“In Her Eyes,” New Era, July 1994, 41
Lisa soaked in the coolness of the dewy morning air as she walked down the winding lane. She knew she should be exhausted. Yesterday she and her mother had left their home in Utah. They had flown to Chicago, then on to Manchester, England. The trip had taken 16 hours. Aunt Enid met them in Manchester and drove them the three hours to the old farm house at Bwlchycibau, Wales.
As they had neared the small village, her aunt had slowed the car down and said, “That’s the churchyard where your grandparents are buried, Lisa,” pointing to the left. Looking out the window, Lisa saw a church spire above a grey stone wall. As they rounded the corner she noticed a small wooden gate.
She hadn’t had time to think any more. There had been cases to unload, cousins to meet, a farm house to explore, and finally the bliss of lying in bed for much overdue sleep.
It wasn’t quite dawn when she awoke. She knew that she should still be asleep, but her body was on Utah time and no amount of mental persuasion could entice sleep back once it had fled. She heard voices and peeked out of the small dormer window to see her uncle and oldest cousin Wynn heading off towards a building that she assumed was where the cows were milked.
She lay back on her pillow. A picture of the churchyard flashed into her mind. All at once, she knew that more than anything, she wanted to be alone for her first visit to Bwlchycibau churchyard.
Lisa stopped at the small wooden gate in the wall that she had noticed the night before. She realized as she reached for the latch that she was nervous. She had held back her feelings for many years, and now in a strange churchyard, half a world away from home, she was going to confront them.
She walked slowly down the well-worn path. On either side of her were gravestones, some lichen covered, others leaning slightly. Some stones were well cared for with small flower arrangements at their bases; others were totally neglected. She could imagine other girls, perhaps her own ancestors, walking down this same footpath.
She began meandering between the stones, looking for a familiar name: Williams, Roberts, Davies, Jones. It took awhile, but suddenly she read: “Mabel Jones, beloved wife of Arthur Jones 1917–1994.” Beside the purple slate stone was another: “Arthur Jones, beloved husband of Mabel Jones 1911–1968.” There was a copper bowl of yellow roses at the base of each grave. Her Aunt Enid had been here.
Lisa turned, sat down on an old tree stump nearby, then faced her grandmother’s grave. She said aloud, “Oh, Granny, I wish I had known you. Why did it have to be this way?”
She looked down and whispered, “I wish you had known that I am a good person and that Mum is happy. I don’t understand why you were so bitter. How could you hate me without even knowing me?”
Once she started, she couldn’t seem to stop talking. “When you have a testimony of the gospel like Mum does, you just can’t deny it. Her decision to join the Church was not made carelessly. She fasted and prayed about it many times because she knew it would be hard on you so soon after losing Grandpa. Even though she went away, Mum never stopped loving you or feeling bad for hurting you, Granny.”
Lisa paused. Her eyes filled with tears. “Why couldn’t you have just once acknowledged me? I know that Mum wrote and told you when I was born. We never heard anything. Weren’t you even curious about me? It was hard hearing all my friends talk about their grandmas. You were just an empty ache inside. I didn’t even know you, but I missed you so much.”
Lisa looked at the new gravestone and asked, “Did you get my letter last year? I wrote and told you that I was going to come and see you. I came, Granny. I came, but you didn’t wait.”
With that, Lisa’s whispered words ceased, and she let the tears run down her cheeks without wiping them away. She didn’t hear the quiet approach of a short, aging man in black until his dark robes brushed against her leg. She gasped, startled.
“Can I help you, child?” His soft Welsh accent was like music. Lisa stood, feeling a little foolish.
“You were sitting here for so long that I became anxious about you,” the man said. “Early morning in the churchyard can be quite chilly you know.”
Lisa managed a watery smile. “Oh, I’m fine. Really I am. But thank you for your concern. Are you the rector here?”
The clergyman peered at her perceptively, noting her deep blue eyes, still filled with tears. “That’s right, dear. I’m Reverend Lloyd. Been here at Bwlchycibau for well on 35 years now. Yes, indeed, I’ve seen a lot of people come and go in my time.
“You take this lady here now,” he continued in a comfortable tone, and gestured towards Lisa’s grandmother’s grave. “She was a very special lady. She lived her life quietly giving service to others. Yes, indeed, Mabel Jones is sorely missed by us all.” He sighed, a little sadly.
“What did she do?” Lisa asked, trying to hide her feverish desire to know more.
“Well,” said Reverend Lloyd, “it may be easier for me just to show you. Come with me.” He turned and led the way slowly to the church.
The cool, dark interior of the church was a shock after the bright light of morning outside. Lisa gazed around with interest. The wooden pews were polished to a shine. The stone floor and walls were cold, and every footfall echoed. At the front of the aisle was the altar, draped in a white lace cloth. All around the chapel were tall narrow stained-glass windows. Beams of multicolored light danced on the floor as the sunlight hit the beautiful glass.
