My beloved grandmother. Someone with a huge heart in a tiny body. Although she died in 1997, I feel a spiritual connection with her that is so strong, I can barely separate myself from it in order to write about her. We have no distance. I have to pull at the ties that bind us in order to write her story. It is physically uncomfortable to do so.
Ellie was born Elsie Margaret Hinds. She was the third child in a family of six, following a brilliant older sister and a brother who was reputedly not the brightest light in the bushel. In their wisdom, Elsie’s parents kept her back at school every time her brother failed a year, causing her to resent both him and them. She was not sent to university as her older sister was, and quickly escaped the suffocating country life of Kingswilliamstown in South Africa’s Eastern Cape by marrying the glamorous Englishman David Cooper.
Their marriage lasted not more than eight years, six of which encompassed World War Two, and after their swift divorce, she found herself unqualified, jobless and with two small children to look after. My mother always says she went to ten schools before she was ten, and I think this indicates a period of huge chaos as Ellie tried and failed to find work that suited her and a place in which to settle her family. Eventually she followed her sister, then a journalist, to Pietermaritzburg, got a job at the university library and began her course of study in librarianship. She changed her name from Elsie to Elise – an act of selfhood that said “I have arrived”.
A vivacious woman, she quickly became the centre of a group of mature students, all of whom were deeply against South Africa’s increasingly racist governmental policies. They became founder members of the Liberal Party, of which the novelist Alan Paton was vice-president. While she was passionately against the Nationalists or “Boets”, as she called them, Ellie’s heart was taken up by a new course of study which was to inform the rest of her life: the esoteric writings of Alice A Bailey. Ellie became a New Age adherent long before the term came into current use. She meditated daily, was vegetarian, attended Full Moon meetings and developed friendships with like-minded people. She was in her forties, and had found her path.
What a glorious grandmother she was! Her ability to be in the moment meant she was able to share our child-like pleasures and never rise to grown-up distance. She taught us to dream, to believe in fairies, to shape clouds, to paint, to relish an egg and parsley sandwich. She would lie in the grass with us, tell stories and encourage our wildest dreams. When I was 12, she gave me the 1982 copy of the Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook and encouraged me to write. She taught my brother to garden: something he does to this day, for a living. She loved us unconditionally, which is the best possible thing a parent or grandparent can do.
Ellie was never completely stable. She had two nervous breakdowns that I know of, and today would be medicated to the gills. Despite finding her base in Pietermaritzburg, she moved frequently, and we were often visiting her in new homes. Every time she moved, she gave more of her possessions away, shuffling off those objects that were binding her to this physical dimension. I think she ached for heaven.
In her last years, she had Alzheimer’s, which she bore lightly, with none of the aggression that sometimes accompanies the disease, and there were always funny stories to tell. Her younger brother – also under attack from Alzheimer’s though no-one knew at the time – and his wife were detailed to drive Ellie to my wedding, a good half an hour’s journey into the Midlands, but not a journey that was unfamiliar to them. Dear Uncle Ross got horribly lost and they missed the service, but were perfectly cheerful, having forgotten why they needed to be there. She also forgot that she was vegetarian and used to tuck in when there was meat on the table, causing us children vast hilarity.
I visited her in her old-age home two weeks before she died. We sat outside in the garden, holding hands and enjoying the sunshine. Our conversation was mostly nonsensical, but it was amicable. Three hours later, we heard that she had fallen and was in hospital. My mother and I hurried to her bed-side. I held her hand. She looked at me, smiled exquisitely, and said, “Hello my darling”. She never recognised anyone again.
Ellie always said, “When I die, don’t bury me, burn me. And please don’t make a big fuss about my ashes. Just put them in the bin.” We didn’t put her ashes in the bin. We scattered them on the hills of the Midlands, the blue hills that she loved with her painterly eye, the same hills that Alan Peyton writes of in Cry, the Beloved Country.
Here are the words of Alice A Bailey, which Ellie meditated on daily:
From the point of Light within the Mind of God
Let Light stream forth into the minds of men.
Let Light descend on Earth.
From the point of Love within the Heart of God
Let love stream forth into the heart of men.
May Christ return to Earth.
From the centre where the Will of God is known
Let purpose guide the little wills of men –
The purpose which the Masters know and serve.
From the centre which we call the race of men
Let the Plan of Love and Light work out
And may it seal the door where evil dwells.
Let Light and Love and Power restore the Plan on Earth.
(Alice A Bailey and Djwhal Khul, 1945)