Monday, August 30, 2021

30 AUGUST, 2021

Dear Harry,

Back to Barry. Your nemesis. Braughing. Your son is now sixteen, seventeen, back in his last year at school in a turmoil of anger, self-doubt and confusion. There were two things that kept me sane that last year and, at times, brought me back from the edge of despair. I’ll return to Barry later, because he was one of them. The other was the school term, that wonderful, blessed, liberating third of the year that I was lucky enough to spend as an exchange student at a state school in Rendsburg, a small town situated halfway along the Kiel canal in Schleswig-Holstein, in the very north of Germany. My exchange partner was Manfred Eckhardt, and the Eckhardts were the most wonderful of surrogate parents. For the first time in my life I rejoiced in the experience of going home every day after school to spend the evening with my “family”, of sleeping comfortably in my own bed, in my own room, and going off to school again the next day.

What bliss, Harry! You can hardly imagine what bliss that was!

It was the winter term, though, and by God it was cold in Schleswig-Holstein. Many days I walked with deep snow on the ground to get to school in the early morning, head down against a mercilessly biting wind, wrapped up in a heavy winter coat—there were no down parkas that I know of in those days—and thick woolen gloves and mufflers. It was the first time in my life that I had experienced the kind of cold that cuts straight through to the bone and leaves the body frigid.

The compensation was to arrive at the Hochschule and make the transition through the big front doors from bitter cold into wonderful, all-embracing warmth and the rich smell of hundreds of human bodies regaining body heat. And then to find myself sitting in the classroom, elbow-to-elbow with teenagers of both sexes! The difference from everything I knew about school from the age of seven could not have been more stark, nor more appealing. I fell in love (again!) from a distance (again!) with a girl named Annaliese, blond, and to my eyes totally captivating—and untouchable. Among the strange things my mind brings back with amazing clarity across the years is a moment in our classroom where Annaliese is batting at a bee that has found its way into class and hovers insistently around her head. And as she does so, she cries out—I transcribe phonetically as best I can— not “ay-nie”, “eine Biene”, which would have been correct, but “eernie”, “eenie beenie”, a whimsical, rhyming mispronunciation that even so many years later I recall as utterly charming. And obviously memorable.

And, Harry, there is this: while I was happily fantasizing about being in love with Annaliese, I was actually in love with someone completely different. Stupid, no? But how could I have known? She was an older woman, I could not have imagined such a thing. Her name was Iris. She came from Cardiff so she was Welsh, a fellow “Auslander” also in Germany on an exchange but in her case as a teacher. We often used to walk to and from school together, since she was staying not far from the Eckhardts, and when I had the car accident that ended my stay in Germany, she was the constant visitor at my bedside. She was kind, understanding, caring, always ready to listen and offer the kind of warmth and sympathy I had missed throughout my school years. In short, she was everything my deeply confused and adolescent self so badly needed at time. I wish I’d been sufficiently aware to realize then how much she meant to me—and I perhaps to her—a fellow stranger in a strange land… Did she ever understand this as I came to understand it later, when I found to my surprise how much I sorely missed her?

Anyway, that accident. Remember? You must have been out of your minds with worry, you and Peggy, when someone called to let you know. I could easily have died.

I had a friend at school, or maybe it was the friend of a friend, a year or two older than myself, who’d been able to borrow his father’s DKW for a jaunt to a neighboring town and invited me and a couple of other friends along for the ride. (DKW, by the way, in case you didn’t know, is today’s Audi, with the same linked circles in its company logo. The acronym DKW (Deustche Kraftwagen) translated into a schoolboy joke: Das Krankenhaus Wartet, “the hospital awaits”—which proved in my case to be uncomfortably true. We drank beer, had a jolly time, and it was dark already by the time we got started on the return trip to Rendsburg. The road was icy. We were probably traveling too fast. A set of oncoming headlights dazzled our driver, who baked too hard and took us into a long, dizzying skid. It came to an emphatic, screeching stop when the car slammed head-on into a farm tractor parked at the side of the road.

We ended up in the ditch. I don’t know how long I was unconscious but when I came to there was blood was streaming down across my cheek. I could hear people screaming, “Bist Du OK? Bist Du OK?” Are you okay? I thought I was. The worst thing, it seemed to me, was that there was blood dripping down onto the cover of my copy of “Dylan Thomas: Collected Poems” that I happened to be holding in my lap. They managed to free me from the wreck and prevented me from trying desperately, irrationally to remove my overcoat, despite the freezing cold. That, too, I noticed now, was getting stained with blood. The next thing I remember was being in piled into a stranger’s car, still in a daze, and driven back to Rendsburg.

The Eckhardts were beside themselves. They took me straight to the nearest hospital where the doctor stitched up two deep cuts, one above the eye, one leading back across my skull. He reported a fracture, a splintering of the skull that was apparently not serious enough in his opinion to keep me in the hospital overnight. Besides, the Eckhardts were anxious to get me back home—a mistake perhaps, but a kind intention. In retrospect, back home in England, the doctor thought I should have received more treatment for concussion than the few days I spent in bed. But at least I had constant, loving care from the good Frau Eckhardt—and those daily bedside visits from Iris that I shall not forget. Like so many good people from those days, I wish I were able to let her know today how much she meant to me. I’d love to be able to travel back in time and tell her.

Enough for one day, Harry. To be continued in my next.

With love, Peter

Sunday, August 29, 2021

29 AUGUST, 2021

Dear Harry, I’m amazed. Here in Southern California as I sit wondering what I might have to say to you this morning, I find myself looking out through our windows into a slow, inexorable drizzle, a spectacle unheard of in August in this part of the world. Glistening on the big green leaves of ivy that hang over our fence, these raindrops have me thinking of the England of my youth…

A pleasant interlude!

With love, Peter

Saturday, August 28, 2021

28 AUGUST, 2021

Dear Harry,

Back to school. There’s more you need to know about this.

What I learned, or thought to have learned about myself in the exclusive company of other boys was almost comically wrong. That’s what years at boarding school will do for you. Well, rather what it did for me. I’m not sure about you, but I think not. By the time I left school, with inexpressible relief and gratitude for that final release at the age of seventeen—it was just a couple of days before my eighteenth birthday—I was pretty much convinced that I would forever only have sex with boys and men. Yes, as you know, I had “fallen in love” with two girls outside of school, but they were impossible fantasies. My only actual experience was with people who had a penis, like myself.

I realize now—indeed, I realized immediately after leaving school—that there was nothing remotely “gay” about those early sexual experiments. It was a perfectly normal need to experiment with my bodily equipment, and for the better part of my life thus far the only humans readily available for my tentative explorations were other boys. With Nicole and Mary I was far too shy and insecure about my physical self to engage in even the most innocent of sexual play. But I could, and did, with boys. And at that time in my life I felt obliged to think of these games as “love” in order to explain and justify them to myself.

You could have known none of this, for sure, but I knew you would never have approved of my adventures. St. Swithun left little room for doubt that sex, particularly with your own kind, was the worst of all possible sins—the kind that, when you die, gets you sent straight off to hell to burn in the furnaces of eternal damnation. “Dirty” was the word that was generally used to describe anything to do with sex—as in “dirty jokes” and “don’t be dirty.” Still, Harry, you were not intolerant. There were gay men in our lives with whom you socially felt quite comfortable. Witness David, the flamboyantly gay American interior designer and his architect partner who lived across the lane from your St. Mary’s church in Braughing. This unabashedly gay couple—we knew no better than to call them “queer” or “homo” on those days—had refurbished an old cottage with the kind of elegance you find illustrated in the pages of contemporary architectural magazines. They entertained the somewhat bemused village gentry there with exotic cocktails and canapés.

You loved it! That was fine. You felt much more comfortable with this couple than you did with the flamboyantly heterosexual Barry. And despite my activity with boys at school, I think it’s true to say that I never felt the slightest curiosity or interest in these men’s sexual lives, still less did I feel inclined to join them. Well, there was the one occasion when David drove me in his huge convertible motor car to see another of the cottages they had worked on, where we went out back to take a pee in the garden and he turned around to swing an enormous dick toward me for my admiration. He also regaled me with surely fictional but to me startlingly specific stories of his exploits with exotic women in Paris night clubs after the war. But that was just in fun.

You might have had some concern about me a few years later, in Sharnbrook—I was now a late teenager—when you called me into your study for one of our serious conversations. As a courtesy to the Vicar, the local police inspector had informed you I had been seen on several occasions visiting a nearby house that was under surveillance and was subject to an imminent police raid. (Homosexuality was still a crime in England in the 1950s, punishable by prison sentences). I had been visiting people I considered to be friends without much thought that they might be gay, but simply charming, sophisticated people whom I respected and liked. We’d share a glass of wine, a few laughs, and the kind of intelligent conversation you’d not find in local pubs or the parties in the homes of more conventional village society. The inspector came with a friendly warning, that this might be a good moment for your son to stop knocking on that particular door—and, rather shamefully, I followed his advice. I never heard further about what might have happened to my friends. They may well have ended up in jail.

But as we’ll see, the doubts that tortured me about my sexual identity did not outlast my time at boarding school—not even by one minute.

How would the story of my early sexual experience have been different, I have often wondered, had you and Peggy sent me to a local state school, nearer to home, where boys and girls mixed naturally together? With the opportunity for emotional growth more suited to my natural proclivities, I like to believe it would have taken me far less time to reach anything like mature manhood. As it was, I remained an emotional adolescent well into my adult life. I was scarred with an emotional as well as a physical timidity. I had learned to contain myself, to hold back, to never quite let myself embrace life and love—and the people that I loved—as fully as I wished to.

As a postscript, Harry, you’ll be interested to know that most formerly all-boys’ boarding schools—including my own, Lancing—have been admitting girls for several years now. Some things have changed for the better since our day. When I last visited Lancing, with Ellie, years ago, I was delighted to find a gaggle of giggling teenage girls enlivening that same dormitory where I once scarcely knew enough to even dream of them.