“Oh, it’s beautiful,” exclaimed Lisa, instinctively lowering her voice to a whisper.
“I’m glad you think so, child,” Reverend Lloyd smiled briefly. Then he led Lisa to a pew halfway down the aisle.
“This is the Jones’s pew,” he said. “Mabel’s daughter Enid and her family still use this bench. A few years ago Mabel decided that her knees were getting too old to kneel on the stone floor, so she made herself a small cushion to kneel on.” He handed Lisa a rectangular pillow that was tucked under the pew. “It’s needlepoint, I believe.”
Lisa touched the delicate work. “It’s lovely,” she said quietly. She felt overwhelmed to be holding something her grandmother had made.
“Yes, that’s exactly what everyone in the congregation thought too. So during the next few winters, Mabel made one or two for every family at church. Each one is a little different, but all most beautiful.” Reverend Lloyd bent down and lifted another pillow from beneath the next bench and handed it to Lisa.
Lisa looked at the two works of art in her hands and wondered that aging hands could create such masterpieces. Reluctantly, she handed them back to the rector. He then guided Lisa towards a small door at the back of the chapel.
“When Reverend Price, my predecessor, first came here as a young rector, there was no village school for the children. A few of the wealthier families sent their children into Oswestry on the train to attend school, but most of the children went without formal instruction. Mabel married Arthur Jones about that time. She moved into Bwlch Farm and was soon involved in the community. It concerned her no end that all the young children here were illiterate. She approached Reverend Price to see if they could do something about it. This was what they came up with.”
Reverend Lloyd opened the thick wooden door into a small room containing one large wooden desk, a large old oak chair, and half a dozen small chairs and tables. On the wall were faded maps, pictures of wild animals, and the alphabet.
“For ten years this was the Bwlchycibau schoolroom. Mabel would come and teach the children of the village three mornings a week. She received no pay for it. She just did it because she saw a need. There are many farmers around here now who wouldn’t be reading if it weren’t for Mabel Jones.
“When the county finally built a school in the village and sent us a certified teacher, Mabel still stopped by once a week to read to the children. I think it was the highlight of the week for them all.”
Lisa let her eyes wander around the room as the rector spoke. She tried to imagine her grandmother reading to the young farm children. Suddenly, she realized that Reverend Lloyd had moved onto another subject.
“It’s strange, isn’t it?” he was saying.
“I’m sorry, what was that?” Lisa asked apologetically.
“Well, it’s like I was saying,” said the rector, “Mabel Jones did so much Christian service that nobody ever thought she’d done anything she really regretted. But there was something. I only found out about it a few days before her death.”
Reverend Lloyd took Lisa by the arm and led her out of the schoolroom, closing the door behind him. They walked outside, and he motioned for her to sit beside him on the bench beneath the church porch.
“Mabel became ill a few days before her death. I went to see her. She was very weak but wanted to talk to me. She told me about her daughter, not Enid who lives at the farm now, but Mary, an older daughter who went away to America as a young girl. She married an American out there, and they had a daughter.”
The rector didn’t pause in his story as Lisa looked up in surprise and recognition. “Mabel had never seen that granddaughter. I believe when Mary left, there were some bad feelings. Anyway, over the years, Mabel had come to regret the things she’d said to Mary and wanted more than anything to see her again and meet Mary’s husband and daughter. But she didn’t know how to approach her. Then last year, she received a letter from her granddaughter saying that she and her mother were going to come and see Mabel the next year. Mabel was so pleased. She wanted to apologize face to face. She talked of all the things that she wanted to show her granddaughter. Most of all, she wanted that young lady to know that she loved her.
“I think Mabel knew she was going to leave us when I sat with her that day. She drew me close and made me look into those deep blue eyes of hers. Then she said, ‘Reverend, you promise me that if I’m not here when that young girl comes, you’ll find her and tell her what a fool her Gran was not to tell her that she loved her long ago. You tell her that I kept her baby picture that Mary sent right next to my bed where I could see it every morning and every evening. You tell her to grow up to be as fine a woman as her mother is. But most of all, you ask her to forgive me.’”
Her grandmother loved her! In some ways, it made her death harder to bear, but where there had once been emptiness and heartache, Lisa felt a warm glow of gratitude as she began to cry.
Reverend Lloyd covered Lisa’s hand in his. “Now, now child. It’s all right.”
“But, rector,” Lisa said, practically whispering. “I’m Mabel Jones’s granddaughter.”
The rector looked into her face. “You don’t have to tell me that, dear. Mabel Jones’s blue eyes are looking right back at me.” Then with a smile tugging at his lips, he added, “And you don’t talk like a Bwlchycibau native either.”
Lisa smiled at the kindly old man and said, “Thank you,” as they both stood and walked down the path through the churchyard.