Banksy, my grandmother, and St. Mary’s Redcliffe

I’m writing this post in Bristol, the last stop on our three-week, 14-country marathon vacation. Bristol is a nice city; we saw John Wesley’s chapel here, took a harbor cruise, and saw a recreation of the unbelievably tiny boat that took Giovanni Caboto (who was called John Cabot by his British crew that just couldn’t get their heads or tongues around Italian) from here to Newfoundland in 1497. We’ve also had some really good beer and a dressy version of a grilled cheese sandwich and chutney that makes my tummy rumble happily in remembrance.

Another sort of remembrance is available here as well. We’ve seen a more contemporary side of Bristol, with its street art by Banksy. The artist is from here, and although some cities have painted over his work, Bristol displays them with pride. The city thus honors and recalls a person who literally made a mark on it.

It’s funny how we remember people, and those memories are very powerful. For example, take my relationship with money. I grew up in a family that was always extremely tight-fisted. This attitude may have come from my parents’ living through the Depression, or perhaps because my father’s parents, who were very present in our lives, grew up dirt poor. In any event, we begrudged even the most essential of expenditures and lived in fear that there would not be enough. Two things in my childhood started me on the road to a different relationship with money. One was when I discovered that you could actually BUY the books you wanted but that the library didn’t have. It quickly became clear that, faced with a choice between books and saving for a rainy day, I was choosing Door Number 2 most of the time.

The second reason for my deviation from the family money path was a conversation I overheard when my paternal grandmother died. We were at my grandparents’ apartment, sitting with my grandfather as he received guests stopping by to tender their condolences. I was at their big dining table, eating turnip casserole that someone had brought (bleah, – really, who sends turnips as a balm for grief?!) and listening to ladies from her circle at the Methodist church reminiscing about their departed friend. “She was always so sensible,” one lady with the blue hair so popular with the clients frequenting Lucille’s Coiffures in Beaumont. “Someone would suggest a new program at the church, and she would say, ‘Heavens, no, we can’t afford that!’” Even at the tender age of eight, I thought that this was about the most miserable epitaph ever and resolved to be different.

This idea of miserable remembrances puts me in mind of the pictured church, St. Mary’s Redcliffe. It’s one of many lovely churches we’ve seen this trip. The others include the Church in the Rock in Helsinki, which was hewn literally down into a rock and feels womb like and peaceful. Then there was the ornate Russian Orthodox Church of the Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg, built to commemorate the assassination of Czar Alexander and serving now as the resting place of his ill-fated successor, Czar Nicholas, and Nicholas’s family. We’ve seen Lutheran cathedrals, which I didn’t know existed, and the cathedral in Rouen associated with the equally unlucky Joan of Arc. On a happier note, we admired Bath Abbey, its two stone ladders on the facade being employed by angels busy on errands between Heaven and Earth. (Why angels with wings need a ladder remains a mystery to me.)

St. Mary’s Redcliffe here in Bristol (pictured) is different, though. On some level, it’s just another old English church with an elaborate facade in what was once the neighborhood of wealthy merchants so common in port cities. But what’s different is that these merchants made much of the fortunes that built this church and its prosperous neighborhood from the slave trade. Cargoes of human misery poured into Bristol harbor and were sold into God knows what dreadful fates for God knows how much glittering gold. Today the commentaries on St. Mary’s note that one of the church’s most memorable moments came when William Wilberforce’s anti-slavery legislation in Parliament was defeated. The church bells rang for joy, celebrating the status quo of lucre and lost lives. What a way to be remembered.

So as our trip draws to a close, I’m remembering our great happiness over the course of this holiday and thinking of how I’d like to be remembered. People will say I was smart, of course. That’s always been my schtick; in elementary school, I routinely got Valentines labelled “For my teacher,” because those boxes of flimsy paper valentines always had two teacher ones, and if you had a big class you had to pick a classmate to give one of them to. But I hope that I will be remembered as having been, at least on occasion, kind and generous and fierce and loyal. I hope I will be remembered as hungry for knowledge, for love, and for justice. This IS NOT a bid for kind friends to post sweet comments about yours truly; my ego’s fine, thanks. It’s a reminder to me – and maybe to you – that what we do each day creates the memories we leave behind. May they be the ones we want.



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