<>Keywords: Literature and Culture; <>It is hard to talk of Shirley Smith’s final years, when that extraordinary mind left her long before her body did. Layer after layer of her adult life was stripped away leaving her child-like presence. She still received visitors, ever so politely, and with gratitude, in the way a child might. I recall a companion going through a picture book with her, and Shirley’s delight at discovering a small dog appearing in a corner tapestry. <> <>She had had a difficult childhood. Her mother, Eva, had died during an operation a few months after Shirley’s birth. Her father was devastated by the death of his young wife with her beautiful face and a gorgeous head of long curling auburn hair. Despite having grown up in the manse – his father, Gibson Smith, was the minister at the St Andrews-on-the-Terrace where Shirley’s funeral service was held – Sir David Stanley Smith, Judge of the Supreme Court and Chancellor of the University of New Zealand, never went into the church with his family on Sundays, but sat out in the car waiting. What he was thinking? <> <>Shortly after Eva’s death he was called up and went overseas, to the carnage of the Western Front. As it happened, the war was over by the time he was ready for the battlefield, and he returned safely. <> <>While he was away, indeed until she was the age of six and her father re-married, Shirley was looked after by her maternal grandmother. Eva was her only child, but it was her husband’s second marriage, and she had taken over his first wife’s brood. For the five or so years she stayed with each in turn, with little Shirley (pronounced with a rolled ‘r’, for they were of Scottish descent) in trail. <> <>Again, what Nan Cumming thought we can only guess. She was well-off enough to own a home, but she circulated among Shirley’s cousin. Perhaps if David did not return and she died, Shirley would have been adopted as one of their family members; perhaps Nan looked for comfort in the family had she brought up. <> <>Shirley often wondered what would have happened had her mother lived. Who knows? It is a matter of record that when she returned to her father’s family, after his second marriage, she proved feisty and independent – her father called her affectionately ‘my little Red Fed’– integral to her character until her last years. It was not until she was about twelve that she decided she had to get on with her stepmother. She must have been grieving, but not for the lost the mother she never knew, but for her grandmother. <> <>She returned to that childhood as she drew towards her end. Visitors read poetry to her, especially from her beloved Palgrave’s Golden Treasury which she had had beside her bed since she was a child. Longer poems did not work: initially sonnets did, but increasingly there complexity defeated her. It was a pleasure to read through some old favourites, and it was with sadness I gave up Milton’s “On His Blindness” (True, it was read in part to remind her that even if she could no longer contribute in the way she expected of herself, ‘they also serve, who only stand and wait’.) <> <>The signal for the end was her ‘favourite’ poem, an old Scottish ballad “Fair Helen”, I reading, her mouthing it with me. <> I wish I were where Helen lies; <> Night and day on me she cries; <> Oh that I were where Helen lies <> On fair Kirconnell lea! <> <>It was a strange poem to be a childhood favourite. I wondered whether that was the origin of the name of her much loved daughter Helen, but that made it importance even more mysterious. (Shirley was a classics scholar and no doubt the name also referred to Helen of Troy.) <> <>Often towards the end,, she would be sleeping with the peace of a child when I did one of my almost weekly visit. But when she was awake we still read poems together. She could read the words, but stumbling and imperfectly as she lost control of her speaking muscles. <> <>On that last day she was awake, for some reason I asked her to read ‘Fair Helen’, instead of me. She did so with alacrity, with pleasure and with perfection. There is a theory that one’s early learnings are hardwired into the brain, and it is the software that goes with age. If true, Shirley’s politeness was hardwired by her grandmother. But so was the poem. <> <>She read it with a strong distinct Scottish accent. And now I realised its significance. <> <>Her grandmother, grieving for her lost Eva, read the poem to her for consolation, passing her aching despair onto Eva’s daughter, even unto her dying day. <> O Helen fair, beyond compare, <> I’ll make a garland of thy hair <> Shall bind my heart for evermair <> Until the day I die. <> <> <> <> <>ADDED IN September 2011 <>Sarah Gaitanos, who is writing Shirley’s biography, tells me that Eva was not Scottish . So it seems unlikely that Shirley learned the poem with a Scottish accent from her. Perhaps it was from her paternal grandparents, who certainly were – possibly via her father? That means the last paragraph is not factually correct. But I have left it in, for whatever its truth I have no doubt it captures an essential element of Shirley’s life.