And even—can you believe this, Harry?—even your old college in Cambridge, once the exclusive domain of young males like yourself in the 1920s and like me in the 1950s, even your old Cambridge college now welcomes women undergraduates! As I already mentioned earlier, your great-granddaughter, Georgia, is now enrolled there as a student in Linguistics. How proud you’d be!

As indeed am I, your son, her grandpa, Peter

Friday, August 27, 2021

27 AUGUST, 2021

Dear Harry,

Let’s see, where were we? Braughing, no? Did you know that this was where I fell in love—with a girl!—for a second time. After Nicole.

It was quite innocent. For sex, in adolescence, there were only boys, the ones at school, but that was different. I’m sure you never knew about that. But you did know about Mary—that was her name—because Peggy was in something of a panic about it; she was convinced I was going to run off and get married—at the age of fourteen!—and that needless worry brought out the snob in her. Mary, as you’ll recall, was the daughter of the local garage owner and her best friend, Brian’s parents ran the post office next door. Not a suitable match for the Vicar’s son! (Yes, you were the Rector of Aspley Guise, but now you were the Vicar of Braughing. I never knew the difference, if there was one).

But if I’m to tell you about Mary, I’ll need to start with your nemesis, Barry Evans. Yes, the artist. I think that Barry somehow represented everything you most longed for and most feared within yourself. He personified the wild side, the Harry within that longed to come out and play, but the one the Vicar had to keep contained. Barry rejected anything that smacked of social convention. He lusted unashamedly after women and had no qualms about sleeping with them if he could; he was blatantly unfaithful to his wife, another Mary. He borrowed money from you—I mentioned this before—and did not return it. He was a man to whom histrionics came naturally, unrestrained by the propriety to which you were bound by nurture more than nature.

It was your love of theater that brought the two of you together, head-to-head. One of the most memorable events I can recall from our Braughing days was your production of the Dickens story, “A Christmas Carol”, in the village hall, right across from the church at the bottom of the hill. Did you regret having chosen to cast Barry in the role of Scrooge? He certainly reveled in it. Even more than the acting, I suspect, he relished the opportunity to get a rise out of the Vicar. No one could outclass you as a natural born ham like Barry Evans. He was a brilliant, over-the-top Scrooge, a totally undisciplined actor, happily improvising lines and outlandish gestures—like puffing out the white powder that we used to age his hair to get a laugh out of the audience.

He was also scandalously, loudly irreligious.

So there was Barry. Mary, meantime—my Mary, not his, not Barry’s wife—was cast as one of the street urchins. You could not include me in the play myself—I was away at school during the early rehearsals—but brought me in as an assistant make-up artist to help backstage with the production. One of my daily jobs before the curtain went up was to smear Mary’s legs with sooty make-up, to evoke the dirt of the Victorian London streets. I was by this time, as I say, fourteen years old, and I found the task quite thrillingly erotic. I could hardly wait for each night’s performance. Small wonder that I fell in love.

It happened that Barry also loved to play the Pandar. He and Mary—his Mary—had begun hosting weekly soirées for young people like myself (and my Mary, of course, and her friend Brian). It was an evening of cheese and cheap red wine from Spain, poetry (Dylan Thomas!), stories, modern art (Picasso! Braque!) and music (Poulenc, Satie, Stravinsky!) beside a roaring fire in the hearth, with Barry and Mary’s young children running amok amongst the guests. It was an ideal circumstance in which to fan the flames of love.

Still, it took a while before I found the nerve to ask Mary to go out with me. In Braughing, “going out” meant taking walks along the lanes and out into the countryside. The nearest cinema was many miles away and we were too young for pubs. I was intensely shy. Perhaps she was, too. I could only fantasize about things I would never have known how to do, and still less dare. Did we ever even kiss, along those shady country lanes? Perhaps. I do remember the tantalizing thrill of holding hands. How daring that seemed to me. And our friend Barry was positively itching to get us into bed together and would have gladly found us one, had we been ready for it.

But of course we weren’t. We were innocent village kids. Barry efforts notwithstanding, Peggy need not have worried.

I no longer recall how things ended between me and Mary, but it’s clear they did not end either as my mother feared, nor as the lecherous Barry would have wished. The most obvious answer is that I just went back to school. Once there, I do remember mooning about for her for a while and gloomily engraving her initials, MM, on my desk in Latin class, where they mingled with the inscription of a century’s worth of other, equally lovelorn tributes. For all I know, those initials could still be there.

Do you remember her, Harry? I think of her warmly to this day. The second actual girl I ever loved. Too bad I was so shy! Too bad you had to send me back to school so soon after that Christmas.

With a pinch of nostalgia then, today, your son, Peter

Thursday, August 26, 2021

26 AUGUST, 2021

Oh, Harry!

I do you such a grave injustice, making you out to be some kind of ogre to your son. Just yesterday I recovered from its storage box a cache of those thin blue air mail forms, letters written to me over the years by both yourself and Peggy. I have not read them all—there are dozens of them—but they are filled with such love, such compassion, such concern.

In one of those letters, written at the time when both Flora and myself were having trouble in our relationships, you wrote these words (you write so well, I quote the short passage verbatim:
I am convinced (between you & me) that a lot of the trouble is relationship adjustment (horrid phrase). The old 7 year itch. 7 to 12 yrs seems to me the biggest test of a marriage. If you can ”make it” over that period, not just accepting, but winning through, then you achieve a wonderful fulfillment in each other. It’s never easy-going.
Well, Harry, what you say is true. You would be proud of me and Ellie, who have sailed past your 12 year point many times over. But then you continue in the next paragraph, with words that touch my heart: “My heart ached for you, reading your last letter, and all our thoughts will be often with you at Christmas.” I’m not sure what I wrote to cause your heartache, but mine ached when I read how you continued:
As I am aware of both you and Flora now, I do often reflect on my own failings as a father. How much have I passed on to you my lack of self-confidence, apart from much self-centredness & I suppose irritation and frustration. This doesn’t depress me now, but it does sadden me. You both have many creative gifts and yes, somehow, you both appear to have a tendency to destroy your own happiness, even perhaps your own success.
And you signed yourself “Your ever affectionate, Father.”

Thank you for those words, Harry. Thank you for the insight and the compassion. Thank you for the affection. I have made too little of it in these letters, and for that I ask forgiveness.

Your ever affectionate son, Peter

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

25 AUGUST, 2021

Dear Harry,

There is one other, painful thing we have shared in common: cluster headaches.

Though Peggy mentioned migraines in her letters, I would not known you suffered from these excruciating episodes until Flora told me about them some time after your death. It was after I had been diagnosed with this horrible affliction—those blinding spasms that arrive in a series, peculiarly, at the exact same time each day and engulf the whole of one side of the head, eyes, teeth and jaws, in excruciating pain. As I imagine you well know—did you experience them in the same way?—they are so regular you can almost set your watch by them. They are usually of a fixed duration—mine, at the time I suffered from them most, were mercifully brief, a half hour to an hour, at most—but incredibly intense; they say that clusters are worse by far than any migraine. And they leave behind them, every day, a shadow that hangs around inside your head for much longer than the pain itself.

I wonder how you dealt with them? For me, the only relief I could find—and it was minimal—was rocking. I’d climb out of bed, if it came at night, and hold my head tight between my hands and rock back and forth for as long as I could stand it. I do know there was no medication that could touch it, though Peggy once mentioned something that you took whose effects were almost as dire as the headaches themselves. Perhaps they have since discovered a more effective drug.

And then finally, after a few days, a couple of weeks, the series would come to an end as inexplicably as it started, and the headaches would be gone for months at a time.

This memory was evoked by the strange recurrence, as I started these letters, of a series of blessedly mild and slightly different physical sensations that share much in common with those clusters. The pain is almost an exact replica, a brilliant, sparkling aura on the entire left side of the head, but thankfully far less intense; and instead of coming at the same time each day, they seem to arrive, oddly, almost exactly one hour later each day than the day before.

I have been unable to determine whether there’s a genetic trail that leads to these events. Neither one of my sons, your grandsons, has mentioned them to me—but they are now still only in their fifties, and I believe that clusters tend to occur in later years. Mine came and went away again when I was in my sixties. Until now. I’m not sure about yours, and Flora is not around to ask about them any more.

Anyway, thought I’d mention this, now that you are finally beyond pain…

With love, Peter

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

24 AUGUST, 2021

Dear Harry,

We both realize, of course, that all my efforts to rescue you from the past and come to know you, perhaps even love you in a way I never could before, are just as much an effort to come to terms with myself—and perhaps acknowledge the love you had for me…

In what ways am I like you? What would you recognize of yourself in your son? These are questions of interest to me because at one time I wanted so much to be not like you.

I have my mother’s eyes, blue, not brown like yours. Flora had your eyes. She was also, like you, skinny. I have a tendency, as I age, to put on weight. Remember that “spare tire” around the belly that Peggy accumulated in her later years? I have that, too. You never did. At the age I have now reached, your hair was sparse; combed flat on your head, and barely concealed your scalp. Mine, though long since turned to grey, is still quite long and thick. Oh, and I still have most of the teeth that I was born with. I was scared years ago into the habit of nightly flossing by my fearsome Chinese American dentist; my mouth had begun to show the ravages of poor dentistry—worse, in Britain, during the war, for sure—and the cavalier neglect of my youth. Most of yours had been replaced long since by the dentures you took out and left in a glass on the bathroom shelf each night.

Is my voice a little like yours? Perhaps. Sixty years this side of the Atlantic have worn the edges off the public school-Oxbridge manner of speech that I grew up with, but even today my fellow Americans immediately hear the remnant of a British accent. Because they seem to love my voice so much, I think I might inherit some of the mellifluous quality of your baritone—though I incline more to tenor.

I have none of your skill with hands. When it comes to anything handy I’m a hopeless klutz—a term you’d likely not have heard of but you’ll know what I mean. Put a hammer in my hand and I’ll no doubt end up breaking something. With luck, it won’t be my finger. The kind of things you took care of with ease—the home repairs, basic electrical and plumbing—are the things I need a handyman to help me out with.

