My grandfather was a collector of antiques. He was also a wine connoisseur. Every year he ordered 24 bottles of whites and reds from each of the best vineyards in France. They went down into the cellar, which he never visited. When a wine was about six years old he would send for a bottle, smell and swirl it around, sip it slowly, and say "It needs another three months." When it was just right, we drank it every day till it was finished. They said you could give him a glass of any wine to taste, and he would always get the vineyard right, and quite often the vintage. So I drank white wine with fish, and red wine with meat from the age of five. Grandfather died of diabetes and heart problems while I was away during the war.
When I went back to Brussels after the war I found the family business had survived the German occupation. Uncle Jacques was in charge of the woollens. He made frequent business trips to Yorkshire to buy the very best tweeds and worsteds. When I came back from boarding school in England with a new suit he would look at me from twenty feet away and name the factory it was woven in.
Uncle George was equally skilled in buying the taffetas, brocades, and other silks that wealthy ladies bought to be made up by their dressmakers. He was my favourite uncle because he had lunch every day at my grandparents' home, 114 Chaussee de Charleroi, Saint Gilles, Brussels, next to Siemens & Compagnie. He made model sailing boats, including one that I raced to beat all comers on the circular pond in Rue de la Regence. He also did sparkling water colours. I never asked why he had his own room in the house. After the war, I discovered he had lived for many years with a mistress, but the family would not let them get married because she came from the wrong class.
In 1947, he was suddenly converted from atheism at the same time as I was. He told me he longed to take communion, but the priest said he was living in sin. He had begged the family for permission to make things right with the Church, but it would have been very bad for business and it could ruin marriage prospects for his nieces. He never did marry the woman he loved, but they lived happily and he left her the house they lived in. Franchomme & Compagnie called her in after he died, thanked her for acting honourably by not making an issue of marriage to Monsieur George, and gave her a very generous pension for life.
In the family business any of the sons had a right to a desk in the office, and they served as the board of directors. As a boy I remember Uncle Henri used to arrive about eleven, then put his feet up and read the papers till noon. On the way out to lunch he would bend over the balcony and shout at a saleslady serving a customer on the main floor. Before she could answer he was in the elevator on his way out to a restaurant till two-thirty. He then came in to sign what was put before him, and soon left for his club or his mistress. Other directors, or their wives, would borrow large sums, and never bothered to settle what they owed. The family paid for one fellow to go to Morocco to enjoy his drugs there. He got an allowance as long as he stayed away from Brussels. I remember one occasion when he arrived home and they passed the hat around to send him back on the next ship.
After she inherited one third of my grandfather's shares in the business, my mother began a running battle with the men of the family till she died. She complained that her brothers and other males paid themselves huge salaries, and shelled out next to nothing by way of dividends.
When I joined my parents in Karachi in 1940, my mother had already decided she could not cope with my father's drinking and the women in his life. She agreed they would live in separate bedrooms in the same house on the understanding that they would get divorced seven years later when my two sisters were old enough to fly on their own. By then my father had retired, and they moved to Bermuda. He hoped she would change her mind, and they could grow old together. But when I left the army in the summer of 1947 I had a holiday with them in Bermuda, and I had to negotiate the arrangements for their legal divorce.
My mother's ambition was to play the best tennis in the world. She moved to New York, became an American citizen, and took an apartment in Forest Hills overlooking the famous courts. By then she had changed her name to Ann from Anne, which she thought sounded quaint. She did all the socializing needed for membership and she played for the club team till she moved to Old Lyme, Connecticut. One reason for the move was to be near my sister Denise. The other was that she hated Jews and black people, and Forest Hills was full of them. I was impressed that later on her tennis partner was a Jewish house painter.
Mother mellowed in other ways. When I wrote to say I had been converted my first week at university, she knew I wouldn't be half hearted about it and told her friends, "I have lost my son." She refused to discuss matters of faith with me, and was angry when I stupidly sent her a book to enlighten her. Mollie and I were missionaries, poor and teetotalers, and I am sure every muscle of our body language expressed disapproval of her life style. When we lived in Ontario we used to drive the children down every summer to Rocky Neck State Park on the beach, within easy distance of her home on Rogers Lake. It helped when I discovered at the age of fifty that Jesus turned water to a lot of wine for a wedding. After that, being able to eat and drink together with my mother at the family table made things much easier. She began asking Mollie what I preached in my sermons at Little Trinity Church in Toronto.
Fourteen years before she died, the doctor said my mother had very high blood pressure. She must give up tennis and must every month for medication to avoid an imminent stroke. She refused to go back to a doctor again, treated herself with various diets, and played tennis as usual. When she did not feel well, she never wanted sympathy. On July 3, 1977, we set up our tent in the camp site and called to see if we could come and see her the next day. When we arrived after lunch she was lying on the floor still wearing her tennis shorts from a game that morning. She never regained consciousness, and died July 12, 1977, at the age of 76.
My sisters had no church connection, so they asked me to do the service two days later in the Duck River Cemetery. I have just found notes of what I said on that occasion. Let me read you some words Jackie found among mother's papers:
To strive with difficulties and to conquer them. Ann has passed through the final difficulty with courage and dignity. That exactly expresses the quality of courage that I treasure most in her life. I remember her first arrival in New York. She was determined to make a new life for herself. She was going to play tennis in the Forest Hills Tennis Club. Over the last 27 years I have watched her desires changing. She was determined to keep herself in health, not through doctors but through nature. She was equally determined to be no burden to her children. She never complained to me about her health. And she welcomed us royally. There was always a roast for a family dinner. She served Almadean white and red California wine. Last year she served 5 mangoes to greet Mollie and I and our children to remind us of India. The last few years I saw her prepare herself for her own death. That takes great courage, and she succeeded magnificently. Three years ago she made a will. It was thoughtful and considerate. All the papers were in order. There were instructions not to be kept alive. She didn't want to be an invalid. In her final stroke she fell from a table where she was sewing a tennis outfit.
I concluded with the fact that Death, especially of one's mother, is awesome and mysterious. From our point of view it seems like the end. But life after death is like life after birth. I often tell the story of the two twins who had an argument inside their mother's womb. One believed that there was nowhere to go. The other thought there must be something more. So they argued for months till the woman went into labour. As the contractions began they knew this was the end. Shortly, they found themselves contentedly sucking at their mother's breast, and the world after their birth was infinitely bigger than the womb they had come from. They had been inside their mother and never knew it. Now they saw who she was.
I suggested that for mother the tennis of heaven is already far more exciting than she ever imagined in Forest Hills. There was a long silence in the quiet of Duck Lake, and my sisters said they were impressed.