in memory of Jo Cox
Across the street from my Aunt Jane's house in a wildly flowered cul-de-sac, large, porous fragments of the city of Norwich's wall, built in 1294, remind visitors that once people thought a wall could keep dark things at bay. Not far off, a garden commemorating lives lost in World War II seems to unfurl from an urn planted with a yellow-and-pink rosebush and a post painted with "May Peace Prevail on Earth."
I hadn't seen my aunt, or East Anglia, or England in sixteen years when my husband, R, and I visited two summers ago. I'd been born there and my whole family had always lived in the U.K. But when I was ten my parents, brothers, and I immigrated to the US in pursuit of a more promising life. Years later, the deaths of my mother's parents on either side of the millennium put a sad stop to my visits home.
In Jane's living room I touched the lid of the piano my mother and I had played as girls. In the kitchen I wanted a slice of a yellow cake filled with jam and dusted with powdered sugar. The cake is plain, delicious, and not common in America. Tasting it, I felt destabilized, dizzy, as if lost parts of my past rushed back into my body.
I wandered the garden Jane and her husband, Barry, shared with my grandparents during their last years, when they lived next door. I lifted some low branches looking for my grandfather Jack's old iron lawn-roller. Finding it, I touched the handle and remembered: he was strong in his thin shirtsleeves, his face was large and ruddy, he could not be interrupted as he flattened rows of his newly cut grass in alternate directions.
Jane came out and led me from my dazed state to some pink roses growing up a wall. The bush had been my grandmother's from her childhood home in Wales (where she lived again with her small daughters in order to escape the Blitz of London while Jack ran field ambulances in Europe). After everyone in the family survived World War II, the rosebush got moved to a home outside London. Decades later, it got transplanted to my grandparents' late-in-life place called "Woodpeckers" on a piney lane by the English sea. Finally, it ended up here.
Jane's gray green garden shimmered with memory but she and I could still hear the awful news swirling incessantly from the living room. Earlier that day Jo Cox had been killed.
A young Member of Parliament—an internationalist, a woman with a family, and a passionate advocate for refugees—she'd been walking to a meeting in her constituency when a stranger viciously attacked. She fell at the thrust of his homemade bayonet. She lost consciousness at the blasts of his sawn-off shotgun. She died over forty minutes on the street and in an ambulance. No one in her family could get there to be with her.
The killer, Thomas Mair, 52, had lived a quiet life, had enjoyed gardening, had been passionate about all things Nazi.
Back in the house, my uncle Barry fixed us all drinks before sighing and joining us all in front of the news once again. He started to complain: Jo Cox's sister was talking too much; she was expressing too much horror and too much grief.
I sipped my drink and wanted to die, too, as my uncle pushed a young, brave, loving, self-determined woman who had just lost her life toward full erasure.
In the coming days, the British tabloid press referred to Jo Cox as an English Rose.
Not as a bold, struggling person who'd worked to her limit, who had made passionate speeches declaring the inaction of the US and the UK on Syria a tragedy, who'd taken on dangerous causes such as the social makeup of England and strange ones such as the loneliness of its people, who'd cared about everyone, it seemed, who'd lived on a houseboat with her family.
It seemed she was now to be drenched in banality, in misreading, in sentimentality, in people thinking about how pretty she was—until they got about the important business of forgetting her.
In 1935, a rose grower named Francis Meilland of Lyon, France, selected fifty seedlings he'd budded from two roses, named one 3-35-40, and watched the plants, looking for sturdiness and grace. Past experience told him to expect nothing. But by the time Hitler invaded France, Meilland was still propagating 3-35-40. He thought it might be the finest rose that he would ever create.
He shipped hidden buds of 3-35-40 to Italy and Turkey and, via an American rose-grower, to the States. He wouldn't find out for five years that America, too, would fall in love with his flower, release it on April 29, 1945—coincidentally the day Berlin fell—and call his flower "Peace."
Sometimes the Peace rose is yellow tinged with pink. Sometimes it's pink with subtle yellow hues. Sometimes it shades over into a red that seems to burn. Then the fiery red bleeds, Rothko-like, into something gentle, like the color of primrose or hay or a shell.
The summer I was fourteen, my parents paid for me to go back to England for a few weeks. It was kind of them. It was a lot of money to fly. My mother hadn't been back herself. I was terrified but I really wanted to take the trip.