I inherited your love of mysteries, thrillers, suspense books of all kinds. I even wrote a couple of them myself, back in the 1980s. Did you ever read them? I can’t remember anything you might have said about them—but then, I can’t be sure I gave them to you to read. I took the skill you had with words and turned myself into a wordsmith.

There are other, more fundamental things that lead me to believe we have more in common than might appear at a cursory glance. When I sit for my daily half-hour’s morning meditation, for example, I often see you sitting in your wing-back chair, silent, prayer book in hand, completing the “office” that was your unfailing commitment even in the years following your retirement. I came to my personal need to delve into the realm of the spirit only much later in my life.

I inherited your social conscience, your socialism, your left-wing political views, your commitment to social justice. I watched as you became more conservative toward the end of your life—you were not a Thatcherite, I hope!—but by the time you came to the broader perspective of advancing years, the England of your youth was barely recognizable. Such is my impression, anyway, from where I sit half a world away after half a century’s exile. By this time, social programs like the National Health and National Insurance had long been institutionalized in Britain, and the Labour Party had become less about the welfare of the working classes, it seemed to me, than the advancement of the nouveau middle class. There was Tony Blair, halfway Tory. Mass immigration, too, from India, Pakistan, the West Indies, Africa and the Middle East had changed the racial demographic of old England and introduced racial tensions little known in the early years of the twentieth century. And with the construction of the Chunnel between Dover and Calais, the age-old insularity of the British was no longer assured by the island’s physical isolation from the European Continent. Clinging to the treasured pound sterling while other European countries adapted to the euro, the Brits at least had to yield to the metric system in their currency. No more twenty shillings to the pound and twelve pence to the shilling.

An inveterate traveler and explorer of the Continent in the caravan you towed everywhere behind you on your summer trips, you would have been horrified by Brexit and the xenophobia it betokened. You prided yourself on being tolerant, open to historical and demographic change, curious about the customs of our neighboring countries, especially their food and wine. You welcomed people from throughout the world into your home—Monu from India, Graeme from South Africa, that Japanese Anglican minister whose name I have forgotten, the black African bishop, handsome in his purple bishop’s cassock—and relished cultural differences, intellectual conversations with your guests. More gregarious than I myself have ever been, you embraced humanity and the joys of human interchange. While I suspect there must have been an introverted part of you, there was always that actor, too, the extrovert. Sometimes, admit it, the shameless show-off.

Your Christian faith… I’d love to have talked to you about this some time because, while I long since abandoned that faith (I never dared to tell you face-to-face for fear of hurting you; how dumb was that?) Yet I share with you the belief that there is something more to life than the physical body and the material world it lives in. I had not yet discovered Buddhism by the time of your death. For much of my life, indeed, I would have scoffed at it, as at all religious belief. I wish I’d that opportunity, though,, because we would surely have had something to talk about. And not only the human ethic of Buddhism, the dedication to principles of behavior I deem admirable, essential, really, to a well-lived life; but also to its spiritual dimension—for lack of a better word—a belief in values that transcend even death.

Oh yes, I would have loved that conversation! And I am sure you would have, too. Your Christianity was not of the exclusive kind; you were informed about other faiths and eager to find common ground between them. In your last years you became deeply involved in new ways of thinking about the Christian faith and made several pilgrimages to the ecumenical community at Taizé, in France. I remember the spirited exchange between you and Ellie’s father, Mike, at the seder you attended when you and Peggy came to visit us in Los Angeles, exploring the similarities and differences between Christian and Jewish faiths, between Passover and the Last Supper. Was that not an occasion to be remembered and celebrated! I know Mike relished it, and recalled it often. That you were unable to pursue that friendship was a matter, only, of the geographical distance that lay between you. Such a shame!

And now that I think of it, there is one other thing we share: you were a tease. I am a tease. Just ask my grandson, your great-grandson, little Luka—who is a bit of a tease himself!

Signing off with a smile for now, your son, Peter

Sunday, August 22, 2021

22 AUGUST, 2021

Dear Harry,

Time for a laugh? Writing about the Bishop at the Vicarage tea on the day of our confirmation reminded me of an old joke which you probably heard many times already, but it stands repeating. You were no prude. You could still get a little chuckle out of irreverence, even today.

Ready?

The new curate has been very nervous about delivering his first sermon, and asks the Vicar in the vestry afterwards if it went well. “Oh,” says the Vicar, reassuringly, “it was very good—aside from a couple of tiny faux pas.” “Faux pas?” asks the curate, unsure what that means. “Well,” says the Vicar, “remember that time when the Bishop came for confirmation? And we all came back to the Vicarage afterwards for tea, and he pricked his finger in the rose garden?” Yes, says the curate, he remembers this. “And then afterwards, at tea, my wife asked ‘How’s your prick?’ and he said ‘Still throbbing,’ and I said ‘Christ!’ and you dropped the teapot? That,” says the Vicar, “was a faux pas.”

I can hear your chuckle, Harry. Ever the humorist.

Be well. Your naughty son, Peter

PS Regarding your sometimes bawdy sense of humor: it was you who told me about the fundamentalist religious group at Cambridge during your days there. They called themselves the Cambridge University New Testament Society, you recalled with more than a hint of mirth, and spread word of their pious evangelical events with city-wide posters headlined by their acronym.

Saturday, August 21, 2021

21 AUGUST, 2021



FAIR WARNING, FRIENDS: THIS ONE IS RAW,

Dear Harry,

You’d have no way of knowing this, but there were some seriously awful things that happened to me during my teenage years at school.

Did you know, for example, that your son was gang-raped? In public? Maybe not technically, but that’s how it felt.

The facts, Harry: a big bruiser of a boy named “Bunter” Scott, fifteen years old, just one year ahead of me at school, came back after one of our holidays boasting that he’d had sex with a girl. Of course none of the other boys believed him, so he set out after lights-out in the dormitory one night to demonstrate his prowess. Whom should he choose to be his partner in this demonstration? They settled on me. It was a matter of common consent. And despite my protests they gathered around my bed with flashlights in their hands, laughing and cheering him on as he climbed in, pulled down his pajama bottoms and forced himself between my legs, plunging away with abandon to the delight of his spectators.

Having proved his point, he took time to acknowledge the admiration that was now his due, tucked himself back in his pajamas, and returned to his own bed. I was left shamed and humiliated, obviously, but also with that desperate sense of loneliness, of being irremediably other than the rest of them, the ones in the know, the ones who belonged.

No one, to my knowledge, ever mentioned the incident again. I would not have dared to tell you about it at the time. The repercussion was mine alone to live with.

In all the anger and the shame, I still managed to blame myself. Why had I let this happen to me?

We are smarter as a society about these things today. We know to dismiss self-blame as inappropriate. We have learned to encourage victims of such acts of molestation or sexual assault not to accept responsibility for it themselves but to hold the aggressor accountable for his act. But I knew no better at the time, and this was a question that I asked myself repeatedly. There was no one else to ask. And of course I had no answer.

I don’t wish to punish you, Harry, for those twelve years at school. But that’s no reason for not taking the opportunity to absolve myself.

Those words from the confessional come back to me: “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.” False words. St. Swithun be damned, there was no sin in this on my part. Nor in my harmless pursuit of lonely pleasure. Sin? Along with so many other aspects of the religion you embraced, I reject the very notion of it.

But maybe you can forgive me that!

Your son, Peter

Friday, August 20, 2021

20 AUGUST, 2021

Dear Harry,

England! These are parlous times, here in America and I sometimes think how good it might feel to go back there to live, after more than sixty years away. But then I think of the rain, the constant clouds, the miserable winters, and I come back to my senses. Ellie was born and bred under the clear, always sunny skies in California. The climate in the British Isles would soon embrace her in its own ineluctable gloom. I could not wish that upon her.

But this is not the America I came to, Harry, back in 1964. I escaped a country in which I felt myself to be a marked man, identifiable—classifiable—by any of my fellow Brits at the sound of the first word I uttered. Public school and Cambridge. Well-educated, privileged, upper-ish class, acceptable at every level of society. I was a toff, respected by some and scorned by many, not for myself but for how I was pegged by others. In America, I was delighted by the fact that no self-respecting gas station attendant would regard himself as somehow less of a man than any other because of his job. Would not resent those who did better than himself but instead be confident that with work and dedication he could do as well as anyone. I can’t tell you, Harry, how refreshing this seemed to me when I first arrived here.

Oh, there was discontent. There was, first and foremost, the war in Vietnam, which caused a rift between young and old, the educated and the less well educated, even between Democrats and Republicans. But it was great, I thought, that everyone felt free to go out there and make their opinions loudly known. The push-and-pull, the clamor of democracy at work seemed to me entirely beneficial, a healthy alternative to the angry, resentful politics of class that I had left behind.

But then the resentments started to open up and turn ugly even here. I think I first became aware of the seismic shift that was taking place with the tax rebellion in the early 1970s, when I was already in California. I discovered to my surprise that “socialism” was a dirty word, to be used as a weapon by (mostly) Republicans against (mostly) Democrats. Then Ronald Reagan burst onto the scene, first as Governor of my home state, then as President, with what I despised as a poisonous agenda to benefit the rich and privileged at the cost of working people and the poor. I watched, at first with disappointment and then with increasing horror as America swung more and more wildly to the right, until even “Democratic” presidents were intimdated by fear of powerful, monied conservatism. I kept thinking, well, the pendulum will swing back, as it always does. And it didn’t. It never has, not even at this moment. We ended up, logically, it seemed to me, with a smug rich man in the Oval Office who was himself the very model of the money-grubbing, money-worshipping oligarch, a man so vile, so little concerned with the welfare of anyone but himself and his own kind, so transparent in his greed, nepotism and corruption that you would think Americans would soon reject such a creature from his position of power over them.

