Lost tales

May 12th, 2011 | By | Category: Ministry

Visiting a nursing home, there is a thought of sadness at the stories lost behind those faces gathered in the lounge. Sometimes those stories might be extraordinary

Some five years ago now, I was driving towards Dublin from a funeral in Co Wexford one afternoon, I listened to the afternoon play on BBC Radio 4.

It was about Harpo Marx, the silent of the brothers, visiting the Soviet Union on a tour in 1933. Harpo is recruited as an agent by the American ambassador to carry secret papers from Stalinist Russia back to the intelligence service in the United States. A more unlikely spy than Harpo, it was hard to imagine, but he plays his role perfectly and US agents meet him when he arrives back in New York.

At the end of the play there was a historical postscript describing how the ambassador, William Bullitt, had left Moscow in 1936 to take up ambassadorial duties in Paris, where he gained repute for his liaisons with the Duchess of Windsor.

It was at that point, just before the three o’clock news on the BBC that I realised that a lady I had visited in an Alzheimer’s Clinic once a month for seven years was the daughter of the same man. I had been told her father had been American ambassador to France just before the war, but assuming diplomats to be low profile, discreet characters, I assumed her life had been run of the mill.

Checking through her father’s biography made astonishing reading; it was a life lived in the fastest lane in the most colourful style. Her mother had been the inspiration behind the film Reds starring Diane Keaton and Warren Beatty. The marriage had broken up and her mother had spent her remaining years trying to communicate with her daughter who was in the ambassador’s custody. When France had fallen, he had joined de Gaulle’s Free French forces to fight against the Nazis. After the war, he lived out his remaining years in France.

The ambassador’s daughter had married three times and had lived across the world. If the lady who sat each day vacantly staring could have recalled one fraction of her history, what a story she might have told.

What stories are there around the room as I pass on my way?


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  1. Many astonishing stories all around if one only listens.
    A woman down the road from me – in her 80s – has begun giving me stories of her life in our village – on our street really – just got another one the other day. May post it online. Her first installment didn’t involve behind the scenes tales of revolution, but was enjoyable all the same. It’s here http://wp.me/pDjed-SA

  2. I spend a lot of time with older people – I love the stories.

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