In the part of the visit I remember best, I went on outings, read, and ate meals with my mother's parents. Each afternoon I took a walk alone on the pebbled North Sea beach. Cold waves frothed. The sand and rocks and water were heavily daubed by tar. I took to picking up long, thick swathes of seaweed and holding them in front of me to tilt and turn in the wind. The seaweed was a translucent green or an opaque amber color with ruffled edges. It looked and felt and smelled pristine.
While I loved both of my grandparents, my mother, their second child and second of four daughters, was more conflicted. She'd often described to me the daunting power and prestige that Jack had brought home with him after World War II.
His picture in his army uniform and cap topped the stairs of all his and Margery's homes—something you'd always see going up, going down.
His importance was further built up when he became a GP in town, saving lives in an office in my mother's house. Meanwhile the experience of Margery and her daughters in surviving World War II was never to be salvaged.
That first night in England R and my favorite aunt and uncle and I drank wine and watched an old tape of Jane and Barry's wedding in the late 1960s. I'd been flower girl, and I featured in the official part of the video.
I wanted to see that three year-old girl even though she was already shockingly present—sitting on a bench in the back garden in a dress and cape my mother had made; thinking of my grandmother in the kitchen; running in and finding her.
It was more fun, though, to see the charismatic adults, fetching and rakish men and women in the dawn of a new era, outside the church after the ceremony. They were blowing up the post-War mores of their parents. They were encountering new pains and injuries and injustices. They were causing new pains and injuries and injustices.
My mum stood outside the church laughing in an orange coatdress and hat. My dad appeared out of nowhere, flashing his pale, disengaged expression at the camera.
I hadn't seen my dad in years, but this is not what this essay is about. This essay is about women.
The next day R and I headed out to the city together, but not before snapping pictures as we stood in some red roses in Jane's front garden. The color of R's brown eyes were close to the color of Margery's. Being there with him was the farthest I could go in introducing them.
The hilly city of Norwich holds a famous cathedral, a castle, and hundreds of churches because, early on, Norfolk farmers had made excellent money from sheep, wool, and agriculture. By the 11th century, they'd established a downtown market that would be renowned in England well into my lifetime.
On earlier visits to see my family, I'd bought cheese and vegetables and chatted with farmers at that market. But in 2016 it wasn't there. The whole place seemed too quiet. A few shops stood empty. Jane told me that international companies had bought out the owners only to let the establishments go.
All this had something to do with the conflict in England over Brexit, I knew, the vote on which was only a week away. Jo Cox had helped lead the opposition to England's withdrawal from Europe and the closed borders that would go with it. Thomas Mair had hated her stand with a passion. When he assaulted her, he shouted "Britain First!"
I've never said much about my grandmother Margery:
She was born in the then small town of Swansea in 1909, but left her country by herself to study in England at the University of London, where she met my grandfather.
She went to France to live with a family and study the language.
She married and had five children and protected three throught the worst war in human history.
She smelled of face powder.
Her dresser was stuffed with fancy and non-fancy handkerchiefs and scarves.
She loved dogs but seemed not to care for them well, getting a new one every five or six years (probably all the scraps).
She grew not just roses but also dahlias, pansies, chrysanthemums, and vegetables.
My grandparents visited us twice in Florida before my parents split up, accompanying me and my mother on my one college visit.
At 25, I half-heartedly tried to move back to England—but found I could not. I had always missed my homeland and always will. But I felt committed or maybe addicted to my immediate family members who I loved so much. I felt committed to America for reasons I could not fully understand.
After Jack died I went back to spend time with Margery. Early the first morning, I saw her in bed ripping white tissues apart and laying the shreds all over her coverlet.
We sat on her comfortable blue flowered armchairs watching the Wimbledon tennis tournament. We made light meals and fed scraps to Lucy, her white West Highland terrier. We walked around town. She seemed much better.
I wanted so much to feel the joy of being home as I traipsed the old hilly city with R. But at first other dark notes sounded, echoes, in my mind, of what had happened to Cox:
The Norwich Cathedral was a tall patriarchal place under construction. Where it was not defaced with scaffolding and bursting with the noise of power tools it was dotted with ancient goblin-like faces and drenched in images of iniquity and penance.