But no. The spectacle of an entire political party and a “base” of rabid, violence-prone supporters groveling before him leaves me appalled, in a constant state of disbelief. This is no longer the America I came to with such hopes for a democratic future, the America that leads the rest of the world with its respect for human rights and its support for anything that improves the lot of the human race. There are even vast numbers of people who call themselves Christian in America these days, who spurn the very Christian values that you brought me up with: justice, mercy, care for the poor, the sick, the powerless. And the latent racism that has stained my adopted country’s history has been unleashed by an ugly would-be emperor with no clothes.

Oh, Harry, good socialist, good Christian, I know that you would be just as appalled as I am by the direction that not only America but the world has been precipitously following in the few years since your death. You would find it hard to believe, I’m sure, that the insatiable greed of powerful corporate interests and their grip on compliant politicians are at this very moment opening a path for the (yes! imminent!) destruction of the human species and the planet that is our only home.

It is monstrous, Harry. We are careening, seemingly unstoppably, toward a self-created, self-ordained apocalypse as we squabble pathetically over a few crumbs..

And I have to ask this: what about your all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful God? Is he a cynic, Harry? A black humorist? Or a sadist?

Or is he simply Satan in disguise?

Your son, Peter  

Thursday, August 19, 2021

19 AUGUST, 2021

Dear Harry,

Tea time. That hallowed English ritual. There were other genteel homes, aside from Miss Stone’s, where Flora and I were invited regularly to tea.

Do you recall the single woman at the bottom of what we called Sandy Hill—was that its name?—in Aspley Guise. I remember little else about this kind old lady, but I do remember very clearly the rowdy pink and grey parrot who was kept in a cage in her living room. His name was Algy and she had taught him how to dance. She would run her finger back and forth across the bars of his cage and urge him on: “Dance-y, Algy, dance-y, Algy” she would croon, and the bird would repeat the words she said in his strange parrot voice as he hopped cheerfully from claw to claw on his perch.

Then there were Mr. and Mrs. Gates, an elderly couple who lived at the end of a different sandy lane and were delighted for us to come over to visit them for tea. They had a big armchair with a footrest that could be converted into a long, wonderful slope for us to slide down. Best of all, though, was a gazebo past the little rise of the rock garden, out in the middle of their trim, green lawn. It was built on a circle of steel rails and could be turned at any time of day to face the sun. But it was also good as a carnival ride. Poor old Mr. Gates! We would sit on the cushions in the gazebo have him drag us around and around in circles on the noisy metal rails, faster and faster, until we were all dizzy and laughing in delight before Mrs. Gates would make him stop and call us in for tea.

And then, for tea time too, there were Grace and Arthur Young, who lived in a small red brick house along Main Street, also in Aspley Guise. I most often went there alone, I don’t know why, but this was my favorite place of all to go for tea because Arthur was in the Home Guard and had a .22 rifle that he taught me to shoot, setting up a row of clay flower pots as targets in their back yard and showing me how to steady the butt of the rifle tight against my shoulder and aim down the sights. I got to be quite good at smashing pots.

There was tea at the Misses Tanquerays, off the main square and next door to the sweet shop. When we went there we played games of Concentration, with buttons and pins and little silver thimbles and a dozen other tiny objects laid out in tidy order on a green felt-covered tray, to be memorized and recalled from memory, each in its exact location, when hidden by a tea towel.

And then there was tea, of course, every day at the Vicarage or the Rectory, wherever we happened to be, with sandwiches and cake and crisp biscuits, and mother pouring out the tea as mothers are meant to do.

You did love your cup of tea, didn’t you, Harry? That’s another thing I get that from you! I still bring a cup of English tea to bed first thing every morning for Ellie and myself. Never fail, never miss. I drink a cuppa, think of you, and think of Peggy. Think of England…

Cheers, Peter

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

18 AUGUST, 2021

Dear Harry,

Ha! Another Peter! Well, actually, two of them.

I found them as I was writing in my last letter about the catechism and Google-searched for further information.

Did you know that the very first catechism was written by a Peter?

This one was Saint Peter Canisius, who became a Jesuit under the aegis of yet another Peter, Peter Faber, one of the founders of the Society of Jesus in the mid-16th century.

Fascinating! These Peters keep cropping up all over.

In amazement, your own son,

Peter

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

17 AUGUST, 2021

Dear Harry,

Dark days ahead. Fair warning.

Did you really believe in sin? Okay, sin, yes, I understand. I no longer believe in it myself, not in the same form, but that’s for another letter. And what about evil? You believed in the existence of evil in the world—how could you not, after Hitler, his willful slaughter of six million Jews, and the devastation he and his henchman caused in World War II.

But hell? Eternal damnation? Redemption? Did you struggle with all that?

I wish you were still around to tell me what your sins were. That would be okay, wouldn’t it, now that we’re no longer bound by the old father-son conventions? Pride, for sure. You may have tried to hide it with your “simply country priest act”—which served, to those of us who knew you well—to hide a raging ego! But I wonder what else you might have had to confess, if you still went to confession in your later years?

Anyway, à propos, could you not have found some other more, well, more enjoyable gift on the occasion of my confirmation than that copy of St. Swithun’s prayer book? I lost it many years ago. It never really felt like mine. It was your book. If I’d had the nerve I would have given it back to you.

I will say that it was a beautiful, almost ceremonial object, bound in soft, pliable maroon leather, with gold edges. It was nice to hold, to touch. But—surely you’d recognize this now?—inside it was a booby trap in the form of what we’d call today a heavy guilt trip, a real burden for a boy who wanted more than anything to please his dad. No ordinary Book of Common Prayer, St. Swithun’s was a special version of that liturgy, with an enlarged text that included, at the end, a user’s guide to the sacrament of Confession, where every sin known to man or woman was listed, itemized, detailed, categorized, page after page of them, so that no one could feel left out.

That was my confirmation gift from you, my father. My Father.

Guilt.

You yourself had prepared a handful of us children for the ritual of confirmation. We had dutifully learned the catechism of the Anglo-Catholic church (we were not, you always insisted, Roman Catholics, but nor were we Protestants!), the basic rules and conventions of church dogma. Then the Bishop of St. Albans came, arrayed in his purple cassock, and laid his hands on our lowered heads, admitting us officially into the arms of the church. And afterwards there was tea at the Vicarage.

I took my prayer book, dutifully, back to school with me. It was, as you’ll recall, a very catholic Anglo-Catholic school, and attendance at chapel was a daily requirement. Holy Communion was an optional extra, but now confirmed, and still wanting to be a good son and live up to my father’s expectations, I felt obliged to show up for the service and, in preparation, for confession in the crypt chapel. To ready myself for this encounter with the school chaplain, I made a conscientious study of what St. Swithun had to say.

There were a good number of sins I could identify with: pride, envy, greed, and—what a great word!—concupiscence. But the most glaringly obvious and grievous of my sins, the one I knew I would be obliged to confess, was in the category of lust. And I can tell you now, Harry, what I could never have told you then: I was by then fully addicted to the sinful pleasures of the flesh. Solo, or sometimes, if I was lucky, in the company of another boy.

What I had learned—to my delight!—from Philippe in that little pup tent had developed into a full-blown obsession, perhaps even the more pleasurable because I knew it was a sin. In bed at night, daytimes in the Groves (the communal school loos) and out in nature behind bushes and trees, I was at it constantly. I even had worked a hole in my trousers pocket so that I could offer myself at least a little promissory comfort in the classroom and in chapel.

So here was something that needed to be confessed. Indeed, it stood out—if you’ll forgive that way of putting it—as the sin that was most frequent and most culpable. But how to present it to the chaplain in such a way that would not embarrass him—or me! Or, somehow, dishonor you.

The options presented by St. Swithun tiptoed delicately around the subject, but rather than come out and tell the embarrassing truth, I settled on evasion. An innocuous “I have sinned in thought, word and deed” would just about cover it, I thought. And when the time came the Chaplain seemed ready to settle for this obfuscation. Serving at an all-boys boarding school, I’m sure he was able to read between the lines.

It’s also possible that he, too, had a hand beneath his cassock in the confessional. I wouldn’t put it past him.

Just teasing, Harry. With love, and a little bit of shame (but not too much),

Your son,

Peter

Monday, August 16, 2021

16 AUGUST, 2021

Dear Harry,

A postscript to the Philippe story. The year after the exchange with Flora that brought him to England for the summer and her (miserably!) to France with his parents, it was my turn to go. It was my first time there. Philippe and his father, Monsieur, came to pick me up at the airport, and I was hugely impressed, on arriving at their house in Maisons-Lafitte, just north of Paris, by his father’s genial ease with what, in our home, would surely have been an awkward embarrassment. They had just acquired a new kitten who was taking what was apparently its first poop in the front yard when we arrived, and Monsieur was delighted. “Eh, chérie,” he called up to his wife. “Viens voir la merde du chat.” Come see the cat’s shit. I knew I was in exactly the right place, a place where freedom for convention and English inhibitions reigned.

I was disappointed by one thing, though, that first night in France. I had been looking forward, secretly, excitedly in fact, to the opportunity to further pursue my sexual education with the expert guidance of Philippe. I had gained some experience in the intervening months and was expecting to be able to play more advanced games this time around. But Philippe showed not the slightest interest—not even a memory of what had been, for me, a momentous encounter the previous year. He had his own room, I had mine. He seemed even older, even more aloof. No more touching, no more stories. I felt quite bereft.

But—Harry, you’ll be relieved to know this—I did fall in love that summer in France. For the first time. With a girl.

Her name was Nicole. She was a dark-skinned, dark-eyed, golden brown-haired and irresistible thirteen year-old. She wore orange jeans and white blouses open at the neck. She had a beguiling smile that infatuated me when I first saw her. Her brother was Philippe’s best friend, Jean-Claude. I used to tag along with Philippe and Jean-Claude, whose favorite occupation now was making bombs and exploding them on a vacant lot, and always felt like the third wheel on a bicycle. But then Jean-Claude’s father called on his son to help out with the annual harvesting of the crop of green plums in their backyard and ready them for distillation into his home-brewed plum brandy.

