The coffin took pride of place at the front of the church nave. Beside it, reflecting an American practice was a large picture of a woman in her sixties, with black ribbons elegantly hanging from the frame. The order of service had the same image smiling out from the front cover and below was a name. Most of the congregation did not think of the name as linked with the woman in the picture.
Margaret Elizabeth Frost (nee Quaker)
When she died, most of her contemporary friends knew Margaret as Meg. She has been unwell for a while but this had not diminished her lust for life or her sense of humour. Despite moving quite recently to the small town, she had thrown herself with enthusiasm into a variety of clubs, societies and associations. Even her short illness had not stopped her being present at the local amateur dramatic society production of “Charlie’s Aunt” and she had laughed raucously from the front stalls. Meg was petite and frail looking, she had grey hair which she always wore swept up in a French pleat. Her dark eyes smiled out from her pale face. Her tiny frame belied the strength of her character and the force of her personality. Meg was able to bring out the best in people and she was perceived to have an innate understanding of people, their fears and anxieties, their joys and hopes, their sadness and despair. It seemed to her most recent group of friends that she was brave and strong and empathetic. But it had not always been so.
When she was a little girl, Margaret had been unable to pronounce her surname. As she struggled with the name, like so many other children learning to speak, she acquired a nickname within the family circle. The youngest of a large family, Margaret was called Quacker by her four brothers. The name Margaret was a foreign concept to the four of them and they still used Quacker, now term of endearment, to refer to their sister. Margaret had not always enjoyed the name, especially when her brothers used it in school, but as the years passed it assumed a softened hue and a familial tenderness which she learned to embrace. It was her brothers continued use of this moniker that had helped Margaret decide that she could and would choose her own name. As she had journeyed through infant and then junior school, the staff called her Margaret and so her friends called her Margaret too. The years passed and Margaret, with the background name of Quacker, steadily reached the age where senior school beckoned. Sitting in the church, were her three surviving siblings, thinking of Quacker and sharing quietly memories of their now distant childhood as the church filled. There were also two others, thinking of the Margaret they had known all their lives and with whom they had remained in touch over the intervening years. Although their physical time together had been scarce as busy lives had kept them apart, they had written regularly and maintained a strong closeness. Following the death of her parents, these were the only two people outside officialdom, who called Margaret by her given name.
Over the summer, between junior and senior school Margaret determined that she would enter senior school as Molly. As her family had relocated over the summer, she was not moving up to ‘big school’ with her peers. She was to go alone into the large, modern Grammar school complex in the new town. The school was also a girls’ school and Margaret’s brothers would not have their usual influence in this new place and therefore, in this part of her life. The first registration took place and each girl was asked what she liked to be called. Waiting patiently for the teacher to reach Q on the roll call, she determined to speak up and re-invent herself.
“Margaret Elizabeth Quaker.” rang out across the classroom.
“Here, Miss.” she replied.
Looking towards the small girl, the teacher smiled and asked “And what do you like to be called?”
“Molly, please.” came the reply.
Making a note in the register of the name, the teacher moved on. She did not witness the gleam in Margaret’s eyes as she internally congratulated herself on her bold decision. She was going to be someone new, someone better and someone different in this new place. She would no longer be the youngest of five children, the least, the smallest, the runt. She was starting out a new life as Molly. She was determined to excel and outshine to her brothers’ academic prowess, if she could. When she returned home her mother challenged her when she reported the details of her first day, but the matter soon lost its novelty and “Molly” was accepted although seldom used at home.
Clara spoke to her husband as she looked at the order of service.
“I don’t think I ever really considered her name not to be Molly. She was always Molly to us. Did I tell you we met on the first day at senior school? I dropped my lunch tray and she was the only one not to laugh at me… and she shared her lunch with me. That was it really, bonding over adversity and food!” Clara smiled.
“Adversity?” asked her husband.
“Adversity for sure. You imagine your first day in a new school, where you don’t know anyone and you manage to trip on your school laces and drop your metal lunch tray on the hard canteen floor; believe me it echoed for several minutes and was drowned out only by the sound of others laughing. If it hadn’t been for Molly, I think I would have run away.”
