At a service of thanksgiving for the life of Brenda Nagle

Family Tribute, by Brenda’s grandson Matthew.

No animosity, genuinely loving everybody. They were the words of Ron Lehman in his speech about Brenda and Arthur at their golden wedding anniversary. A clever use of their sir name as an acronym, but also one that hit home to me as a seventeen year old; summing up my experience of both my grandparents. It gives me great heart to know that they are now at peace together.

Brenda, who of course was my grandmother and known to me, my brother and sister as Nan, was truly someone special. She was born Brenda Evaline James on 26th July 1920 to her father William Henry James, carpenter and joiner by trade and mother Edith Emma James (nee Lakeman) living at 5 Copythorne Road, North End, Portsmouth. Nan was the eldest of three girls, her sister Iris came next and Betty some while after.

I will remember Nan as someone who was highly sociable. She had many skills and talents, but for me she had two great skills. The first was her ability to listen to people. Her other was her ability to tell stories. This gave us all an insight into her earlier days.

She spoke fondly of her family life, and said herself that she had a happy childhood. One of the stories she liked to tell was about being told by her father to hide her burnt hand when going upstairs to meet Iris for the first time. As soon as she went in the room her mother asked, “What have you done?” and so the cat was straight out of the bag. It seems to me that Nan was a lot like my sister and was quite accident prone. Nan also carried a scar on her face following a fall in her father’s workshop as a child.

Another story from her early life, and a favourite of mine, was how she was in trouble with her mother when she came home from school having fallen in love with a new set of stories she had discovered. Her mother was less than impressed that Brenda had asked her for a book with ‘poo’ in the title and simply wouldn’t believe that Nan was telling the truth. Nan had of course fallen in love with the stories of Winnie the Pooh.

Nan left school at 14 and was apprenticed to a dressmaking firm. She clearly enjoyed her work as she continued to use the skills she had learnt throughout her life and no doubt had an influence on my Mum’s needlework skills.

From the stories she told of her early life, it seems to me that my Nan’s sociability came from her mother, who loved to have people around, when the family would play games and sing around the piano. Indeed, it was walking past Nan’s house – just down the road from where my grandfather, Arthur, lived- that first caught his eye. From a strict, quiet family, Arthur thought the gaiety and laughter coming from the James’ household would be lovely to be a part of.

Grandpa got his wish, marrying Nan in 1942. During the reception the air-raid warning sounded, but everyone decided to ignore it! Family was always very important to my Nan and she remained close to her sisters for all of her life. Some of my fondest memories as a child come from the visits we regularly made to gatherings with the extended family.

When Arthur felt he had a call to the ministry, Brenda supported him and so they moved to Nottingham for him to train. Brenda was able to supplement their income sewing for the people in the village of Keyworth where Arthur, as part of his training looked after a tiny church. Part of the stipend was a cow, which Brenda declined to milk herself. Brenda’s Mother was worried that she would be too shy to be a Minister’s wife, but she managed, growing slowly but steadily into the role.

It was in Keyworth that Brenda’s Daughter Margaret was born, not in the Manse as hoped, but at Nottingham General hospital. Margaret demonstrated her leadership skills from an early age. One of Naomi’s, Sam’s and my favourite stories told by Nan was about Margaret’s first day at school. On arrival at the school, Margaret turned to Brenda and said: “I’m okay, you can go now.” And promptly skipped straight into school.

Arthur’s first appointment at the Congregational church as a minister was in Cosham, Portsmouth. As I said before, and feel sure that you will all agree, that one of my Nan’s greatest gifts was with people. Not just because of her great story telling skills, but also because she was a great listener. So, despite her shyness, she moved into the role of Minister’s wife and as the years passed became more and more confident; eventually leading women’s meetings and speaking at church events; supporting Arthur each time a move to another church happened.

Brenda kept a diary for almost all her life and so was able to check events and what happened if she needed to. For example, when it was decided Margaret would go to boarding school, Brenda noted in a diary how much she missed her and looked forward to holidays when she arrived back, full of what she had done and even the trouble she had got into during the term. Brenda wrote, as did Arthur, to Margaret every week when she was away and looked forward to receiving Margaret’s letters in return.

Brenda’s gift with people meant that she earned the respect of people very quickly. This was demonstrated when Margaret’s bursary for the school did not come through until the second year. Brenda took a Job in a factory to help maintain the finances needed. At first she found it difficult, because the language of those she was working with was a little riper than she was used to. However, the men soon found out she was a Ministers wife and the bad language stopped if she was about. Because they liked and respected her, they did not want her to be upset. Before long she was helping some of the men who would talk to her about their problems and get her advice.

A move back to the church in Southampton, to people she knew, pleased her immensely. To be back near her sisters and their families meant lots of opportunities to catch up. She often held lunches at the manse (something she continued when moving to Farnham.) While at Bitterne, Margaret went off to Bristol to train and Brenda heard from her often, one evening quite late there was a knock at the door When she opened it and saw Margaret standing there she asked: “Have you run away?” One of Maggie’s friends from Bristol lived in Chichester and asked if he could drop her off on his way. It was at Bristol Maggie got her nickname and it was a while, but eventually Brenda called her Maggie too.

Many of you, I am sure will relate to the generosity than Nan showed with all the people that she met. This meant that wherever Arthur’s ministry took them as a family, they developed a wide reaching circle of friends. Indeed, wherever I lived in Devon, Nan knew someone who lived within a stone’s throw of me. She would then tell me a number of stories and how she enjoyed the spring flowers in the Devon hedgerows when she visited them with Arthur.