Imagine, Harry, this deeply shy, deeply self-conscious and infatuated teenage boy and the amorous urgency he felt in standing close to the girl he so impossibly desired—I would not have known how to approach her, even if the occasion ever arose—fingers touching fingers as they stuff ripe plums into the dark bung-hole of the barrel in which they were to be left for many days to ferment.

As you can tell, Harry, the memory is still as fresh, as intensely, and as unrequitedly sexual as it was back then.

Your son, still in love, with tongue hanging out,

Peter

Saturday, August 14, 2021

14 AUGUST, 2021

Dear Harry,

I have a confession to make. I’m not sure at what age exactly I stopped enjoying your favorite summertime activity, but by my teenage years I’m pretty sure I hated it. Well, hate is perhaps too strong a word, but I was no longer sharing your enjoyment of the nomadic life.

I’m talking about the caravan. In the years immediately following the war (when petrol once again became more readily available) our caravan trips consumed most of the family time away from school during the summer holidays. As a little boy, I’m sure I went along with it unquestioningly. It was what we did. As I grew older I began to hate (that word again!) the hours spent in the back seat of your car with Flora; the daily search in the Caravan Club handbook for the next site where we could pull in and “put the legs down”; the arguments over the best routes between you and Peggy in the front seat; and the perfection you insisted on in leveling the caravan by cranking each of the four corner legs to your exacting requirements. I hated the Elsan tent (was that invented by you? Your brother Donald?) a tall, narrow tent with squatting room for one on the portable loo, held in place by a brace at one corner of the caravan. I was lazy. I wanted to spend my summer lounging around, escaping all the rules and impositions of school life. I was reaching an age where boys begin to sense the possibilities of freedom, and the last thing I needed was more constraints.

The one thing I did like was my little pup tent. It was easy enough to put up, a short way from the caravan, and it was my little private space. It was meant for one, but it could sleep two people at a push, and it was here I was initiated into the arcane knowledge of that thing between my legs whose purpose you had attempted to explain to me and which Mr. Ellis had inexplicably attempted to devour. Aside from its mundane application in the loo, however, (or, when camping, behind the nearest hedge) its more interesting behaviors continued to mystify me.

Remember Philippe? The French boy who came over to stay that summer when Flora first went to stay with his parents in France? We took him caravanning with us, remember? and every time we passed a Citroën on the road he would point and shout, delightedly, “Ah, ze car of my fazza!” That seemed to be the sum of his interest in the lovely English countryside.

Philippe was Flora’s age—a year and a half older than me; so, fourteen going on fifteen—and compared to myself he was physically strong, muscular, well-developed. He wore a tiny bathing suit and liked to show off his muscles. And he shared my pup tent…

We each had a sleeping bag and slept side by side, and one evening, shortly after bedtime, I could sense that something other than sleep was going on. Philippe, when he spoke, seemed a little breathless, husky: “’ave you done eet yet?” he asked.

Done what? I had no idea what his question meant.

“You know,” he said—but I didn’t—“done eet, veez a girl?”

Of course I hadn’t, and he realized at once that I was totally ignorant. Time to educate me. He reached over and slid his hand down in my sleeping bag to perform a manual investigation of my penis, hard already, but still quite small and skinny. “Ah,” he said sympathetically. “’ees still too small, you see? ’ere,” he added, with some pride: “feel zees.”

He took my hand and led it down inside his sleeping bag. I was amazed, first by the contact of my fingers with the mat of wiry hairs—I told you, didn’t I, that he was well-developed? I had only a soft down, as yet—and still more when he wrapped my fingers around his erection. It was not long, but fat, hard, and throbbing. Philippe was quite clearly very enamored of it. He said, “You see, one day ‘ee will grow big, like zees.”

So that was settled. He took care of his own need right there in the pup tent as he continued on to tell me the (perhaps fictional?) story of how he had already lost his virginity—“you poot eet up inside ‘er”, he explained—having been seduced by an older woman, the mother of a friend, and how he planned to resume their intimacy once he got back to France.

So, Harry, the caravanning holiday that year served an unexpected and for me revelatory purpose. What Philippe had to show me was soon, as I matured just a little further, to open the door to a pleasure that accompanied me through adolescence and beyond—the pleasure that you claimed to have denied yourself. The pleasure you disparagingly called “self-abuse.”

Your sinful son, Peter

Friday, August 13, 2021

13 AUGUST, 2021

Dear Harry,

That one time, then. When we talked about what happened with Mr. Ellis…

It was several weeks—several months?—later. Not more. Not years, I do know that. You knocked at the door of my bedroom at the Vicarage one morning. I think I was still in bed. The light was streaming in through the window that looked out over the front lawn, over the tennis court that no one ever used, over to the copse at the end of the garden. It was a small room, but a nice one, my private space, sandwiched between two other bedrooms, my sister’s and a guest room.

So there you were. That was a surprise. You hardly ever came into my bedroom, in fact I can’t remember a single other time. So this had to be important.

There was some awkwardness, perhaps on my part, because the occasion was so unusual, my father coming to my bedroom; perhaps on yours, because of what you had learned, what you had to tell me, what you had to ask me.

“It’s about Mr. Ellis,” you said. I think you sat down on the edge of the bed. There would have been nowhere else to sit. “I had a telephone call from Mr. Chris”—the headmaster at my boarding school. “He said there had been some trouble with Mr. Ellis, that they’d had complaints about him, um, interfering with other boys.” You paused, to give me a moment to process this. Then you said, “So I have to ask you… That time when you went to stay at Mr. Ellis’s house, did he… well, did he do anything he should not have done?”

I must have mumbled my confession that, yes, something had happened, because you said, “I suppose that was why you were not very nice to him, when I came to pick you up and drive you home?”

I remembered the occasion. I remembered you chiding me for not being polite enough when I said goodbye. I must again have mumbled my assent. I knew it was bad, what happened. But was it my fault? I was unable to express the feelings that I had in words. I was unable to identify them even for myself because they were so confused. There was guilt, for having allowed something so bad to happen to me and for the wicked thrill I’d felt, along with the knowing I’d done something bad. Something dirty, that was the word.

There was a long silence. Then you said, “Do you want to talk about it?”

And I said, “No.”

And you said, “Alright then. I’m sorry, Peter. I should not have let that happen.” And left the room.

That was the sum of it, as I recall. It was never mentioned, ever again, between us.

What I don’t understand, you see, is how you could have left it there, like that. You of all people, who understood the mind. Who insisted that trauma should not be ignored and buried, but remembered. Why you didn’t gently lead me into what I so much needed at the time but did not know how to ask for because I was so terribly embarrassed. Because you understood these things. You understood that people, even little children, need to talk about the things that hurt them. Need to be heard, even if they themselves don’t know it. Need to be forgiven. Need to be consoled.

Surely you knew that?

I know it’s too late now to ask it, but there’s something in me that still wants you to know, and still believes that somehow just the act of writing this letter can fulfill that need.

In any case, I could have used a hug. Had you known how to give one.

Silly me, that it still hurts, now that I’m an old man, older than any of us were back then. And I hope a lot wiser. But yes, strangely, it does.

With love—and thanks for listening, Peter  

Thursday, August 12, 2021

12 AUGUST, 2021

Dear Harry,

Okay, this is another one that’s hard to write. It’s time for us to talk about Mr. Ellis. We spoke about this only once, not long after it happened, and you never mentioned it again. Which is odd, because you always insisted that trauma needed to be remembered, not buried and forgotten. I remember, for example, that time that my son Matthew, your grandson, was run over by a car at the age of four—literally, the driver didn’t see him and the car backed right over him—and you told me I should help him to keep the incident in mind and not let it sink back into the unconscious, where it might to lasting damage. You worried that he might end up as a race car driver! (He didn’t. Thanks!)

The advice was based in a sound understanding of the workings of the human mind, I think. Which is why I find it odd that you neglected your advice yourself.

Here are the facts, at least as I remember them. I was about twelve years old. We had not yet had that chalkboard talk that I reminded you about when I last wrote, and I was still ignorant about anything having to do with sex. Mr. Ellis was the math teacher at the first boys’ boarding school you sent me to, and he had inherited from his uncle a property not far from where we lived—in Braughing, at the time. He let you know he would be happy to have me come for an overnight stay, if ever it was convenient, and it so happened you were due to attend a weekend ruri-decanal conference (I remember that term!) and thought it would be nice (I’m assuming, here) to take Peggy with you for the event.

So you dropped me off at Mr. Ellis’s, grateful for his kindness.

I have to say I’m surprised you could be so naïve. Or was it that you were so keen to have a nice weekend away with Peggy that you chose not to worry about Mr. Ellis’s motivations? We never had that conversation. And you never knew, never chose to ask about what actually happened. I don’t know why, but it feels important that I tell you.

After you dropped me off, Mr. Ellis was all charm for his twelve-year-old guest. He took me around the small farm, the chicken run, the duck pond, the pig sties. We ended up in a big barn with all kinds of interesting old stuff—lanterns and horse harnesses, antique pitchforks and gardening tools, a fully stocked shelf of ancient cans of oils and turpentines and other more mysterious liquids.

But the real treasure amongst all these treasures was the old motor car, a survivor of the days when cars still had brass lamps instead of headlights and horns you had to squeeze to produce a delightful farting sound. Mr. Ellis let me climb into the driver’s seat and pretend-drive this fantastical machine with its big wooden steering wheel and its knubby gear shift. For a boy of my age, this was the great treat of the afternoon.

The dusk was falling by the time we were done, and it was dinner time. Inside the house, the lights were dim and the furniture was sparse, as though no one had lived there for many years. Mr. Ellis made us dinner, which we ate together at the kitchen table, and it was soon time for bed.

I was already beginning to be spooked by the strangeness of the house and the rather strange solicitude of the man I knew only as my math teacher. Mr. Ellis was a short man with thinning grey hair and a friendly smile, and eyes that matched the friendliness behind his rimless glasses. He led the way upstairs and showed me the bed that was made up for me in the bedroom we were to share, and had me wash my face and clean my teeth. Perhaps he even had me say my prayers. Then helped me into my striped pajamas and tucked me up in bed.

