My school days were definitely not the happiest of my life, but my time at university may well be a contender for that position. I read English at Merton College, which is the oldest and (in my opinion) one of the most beautiful colleges of Oxford University. What was there not to love? I met my now husband in Fresher’s Week, we fell deeply and pretty much instantaneously in love and we have been a couple ever since. I also formed some of my closest and most enduring friendships. My ‘job’ was to read, and my workplace was a series of beautiful medieval quadrangles and libraries. And it’s not that I look back now and realise how lucky I was; I knew it at the time. Every single day I realised how blessed I was to have been given the opportunity.
When I left Oxford it felt like a bereavement. The culture shock of exchanging my 13th century room and days spent in the Bodleian Library studying Chaucer for a 1970s flat in Birmingham and a junior management job in a hospital in West Bromwich was fairly severe. Add that to my close-knit friendship group being scattered around the country, and the usual learning curve of living completely independently with all the food shopping, bill paying and house cleaning which that entails and it isn’t hard to see why I look back at that period of my life as a fairly difficult one.
During my early twenties I visited Oxford fairly frequently – first of all there were friends either taking four year degrees or doing post-graduate work, and then my brother, four years younger than me, also studied there. I went to see the people I cared about, but also because I couldn’t resist; it was basically the psychological equivalent of picking at a scab. It wasn’t particularly enjoyable; always feeling far more bitter than bittersweet. Eventually our visits tailed off as the people I knew also graduated and were debarred from this particular Eden.
Of course, time heals everything, and it certainly cured, in large part, my deep sense of nostalgic regret. I became far more accustomed to the ‘real’ world, my jobs grew progressively more interesting, I made new friendships while realising that distance didn’t have to mean the end of the old ones, and in due course I had all the excitement of buying and furnishing my first house. By the time my daughter was born I had pretty much entirely ceased to mourn Oxford, and there was now a new contender for the position of happiest period in my life. Carrying my baby for nine months, giving birth to her, and being there day by day as she grew is far and away the most intense joy I have ever known. Unlike my time at university, though, it is far from being carefree because it is tempered by equally intense panic and fear – is the baby still moving, breathing, is she feeding enough, why is she coughing like that, is this normal, am I getting it right? I certainly haven’t had time either to visit Oxford or indulge myself in philosophical reflections on the nature of temps perdu.
Until this weekend. This year, Merton celebrates its 750th anniversary, and as part of the celebrations to mark it, the college hosted a weekend of dinners, brunches, lectures and a family garden party. My mother-in-law generously agreed to babysit Anna on Friday and Saturday nights before bringing her up to Oxford on Sunday for the garden party, so my husband and I were footloose and fancy-free. I almost wasn’t looking forward to it. The closer we come to the arrival of our second child, the more intense is my desire to make the most of this last period as a family of three, and to relish every moment with my precious girl while she is my precious only child. I know (or hope I know) three becoming four will be wonderful in all sorts of ways, and Anna is incredibly excited about her new role as big sister, but our family dynamic will undoubtedly change, and so I want to appreciate what we have now before it does. Clearly accepting change is something I still need to work on…
However, once we were there, walking down the streets which are still so heartbreakingly familiar I was so glad we’d gone. So glad to have the chance to remember who I was before I was Mummy, and for us to remember how we were as a couple before we were parents. We firmly eschewed the lectures. As my husband said, we spent three years avoiding them as much as possible when they were free, it seems ridiculous to start paying for them now. Instead we wandered the streets and the water meadows, browsed endlessly in Blackwell’s, ate enormous quantities of cake and had dinner with a good friend from undergraduate days who is now studying for his PhD.
I went to a beautiful service in the college chapel, giving thanks for 750 years of communal learning and intellectual endeavour. I defy anyone not to feel a thrill as the original, handwritten statute, so many hundreds of years old, endowing the college was displayed and read out. And I couldn’t help but feel proud to have been a tiny part of that continuity of the “House of the Scholars of Merton”. Even though I didn’t go to many lectures.
The formal and traditional service with its readings from the King James version of the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer and, for light relief, a little T S Eliot, was in sharp contrast to the cheerful mayhem of the next day’s garden party, but it was equally lovely to catch up with many more friends, a lot of them now with their own children, whilst watching Anna scamper around on the Fellows Garden lawn; my past and present coming seamlessly together.
Which is probably in summary what I’ve gained from this weekend. For half the time since leaving Oxford I couldn’t think of it without a sickening thump of regret, the other half I didn’t think of it at all because I was too busy living in the present. Now I feel I can reflect on my time at Oxford happily, as a crucial part of what made me who I am today, and be glad that although I am more than content in my current roles as mother, mother-to-be, wife, writer, unpaid housekeeper and cook, there is a still a place which is a tranquil and tangible reminder that I am also Helen, and that my new identities don’t extinguish my old one.