Joan was a part of my life from my birth. Both my parents came from small families and from the earliest days of their marriage they collected around them various ‘waifs-and-strays’ who, long after their liberation back into the world, remained an integral part of the extended clan.
Joan Beagle, coming from a very unsettled family background, was one such and when she married during the war, husband Stan Slater was immediately incorporated into the collective. When Stan died suddenly in 1969, Joan moved down from his home town of Ormskirk in Lancashire to Surbiton in Surrey, just a mile or two from my family home in Kingston-upon-Thames. She survived both my parents by four years, remaining fiercely independent for as long as she could. After a year in a care home she died in 2012, aged 92. During that year I had power of attorney on her behalf and I saw to the sale of her flat, the arrangement of her funeral and the disposition of her estate.
There remained only the matter of the final resting place for her ashes and locating it was for a long time an intractable problem. The crucial papers were missing so while we scoured the internet for a record of where Stan’s ashes had been scattered and where some memorial was sited, Joan lived in a smart casket on top of a wardrobe in the big shed that houses most of my books at the end of the garden. But the omniscience of the internet let us down and in consultation with Stan’s niece Ann and her husband Trevor it was decided that Joan’s ashes should be interred in the Slater family grave in Ormskirk.
I’m unable to attend the brief ceremony that will see her finally settled and an hour or so ago I watched the van taking the ashes up to Ormskirk drive away. Although Joan died in 2012 and my parents some time before that, I felt a powerful sense of all that has been and is gone – of blue remembered hills shared with that sometimes ramshackle extended family from my earliest childhood memories into my late middle age.
Shortly after Joan’s death I wrote this poem.
Joan Slater 1920 – 2012
She has stopped. This is what happens.
Trailing a life as big as the sea, you can
just stop and make it seem as if the silence
that remains was always what was there.
We who are left tumble through it and
the air rushes upwards as if to lift us
briskly back to where we were. But
we hurry down towards ground zero,
we travellers wrapped in time and physics.
And to fall is, in a sense, to fly. So face
to face, on point like dancers in a chorus
line, we totter down the stairway of the sky.