He was ten when my mother came into his life as his au pair, and only a little older when his own mother died. My earliest memory of him was that he was in the equivalent of the Peace Corps, in Africa, the Gambia. His room was filled with books and trunks and African tribal masks and artifacts, strange looking fabrics, animal tusks, things I'd never seen before. He was tall and funny, had a port wine stain on his cheek that I was fascinated with as a small child, and he didn't always get on with my father. As I got older, we came to appreciate each other. I learned about irony and sarcasm from him, about generosity, the joy of drinking a good glass of wine (something, no doubt, he inherited from my father). He introduced me to the books of Richard Mabey, who was a friend of his, and later he encouraged my riding. Like all Ward men, he was a good shot, had a real talent with dogs, and rode and understood horses beautifully. The horse I remember of his was an ex-chaser, a grey Irish thoroughbred named McGinty.
He has a lovely wife, an artist, a beauty, someone who was by his side all along, someone who is stalwart, particularly at the end, dealing with the horribleness of pancreatic cancer. She was his rock. I saw him twice in the summer, and she brought us tea as he talked to us from his bed, with his dogs next to him. "All my life," he said, "I was told not to feel anything, not to cry. Once by my mother's grave, I felt myself break, and my grandfather put his hand on my shoulder and said 'Pull yourself together.' And so now, forgive me if I'm an emotional old fool. It's all coming out." It was strange to see him alternately funny and teary. I'd never seen him like that. It was lovely. He wasn't sorry for himself, just for the other people, everyone that was worried about him, people he might be leaving behind, his own sweet daughters, old friends.
"When I was at school, one Sunday, I was in the sick bay, and everyone was in chapel and the woman looking after me was from the town. I think she was filling in for the nurse for an hour. She came into my room and said "let's open the windows now. That's what we do every Sunday at this time, so we can hear the beautiful singing. Listen to that!" He'd just remembered this and told my younger brother and me, voice choked a little by it. With a minute he'd snapped back into sarcastic mode, and said something funny to cover up.
I don't want to think of him dying or lying in bed. I remember his laugh. I can hear it now as I write. The best memories are of the summer Sunday lunches we'd have in the garden. Everyone was invited, my two half sisters and their husbands and children, my half brother, Hermione, their lovely girls. There was always a glass of champagne, dogs on the lawn, the peach trees growing on the wall that separated the garden from the kitchen driveway, a barbecue going, my father grilling belly pork and lamb chops and sausages, an enormous salad great wedges of little gem and chive flowers, straight from the garden, new potatoes with mint, lots of red wine, and family banter. Snapdragons and roses and dahlias in the borders, the tomatoes we'd get from the deliciously warm and damp greenhouse. Sometimes, when it was too hot, we'd move the table a hundred yards down the lawn under the copper beech tree, and there we'd sit for hours, after pudding and cheese and port and more bad jokes, until we'd all either fall asleep or play a drunken game of bocce.
This is how I remember him, in his hat, smiling, glass of wine in his hand, always gently teasing me, or picking on John, very sweetly, as he was the token American. Or on a horse. I always had a soft spot for the men who rode with me. He even took me hunting, and taught me the right way to box a horse.
It's taken a few days to sink in, but they don't make men like that anymore. Such kindness, such generosity, always thinking about other people, giving back. (He lent his lovely cottage in Norfolk to John and the children one year when I had to work back in LA. They said it was the best holiday, ever.) I miss his missives, his poems he'd send, the occasional witty email. Actually, I'll miss him very, very much indeed.
|Justin and my father. Summer of 1997. Justin is in one of his excellent hats. My father has a dog whistle around his neck. Both carry a glass of claret.|