How do I describe the feelings and sensations as I lay there, still awake and listening to Mr. Ellis’s own preparations for the night? I know there was a feeling of suspense, of something yet to come, of something like danger, perhaps… There was the feeling of being very alone, without you and my mother nearby, because this was the first night I can remember, except for the school dormitory, that I spent away from home. There I was, all by myself in that little bed. And it was cold.

It was a big old drafty house, and the bedroom was unheated. So yes, I felt cold as I listened to Mr. Ellis in the bathroom, getting ready to go to bed himself. Heard his cough, the quiet sound of clothes being shed and draped somewhere, the back of a chair, perhaps. Heard the squeak of springs as he climbed into the bigger bed, across the room from mine. Heard the strange sighs he made as he prepared, I thought, to sleep.

Then his voice: “Peter? Are you cold?”

Yes, I was. I was cold.

“Why don’t you come over here and we can warm each other up?”

It felt more like an order from my teacher than an invitation. I was scared, yes, but I thought I ought to do what I was asked. I climbed out of my own bed and padded across the cold, wooden floorboards to where he held the bedcovers open to welcome me. “There,” he said, “That’s better, isn’t it?”

I was terrified. My heart must have been beating wildly with the strangeness of it all. The strangeness of my body in bed next to my teacher’s. The strangeness of his breathing.

He was doing something. He was doing something down there, but I had no idea what that could be.

Then his head went down under the covers and he slid down, down to the level of my crotch. He felt his way in through the slit in my pajamas and pretty soon he was sucking at that strange, wonderful, irresistible part of me that I had only used, until then, to pee. And that strange, wonderful, irresistible part of me was responding in a strange and wonderful way. I knew this was wicked. I knew that you would never have approved. I was terrified, yes, and at the same time, in a strange way, thrilled. Thrilled in a way I couldn’t understand, in a way I knew was wicked, and I shouldn’t.

Mr. Ellis sucked and sucked and sucked and I could tell that something was supposed to happen, but I didn’t dare to let it. It felt like I was about to pee at any moment in Mr. Ellis’s mouth, so I held it back desperately, held on, refusing to let go. Then finally Mr. Ellis stopped. He came back up from under the covers and lay beside me, breathless, and I now felt something strange and hot and hard against me, down there, where he’d been, something I had never, ever felt before, it was so strange where it was pressed against me. And I knew that something strange was happening down there, something intense and urgent, but I didn’t know what it was.

Next thing I knew, Mr. Ellis breathed what seemed like a great sigh of relief, and he lay there a few moments longer, as if almost unaware that I was there. Then he turned to me and told me that I’d better to back to my own bed.

I did. I must have gone to sleep, finally. I must have woken in the morning, fearful that Mr. Ellis would be angry with me for the night before. That I’d done something wrong. But no, he was perfectly cheerful as he made me breakfast, as though nothing at all had happened. And then later you arrived, to pick me up, and had me say goodbye nicely, and thank you nicely to Mr. Ellis. And chided me in the car, on the way home, that I had not been nice enough.

That’s it, for now. I’ll need to talk about this some more. But for now, it feels like it’s enough to have told you what happened as exactly as it happened, more than seventy years later. Why do I need to tell you? Is it punishment? Revenge, after all these years? I have talked about it, written about it several times before, but you and I have never mentioned it, except for that one time, when you asked me if I wanted to talk about it and I said, No. But yes, I did need to talk to you about it. To you, specifically. And I never did.

More about this when I write to you next. In the meantime, please forgive my need to have shared this with you. With, specifically, you.

Your son, Peter

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

11 AUGUST, 2021

Dear Harry,

Let’s change the subject. Talk about something else that was close to your heart but impossible for us to talk about: sex.

You liked to think of yourself as open-minded, frank, unembarrassed, you loved to engage in sexual innuendo, flirt with Bletchley girls at the Rectory… but all I really learned from you about sex was the blush of the English schoolboy.

I would have been, what? Twelve? Thirteen? When I was summoned to your study at the Vicarage in Braughing. It was a tiny room, off the front hall, hardly big enough for your blond oak desk and matching chair and, as I recall, one comfortable leather easy chair.

On this occasion, when you called me in, you had a chalkboard set up on an easel. It was time to explain to your son the mysteries of sex, and if you were embarrassed, it was not half as much as I was.

Obviously, with the chalkboard, you wanted to make your lesson as objective as possible. All science and medicine. No mess or joy. You drew the outlines of the operative parts, male and female, with a piece of white chalk and explained how they could be merged in an act designed (by the good Lord, surely!) to create children. You explained about eggs and fertilization, about incubation and birth. You did your best to say what you thought needed to be said.

I did my own best to listen patiently and attentively, as I knew I should. But in actual fact—I tell you this now, so many years later, and after you are long gone from this world!—your explanations were superfluous, at least in theory: by what agency I no longer recall, I had a copy of Gray’s Anatomy in my bedroom and had explored its pages—and illustrations—on more than one occasion for this same information, trying to put it all together with the mysterious physiological effect that manifested in a region of my body I knew I was supposed to refrain from touching.

On multiple occasions, too, I had proved to myself that the required restraint was more than even a good boy could reasonably practice. The temptation was too great, the mysterious pleasure too hard to resist. But I was not yet well enough developed to take things further than the exploratory touch.

No matter how well intended, I’m afraid to say that your explanations did no more than add to my confusion. But there was soon another incident that I knew must somehow be related to all this, but was unable to fit in to the confusing picture. You heard about it later, didn’t you, not from me but from another source? But that deserves a letter all its own and I’ll write more tomorrow.

Meantime, Harry, I do know that you struggled with this. I can’t imagine how much harder it must have been for you to have this talk with Flora. But perhaps you left that task to Peggy? I’m curious, but must acknowledge this is something I will never know.

Your son, Peter

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

10 AUGUST, 2021

Dear Harry,

This might be a good moment for us to talk about money, because Peggy later told me, when I was old enough to understand a bit more about such things, that you took quite a cut in your annual stipend to make the move from Aspley Guise to Braughing. It struck me at the time, when she told me this, that she was none too pleased with the decision, but apparently you felt called by God to make the move.

God would have a hard time explaining to my satisfaction why Braughing needed you so much more than Aspley Guise. It was a smaller village. The Church was St. Mary the Virgin and the main pub was The Brown Bear. The main street was The Street. There were two fords where cars could cross the little stream—at least when it was not in spate. When that happened, once a year, perhaps, the stream became an unruly river for a day or two, often leaving relics from an ancient Roman encampment exposed, from the time when Braughing was a stop on the arrow-straight road that led from Londinium to the wild north. Your annual salary there was a handsome 250 pounds sterling. It might be that you added a few more pounds to that by taking on the parish of Westmill, just across the A10 highway that led up to Buntingford, the nearest small town. Peggy reminded me of this because she thought I should know what a huge financial sacrifice it was to send both Flora and myself to private boarding schools—even though the schools offered discounts to the clergy.

Anyway, leave God out of it, we made the move. Perhaps you had just done the work you needed to do at Aspley Guise. As we say in our vernacular over here, I can relate.

Money did not mean much to you. As Peggy always said—and warned Ellie about myself, your son in this regard—if you had it, you spent it. And you loved to spend. Your pleasure in indulgence was visible, almost palpable. You were, insofar as that small stipend would allow, quite profligate. Still, you were not impressed by people simply because they had it, nor did it worry you that you had relatively little. Your extravagances included, I suppose, those summer caravan trips you loved to take, the needs of your workshop, and your visits to the pub.

I learned to my surprise much later on that you did have other resources. Your father had left you and your siblings shares in Reyrolles, A. Reyrolle & Co., the electrical switchgear company that developed his invention, and those shares must have increased substantially over time. They enabled you to send us to school and eventually to buy the little cottage in Aberporth where you and Peggy spent many years following your retirement. Before your move to Braughing, too, Miss Stone, a lovely old spinster living down the hill from the Aspley Guise Rectory with her caregiver (Mrs. Bridgerton, if I recall? There was a Bridge in there somewhere) left you a respectable sum as an inheritance, I assume in honor of your friendship with her and your pastoral visits. She left you, too, a silver christening mug etched with her family name; I wonder what became of it? We children were invited over to her cottage from time to time. The gentle, silver-halo’ed Miss Stone seemed to take a special delight in having us for tea—wheeled into the drawing room on a trolley by the solicitous Mrs. B and served in elegant china cups and saucers, with scones and cake on tiny matching plates. Those visits required a special effort at politeness and special attention to the table manners.

You yourself, Harry, were scrupulously, meticulously honest when it came to money, and it outraged you when others did not meet your standards. We’ll talk more in due course about Barry Evans, an exuberantly bohemian artist who lived on subsistence earnings with his unruly family up the hill in Braughing; enough, for now, to note that one of the reasons he became your nemesis was your loan of sixty pounds to tide him over a tight spot—a loan he never bothered to return.

I should note that when you died, and Peggy after you, you left behind an estate that I found quite astonishing. As I recall, there was little in the way of money—but there was that nicely located seaside cottage, Glenview, on the attractive Cardiganshire coast in Wales and the proceeds from its sale, shared evenly with Flora, allowed Ellie and me to invest in a cottage on the attractive California coast in Laguna Beach. I was tempted to call it Glenview. But… no glen. We still treasure the view.

With love and gratitude, Peter

Monday, August 9, 2021

9 AUGUST, 2021

Dear Harry,

Aside from Hank, in particular, and the usual succession of pets—cats and dogs—in our household, you had an odd, rather touching relationship with animals. I remember especially the mini-farm we had at Braughing, the parish you took on after Aspley Guise.

We must have moved there pretty much immediately when the war was over. The Vicarage was a huge property—a Queen Anne house surrounded, in front, by an expanse of green grass, some of which had been tamed into a rather uneven tennis court while the rest grew long and wild, requiring only the occasional visitation with an industrial-sized mowing machine. At the bottom of the garden, downhill, to the right, there was what might be a large pond or a small lake, so completely choked with reeds that the water was no longer visible; and up the hill from there, to the left, a stand of trees large enough to be called a copse, if not a woods. Leaning up against the house, on one side, was a rather dilapidated greenhouse with a glorious old vine which did, in fact, surprisingly for the climate, produce grapes.

