Tuesday, November 20, 2012




I was brought up hearing tales of Burma. My grandmother had loved the place. It had been the location of her near perfect, but very short, marriage—and it was where her adored husband, my grandfather, John Lentaigne, died of cholera.

It was also where her only child, my mother, Josephine “Jojo” Lentaigne, was born. As a consequence, mother’s birth certificate is a spectacular looking document.

Burma might have been a British colony at the time, but Burmese aesthetics won through. This is a rich culture.

Though my grandmother talked about my grandfather many times, I don’t recall the dates with much precision. I guess that is scarcely surprising because I was young, granny was always a little vague, and dyslexia has made my recall of dates somewhat problematic. Nonetheless, I recall the general details of their story very well.

My grandmother, Helen Evelyn Vida Haslam—always known as Vida—came from a rich and privileged background, and was educated to be a lady of leisure, nothing more. That meant that although she was extremely cultured, excelled at poetry, and spoke near perfect French—a consequence of having French governesses—she scarcely know how to boil an egg. Nonetheless, she was a high–minded young lady with a strong social conscience, and during World War I became a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) an organization of nurses’ aides made up patriotic, but decidedly under-trained young women, almost all from either the aristocracy or the the privileged upper classes. If you want to get a general impression of her way of life, look no further than DOWNTON ABBEY.

Granny’s family were not aristocrats. They were rich industrialists who had made their way in cotton; but they lived like aristocrats and soon the borders were blurred. Her father, Lewis Haslam, was an MP (a member of parliament) and a friend of Lloyd George (the British Prime Minister). They had adjacent constituencies and used to travel to London together.

Two well known VADs were Amelia Earhart and Agatha Christie. Despite their lack of formal nursing training, they learned on the job and performed with distinction throughout the war. Many served overseas, and some came under fire. Granny served in France and was deeply affected by her experiences. In addition, most of her male friends – boys she had known while growing up or while as a young woman—were killed or wounded.

Towards the end of the war she met John Lentaigne, a young Ghurkha officer, who had somehow made it through alive. He had a motorcycle and sidecar, which she thought incredibly exciting (in contrast to the family Rolls Royce which seemed rather dull) and soon the pair were married. They spent their honeymoon journeying to Burma by sea, stopping off at one exotic location after another on the way. John, a barrister (trial lawyer) had secured a post with the British Colonial Administration in Rangoon, Burma. He brought with him, apart from his new wife, his Ghurkha man-servant or “batman.”

By all accounts, my grandparents few years in Burma were idyllic. They loved the people, the culture, and the country—and they loved each other. Every day, there was something new to experience, or some exotic location to visit—but, above all, except for the love of her husband—my grandmother loved the Burmese. The people had grace and elegance—and they won her heart for the rest of her natural life. If she was alive today, Aung San Suu Kyi would, I believe, be the epitome of the qualities she admired.

Granny’s favorite Burmese story—which, ironically, did not involve anyKukri.jpg Burmese—concerned a row between their Chinese cook and her husband’s Ghurkha batman. All was noise until the Ghurkha drew his kukhri—the distinctive blade that all male Ghurkhas carry (or used to carry) and chased the Chinese cook into the distance. Lunch was late that day. Granny, for all her noble aspirations, had a sense of humor.

A confession: When I was still pretty small—probably about three—I chased my much loved nurse, May, around the garden, reportedly clutching a carving knife. May was not hurt, and I have no recollection of the incident.

Granny’s idyllic life came to an end when John contracted cholera. The disease so weakened him that finally he died of pneumonia—but cholera was the cause. Before he died, he asked for two things: Firstly, that granny would convert to his religion—Catholicism—and secondly, that granny would bring up their child, my mother, in Ireland—his native land (although the family was of French origin).

Then he died; and granny left Burma and honored both his wishes. And she loved his memory until she too died.

But she loved talking about Burma. It would lift her heart to tell tales of that wondrous country; and I was just fascinated.

She died in 1976 and broke my heart.

They say you can survive the harshest of upbringings if just one person champions you—and she was my champion.




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