- Life, Memory, and Water
This miniature epic circles around Rebecca Jones, the diligent first-born of seven, as she ponders on the streams of life, memory, and water in her upland Welsh valley—in that language, the cwm. Born in 1905 to Evan and Rebecca Jones, she helped raise those siblings, two of which die young. Of the four who survive, all brothers, the three youngest were born blind and sent away at early ages to special schools. This left just two siblings, Rebecca and second-born Bob, to assist with running the farm that Bob would take over when his own family was established. Bob’s first wife died in birthing their second child; his second wife, also bearing two children, became Rebecca’s helpmeet with the chores of the farm.
The old farmstead dates from 1012, according to a litany of male names in a family Bible, and the farmhouse from the sixteenth century, to be replaced later in the twentieth. A lesser bungalow awaits each senior generation, and Rebecca herself strikes out to occupy a still more distant and rudimentary dwelling in the last half of her life, a full half-century. Upland farming was supplemented by the family’s hunting and gathering amongst the crags that could also devour their own sheep. Alongside the strenuous labour indoors and out, Rebecca managed to educate herself, steeping in Welsh classics she uncovered in the farmhouse, and finding poignant inspiration in the writings and translations of Hugh Jones (1749–1825), from the same cwm, especially his 1774 “Cycymaith yr hwsmon,” meaning “The Companion to Husbandry.” Therein, Hugh Jones penned a hymn that graced this book as a title in its initial Welsh edition: “O! tyn y gorchudd.” (“O! Pull aside the veil.”)
Rebecca launches each of five chapters with several pages of italicized asides, musing on tranquility, continuities, seasonal chores, geography, weather—about space, time, and the memory that links them. Memory tilts to indelibility even as it is sinuously selective. These asides serve as harmony, leaving melody to the chronicle in the five chapters. The story starts with the farmstead ten centuries and who knows how many generations ago, passes over the highland bandits of five centuries past, to focus on Rebecca’s century, more than on Rebecca herself. She ruminates over the traditional division of labor in which women assist in every task while also attending to the needs of the men. Herself, she found an accessory calling as a seamstress, relying on a machine that beat out most others in reaching the cwm even before she was born. Her sewing allowed a “busy stillness” in which she could think. She used a thimble to protect the fingers that had mastered braille to communicate with the three blind brothers. Her mother, like other women for centuries, knitted—and in her waning years sometimes did so also on Calvinism’s Sabbath.
Indeed, as the twentieth century progressed, Sunday replaced the Sabbath, English encroached on Welsh, first for her blind brothers, and tourism lapped over the uplands of Wales. While for the brothers, night and day were the same, all religions were not. One brother became an Anglican clergyman and another took sights on Catholicism, both pushing back against the stream of history.
“Living at an angle” aptly describes a photo showing sheep and herder on slanting hillsides. While conscientiously documenting her century, Rebecca also writes against the grain, giving us names of both male and female descendants of her siblings, themselves in sibling sets of two and three, never seven: Evan, Kate; Mair, Wyn; Richard, Eliabeth, Hugh; Isobel, Bronwen, Dominic; Gwilym, Lynne, Mark; Gareth, Ann, Eleri; Geraint, Alwyn; Aled, Catrin; Irfon, Iolo, Angharad. Yes, Angharad Price, the trickster-author who “pulled aside the veil” of the tragically incomplete life of her Great Aunt, Rebecca.
The names of her sisters-in-law ripple through ensuing generations, but Rebecca is the terminal of three Rebeccas. There is resonance with other Rebeccas in literature, for example, in the Biblical story of the self-willed mother of...