“When life’s path is steep, keep you mind even.”
One morning long ago, it was a few days before Christmas and I woke up to the sound of a little bird singing. I opened the window of my bedroom and tried to distinguish the bird that was singing so sweetly outside. A little red robin was perched on the branch of a birch tree, singing to its heart’s content, as if to tell me that he was also waiting for Santa Claus to arrive.
I was the first person to come down for breakfast that day. I got dressed quickly and ran down to the kitchen to find that our Nanny, whom we had nick-named ‘Dingding’, was already awake, for she was preparing a milk bottle for her baby daughter Alexina. She asked me to give the warmed-up baby milk to her baby, as she was very hungry and about to burst into tears and cry. She told me that she was also preparing some porridge for our breakfast as well. I sat down in the kitchen, held the baby in my arms gave little Alexina her bottle of baby milk. I was happy to help Dingding as she seemed to be so busy these days. For she had two babies to look after, her own baby girl and little Dreamy, and the rest of us! It must have been very hard for her at that time. During the winter months, we often used to eat porridge, a popular breakfast dish in Scotland. It is made of oats mixed with hot milk, a little water and sugar. The ingredients are all boiled together on a very low heat in a saucepan, until they turn into a warming delicious gruel, which is very similar to ‘Okayu’ in Japan! The early morning sun was pouring through the kitchen windows luring me to come outside and play in the garden. I quickly gobbled down the porridge and rushed outside to the tree house that Charles and I had made the previous summer. I climbed up the wooden ladder of the tree house, for from there it had a wonderful view of the sunrise. I was able to see the movement of the winter, sun lighting up the pale blue sky. The winters on the Islands were usually quite mild, compared to the winters we had had in England. It hardly ever snowed in Jersey as warm winds blew upwards from the Gulf of Mexico.
On the Island of Jersey there aren’t many large green forests, as wherever you are on the island, it is close to the sea. Most of the trees are dwarf-sized, so we usually bought an imported tree from Norway, at the Christmas market. This was always held in St. Helier at the end of the year. That morning my mother and Dudley also woke up early, and after having a cup of coffee, they drove down town to the flower market to collect the Christmas tree. They had ordered a tall tree the week before, so they both lifted the tree onto the roof of the car and tied it onto the tracks that were on the roof. They then went shopping for everyone’s presents, which my mother beautifully wrapped up. She then put them under the decorated tree on Christmas Eve. Each year my mother tried to use a different colour scheme with the shiny baubles, glass decorations, tinsel and fairy lights. The theme for her Christmas tree decorations changed every year, for she wanted it to be a secret surprise. It took her all day long to wrap up all the presents and finish the decorations for the tree. We were not allowed to go into the main drawing room to see the decorations until Christmas Eve arrived. We were all longing for Santa to come soon on his magic sleigh. At last on December the 24th it was Christmas Eve, so we were allowed a very brief glimpse of the tree. The drawing room was lit up with long red tapered candles on the Christmas tree. The candlelight glimmered in the surrounding glass mirrors that were hanging on the walls. We all crept quietly into the usually forbidden drawing room, to us children, the tree seemed to be more beautiful than heaven itself. My mother was smiling as she watched our happy faces, shine in wonder as we all gazed at the beautiful decorated tree. She picked up little Dreamy and showed her the tree. After a while she said good night and handed our baby sister to Dingding. We then went upstairs to our own bedrooms. We were always so excited that it was hard for us to fall asleep. In our dreams we were waiting for Santa Claus to arrive with his sleigh full of presents.
Often my mother’s older sisters came to join us at Christmas time. Aunt Gloria and her two sons, Christopher and Anthony, usually came. They had moved to the island a few years after we came. Sometimes her oldest sister Aunt Anne came for Christmas as well. Anne had two sons, Simon and Nicky, and a daughter Jacqueline. They lived in Ireland, if I remember well. For some reason, our mother, who was the third-youngest daughter always seemed to be the one that organized a family get together when we were young. Maybe it was because, as a child, our grandfather had always treated her as his son, so she often thought she was the most capable of the four sisters.
Having so many cousins all together in the play room was fun, but it meant that we sometimes quarreled as to who was going to jump on the trampoline or play ping pong on the ping pong table! Uncle Dudley came often to the playroom to keep the peace between us.
After Christmas, our family usually went to Switzerland to enjoy winter sports. We went to St. Moritz for two or three weeks every winter and stayed at the Kulm Hotel. My mother and Dudley were both in their early thirties and real daredevils. They both love any kind of winter sports!
Sir Dudley Cunliffe-Owen, our stepfather was the president of the Cresta Club, he usually went there ahead of us for he had many responsibilities to take care at the Club. He loved the thrill of riding on the ice entirely on his own, face down on a thin metal tray. The Cresta riders use their feet to brake, stop and steer themselves on the ice. As a young child, it was terrifying for me to watch.
The races were started in 1885 by the British members of the St. Moritz tobogganing club, who were based at the Kulm Hotel. The track is still rebuilt every year and kept open from just before Christmas to late February. The Cresta is a natural ice run, with slopes of a mile. The racers hurtle down the ice run at speeds of nearly 90mph, making the Cresta one of the world’s scariest toboggan runs. Since the 1920s, women have been banned from the run as it was so dangerous!
