Saturday, May 19, 2012


Right about now, Nick Johnson is floating in the ethos. He's in Canterbury and he's in Rome. He's in Cornwall and here in Virginia and he's also in Sydney, Australia and in lots of other places too, I'm sure.

It's that time of the year.  Our families were particularly close in Rome, from 2004-08.  We celebrated Christmas at the school concert and walked down Via del Corso for pizza afterwards. We shared Easter lunch, met up at school fetes, and at our apartment in Monte Mario, and we also visited the Johnsons at their summer home in Biarritz.   On May Day 2008, we picnicked in the Borghese Gardens and sat together underneath the trees. "And even though we are moving back to the States," I said, as I raised my glass, "we will be friends for life." 

"Absolutely," Nick replied. His eyes shone as we all clinked glasses.  We knew our friendship would last forever.  But this would be our last time together as families.  Our youngest sons - Elliot and Fergus, ran off to rent bikes; Ben and Nick walked together under the trees, talking together and smoking while me and Noreen lazed on the grass, talking as we always did in our easy eternal way, watching shadows pass across the day.
It was May 1, 2008.  On the last day of May, we buried him.

 Here is Ben, Noreen and Nick in Biarritz.

Nick was the principal of St Georges British International School, which our sons Alex and Elliot attended for four of the most important years in their young lives.  Alex graduated from St Georges with a Baccalaureate, and his choice of university and onward pursuits, were guided and informed by Nick.  When he realized we were moving back to Virginia, Nick assured me that Elliot would be fine, because I worried he wouldn't find his niche, being unusual.

"Oh, he will have something special to give," Nick assured me. "Because he'll have had this experience abroad. And they'll pick up on it."  Nick had a way of drawing in his breath and nodding when he spoke, as if to underscore the sincerity of his endorsements.

In Biarritz, Nick and Noreen, Ben and I walked down to the ocean, sat together on the sand, swam and discussed our children and our lives, prepared dinners, lingered in the market square over coffee. We stayed up late into the nights, drinking and singing, while Nick playing his guitar - his son Bardan (our son Alex's dear friend) accompanying him on  violin.  Nick had always been a tearaway, a busker in his youth - traveling across Australia together with Noreen. His free spirit informed his wisdom as a mentor and, along with his intellect, made a deep impression on our sons.

On May 15, 2008, I was driving down the Cassia to St Georges School, when Noreen's friend Rosie phoned.  "Are you driving, Amanda, " she asked.  I said I was and she asked me to call her back as soon as I could.

I parked at the foot of St Georges campus and called.  I looked out at the olive trees, the hills and the pure blue sky. Rosie told me Nick had died.  "He had a heart attack on the way to school," she said. "And they couldn't save him."

It's too painful to recount in detail the days that followed. Sitting with Noreen on the balcony of their apartment, smoking the last of Nick's cigarettes. His shirts were still in the washer.  Noreen wondered if she should put them in the drier, whether she should take his pajamas out from under the pillow of their bed.  I telephoned the British Embassy.  Nick was an important person, and they had to be informed.  Soon Noreen's brothers and sisters flooded in from Ireland.  We sat together, made cups of tea, tried to pretend that life could go on.

Later in Canterbury, we attended his funeral and burial.  I stayed beside Noreen.  Alex joined Nick's brothers and Bardan, all playing music on Joan's lawn.  Joan, Nick's mother, was amazing.  She showed us how to do the impossible: How to outlive a beloved son.

Fast forward, past our later visits to Biarritz and our rendezvous in Edinburgh, past Noreen and Fergus's visit to DC, to the dedication of 'Nick's bench' in Oxford.

We met up for dinner in Oxford the night before.  Bardan was thinner  by now and Ant, Nick's brother was fatter, and both of them had bigger beards.  And then there was an old friend called Doin at the table, and Sue who spoke of her own widowhood. Fergus had grown into himself, and become very handsome.  But all our boys immediately picked up exactly where they'd left off.

I noticed how in conversation, Nick's brother Ant had the same slightly lazy articulation to his words as Nick.  It touched me.  I was thrilled to see Noreen. We sat together like school girls, catching up on our lives.

 The following day was the dedication. We assembled in the Brasenose courtyard. Nick's mother Joan was now 85.   It was a hot morning. My shoes pinched my feet and the sun beat down. People gave long speeches on the grass.

At the designated time, Joan went forward, for her son. "I declare this bench open!" she said.

Afterwards, the college served a wonderful lunch.  In a hall surrounded  by the cloisters of Brasenose, we drank and ate and talked.  Noreen was beautiful with her blue silk dress and now silver hair.  She'd be going off to Zambia to work at an orphanage in a few weeks time. It was hard to believe that the last time I had seen so many of  these people was at Nick's funeral in Canterbury.

