Sitting at the boundary wall in the centre of a garden where Wiltshire meets Somerset is a “Sister Irene Tree”. It has long, silvery green leaves that comes into bud every Spring which then glisten in the sunshine all summer until they fall in the Autumn. At its base grow purple flowers of Lavender, Rosemary and Grape Hyacinth. I planted the tree, known to the rest of the world as a ‘Weeping Pear’, when it was just a few twigs because I wanted to leave something of the person who left it to me.
Sister Irene was ‘Sister in Charge’ of the family group in a children’s home where I spent my childhood years and despite leaving while I was still very young, she remained a part of my life until her death a few years ago.
Irene Gillendar was not a real Sister, not in the nun’s sense anyway, but her calling was nonetheless heartfelt. One of the few truly dedicated followers of the National Children’s Home’s Methodist Sisterhood she had responded early to a calling into mission work. However, in much the same way that nuns have to give up all worldly yearnings, young ladies wishing to join the NCH’s childcare training course, with a view to ordination into their Sisterhood, were expected to remain unmarried and childless… and therein lay my potential ruin.
In the days when the Sisters ran the world as I knew it, it was generally accepted that each Sister would have a ‘favourite’ who, once identified, was quickly dubbed ‘Sister’s Pet’. Invariably, ‘Sister’s Pet’ was the newest, youngest, and cutest arrival to the family group; someone that Sister could lavish all her unspent childbearing, emotional energy on. And in the Autumn of 1968 for Sister Irene that someone was me.
Taking up residence in the all boy group of Grenfell to be with my big brother there was little doubt I would depose “Little Stephen” as the apple of Sister Irene’s eye. He was approaching eight and no longer in need of babying. My brother was later to tell me that he was delighted about my arrival. Not because he had his baby sister with him, which under normal circumstances would have irritated the hell out of him, but because my presence would almost certainly topple Stephen as the centre of Sister Irene’s attention. Unacustomed to the tactical manevers of institutional, family group politics my primary concern was to get as much love and cuddles as I could elicit, and for four years Sister Irene provided huge quantities of both.
When Sister Irene retired after many years of faithful service another took charge of my world and for a while I was utterly bereft. But I never forgot Sister Irene and made regular visits to her Catford terrace house which she shared with her sister until she died.
In all the years that I knew her she never seemed to age. To me she always had the look of a much-loved grandmother, complete with silver-grey hair tinged with a hint of blue.
Sister Irene didn’t know she had left a tree in her Will for me, but I know she would have approved of the legacy planted in her memory.