Eventually Arthur felt there should be one last move before he retired and he came to Farnham in 1976. The church welcomed the whole family and Brenda was soon having lunches in the manse. When my sister and I, along with Mum had the privilege of living in the manse with our Nan and Granpa, I learnt first-hand about my Nan’s generosity. One of my earliest memories was in the Manse in Farnham. It was the middle of the night and I had ear ache. Nan looked after me and made me a warm milk and sat with me whilst I drank it. She also showed great patience when I returned the night after for the same treatment, even though the ear ache had gone.

Eventually after Maggie remarried her youngest Grandson, my brother, Sam arrived. Naomi and I were at Nan and Granpa’s when the news of Sam’s birth emerged. I remember seeing the relief and joy in my Nan’s eyes. She was always worried about people very deeply.

Brenda and Arthur moved back to Bitterne when they retired and were there until Arthur became ill. They came back to Farnham where Margaret, Phil, Sam and Naomi still lived. Arthur died in 1999 and Brenda moved into Providence place.

My Nan’s gift with people extended across all ages. She loved being around people in the Spire coffee bar in her later years for this very reason and made many new friends. I think it is fair to say she became a bit of an institution there. I used to giggle to myself seeing her almost always in the same seat when I would come to see her there. She was particularly fond of children. She made a great impression on the children from my primary schools when I brought them to stay at the church. Two children would often ask me how my Nan was after meeting her on their stay. During her time in Providence Place, her great-grandchildren arrived and she was somewhat ironically renamed by them “Big Gran!” She loved and was very proud of them all, often commenting to people; “Do you know there are four generations in this room?” They loved her too, enjoying her sense of mischief and fun. Gentle and always kind.

On Palm Sunday this year she became ill and went to Frimley Park hospital where she was lovingly cared for by a lovely band of Nurses and doctors.

And so to finish, I return to the kind words of Ron, when thinking of my Nan. She really was someone with no animosity, genuinely loving everyone. When I look around the people that she has touched and shared her time with, it gives me great heart to see her legacy living on. Her skills with the needle in her daughter Maggie, her love of family in her granddaughter Naomi, her gentleness and kindness in her grandson Sam and her clumsiness in her great-granddaughter Isobel. But also in the stories and memories she has left behind for so many others.

* * * *
Address by the Revd Michael Hopkins
1 Samuel 12:19-24
2 Timothy 4:6-8

As Matthew’s told us so eloquently, Brenda spent so much of her life serving other people, be that supporting Arthur, helping her family, assisting so many other people. Hers was surely a life spent in serving other people.

What we heard in that, perhaps seemingly obscure reading from 1 Samuel, was the farewell speech from Samuel, who had spent his life serving other people. As Brenda spent so long serving others, that farewell speech could have been from her, in so many ways. Don’t be afraid. Don’t walk away from God. Serve God with all your heart. Serve God faithfully, and remember what God has done for you. A farewell speech from someone who spent so long serving others.

That life of service began nearly 95 years ago, as we’ve heard. I remember Brenda telling me how she and her sisters were playing on the beach one day, I think at Southsea, and a sudden wave overcame them, but a stranger rescued from the sea. It wasn’t an easy upbringing, money was always short, and Brenda was no stranger to hard work.

As you heard, Brenda and Arthur got married during the war, and it was on her wedding day that Brenda’s call up papers arrived. She sent a message that she was getting married, and they never got round to coming back for her later. After getting married there was that big move to Nottingham, Paton College was the only college to take married men, indeed they specialised in training for the ministry, all of which was quite unusual in those days. Brenda very much enjoyed the friendship of the other wives, and became lifelong friends with many couples.

It was in Keyworth where Brenda first, and perhaps the only time, fell victim to gossip and manipulation the church, where she was tricked into increasing the price of tea at a women’s meeting. They only crossed her once! Later, at Feltham, Brenda served as one of the Deacons, in her words “because they were finding it difficult to get enough people”, but she didn’t enjoy it because most of the Deacons came one family.

When I first came here, I made the mistake of asking Brenda if she enjoyed retirement. I got that you got when you’d said the wrong thing, she said very firmly, “I’m not retired. I still do my visiting and speaking”. Our women’s fellowship here was struggling to find suitable speakers, and I suggested that instead of speakers, they should meet for social afternoon and board games. That was another occasion when I got that look, and it was only later I learned how much Brenda hated games.

Brenda was generous and kind to the end, and would have given anyone the last money in her purse to help them. She was fiercely proud of her family, telling anyone and everyone of what you’d done and how she loved you all, although I’m not sure she always found it quite so easy to tell you that. She was also fiercely protective of you, what mother and grandmother wouldn’t be, and would make sure people knew they’d done wrong to you long after you’d forgiven them yourselves. Brenda kept those diaries written up every evening. I hope you didn’t read them – she said to me that anyone who read them after she’d gone would only get what they deserved.

I’ve only ever know Brenda on her own, but most of you have known her with Arthur for most the time. She remark one day that for years she was known as Arthur’s wife, and now she’d become Maggie’s mum. That fierce protection of her family came out one day when I was rather cross about something, and Brenda told me quite clearly that Arthur never got cross. The person sitting with us on the table, and I think they’re in church today, nearly choked on their coffee before reminding Brenda that Arthur was as prone to get cross as anyone else.

In our New Testament reading, we heard another farewell speech, this one from Paul to his friend Timothy, and how true this one also is of Brenda:
The time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which God will give to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have sought him.

I don’t imagine Brenda would have said that about herself, but today we can say it for her. Let us always thank God for Brenda, for all that she was and that she has done, and remember her with joy and gratitude.

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