Alma Gregory

Recollections

In recalling earlier days of the Faith and some of the early believers I have known, we must go back well over sixty-five years to the days of my childhood in San Mateo, California.  This is a small township some thirty or so miles south of San Francisco.  It was there that my mother (Mrs Louise Ginman) first heard mention of the Faith – the Bahá’í movement, as it was then called.  Mrs Mary Hanford Ford spoke about it at the local Women’s Club.  Apparently it was only my mother who made her way to the platform after the talk was over to ask Mrs Ford where she could hear more.  In the next township, Burlingame, separated from San Mateo only by a tree-lined avenue, there were three ladies – a mother and two adult daughters who were Bahá’ís, and it was to their home my mother went every Tuesday afternoon.  I, too, made my way there after school and was occasionally told short stories, very short stories, about `Abdu’l-Bahá, for little was then known, and I later discovered that some of them were incorrect!

Once a week, also, my mother would take the train to San Francisco to attend a study class held by Dr Ali Kuli Khan (Marcia Gail’s father).  I never accompanied her, as these meetings were in the evenings, but sometimes afternoon classes were held in San Francisco by a Mr Hyde Dunn and a Miss Clara Davis.  I was taken to these and more often than not, as I was the only child present, sat on Mr Dunn’s knee while he conducted the class.  I recall that it was from him I received my first glimmering of the Teachings of Bahá’u’lláh.  I knew there was death, and it terrified me.  Apparently at that time I thought twenty-five was middle-aged and have been told that when I asked my mother how old she was, and she said she was thirty, I burst into tears and asked if she was going to die soon!   However, to this day, I can recall Mr Dunn’s gentle voice speaking of death and the life to come – unknowable and indescribable in this world – and that it should not be feared.  He said, for instance, if it were possible to speak to the unborn babe in the mother’s womb and to tell it “You are going to be born.  You are going to be born into a world of light, air, colour and sound” it would not be able to understand; it would look upon it as a form of death and would reply, in great fear, “I don’t want to be born.  I am content and comfortable here.  It is all I want or need.”

I recall these two early believers and teachers of the Faith with great affection and feel it a bounty to have known them.  They were later married to each other and, with `Abdu’l-Bahá’s blessing, went to New Zealand to spread the Glad Tidings, and after a time went on to Australia.  The Bahá’í world knows them today as Mother and Father Dunn.

We should remember that in those early days which preceded `Abdu’l-Bahá’s visit to the Western world, there were few books – indeed, I have wondered if there were any, though my mother, I know, had a treasured prayer book, but I cannot find, amongst her books, anything printed before 1912.  Prior to this, she, like so many others, learned from the lips of earlier believers, some of whom had been to ‘Akká and were taught by the Master, as `Abdu’l-Bahá was called by them, and who were sent back, by Him, to spread the Teachings.  Those clearest in my memory are Dr Ali Kuli Khan, Dr Zia Baghdadi, Mary Hanford Ford, Mrs Goodall and her daughter Mrs Ella Cooper.

Those who were being taught by them would travel miles, literally miles, each week, sometimes twice a week, to attend classes, Feasts, and the then known Holy Days.  In going to Mrs Goodall’s home from where we lived, for instance, there was a long walk to the railway station;  a train journey to San Francisco;  then a street car had to be taken to the Ferry Building, then a ferry across the bay to Oakland and then they would proceed to Mrs Goodall’s.

Mrs Goodall’s home, where Abdu’l-Bahá stayed, is quite clear in my memory.  It was lovely and had a wide, beautiful staircase, and a first landing.  I was told that it was from this landing the Master addressed the believers and their friends gathered on the lawn below it.  When we speak of the early believers, I do not think there was, in those days, a formal `declaration’.  As far as I know, they simply recognised and accepted the Cause of Bahá’u’lláh as divine truth for this day and called themselves Bahá’ís.  Incidentally, Bahá’u’lláh was then spelt with an o, not u, and pronounced Bahá’o’lláh in English.

Another thought comes to my mind.  Again, so little was known, but Qurratu’l-Ayn was one of the historical figures known to the early believers.  However, so unfamiliar were the terms and translations that mistakes were often made, probably from having been passed from one to another verbally.  Nowadays it may seem comical, if not crude, but I remember that on one occasion an American, a man, was speaking of Qurratu’l-Ayn, `Solace of the Eyes’, but his version of the meaning of her name was `good for sore eyes’.

Though they had so little knowledge compared with that which we have today, they were so eager, so hungry, to have what was available – they cared so much, they believed so deeply.  They turned to `Abdu’l-Bahá, loved Him and, as far as their knowledge went, obeyed Him and longed for His guidance.  I remember seeing a maid, a housemaid she must have been, in Mrs Goodall’s home during the Master’s stay there.  She told me, with the utmost awe and sincerity, “`Abdu’l-Bahá was so pure, so holy, that not a speck of dust settled on the furniture in His room.”

Another story was told by a believer who, like several others, volunteered to help in the house during the Master’s stay – largely, I gathered, in the preparation of meals.  She said that He could read the thoughts and hearts, as she put it.  One day, while she was busying herself in the house, she was thinking of the beauty of `Abdu’l-Bahá;  of the joy and wonder of being in His presence, and of how deeply she loved Him.  Then her mind turned to thinking of His entourage of Persians, and she thought, “I don’t really care much for those men.  No, I don’t even like them.”   She had to go upstairs for something and as she went up the wide staircase, `Abdu’l-Bahá came down, looking straight ahead, ignoring her, and even putting out His hand to draw in His aba as it floated out towards her.   She immediately felt deep distress, realising He knew her thoughts about the Persian believers who travelled with Him.   She returned to the kitchen.  There was no one else there and she wept bitterly as she peeled potatoes at the sink and thought, “I must not displease the Master.   I must see these Persians differently – learn to like them.  No!  I must learn to love them.” She heard the kitchen door open, turned, and there was ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, smiling radiantly, lovingly, holding out His arms to her.