Behind the house was a large barn with stables that were no longer used for horses—definitely not your realm of interest!—and a cluster of small outhouses of undetermined use. And two pigsties. Which called for occupants, particularly in those immediately post-war years when rationing was still in effect and meat was in short supply. So in part our animal husbandry was public-spirited, to do our part in the recovery. I think Martha was the first arrival—a big old sow who gave birth to a succession of litters of piglets, all of which, or most of which, were sent off to the market at an appropriate age. One of them, Mary, was kept as another breeding sow. And one of the runt pigs, the littlest of the litter, was spared the fate of his siblings—I think because you took pity on the little guy and decided he should stay on at the Vicarage. His name was Harry. You were tickled by the namesake, of course, but he got his name because in that part of the countryside the runt of the litter is actually called “the harry pig.”

I don’t recall what became of Harry, but he lived with us for quite a while and became something of a family pet. You didn’t have the heart to send him off for slaughter. As for big Martha, she was the boss-lady and felt free to roam wherever she damn well pleased—even, on one occasion, into the house through the back door and through the dining room into the kitchen, where we caught her eyeing our dinner. She was quite indignant to be chased out, with the aid of broom handle from the cleaning closet.

And then there were Susan and Sarah.
They came to us originally as eggs—goose eggs, a gift to you from one of the local innkeepers, and intended for your consumption. There were three of them, three eggs, and Flora and I begged you not to eat them but put them, instead, under a broody hen to see if they would hatch.

Unpredictably, they did. At least two of the three. And, not knowing how to determine their sex, we called them Susan and Sarah. Sarah, it turned out, was a gander. Susan was a goose. They soon took over the run of the property, strutting around as though they owned the place—which undoubtedly they thought they did. And then one day we discovered that Susan was laying eggs in a straw nest at the back of one of the small outhouses. We soon counted eight of them—and we were thrilled.

News got around, as it does in small English country villages, in the usual way: in the pubs. (More on these favorite haunts of yours in another letter, but you frequented them in part, I’d like to think, as important centers for your pastoral duties). On this occasion you brought back home the sage opinion of the local farmers: never allow a goose to sit on her own eggs. She’s too lazy, too easily distracted. She’ll never stay with them. Put those eggs under a hen, if you ever want to see the goslings hatch.

You wouldn’t hear of it. Let nature take her course, was your philosophy. I’m not sure whether God had anything to do with. Perhaps not. But you insisted on Susan sitting on her own eggs.

And you were right. Improbably, all eight of the eggs hatched. All eight of the little birds survived, and were soon strutting around the garden all in a row, Susan following after Sarah---we never changed his name—who proudly led the way, and the eight goslings strung out in a line behind them. They did not restrict themselves, either, to the garden. On more than one occasion they felt entitled to stroll in through the back door of the Vicarage and out through the front, where a visitor might surprised by this pompous avian procession emerging from the house to greet them.

Cute as they were, they rapidly became a nuisance. They pooped everywhere. On the tennis lawn. On the gravel driveway outside the front door. In the greenhouse. And ten of these birds can produce an alarming amount of poop, especially once the goslings grow up into something more resembling adult geese.

Worse, though, Susan and Sarah and their flock soon became dissatisfied with what the Vicarage grounds could offer in the way of forage and found their way across the little trout stream that marked one boundary… and into the farmer’s field beyond. In no time, they were wreaking havoc with the farmer’s cabbage crop. He complained. Loudly. In public, in the pub. And you, good pastor, could not afford to alienate your parishioners.

What became of the rest of the flock I do not recall, but I do know what happened to Sarah. He was given to the farmer who had him plucked and feathered and trussed up to be given away as a whist drive prize (whist drives were the weekly village entertainments, the bingo of their day). The person who was required to ceremoniously give away the prize was you, Harry, Father, the Vicar of the parish. And you came home as close to tears as ever I remember you.

It was a different matter with that belligerent rooster. That was earlier, in Aspley Guise. It was my job to feed the chickens—my guess is that I was eight or nine years old—and this creature started to attack me every time I opened the gate to the chicken run. You mocked me when I told you I was afraid, and set out one morning to feed the fowl yourself, to prove me nothing but a chicken myself. Then the beastly bird attacked you, beak and talons flying. He ended up like Sarah, on the dining table. Ours. And we had no compunction about giving him the fate that he deserved.

Remembering all this nonsense, with love, Peter  

Sunday, August 8, 2021

8 AUGUST, 2021

Dear Harry,

Before we leave Aspley Guise, let’s take a moment to revisit The Bell. This was the pub at one corner of the (actually triangular) village “square”, with the Post Office on one side of the triangle, Aspley House on opposite side, and the butcher’s, the grocer’s and the greengrocer’s on the third. Somewhere too—I think sandwiched in between the butcher’s and the grocer’s—was a tiny newsagent where you bought the shredded Golden Virginia tobacco for your home-rolled cigarettes and, once in a while, on a splurge, a pack of Players or Senior Service. Oh, and in the middle of the square, let’s not forget, was the bus shelter and the horse trough.

But The Bell. You often used to stop there for a drink or two, mostly before lunch. In a way, I think you did your business there, or some of it, because as in every English village worth its name the pub was the center of all social life. All the local news was readily available here, so any news you wanted to put out into the community could be spread rapidly from this point out. It was here, too, that you could expect to meet many of your parishioners, particularly the male ones, and particularly those who might need a timely reminder that it was time to show their faces back in church on Sunday morning.

And the pub was an important place for you to maintain your credentials as a man of the people, one who could be trusted to understand their problems, a man with his feet on the ground with everyone else, a man you could share a beer with, or a game of darts. Not some hoity-toity snob who thought himself a cut above because he wore the cloth. Here everyone could call you Harry and know you’d have a laugh if they shared a joke at your expense.

So that was The Bell, in Aspley Guise. In Braughing there was The Brown Bear, where you were given the goose eggs that turned into Susan and Sarah. In Sharnbrook, The Swan with Two Nicks; in Aberporth, where you retired, The Ship. These were your haunts—mostly, as I say, in the middle of the day but sometimes also before supper in the evening. Your usual was Guinness.

I don’t think I ever saw you visibly intoxicated but you were actually, fess up, a bit of a boozer, no? Aside from your lunchtime Guinness, there would likely be another one before dinner, carefully poured to produce exactly the right layer of foam at the head. Then the ritual glass of sherry and, with dinner, a glass or two of “plonk”—your wine of choice, the cheapest you could find, though you did enjoy a glass of the finer stuff if someone else was treating. And even after all that alcohol consumption, you would usually find it necessary to complete the evening with a snifter of brandy or one of those tiny glasses of liqueur—Grand Marnier, Cointreau, Benedictine… Your absolute favorite was Chartreuse, with a preference for the more expensive, finer-tasting green over the yellow.

Anyway, yes, The Bell. Even when we were little children you would take us there when you finished your morning rounds, stopping by at the homes of those of your parishioners who required for any reason—sickness, social, or psychological distress—a visit from the clergy. Children were not allowed in pubs under any circumstance in those days, so you would leave us in the car by the back door and come out with a glass of lemonade and a package of Smith’s Potato Crisps for each of us. Inside the package with the crisps was a twist of azure blue paper containing just a pinch of salt, enough to season those delicious crisps to taste.

See? These are the things I recall most clearly, those shining moments that seem to me now as intimate as any that we shared. These little things are the ones that stick in the mind, and these are the memories that I treasure most.

Nostalgically, then, your son, Peter

Saturday, August 7, 2021

7 AUGUST, 2021

Dear Harry,

I need to talk about Flora again, while we’re still in Aspley Guise. Now that she has been gone, these several years, and you for many more, I feel it can be told. It was, for her, an early wound. How do I know about this? Did you tell me? Or did she? I did know the story, even at a young age, young enough not to fully understand.

She could have been twelve years old at the time, and came back in tears one day from a walk on the heath, up behind the Rectory, beyond the end of the path where we used to pick blackberries and past the sandpit—a quarry cut deep into the hillside. We took tin trays there from the kitchen, for the scary thrill of sliding on them down its steep, slippery slopes, top to bottom. We took glass vials, at times, filling them with layers of different colored sands, red and green, yellow, orange, black, and corking them up securely to bring back home as gifts.

Further, past the sandpit, was a wild area of heath with waist high gorse bushes, deep green with seasonal bright yellow blossoms, small but plentiful. It was here that Flora came upon a stranger with his fly unbuttoned, cock in hand—though she had no idea what that strange thing might be—scaring her as it squirted “white stuff,” so she said, all over the ground in front of her.

Did she just happen upon this man by chance, his work already in progress? Or did he see this pretty little girl and choose the moment to undo his fly? Was he one of those men what get their kicks this way?

I do not know the answer to those questions, and I suspect you did not, either. But you had the task of comforting your daughter and calming her down with some kind of explanation as to what this man was doing.

No easy task. As we well know, you resorted frequently to Drs. Freud or Jung to guide you in such situations, so perhaps these luminaries helped. And you were surely well aware of the potentially long-lasting emotional repercussions of trauma such as this. I wonder to what extent the episode may have affected your later efforts to “understand” your daughter and her problems—and offer her sometimes unasked-for advice about her relationship with men.

You may or may not know this, Harry, but she—your daughter, Flora—found something dark and disturbing about your attempted interventions in this aspect of her life.

So, asking you in advance to forgive the honesty about an obviously disturbing subject, I remain, as always,

Flora's loving brother, Peter

Friday, August 6, 2021

6 AUGUST, 2021

Dear Harry,

Hank was your dog. He was devoted to you. A north-of-Englander, like yourself, he was a border collie. Handsome, always eager, with soft brown eyes and remarkable intelligence, he came with the family when we left Newcastle in 1938 and headed south to your new incumbency in Aspley Guise, because your doctor—doctors?—recommended the move.

