The Watcher on the Shore

Sometimes anniversaries spark memories, sometimes they seem to open chasms back into the past; sometimes it is the birthdays that are celebrated, sometimes the deaths are remembered… This has been a week of discoveries, and strange coincidences, weaving family history into odd new patterns.

The first of March was the birthday of Joan Aiken’s mother Jessie, a day I like to celebrate every year, as she was much loved, and is fondly remembered. It’s a day usually marked with Daffodils, for the Welsh patron saint, a cheerful flower and a bright and glowing colour that seem to suit her.

The 27th of February 1911 was the birthday of Joan’s first husband Ron, the father of her children, but since he died young, and much longer ago, his death has become more memorable than his birthday, and this year I even had to look it up to check the date; I knew it was at the end of February, but we hadn’t celebrated it often because I was only three when he died. Racking my memory, I wondered whether his birthday might have occurred in a dangerous Leap Year? Might he have missed out on his birthday celebration for years at a time, and was that why the date seemed rather elusive?

Then I remembered that Jessie had died a day or so before her birthday, when she would have been eighty-one; that year she didn’t stay for the first of March, she had resigned herself to leaving, and with her usual tact, left a few days before the anniversary, waiting only for the opportunity to see her daughter Joan again. Might that have been on the 27th? Would that have been an unfortunate coincidence? But looking through some books and papers to confirm these dates I came across another that I am sure I never knew until now.

I discovered that the 27th of February 1901 had been a day of memorable tragedy, but not for Joan, for Joan’s father, Jessie’s first husband the poet Conrad Aiken, as it was the day when his own father, suffering from a mental breakdown, shot his wife and then himself, and it was left to the eleven year old boy to go and report this to the police.

Jessie had been divorced from this poet husband for over forty years; they first met as students at Harvard in the spring of 1911 (around the time of Ron’s birth). They had been married very young, and only for about fifteen turbulent years; they parted when Joan was only three, and never met or spoke again. Joan lived with her mother in England, but gradually over the years came to know her American father again. But now, in 1970, Conrad had also been ill, and Joan had been summoned to his hospital bed in America, leaving her mother in the care of a nurse at her home in Sussex, and was booked to fly back just before Jessie’s birthday. Despite not having spoken for all those years, Conrad and Jessie were concerned for each other, both seriously unwell, and each when asked, sent a message of love to the other.

Describing her visit to Conrad on the day of her return to Jessie, Joan related a dream of her father’s where he was trying to rescue some recalcitrant birds at sea, and had to struggle and fight with them and force them on to a boat for safety. Far away on the shore he was aware of someone looking on, a familiar figure, observant but detached, and dressed all in black. ‘I wonder who she was?’ he said.

Parting from him wasn’t easy, but Joan flew back, taking his love to Jessie. Her father lived for another year or so, and Joan was glad she had returned in time to see her mother again, as this was to be the last time; Jessie died late that night.

A year or so after  both her parents had died, Joan wrote a piece about this strange week of coincidences and messages, dreams and omens of parting.

She called it The Watcher on the Shore.

 

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