The story of Michelle Antia: a eulogy

Here is the eulogy, given at Michelle’s funeral with such eloquence by our good friend Vivienne Frankish. Thank you, Vivienne, for letting me share it here: The story of Michelle’s life.

Vivienne gives the eulogy 

Michelle, our belle…

Can it be that the force of nature that is Michelle Antia has been stilled, and our dear Michelle has completed her life, and that we are giving thanks and saying goodbye?

Michelle, possibly the most passionate woman I have ever known.
Michelle the loving, the hating, darting looks of fire –
Michelle the contemplative, the companionable, the survivor, the learner –

How to pay tribute to you, do you justice? There are so many stories – too many for now, but be assured, all of us who knew you will keep telling your stories for a very long time to come.

Let’s remember the very beginning.

Sadly, when you were born it was difficult for any mother or family to bring up a child with a learning disability. Resources were scarce, and mothers were advised to place their children in a specialist home and to forget them, to get on with their lives. So, as a child you lived in the Fountain Hospital, and as a teenager moved to Southside.

We know hardly anything of these years, just glimpses… Some favourite songs – You Are My Sunshine. Paper Roses. The way you write M for your name.

But signs, too, that people had not always been kind, and you had to find ways of surviving. Ways that challenged us.

There is one thing we do know about. An important friendship.

During all that long time you had a close friend, an inseparable friend – and her name is Janet.

In 1977, when the big hospitals were closing and “Janet” came to live in The Vine (the first house in the newly founded L’Arche community), because you were both inseparable, you came too. Lambeth Council wasn’t happy about it, but somehow our strong founding women, including Therese Vanier, made it happen.

And you began making the hundreds of friends who are remembering you today, here and across the world.

One of the founders of The Vine remembers that when Michelle first came, she loved the food but wasn’t keen on the idea of household tasks. She was outraged at the very thought of helping with the washing up, which she’d probably never had to do before…

Eventually, Michelle saw that her new lifestyle came with benefits. She began to settle in. There is an old Mencap film called A Home Of My Own, and some of it was filmed in The Vine. There we see a young Michelle, slowly, with great concentration and stillness, cutting up a cabbage for supper.

[Irene’s note: if anyone knows where to get a copy of that film, or indeed any old footage of the Fountain Hospital, Southside, or St Ebba’s Hospital where Carol lived, do let me know!]

I met Michelle 36 years ago in 1982. I was a workshop assistant. Michelle didn’t take much notice of me. We would sing along together as we worked. We’d weave little bags, and make tea and eat lunch. Janet and Michelle would play draughts after lunch with a Zen-like focus and I’d watch the checkers migrate off the board and down the table in a sequence of mysterious moves.

Again, in Michelle, that stillness…

Janet and Michelle by now had emerged from their close sisterhood into being their own people.

They each moved from The Vine to found a new L’Arche house. Michelle, together with “Fiona” and Nicki, founded The Sycamore. Others joined them soon after.

Michelle in “The Sycamore” household in 1985, a year after opening. Irene in front row (holding the cat); Nicki standing behind her, alongside “Fiona”. Keith (front row, far right) arranged all the flowers for the funeral; Nicki was there on the day Michelle died and helped carry the coffin; Marie (between Irene and Michelle) had travelled from afar; Fiona half-spoke-half-sang at the funeral service. John and another Keith (back row, far right and far left) have both died.

And this is where Michelle really blossomed and grew into her womanhood. It was a fusion of the right time, the right place, the right relationships.

Michelle became the local ambassador for L’Arche. The people next door held neighbourly gatherings – they were ‘something in the Foreign Office’. Michelle and Nicki were invited. Michelle knew exactly what was required of her as a guest. She was charming. She responded to being treated with dignity and respect by being dignified and engaging. A diplomat among the diplomats. Michelle was instrumental in helping the household establish its place in the street.

And it was while at The Sycamore that Michelle re-connected with her family.

Grandma was a regular visitor. Michelle was fiercely protective of her Grandma, and of Grandma’s handbag (glimpses again of how to keep precious things safe in the institution).

Through Grandma and Uncle, with a fair amount of detective work and inventive enquiry from assistants, Michelle made contact with her mum, who had left the UK a long time ago. When they took the plane and re-connected in Canada, Nicki remembers it was a natural, no-fuss occasion.

“Hello Mum.”

In time, Michelle met more of her family in Canada and the States.  Michelle didn’t ask for much. Knowing that she had a place in her family, her family: that was what mattered.

Michelle was a parishioner here in St Matthews Church. She was confirmed here into her faith. Some of us noticed how Michelle carried a particular love, a devotion for Mary, mother of Jesus.

Michelle as Mary in the nativity story

Michelle had such a capacity for friendship.

She lived attraction and rejection at a profound level, and was vulnerable to falling in love. She longed for that someone special, just for her. She loved deeply. Sometimes she hated you at the same time.

Sometimes she just hated you.
(As we know, hate is not the opposite of love.)

Michelle with Carol

Some she loved passionately. Some, like her housemate Fiona, quietly, steadfastly. She had that ability to be alongside you, companionable and still, engrossed perhaps in her drawing and her writing.

I remember doing a collage with her on a retreat, and her chosen medium was digestive biscuits. We went into a kind of digestive biscuit meditation together. Michelle taught mindfulness classes.

And she could be a minx! The looks – the Who can keep this up the longest? – that often finished with dissolving into laughter.

And the craft workshop! She adored the Stonework. It was dusty work and we had special overalls, but Michelle was a dust magnet. She would be dusty from head to toe. The Sycamore assistants would complain, would make pleas on behalf of her hair care – but Michelle wore her dust with pride.

Michelle in the Stone workshop

She stood up for herself: Stop it. Don’t like it.

Loved doing new things: I’m learning!
When she liked you: Cheeky Monkey.
When she didn’t … Well, there was the kindly helper from a clown workshop who said, Michelle has chosen her clown name. It’s “Bucket”.

Michelle had her health difficulties.

She just got on with it. But the time came when ill health was getting in the way of her living the life she wanted, and so Michelle left her The Sycamore. It is a lovely house and indeed Michelle loved it, but she needed a home where she could move around easily without stairs and landings getting in the way.

So she moved to “Gowrie House” Care Home, and she created another community of new friends.

So many friends…

And we remember:

How Michelle was radiant when she was excited, pleased, happy.
How she loved her families, her birth family, her L’Arche family and her Gowrie House family.
How she created community around her. She insisted on it. When she was in hospital, all the nurses knew her and loved her.

At Gowrie House she would position herself at the hub of things, in the main room sitting next to her good friend Colette, or in the office with the staff, or upstairs with Ann, her favourite staff member, working alongside her.

She was poorly such a lot in these last few years. Each time we thought, This time she won’t recover, and each time she did. She surprised us again and again.

Irene with Michelle in 2018

In the end she surprised us, by dying so quickly, so peacefully, finally letting go.

Her life complete.

Michelle taught us how to see her – and she continued in her teaching even after she died. Helping the staff at Gowrie House, who loved her and cared for her so well, to find a way to say their thanks and goodbyes. And for her friend, Colette, to bless her journey with a prayer.

Michelle: a tempestuous lady, with a quality of stillness, of presence and connectedness.

Michelle, who always stayed true to herself and was not going to be bent out of shape for anyone.

Here I am.
See me as I am.
I am complex, and I am so worth getting to know.

After she died, I and others sensed her qualities of stillness and connectedness there in the room.

Michelle, we thank you. We love you.

You will be in our thoughts whenever we sing Michelle Ma Belle, our beautiful, passionate, compassionate, complex companion and friend.

(Vivienne Frankish)

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