Wednesday, 27 November 2013
Remembering Jim Ferguson
Just over two weeks ago on Saturday 9th November my father, Jim Ferguson, died. He'd been in hospital after several weeks of illness but was on the mend we thought: sitting up and out of bed; doing the Mirror crossword again and asking for chocolate as his appetite was back. Everyone who'd visited said he was on good form. So it was a shock for my sister who lives in Northern Ireland when she was called by the hospital in the middle of the night and told to come right away. By the time she arrived he was dead - a heart attack. Not wishing to call her me or my other sisters in England in the middle of the night, she shared the news first with the only sister who was awake on the other side of the world in New Zealand. When the phone rang here at 720 am I knew the news wasn't good. And now back in Chester two weeks later I'm still finding it hard to believe he isn't there on the other end of the phone asking for help with tricky crossword clues.
So all five of us sisters and our families travelled back to Ballyronan for the funeral, assembling for a sad occasion this time after our last happy reunion there for Dad's 80th birthday. In Northern Ireland funerals tend to be much bigger than those I've attended in England. Before the funeral there is also the wake where people from the local community come to pay their respects. So Dad was brought home in his coffin on the Monday evening and we put him in the room which once was Ballyronan Post Office. So many people came: aunts and uncle and cousins who moved furniture and bore gifts of food and extra kettles, since it is the tradition to provide tea and buns for those who visit. And then other people from the village and the surrounding area: those we knew well; old faces from our childhood and some we didn't know at all. Older people and younger; Catholic and Protestant; members of the Orange Lodge and a local SDLP politician, whose father was an old friend of Dad's. For everyone loved Dad and he had time for everyone - the back door was always open and people would turn up in the yard to ask for a favour or just come in for a bit of craic. Many of those who came had stories tell about Dad. We found some old scrapbooks Mummy had kept: pictures cut from the Mid Ulster Mail of them at Woods Bowling Club dinners and him with his prize-winning bullocks. We talked; we cried but at times we laughed too. It did really feel like a celebration of his life.
As is the tradition the coffin was carried through the village on the day on the funeral, the local shop and post office closing as we passed as a mark of respect. Two of his older grandsons, aged 18 and 21, helped carry the coffin, and we walked behind. Kate's first funeral and now her last grandparent has gone. Little Anna aged 4, the youngest grandchild from New Zealand, came too though she didn't understand what was happening. She said as we walked, "What's in the box? It looks very heavy." She was right Dad was no lightweight, but still men were queuing up for a lift of the coffin, another way of showing respect. Later, perhaps grasping what was happening, she said so simply what we were all thinking, "I don't want Granda to be dead.'
Later in the week we began the grim task of sorting the farmhouse. Dad had lived there all his life and nothing has ever been thrown out. There are teasets which they'd received as wedding presents; unused sets of cutlery; Sunday School prize winning books belonging to my aunt. My wedding dress, Mum's wedding dress. My sisters and I approached this task in different ways. Right now I just want everything to stay as it is - for a while at least. But some of the others wanted to get on with things and that's fine with me. Whatever happens we won't fall out about it - Dad wouldn't want that.
So I came back to Chester with just one thing I wanted. On the wall when we were small was this scroll dedicated to the memory of James Ferguson, my grandfather's brother, who died aged 21 in the First World War. My father was christened James in memory of him. It always fascinated me, even before I could read the words We also found the medal commemorating him in the china cabinet among the teasets and the Whimsie animal figures we collected as children. On Remembrance weekend it seemed fitting to remember this James Ferguson too.
The big house on the corner as you go into Ballyronan is empty now we've all gone back to our own homes. The stove in the kitchen, the heart of the house, is out. We'll light it again when we return in the Christmas holidays. But home will never feel like home again.