On the day we arrived in St. Moritz, there had been a snowstorm the night before, so the train moved very slowly, huffing and puffing its way up the mountain trail. It was snowing so hard that we could hardly see anything outside. Large snowflakes whirled down from the heavens above us. It was late in the evening when we finally arrived at our destination. The head porter from the hotel was waiting for us to arrive at the station. He told us that he had come from the hotel to meet us. We were all very happy to hear that we were going to go up the final mountain on a horse drawn sleigh. The bells on the sleigh jingled as the horse trotted up the hill. Dingding strapped us in and covered our legs with some warm hand woven red and green tartan rugs. She began to yodel in French to make us giggle and laugh.
I can still clearly remember the first time I tried to ski. I was about eight years old and my mother took me and my younger brother and sister up on a ski lift to the ski slopes high up in the Alps. She showed us how to put on our skis and taught us how to do the easy ‘snow plough’ turn. She then led us to the edge of a ski run. We were very high up and the vast panoramic view of the Alps sent shivers down my spine.
“Off you go,” she said and gave each of us a push.
Caroline and Charles wobbled on their skis, laughing.
Within a short while they had managed to get the hang of it and zoomed off into the distance, I, on the other hand, found that my skis came alarmingly close together and I began to slip down the slope at a frightening speed. My heart started beating wildly, as I didn’t know how to stop myself and I was petrified. I figured that the best thing to do was just to fall down. So, letting go of the poles, I tumbled head first into a drift of some deep soft snow by a glade of fir trees. My skis were sticking up behind me in the snow. I turned my face around to see if there was anyone there to help me get out. I began to cry for help and wondered where my mother was. She skied up beside me and was laughing. “What are you doing down there? Try to get up!” she said. “I can’t!” I exclaimed, biting my lip and trying to hold back my tears.
“Come on Neishe, of course you can!” she laughed, and skied away down the slope leaving me alone. I couldn’t believe that she had left me there, so I swore to myself that I would never ski again. Why couldn’t she be like any other mother and start us off slowly or arrange skiing lesson for us children? I was shaking half with rage and half with fear and tried to take off my skis so that I could stand up. This made me slip down even further into the deep drift of snow. I was soaking wet, cold and frightened. I started to wail and tears rolled down my cheeks.
“Don’t worry, I’ll get you out of there.” A very tall and kind Swiss ski instructor lifted me up and took off my skis. He then told me to climb on his back and he took me down the ski slopes to the bottom of the ski lift. I was cold and miserable and we looked around for my mother. We could not find her and so I thanked him and decided that the best thing for me to do was to return to the warmth of the hotel. I walked back slowly to the hotel carrying my wet skis. I was still very frightened and angry. It was bitterly cold, as I walked along the slippery path. I was so happy to return to my room, but I was sad that I couldn’t ski well like Charles and Caroline did.
After that day I never went on the ski slopes again, I was still angry that my mother was so callous and unsympathetic and that she had not helped me get out of the snow. I was just too terrified and decided that I would be better off reading my favorite books alone in my hotel room. My mother, exasperated, gave up on me and concentrated on Charles and Caroline who both loved to ski. Juliet was still only a baby and she spent most of the time making a snowman or building an igloo to play in with Dingsing. Sometimes she hired a horse-drawn sleigh and we then went shopping in the nearest village. On other days we went to watch the Cresta riders on the Cresta Run. It was terrifying to watch them racing down the hill with their heads facing downwards. Dudley was in the cockpit measuring the speeds as the riders raced down on the sheet of ice – the faster they went down the slope the higher points they received.
After a long day of watching the Cresta Run, we usually went to a Swiss Chalet restaurant and enjoyed cheese or beef fondue for dinner.
Some days everyone in the family went skiing all day outside on the ski slopes. They did not return to the hotel until sunset in the late afternoon. On those days I would stay in the hotel alone and sometimes creep down to the ballroom on the ground floor of the hotel. Here many elderly couples were enjoying Afternoon Tea, while listening to the small Swiss orchestra playing music from the forties and fifties. I enjoyed looking at the beautiful view of the skaters on the ice rink outside the hotel windows. The glittering snowflakes were softly falling in the far distance.
I was alone and a little shy to make a friend, so I went to warm my fingers by the glowing embers of the fire. I sat watching the violin players and the pianist playing classical music on their instruments. Sometimes the music that they were playing moved me so much that I started to slowly dance on the dance floor. Forgetting where I was, the music filled my heart with joy. I realized that even though I was too shy to talk to people, I wasn’t shy to dance. At that time I wished that my father was close by to see me dance, for St. Moritz was not so far away from Geneva.
Since then, every time I try to ski or walk on a slippery slope, memories of that experience rush back to me and I am filled with terror. Many times I have tried to overcome that fear and yet for some reason it still lurks within me and haunts me.
When this happens, I try to remember the words of Roman poet, Horace, “When life’s path is steep, keep your mind even.”