I remember the feel of his think black coat, highlighted with white. See? Like you, black and white, cassock and dog collar! The first “memory” I have of Hank—a “memory” because it’s only a photograph—is of him sitting on the lawn in Holywell, your first parish, before Newcastle, where Flora was born. Hank is pretending to be lazing in the sun but I know that he’s awake and fully attentive, because that’s his job, to watch over the little baby in the pram beside him.

Border collies need to have a job, don’t they? You taught me that. It’s in their nature. They’re herders. Up north, in the mountains of Northumberland, the shepherds send them off with a whistle into the hills to gather the widely scattered flocks and bring them back down the mountainside to be sheared. When we got to Aspley Guise, Hank had a new job. He’d be sent off, through the village streets, all the way up to Granny Murcott’s house, a mile away, by the woods, where she would attach a little package of sweets (candies, that is) for him to bring back to her grandchildren.

His other job was to look after us when we were little, to see that we never strayed too far from his watchful gaze.

Flora and I were away at school when Hank died. Of old age. You told us he was gone in the car, on the way home from picking us up at the train station. You must have been totally devastated by his death, but you put a good face on it. A father was not allowed to show grief to his children.

Did we cry in the car? I don’t remember. I suspect that even by that young age—I would have been, what? Seven? Eight?—we had learned to keep our feelings to ourselves. But I remember the terrible sense of loss, of emptiness, as you drove us home. I remember how, to relieve the gloom, you told us you had a surprise for us when we got home.

The surprise was Benjy, an adorable little Cocker Spaniel puppy, who jumped all over us, as excited to meet us as we to discover that we had a brand new pet.

We loved Benjy, of course. And Siân (Welsh for Jane, the “gift of God”) the snappy Pembrokeshire Corgi who was Benjy’s successor after he died. But we all knew, secretly, that not one of these two could never, ever live up to Hank. Because Hank was the gentlest, kindest, smartest dog we ever had. Well, that ever lived. I know you loved him, though you'd never admit to loving a dog! And I know that he loved you. He was the family’s dog, yes, of course. But there was never any doubt about whose dog he really was.

I see him walking obediently to heel, ears perked, tail held high, beside the flapping black folds of your cassock. Your faithful dog.

Good memories, then, today. Your son, Peter

Thursday, August 5, 2021

5 AUGUST, 2021

Good morning again, Harry!

We did have fun, though, didn’t we, with the Bletchley girls? They were especially kind to us children. Adoring, even.

There was that time at Christmas. It was a tradition in our family—one that was surely originally your idea—to celebrate the arrival of Father Christmas (Santa Claus, over here) with great fun and games, rather than make it a furtive, middle of the night affair whose only trace was the stuffed stocking left to be discovered in the morning. No, for us, Father Christmas came with fanfare and much clanging of cowbells loud “ho-ho-hos” reverberating through the upstairs of the house. One time he was a giant, arriving on stilts—not your skill, Harry, but one of your guests; another time it was an alternating pair of bristly mustachio’ed twins from the RAF base at Cranfield down the hill (“I know what you think, you think I’m Frank. Well I’m not, I’m Douggie!”)

And then there was the time that Father Christmas arrived with great hue and cry, driving a sleigh—an ancient perambulator (baby carriage, here) rescued from the attic and hauled along the top corridor by two harnessed “reindeer”, Vivian and Fiona wearing fur coats, on their knees. I suspect it might have taken a good few gin and tonics to induce their cooperation, but there they were, good sports, the whole party laughing wildly.

Fiona starred, too, in another Rectory extravaganza inspired by your old love of theater. I don’t recall the occasion—but perhaps you would? The title of the play was “Murder in the Rectory.” Did you write the script? I’m guessing so. You did love your mysteries: Agatha Christia, Ngaoi Marsh, Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham. You devoured them endlessly, there was always one on your bedside table. And your play was obviously inspired by them.

You staged it in the drawing room—the large, formal room with great windows looking out to the rhododendron bushes that marked the boundaries of the garden, the room where tea was served on special occasions with finger sandwiches and biscuits (okay, cookies here) and cake set out on the best art deco Burlington china. For the occasion, you rigged a curtain across one end of the room and arranged chairs for your audience at the other. Of the play, I remember only the heart-chilling scream of Fiona as the murder victim and the slash of bright red lipstick across her cheek where the “blood” poured out. I was terrified, clutching at my mother’s hand for reassurance.

I believe that you, Harry, were the murderer. If memory serves…

And here's my dark suspicion: that you lusted heartily after her, the seductive Fiona, as I did, just a child, and unable yet to understand my lust.

Lost in these memories, Peter  

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

4 AUGUST, 2021

Dear Harry,

I’m trying to recall when I was first aware of Jews as a people somehow “different” from us Christians. Did I know, for example, that Ernst, our Kindertransport guest, was Jewish? Did you ever make us aware of that—you must of course have known—and did it matter to you? There were no Jews in our little English country village. Indeed, I had scarcely any history with Jews until I married Ellie, when I was already in my thirties!

What did I even know, back then, and what did you tell me about the Holocaust? I was eight years old at the time the camps were liberated, and you may have considered me too young to know about, let alone understand such horrors. I suspect that you’d have wanted to protect me from the terrible, heart-rending truth about the depravities of our fellow man. I believe that I learned about it only later from my history lessons.

And yet… and yet… When Flora and I were still quite little, our mother, Peggy, used to read us bedtime stories from a book called “All Saints at Six O’Clock.” One of the stories she read was that of “Little Saint Hugh,” a boy who lived in the dark back streets in the town of Lincoln (I always had the impression that it was an Eastern European ghetto, but no, this was in my own country, England, in the Middle Ages) and was supposedly sacrificed by Jews in what I now know to be the infamous “blood libel” myth that continues, even today, to be propagated amongst the more rabid anti-Semites of the world.

It was a truly beastly story, yet Peggy calmly included it without judgment or explanation with all the other saints’ stories that she read us, apparently unashamed to share its disgraceful slander with her children. Did she believe this calumny against the Jews? Surely not! I prefer to think that her anti-Semitism was not malicious—I still fail to see a shred of malice in her—but rather pure, unquestioned ignorance, reflecting more on benighted, ancient, shameful Christian lore than on her character.

Still—I need to say this, Harry—there was a grievously intuitive and unexamined part of Peggy’s otherwise kind, generous personality (witness her welcoming of all and sundry into her home in the war years and her caring mothering of them all!) that bespoke prejudice, and not only of Jews but of people of other heritages and skin colors. She was, she herself would readily admit, a snob, whose class-consciousness was sometimes an embarrassment.

It pains me to say that Ellie was conscious of Peggy’s—let me avoid the term anti-Semitism, which mischaracterizes her—but of her hesitation in embracing those whose culture she neither knew nor understood. There was, Ellie tells me of their first encounter at the railway station in Carmarthen where you came to pick us up, and in the car on the drive home, a kind of subtle recoil, a kind of drawing back that she, Ellie, felt quite keenly—and I do not doubt her feeling. But I do believe that Peggy always made the effort to overcome her prejudices, when she was aware of them, and that she was at heart a generous, kind and loving person.

Is any of this new to you? I imagine not. You lived together and loved each other “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and health” for more than sixty years.

Fond memories, then, of both of you, Peter

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

3 AUGUST, 2021

Dear Harry,

I did not know this at the time, nor would I have understood, I think, but I later learned that an important member of our household in those war years came over to England via the now well-known Kindertransport—the trains that left Germany and Austria between 1938 and 1940 filled with children, mostly Jewish, who were sent off by desperate parents so that they, at least, might find shelter from the impending Nazi storm.

Ernst must have been about twelve or thirteen years old when he arrived in England—older than us by a few years. He seemed to Flora and myself a strange boy who lived up to his name: earnest. A part of that strangeness was the marked accent with which he struggled, initially, with the English language. He kept a good part of that accent until his recent death, more than seventy years later, in his adopted city of Chicago. Reunited with his parents in the United States after the war, he had lived with them for many years in Omaha, Nebraska, where I can only imagine how hard it would have been for this family of Viennese Jewish refugees to adapt to a city deep in the American Midwest.

For several years after the war we would receive regular care packages from the Schnabls. They were more than welcome at a time when food was still scarce in post-war England and ration books still required for grocery shopping. Amongst the many gifts in those exotic packages from America, there were two that stand out forever in my memory: huge cans of salty, memorably delicious ham… and jars of peanut butter. The latter was something hitherto unknown in England, at least by us, a treat that Peggy packed into my tuck box to take to school with me, where it made me the envy of my school mates.

Until the day he died, already in his nineties, Ernst remained whole-heartedly devoted to you, Harry, and to Peggy. And to Flora and myself. He did not, he told me much later, have a good relationship with his own father, and I suspect that you became a kind of substitute. For a while, indeed, he was a part of our family, never quite a brother to Flora and myself, but always in our midst. He went to school in Bedford, where he received a good start in his education. And in transatlantic correspondence and occasional visits, he remained in close touch with you throughout his life.

Importantly, with your guidance—though surely without your insistence?—he found in Christianity a refuge from the confusion of his own cultural roots. He remained deeply appreciative of your mentorship. A devout Christian in his adult life, he married a church organist and was devastated, in later years, by her loss. He was, though, a stubborn traditionalist, resistant to change—perhaps a consequence of the disruption in his early life. He was outraged, for example, when his daughter Emily, brought up by himself in the Episcopal tradition, decided to take Holy Orders—given his disapproval of women priests. Happily, they were reconciled in due course.

I was in touch with Ernst several times by telephone and US mail—not email!—in the years before his death. He was a gentle soul, loyal to a fault, and his gratitude to you personally and to our family was touching. This was one person, among many I’m sure, whose life you helped to change with your own special wisdom and compassion.

With respectful thoughts, then, your son, Peter  

MLK

It's MLK Day here in the US--the day on which we celebrate the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King. Thanks to his leadership--and th...