His influence continues.  Tonight, Alex telephoned on Skype from Sydney, Australia. "I was just thinking of Nick," he said. "I don't know why but he came to mind. What a lot of wonderful people we've known." 
This is the Johnson family, and a few others, sitting on the bench dedicate to Nick at Brasenose College, Oxford.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012


I think I've found a new religion and  it's called Fragrance.   Last week I went to a soap party at Wanda's house in DC. She's the sister-in-law of my dear friend Helen and proprietor of River Girls Soap.  Her soap parties can be rather addictive for their spectacular array of natural products -  bath oils in cobalt bottles and thick round soaps with names as delicious as their fragrances. There's Night in Tuscany (Rosemary and Pear), Hippie Girl (Patchouli and Grapefruit)  Entwined (Ginger and Honey) to name just a few of my favorites. The year before last I took some to Biarritz as presents for Noreen, and last year my son Elliot went to visit Rome equipped with several bars to distribute to his hostesses.  My latest discovery is a moisturizing cream of Lavender and Rose called Amazing Face.

It was tempting to buy one of everything - but luckily Wanda has a website too, and I highly recommend that you check it out:

Something about River Girls fragrances nourishes the soul. We sat in the living room chatting with Vicki, Wanda's sister, who had bought her a book about herbal remedies for Mother's Day. Soon Chris, a doTerra Aromatherapy representative, was bringing out his fragrance vials as well, and passing them round the living room for us to sample. He dabbed some into the palm of our hands told us to apply it to the back of our necks and recommended that we cup our hands round our noses and breathe.  It was like breathing in a little bit of heaven. It was purity that made them so wonderful: Lavender, Cilantro, Cyprus, Peppermint.

Our conversation turned to the subject of water and one of the most refreshing drinks you will ever taste. This isn't just any old water. This my friends, is water,  with a fragrance that slips quite delicately into taste.

I made a batch of this water the following day. Here is the recipe: a few springs of fresh mint, half a grated cucumber, a tablespoon of fresh ginger, and the juice of one lemon all stirred together in a pitcher of cold filtered water.

So I'm smoothing on my Amazing Face each morning, bathing each evening in Pear and Red Berry bath oil, and yesterday afternoon while I was writing, I sipped on the final glass from my third batch of water. That's when Elliot came up to play me some music.

"Listen to this..."  he said. "I think you'll really like it." It was a track by Bibio from Ambivalence.

"Interesting," I said.

"Here, let me download it for you..." While I waited,  I was sipping on my water.   Elliot looked at me strangely~

"Err, that looks really weird, Mum,"  he said.

I looked at the cloudy glass, floating with bits of leaf and vegetable debris.  This is true. But oh how refreshing and delicious.

Sunday, May 13, 2012


  I'm watching Ben mow the grass and while I watch I'm imagining him as a pen and ink drawing of himself mowing the grass. His tall figure moving up the green and pushing the lawnmower, with its interesting sturdy and utilitarian lines would make a lovely study in pen and ink. Except I cannot draw.

I notice the creases and shadows of his shorts and shirt, the little creased v's in the back - the shape of his legs and calf muscles, and also his baseball cap.  The growl of the lawnmower recedes and returns.  And somehow imagining him as a line drawing makes the picture more appealing to me.

Of course, when the mower stops it's a lot more peaceful, because in the silence you hear all the birds.

This morning the fox came around.  I think she's a vixen and has been quite bold lately in the early mornings, trotting round the edges of the grass, probably searching for rabbits.  She's a red fox with a white tip to her tail, an alert triangularity to her face.  I'm glad the dog is indoors, though, when she's out there.

She even stopped to pee.  We've heard her unearthly cry in the night several times this week. You feel the neighborhood tighten round her cry, as if sleepers are wakened in all the houses at once, and all are thinking the same thing:  there's the fox.

There is also a particular rabbit who always ventures from under the photinium bush.  I feel it to be the same rabbit each time, but logic would suggest there are many more than one, but that only one comes out at a time.

I'm watching him now; the contraction and expansion of the body as he hops forwards in the clover; the suggestion from this distance of his head, with ears alert.

He's out there now because the lawn mowing has stopped.  I do hope he doesn't get eaten by the fox.  I hope we can all get along and live together in peace. But my hope is entirely irrelevant.

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger

However suspicious you may be of young Nell Freudenberger's literary acclaim, her second novel The Newlyweds is a delightfully engaging read, whose easy narrative belies the confident and complex characterization.  I highly recommend it~