February 10, 2015

Finest Hour 164, Special Edition, September 2014

Page 16

By Celia Sandys

My memories of Mary cover so many years and so many places: Christmases at Chequers and Chartwell; staying at the British Embassies in Paris, where I got married for the second time, and in Washington D.C.; Churchill conferences; New Years’ Eves in Wiltshire; and travels on three continents.

Although she was always a major figure in our family life, it was in later years that we really got to know each other.

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In 1993, we both attended the ICS conference in Calgary. I had been invited to be the speaker at the Gala Dinner. I had never made a big speech before and what scared me most was speaking about my grandfather in front of his daughter. My rather jittery performance was not improved by a lady in the audience passing out and, as I continued, receiving the kiss of life and being stretchered off to hospital. Mary made me feel that I had done very well although I knew I was a rank amateur.

After that first conference, we attended several more together: Boston, Williamsburg, Washington, Bath and more. We enjoyed being together and made enduring friendships along the way.

In 1999 Mary was an enthusiastic member of my first Chasing Churchill tour in South Africa. She was a great traveller and threw herself into everything with gusto. From Table Mountain to Durban, from the place where her father was captured by the Boers to the prison from which he made his dramatic escape. We were met at every stop by descendants of those people who had known him a century before. Mary charmed them all and was deeply moved by their stories, which had become treasured family legends. She entertained us all at the bar of the Rovos Rail train as we steamed in luxury along the line which my grandfather had travelled hidden in the empty coal sacks and made a wonderful speech at the dinner we held in the States Model School where he had been held in “durance vile.”

Mary, as well as the other participants, was keen to know where my next tour was going to be. We decided on Morocco. Mary had just celebrated her 80th birthday but when she heard that there was a bottle of Pol Roger on top of the sand dunes, she was the first to crack it open!

Three years ago Mary joined me on a cruise along the Côte d’Azur to visit the places where my grandfather painted. She enjoyed it all and everyone enjoyed her.

On the last night we celebrated her eighty-ninth birthday with a wonderful dinner on the balmy deck and sang Happy Birthday as she cut the cigar box cake, an acknowledgement of her love of cigars.

An annual event she really enjoyed was Churchill Songs at Harrow. She was always greeted with roars of cheers from the boys and would join in the singing with enormous enthusiasm.

When I lived in Wiltshire, it became a tradition that she and Robert Hardy would spend New Year’s Eve with my family. Another tradition was that she would bring with her a jar of caviar she received as a gift from an old friend every Christmas. One year she called to tell me that there would be no caviar this Christmas as the generous donor had remarried and had sent a card informing his friends that he was making a charitable donation instead of the customary lavish gift. Mary was most apologetic and said that she would be arriving with foie gras instead if she was still welcome! Of course she was. We loved the caviar but we loved Mary more!

After Grandpapa died, for the rest of her life, my grandmother became the focal point of our family life. For nearly forty years Mary has been the cement that has bound the family together with love, laughter, friendship and respect.

“What would Mary think about that?” was a constant question. A question it was unwise to ask unless one was prepared to accept her answer.

When I started writing about the father with whom she was so close and she loved so dearly, Mary’s approval was crucial. She was generous with praise and gentle with criticism and always happy to deal with my endless questions that only she could answer.

I have countless memories of Mary. These bring back times of warm and loving family occasions at Chartwell, Chequers and Hyde Park Gate; Churchill conferences and events and travelling with her on three continents.

Most of my recollections are full of laughter and fun but some are tinged with emotion and tears.

I was staying near the Soames country house when my mother died. Mary and Christopher came early in the morning to break the news and drive me home.

A year later, together with Sarah, who was staying with me, we spent ten long days in and out of Hyde Park Gate as my grandfather’s life ebbed away. The three of us held hands as imperceptibly he slipped away to meet his Maker. A few years later Sarah too was gone.

One day Mary came to see me in my flat close to Buckingham Palace. I put her in a taxi and gave the driver her address. The driver who had given her a long and searching look said: “Who’ve I got in my cab? The Queen?” She thought this very funny.

People who didn’t know Mary thought that she must be very grand and old fashioned and were surprised by how down to earth, up-to-date and “normal” she was. She was a great listener and always made one feel that she really cared about what one was saying to her. This endeared her to everyone.

Mary will be greatly missed at Churchillian occasions where she always played a starring role.

She was not simply the matriarch of the Churchill family but of all the Churchill organisations with which she was so closely involved.

This is the end of an era.

We will miss her but our memories of her will live on forever.

The Hon. Celia Sandys is a Trustee of The Churchill Centre, host of several “Chasing Churchill” tours, and author of five books on her grandfather.

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