Last summer I took part in an inspiring storytelling workshop at Emerson College, Forest Row. Over the course of one week's morning classes, we were guided, pummelled and massaged into learning how to turn events from our biographies into gifts for the world. Not necessarily gifts of any epic nature, but simple gifts, gifts that transform by melting us rather than cracking us open. The following is a rendition of the story that I chose from my own childhood...
Saint Frances And The Buns
In the summer of 1980, I turned six, and my family moved house. We had lived in a two up two down on the edge of the town and countryside, and moved to a four up two down on the other side of the town. Our house was again situated on the edge of the town and the countryside. However, my parents decided that we would not change schools. This meant that every day we walked a mile to school - my brother who was three years older, my mother and myself. We had no car, no telephone, two stations on the tv but most people in our street were in the same boat, so I never thought we lacked.
First of all we dropped my brother off at his school, an all-boys CBS red bricked building and then we had half an hour before my school began. And so, every morning after dropping off my brother, my mother and I went to Morning Mass.
Of a Sunday the cathedral was filled with crowds, all decked out in finery. No pew had room to spare, so people arrived early to get a good seat. Even the back of the church, the sides and the lobby was filled with people. There was a loud speaker beyond the doors so that those outside could still hear the mass, even if they couldn’t see it themselves. But on weekdays, the cathedral was as empty as Solomon’s Temple, with a few people dotted here and there. Every person had a pew to themselves and people respected each others privacy. It was more or less the same people almost like a club.
My mother was accustomed to my wanderings in the church. I was up out of my seat as soon as I could, talking a stroll around the soaring grey stone arches, eventually ending up at the side of the priest. (I did always love to be where the action was!) On Sundays my poor brother would be sent up after me, and my screams could be heard over the blessings and the bells, as I was dragged back to my seat, only to escape again at the next opportunity. But on weekdays, I was free!
One day, instead of ending up beside the priest, my gaze fell upon a woman, knelt in prayer. Light came through the stained glass and shone upon her short, wavy chestnut brown hair, like a still from a disney film and I stood at the end of her pew and was mesmerised. After that day, I abandoned my station beside the handsome young priest and took up a new post, at the end of this unknown woman’s pew. She never turned to acknowledge me and I never needed any communication from her. It was enough to simply drink in her presence.
At home, life continued on as usual. My parents were both bakers and everyday, the oven was on, as the stable ingredients of flour, butter, eggs and sugar were magiked cakes, buns, meringues, eclairs, breads, tarts and biscuits. My mother made many wedding cakes every summer and on warm evenings, excited young brides-to-be and their mothers would arrive to collect the cakes, with their hair in curlers, and their laughter would spill into our living room. On other days, my mother was busy making sponge cakes and fairy buns. These were made to be sold in our local corner school, Brennan’s. It was often my job to deliver the buns to Brennan’s on our wooden tray, each one beautifully decorated, and covered with a fresh tea towel.
One particular day, I was in Brennan’s to deliver the buns, when I turned towards the person in front of me, to discover that there stood the beautiful woman from the church a mile away!
Once I had safely delivered the tray of buns, I followed her out of the shop, crossed the street after her and followed her all the way to her house. Once she had gone in, I waited a few minutes, deciding what to do. Then I boldly rang her doorbell. She answered the door and looked at me with surprise. “I’ve come to visit” I told her. unlike a story from modern safeguarding and health and safety times, she brought me in, fed me orange squash and jaffa cakes and imparted the horrifying news that she was a dentist. But, she had a perfect set of Russian dolls, and would take them down from the shelf for me to unfold and refold again and again. So began my friendship with Frances, or Miss Jones as I called her always, which was to last until her death a few years ago.
Through this woman,I came to know trust, that a dentist could be funny and that there were times when it was worth taking a risk on a stranger.