A few weeks ago my mother celebrated her 90th birthday and we, her five children, managed to get ourselves, our children and her three great grandchildren – not to mention a few of the better behaved family dogs – gathered together for a riotous Sunday lunch. Luckily, one of my brothers has a room that could accommodate all 27 of us at two long tables. (The only absentee was Harry Soames, eldest son of my brother Nicholas, who was abroad on business.)
As if this logistical organisation were not in itself pretty impressive, after lunch the photographer, Ian Key, managed to take a picture in which we are all smiling and looking at the camera. No one is grimacing, blinking or pulling an unfortunate face. Consequently we will all still be speaking to each other come Christmas.
It was an extraordinary and rather moving moment. As we drank our mother’s health there really was not a dry eye around the table.
The word matriarch could have been coined for my mother. She is a benign figure who has managed all her life as a mother and grandmother to pull off the trick of not showing any favouritism among her offspring and indeed theirs.
I must be getting old, but having the occasional family group photograph gives me increasing pleasure. When I was a child I’d hide in the bushes rather than be included in a group picture, but now I see their value. In 30 years’ time, later generations of Soameses will perhaps gaze at the picture and wonder who all those large old people were – and get a sense of where they spring from.
My mother has spent some of her birthdays in extraordinary places and under truly historical circumstances. She spent her 18th birthday in 1940 at Chequers, to which the Churchill family had just moved when her father became Prime Minister. In 1943 she turned 21 aboard HMS Renown, accompanying her father back on a perilous crossing from visiting President Roosevelt for a seminal meeting that had great influence on the outcome of the war. She cut her birthday cake with a midshipman’s dirk, but the following day was nearly swept overboard by a huge wave. So hitting 90 in peacetime with her now numerous family was a peaceful doddle.
I have just returned from Livingstone in Southern Zambia where I had the great good fortune to represent Saga when the Princess Royal visited the Butterfly Tree project in Mukuni. I will report on this in the next issue, but I must share with you how impressed I was by the Princess Royal at work. She is focussed, well informed and crams a lot into a programme such as this Jubilee visit to Zambia. Her questions about Butterfly Tree, which Saga sponsors, were intelligent and demonstrated her years of knowledge and experience gained from her patronage of many charities. It struck me that she was in her element.
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