Living on a hill – a tribute to Vera O’Brien

Born at the Hospital for Mothers and Babies in Woolwich in 1924, Vera lived close by me, on Westcombe Hill.

When she died in early 2020, only four people could attend because of COVID restrictions. This weekend, a huge crowd gathered at St George’s Church, our local, to remember Vera – an extraordinary friend, neighbour, volunteer, fundraiser, jumble sale organiser, girl guide leader and great grandmother.

At this, we exchanged memories and here is one that came to me.

Perhaps it was her living so long on a hill, perhaps it was her going to church on a hill. Either way, one hill that we climbed together, up the very roof of the O2 to the pinnacle and back, was one Vera accomplished with seeming ease.

It was a shame that we hadn’t sponsored her to do it for Christian Aid, because this was a sporting achievement at her sprightly age to match the parachute jumps, mud wrestling or marathon runs of younger generations. We could have raised as much as an evening round she’d lead in May, knocking on local doors. Or even as much as an evening and a half.

It was December, and a cold, cold day. We were climbing to sing carols on the roof of the O2, the St George’s Choir, robed when we reached the top and with enough strong singers for the rest of us to join in, our voices lost in and melded with a wind-swept ensemble of carols high above the Peninsula. 

There was a photo to memorialise the occasion. The image was no doubt a short-lived, instagrammable moment for the marketing team of the giant property developers, with whom St George’s and allies across East Greenwich had tussled over time for a space for faith and prayer.

The image remains though. It is up on the walls of St George’s as you walk in, as a reminder. It is an image of Vera and her church friends. Indomitable. Timeless. Up for anything that could do some good. 

There was no hill in life that she could not climb – and see us hope to follow.

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