When Michelangelo was trying to persuade Pope Julius II to let him have the Sistine Chapel to decorate (against considerable competition), it is said that everybody else sent examples of their finest work.
Michelangelo took a sheet of paper and drew upon it a perfect circle.
It is said that God is a circle whose centre is everywhere (Hermes Trismegistus) and that a circle is a protective agent.
There is a hymn (written 1907) whose popularity is partly to do with an appealing melody but also to do with the image of its title “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?”
It has been recorded by all sorts of people from Mother Maybelle Carter to Susan Boyle, because of its idea of being happily reunited with those who have gone before.
My sister was born 13 years before me. We were known in the family as the first attempt (her) and the final fling(me). She had the best hands and eyebrows of the lot of us (courtesy of a Spanish grandmother) and when she wore Chanel #5, it lived up to the hype. But she didn’t need it, her skin smelling indefinably of woodsmoke. And when she returned from leave to Prestwick, where she was training to be a meteorologist, I used to ask my mother if I could sleep in her bed before the sheets were changed.
I lived in her shadow and setting aside the young years of looking up to her as my big sister, the good times were few. I preferred my parents and then my own friends and if I am honest, I don’t know who she preferred. She had major unhappiness to which she made adaptation but it always seemed to me that her troubles had been shoved into a mental cupboard from which they threatened to overflow.
Sent to a fever hospital as a child, she and another girl were shut in a bathroom with a hairdryer for their hair. The appliance shorted and exploded. She was terrified of electricity. She was nervously ill as a result of the World War II bombing and once, years later, when she and I were painting the kitchen as a surprise for our parents, the sound of an air raid siren on the radio made her skin shrink.
She did applied maths at 15, was shy and loved aircraft. She had a child on her own and gave him up for adoption. When it was all sorted out (that was the phrase my mother used) and she was to marry a man who made her so happy she shone, he was killed in a plane crash on Christmas Day.
She began the long slide into dementia ten years ago with a small stroke and a case of shingles she denied every having when it reprised a year later. I was appalling slow on the uptake because I was used to finding her hard to reach. The hospital insisted she stop smoking and she did but I regret it for her. She was of her time and the answer to most things was a cigarette and a cup of tea. She was registered blind.
Although her friends made various efforts and so did the local Age Concern and eventually a caring social worker, it became impossible to keep her in her flat.
OK if you forget to turn off the gas and blow yourself up, less good if you do it to the neighbours. And if the first care home was “all right”, the second found with the aid of a small local agency started by a retired social worker of 30 years’ experience provided her with the best of care as she travelled the one way journey to her end.
She died on Tuesday, 2 June – the anniversary of the coronation – she would have liked that. We saw yellowhammers in a tree in the dew meadow behind her flat. And when I went to America aged 19, I told her I was afraid of crossing water – the Atlantic. She kept candles alight for me until I had arrived safely. I rarely light a candle without thinking of that.
And I found her UA Fanthorpe’s poem about a sheepdog on the night of the first Christmas: she liked that.
The last verse of the hymn we began with says
“One by one their seats are emptied
One by one they went away
Now the family is parted
Will it be complete one day?”
Oh,yes – father, mother and firstborn.
And I hope the dogs she loved will be waiting to greet her at the gates of heaven.
The circle is unbroken.