I escaped to the bookstore at the back. But the book I randomly grabbed for comfort told of Edith Cavell, a nurse from the city who'd gone to Brussels in World War I to care for soldiers. She eventually helped more than 200 lost Allied soldiers escape German-occupied Belgium. For this, she got arrested, charged with treason, and taken before a German firing squad.
At the church of the local saint, Julian of Norwich, which we found on top of a huge hill and at the end of a winding lane, a minister greeted us and led us to a chapel where he'd created an altar memorial for the LBGTQI people killed at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando just a few days before.
After we stood at the memorial and mourned I wondered if the minister would also mention the killing of Jo Cox the day before but he did not. He led us to St. Julian's cell. He told us we were free to take pictures and videos. He left us.
The whole church had been destroyed by Nazi bombers, so the cell was a recreation, supposedly in the right place, of the space where Julian had lived enclosed as an anchoress, had prayed for townspeople, had traveled mightily in her mind and heart.
The cell's three windows defined Julian's life: the first opened inward to the church; the second opened sideways to a room where a servant lived and through which meals were passed and her slop; and a long, large, and now beautiful stained glass window opened outward to the world of nature and people.
Julian had been a child during the Black Death, in which two-thirds of the population of Norwich had died. As a young woman, she became preoccupied with the suffering of Jesus.
But she moved on from all that trauma to study English (illegal for a woman in her day) and to write Revelations of Divine Love (also beyond illegal in her day), the first book to have been published by a woman in English.
Her bookdescribes love from suffering, love in the darkness, and love out of pain. It subverts the church's insistence on sin and death and its maleness. It includes Julian's beneficent saying: "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of all thing shall be well."
It's a declaration that's a struggle to believe but I like to try to believe it.
Further into R's and my trip home, I changed. I started to be able to concentrate on what was happening around me. I started to feel more reconciled to the death of Jo Cox.
I did so thanks to R and Jane and the resurging sense of family in my life.
I did so thanks to the slim book about Edith Cavell I'd picked up in the cathedral shop. I was particularly struck by the letter she wrote to her sister before her execution for her acts of humanity. She finished with the exclamation, "My love to you all. I am not afraid but quite happy."
This signing-off is for me an exultant, fiery shade of red that bleeds into a soft healing pale yellow.
Cavell's words teach me that the murder of Jo Cox, while a horror and an outrage, was not meaningless; that the death of Jo Cox even shimmered a little with the colors of her own choice because Cox chose to seize the historic moment and to be the bold, visionary leader that she was on the day that she died.
I consider that, going forward, sadness about Cox could become a veil protecting me from connecting more deeply with the people she really cared about—all people who are suffering, especially refugees fleeing wars and other unlivable conditions.
I realize that my mother, my aunts, and my grandmother, were once refugees. I see more clearly that they too were displaced people hastily traveling during wartime amidst the pitiless dropping of bombs. That is the story that was never recognized, never articulated in my family. My mother, who is eighty, still startles at the sound of an ordinary, everyday siren; perhaps she wouldn't if she had ever had the chance to tell her story.
On the last of R's and my four days in Norwich, Jane and I visited a large memorial park and found the tiny memorial plaque we were looking for in a flower bed: Jack and Marnie.
The surrounding roses looked stunted and bowed and sad. They would never exist outside the act of human commemoration. Jane sat on a bench. I sat on the grass. There was nothing to say about how much my grandparents had meant.
As we left the park I wondered if there were other roses not so circumscribed by human history, that were not so trapped in human ideas, not so boxed in by logos, all the competing meanings people have ranked and cinched and imposed on them.
Pink bushes hedge the northern Atlantic coast on the American side, near R's and my home. The flowers are vivid and small. Their sweet scent surges under the sun. They look and are fragile as they bob and dance in flurries or sieges of wind. They last as long as they last. They fall in order to return. They leave behind large, nutritious rosehips when their season is done.
Each peace rose has 50-60 petals. In St. Julian of Norwich: A Contemplative Biography, Amy Frykholm imagines Julian's life and world so deeply and evocatively the petals are uncountable. (Frykholm's work is similar to Kate Moses' Wintering, 2003, a virtuoso performance of author-to-author and woman-to-woman imagining that recreates Sylvia Plath's epic last creative blossoming and final hours.)