
And Leerie stops to light it as he lights so many more;
And O! Before you hurry by with ladder and with light,
O Leerie, see a little child and nod to him tonight!

Robert Louis Stevenson

Reasons to be Cheerful in lock down times

Some people do things and say things which make the silence and sadness of lock down brighten up, full of sunbeams….Here’s a few of them…

Laura: is my beautiful granddaughter. She lives in Torpoint, Cornwall with her partner Luke and their children (my great-grandchildren), Amelie and Ray. Laura asks if I’m ok every week or so – and this week sent me a poem she’s written about her aunty Ria (my daughter Ria). She has given me permission to share it with you, dear Reader.

Aunty Ria

I miss your laugh, your love of flowers, music and fresh air,

I miss hearing you call me ‘Lovely Laura’

And I miss watching Amelie belly laugh by your side.

It always felt as if you knew, I know you knew me more than I know myself sometimes.

Your presence always brought such a reassurance and comfort,

Though much of each year was not spent together – your energy and interest made up for all just one cuppa shared.

Your love for simple pleasures made life feel so light when with you.

On my first day at University, you made sure I had the most important thing of all – a fluffy rug!

Who could wake up in a good mood, if their feet did not land on something comfy from bed?

Nana says her strongest memory of you is ‘Ria arriving’ – and I could not agree more.

You’d arrive with open arms and a beaming smile every time we saw you,

And it is that warmth that makes me miss you so much.

I wish you knew that no matter how often we saw you

We have all learned so very much from you…

To make the most of every day and to find happiness, even on the worst of days.

I’m so grateful for all the time I got to share with you

And I’m so proud to have had you as my Aunty

Although our time spent together was never long enough

You have left a forever-sized imprint on me.

I find so much comfort thinking of you wandering through fields with sunshine beaming down…

You are the first to see and enjoy each morning sky up there…

and that is pretty ‘Ace!’

Fixing a Hole

I’m fixing a hole where the rain gets in
And stops my mind from wandering
Where it will go

I’m filling the cracks that ran through the door
And kept my mind from wandering
Where it will go

And it really doesn’t matter if I’m
wrong I’m right
Where I belong I’m right
Where I belong

See the people standing there who
disagree and never win
And wonder why they don’t get in my door
I’m painting my room in the colourful

And when my mind is wandering
There I will go
And it really doesn’t matter if I’m
wrong I’m right
Where I belong I’m right
Where I belong

Silly people run around they worry me
And never ask me why they don’t get
past my door
I’m taking the time for a number of
That weren’t important yesterday
And I still go

I’m fixing a hole where the rain gets in
And stops my mind from wandering
Where it will go

John Lennon and Paul McCartney

On His Modest Stillness

Dear Reader, this is a poem I wrote for a dear friend and colleague, Mike Donohoe, who was one of the best teachers I ever met. Mike used Art to teach English Language to asylum seekers and refugees from many different backgrounds – Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Iran, Iraq, Kosovo, Georgia, Ukraine, Angola, to name but a few. His students loved him. He died suddenly with a heart attack on the street in Manchester on or around Twelfth Night.

Between Epiphany and Candlemas I shall remember
How a still and silent Love
Kept the dark watches of the night;
How you did not die alone, but with a host of angels
And the blessings of all whose lives you touched.
It is a wise man who scatters their darkness
And your Joanas and Joes will smile and shine you
All around us.

Now, stars from all the windows are taken down
And hang in this prayer.
Heav’n’s torn sheet unwinds and changes chime
Across the frosty glory
Of this bleak midwinter.
I shall remember too, how you saw His star in the east
And moved into the Mystery of
Love on earth.

Leigh Cook

Blue Moon

I buried my face in your rose today.
My head filled with scent
As I heard you say
“Good morning”.

I moved to the gate where I stopped to gaze
At a hover-fly, quietly fanning the blaze.

Then I felt your soft touch,
Like a sigh on my shoulder,
As you leaned to my kiss
On your rose-petal cheek.

Leigh Cook

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Wendell Berry

Dear Friend…

My friend Sue Ward and I have known each other for twenty seven years or more. We used to work together in Oldham Youth & Community Education, but there is a sense in which we never stop working together, each living with similar mindsets.

We met on Limeside, a largely white working-class estate on the edge of Oldham, where we were made at home in the tiny library, with librarians who worked so hard to give information and to open doors for local people. We were part of a local basic skills project funded by the Home Office. Sue’s main interest was in the wellbeing of local families needing childcare and she was instrumental in setting up the first creches ever run in Oldham – which we funded through the back door of petty cash. These small initiatives allowed local people to meet, talk, relax and learn together, knowing their children were safe. Some of these people moved on to become Creche Workers themselves, although paid a pittance, as so often support workers are. The use of creches widened until they were offered to support most adult education classes across Oldham. Creche workers would cross the town by bus, using their meagre wages for bus fares. There was true commitment.

It was during this time Sue shared with me her wish to become ordained in the Church of England. At that time, it seemed like a woman climbing Everest alone…and all power to her elbow, her icepick and her clampons, I said.

Our children got to know each other, with shared visits and activities together and Sue and Melvyn even offered us their home as a sanctuary when we were between homes and waiting to move into our new home. I had the top bunk in their son Chris’s room, with model planes around me, while their family was on holiday.

Our working lives separated after two years – Sue working in education in the Probation Service and me into projects for young people leaving care and Kosovar asylum seekers. Sue was ordained into the Reverend Sue Ward role she had studied for and eventually went into hospital chaplaincy, with all the qualities and gentleness such a role required.

We had a spell working together in an anti-racist training team in the Church of England, working out of Manchester to different locations in the north – where we learned all the time about existing inequalities relating to ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, living with disability and bigotry in the church.

By now the Rev Sue Ward had shapeshifted into ‘Sooze’ and myself into ‘Leggi’ – and she was leading teams in hospitals and training volunteers to work alongside as team members.

Sooze and Melvyn moved to Rodley near Leeds to place themselves midway between their children and grandchildren. They have a quiet watery home near a canal and a conservation project to look towards from their window on the world. We share visits, meals and love – always a welcome signpost for people who need people.

Sooze and Melvyn have been an intimate support to John and I, especially in times of crisis, as when our son Dom told us that he had been sexually abused by a family friend and we were contorted with anger and helplessness. Then, later, when Dom was dying with aggressive rectal cancer in 2011, they were at our side throughout the journey of learning and pain and  grief.

More recently, when our beloved daughter Ria died suddenly, they were alongside us again with love and comfort, not only for us, but for our whole family and Ria’s children, listening and responding to what was needed in leading our daughter’s funeral.

Now Sooze and Melvyn work for the people of their local Calverley Parish church, amidst the fears and loneliness caused by Covid19 and Black Lives Matter. I thank God for them.

“But if the while I think on Thee, dear Friend,

All losses are restored and sorrows end.”

Sonnet 30, Wm. Shakespeare.