The intimidation of silence

Smoke drifted across the motorway at Cheltenham. The dryness of the mid-December day had allowed a garden bonfire, its scent unmistakeable to those who journeyed by.

It was a brief moment. Few people were going to forego the opportunity of moving quickly on a road strangely devoid of its customary traffic. But the moment was sufficient to capture another moment, now more than fifty years ago.

Standing in the back garden of my paternal grandparents, at the most distant point from the house, my grandfather had built a bonfire of autumn leaves and fallen branches. There was a sweetness in the smell, perhaps it was the wood that was burned. It was a smell that matched the fertility, the fruitfulness, of their red-soiled East Coker garden.

The garden spoke more loudly than my grandfather ever did. A gentle, softly-spoken man, he died when I was eleven years old. The only words from him that I can definitely recall was his telling me that it was, “Caesar, not Julius Caesar.” He sat unspeaking through most conversations, his passions were his flowers and his stamp collection. When he died, my parents did not tell me, nor did they speak about their going to his funeral.

My grandmother died when I was twenty-six. The last time I saw her was a month before, when making a post-Christmas visit from Northern Ireland. I had been ordained the previous summer and she had a photograph of me at the ordination tea on top of her television. My last memory of her was of her standing with her arms around me while I sat at her table. She had cried and cried and I had not understood why. The breast cancer for which she had refused surgery was far advanced and I had no idea of how ill she was.

The smell of autumn bonfire, conjuring the memories of Papa and Nanny in their garden, is deeply melancholic. It is the smell of silence, the smell of a refusal to communicate that has endured so long that it has become an inability to communicate.

Only on the day my father died on 10th March this year did my mother mention that Papa had a blue kippah, a Jewish skull cap, that he kept in the cupboard beside his armchair. My grandfather’s mother died in a workhouse. His father is nowhere named. No-one talked about his family.

Questions could never be answered. Words that should have been said became an impossibility. All of us were intimidated by the silence, by the generations in which we said nothing.


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