Molly had enjoyed school. She liked the structure and the routine. She liked her teachers, most of her colleagues and the opportunities afforded to her. But like everything in life, time marched on and a new change was looming in Margaret’s life.
University was another chance to reinvent herself. She had chosen to read English and literature had given her examples of monumental changes in the lives of the characters on the page, as they moved from childhood to adulthood. This was her chance. She was not unhappy with the old Molly, but thought it was time to try something new.
Daisy. It was an unusual diminutive for Margaret but she liked the sound of it. She liked the floral associations and so she went to university and became Daisy. Unfortunately Daisy had a tough time. Whilst she had been able to flourish in school, university was a different matter and the complications of combining study, with living as an adult, sharing her living accommodation with others who had very different views and expectations to her own, caused her to flounder. Daisy was not sufficiently robust to thrive. Ultimately, Daisy did not last long and as she entered the second year of university Margaret reverted to Libby. As a name Margaret, she felt had let her down and so it was the turn of Elizabeth to come to the fore. No one sat in the gathering congregation thought of Daisy as the organ played dolefully to mark the time until the service began.
It seemed wrong that no one remembered poor little Daisy who had struggled through her first year at university, blighted by changes. Surmounting all the difficulties she had to face at this time in her life, was the death of her father. In fact, it was Daisy who had probably had the greatest impact in shaping the woman Margaret had become. She was the one who had learned how to cope with pain, isolation and grief. She has learned how to manage the exhaustion of bereavement. Daisy had learned that there are no shortcuts in life and nothing short of hard work will ever proffer rewards. She had come to understand that life requires effort, and strenuous effort at that, to facilitate survival, let alone triumph. Little, dark haired Daisy with her provincial background had eventually offered up more than any of the other iterations of Margaret Elizabeth Frost (nee Quaker) and yet she was obscure, forgotten and neglected.
Libby gradually blossomed through the latter years of university and had even stayed around for the first job Margaret took on graduating. Eventually Margaret had changed again and it was Lizzie who had been the girl who met and married William Frost. The early years of their marriage had been joyous and filled with hope and expectation. Lizzie had given birth three times in the first seven years of their marriage and with each child the happiness of their home had seemed to expand. Lizzie survived the longest period of Margaret’s life. It was the happiest decades of her life, living with William, who never even abbreviated his name, raising their children, who she had insisted had names with were not ripe for shortening, and building a home integral with life in the local village community. She had worked as a school teacher in the nearby primary school. Of course, there she was known as Mrs Frost but she allowed the children to call her Mrs Icicle during the winter months – it amused them and allowed them to feel they had a special relationship with her, which in turn helped them to work hard; benefitting both pupil and teacher. Most of the people now gathering around her coffin thought of this woman as Lizzie or Mrs Frost; some never even knew that Margaret had been her first name.
William had died unexpectedly after 30 years of marriage. The three children had grown, left home and had families of their own. Lizzie felt lost and alone. There was time for one last change, for one last ‘fresh start’. She moved to a small town, conscious it would be better equipped to support her in her later life. She bought a utilitarian bungalow and filled it with the memories of her life, making it snug and homely. She settled on Meg as the last iteration of herself and set out to make new friends and to meet new people.
When she became aware of her own mortality, she reflected on her former selves… Margaret for formal occasions as a child and throughout life and little Quacker within the family, who had grown up loved and cherished, as well as mostly spoiled by her brothers. Molly was her first attempt at independence and had flourished in a caring school environment and a loving home. Molly had learned to love education and that passion had never deserted her. Daisy… little frightened and hurting Daisy, who had remained inside the grown woman as a reminder to be gentle with others, to support and encourage. Libby has provided a transfer from doom and gloom to hope for better things to come. Libby had managed to create methods for dealing with the ups and downs of life. Then Lizzie had benefitted from all these former selves. She had been filled with joy and blessed in the life she had lived. She had been a wife and mother, as well as the working woman; she had enjoyed a bounteous life. Meg was a last attempt at a fresh start. It was a chance to begin again, but without losing the things she had learned from her life.
The clergyman stood and drew the congregation together with a few words.
“Today we have gathered to say goodbye to Margaret Elizabeth Frost. She was a wonderful woman, with an incredible life. One incredible life, many names.”