Another story about ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was told to me by Mary Hanford Ford who came to stay in our home in San Mateo.  She was truly lovely;  small, dainty, full of life and love.   I adored her.  Incidentally I last saw her in London in 1931 when she conducted the Bahá’í funeral of Mrs Claudia Coles.   However, Mrs Ford had visited ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in the Holy Land and she told me that His direct approach could be breath-taking and even embarrassing at times.   One day at dinner, while He was personally serving the pilgrims, as was His custom, He came to her and put spoonful after spoonful on her plate, piling it high.   She protested, saying she couldn’t possibly take that much.   He laughed, then smiled at her and looked deep into her eyes, saying: “You can take as much as I give you.”   It was immediately after this that he told her He wished her to travel and teach, assuring her that He would sustain her in every effort that she made.

It was Mary Hanford Ford who told us that the Master stressed the importance of one aspect of the 19 Day Feast.   This was that the host should personally serve his guests as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá always did.   My mother saw to it that I adhered to this;  never to usurp the privilege of the host, unless specifically asked by him or her to help to serve the guests. We were also taught to be particular in our dress, our appearance, and in our way of sitting and in our attitude, especially during the devotional part of the Feast, for we were in the presence of our true Hosts, Bahá’u’lláh and the Báb.

After the Master’s return to the East, the believers received, from time to time, what I can only describe as brief general tablets.  There were, of course, quite a number of people who had Tablets ‘specially written for them and sent to them by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.   The ones I speak of were, in some cases, prayers;  others were brief explanations of some of the meanings of the Teachings and so on.  I have always understood that the originals were received in Washington D.C. where they were typed over and over again with carbon copies and then sent to the believers in different parts of the States and, probably, Canada.   I have found a few in between the pages of my mother’s books.   They are so faint now, one can hardly read them.   Only one is well preserved.   The typing paper is yellowed but the type is clear.  It is dated 1913.   Others were lost, as some of her books were, during her travels to different parts of the world.   Amongst them, sad to say, was her own personal Tablet from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.

At the end of 1918 I was brought to England and put into boarding school as my mother was to accompany my father to China.   Before going into school I met a few of the London believers but did not see them again until her return in early 1920.  During the holidays, much of the time, especially the evenings, was spent with them.   I saw Mrs Thornburgh-Cropper seldom for she was far from well.   However, much time was spent with Lady Blomfield and her daughter Mary Basil Hall, Mrs George (known as Mother George), dear Miss Ethel Rosenberg, Mrs Claudia Coles, Florence Pinchon, who typed the manuscript of Bahá’u’lláh and the New Era for Dr Esslemont, who himself sometimes stayed in our home in Wimbledon on his quite frequent visits from Bournemouth.   Martha Root came to London and once stayed with us.   There was Mr Asgharzádih and Evelyn Baxter, then a comparatively new Bahá’í as I remember, Miss Elsie Lea and Elizabeth Herrick and dear, elderly Annie Gamble who lived to be 100.   There was Mr Simpson, chairman of the London Assembly, a tall, stately, delightful man with whom little Miss Rosenberg was always at loggerheads.   Oh yes, it is well known that they, the London believers, quarrelled and quarrelled as individuals, nearly all of them.   As has been said of them, they were strong characters – they had to be to be Bahá’ís in those days.   But they stood steadfast, shoulder to shoulder in the Faith, meeting regularly and constantly for they couldn’t keep away from each other.   I am certain that disagreements stemmed partly from the fact that so many of them had spent hours and days with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá when He was in Britain.   For instance, one of them would say to me, “Alma, remember this, for it is sure to happen in your lifetime.   ‘Abdu’l-Bahá said so and so and so.”   Another, overhearing, would join us and say, “He said nothing of the sort. What He did say was thus and thus and thus.”   Yet a third would join the little group with another version and I was in the middle, wondering what on earth He really had said.   It occurred to me years later that in all probability each one was right according to his or her capacity to understand.   There were, of course, others, too numerous to mention, but there was one special one for me;  a dear special one who came to Britain at that time and who had been sent here by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. This was Dr Lutfu’lláh Hakím.  Everyone loved him, listened to him and, I am sure, had many of their differences and misunderstandings resolved by and through him.  He told stories of his experiences with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá whom he had accompanied when the Master came to Britain.   He gave the friends snapshots, treasured snapshots, which he had taken of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.   One of his stories was that the Master wasn’t too pleased at having His picture taken so often, but He wouldn’t hurt feelings by forbidding it.   Knowing this, Dr Lutfu’lláh devised a plan.   He would focus his camera on the Master through a hole in a hedge or from behind a bush or a tree.   However, those old-fashioned cameras had loud clicks and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s hearing was very acute. He would hear the click and call out, “Dr Lutf’ulláh!  Dr Lutfu’lláh, come here and sit beside me where I can keep an eye on you and your little box.”

Dr Lutfu’lláh Hakím and Mr Asgharzádih were close, close friends.   They both were devoted to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.   In those days there were no Hands of the Cause, not in the western world at any rate.   There were no Counsellors or Auxiliary Boards for protection of the Faith, but there were Covenant breakers, vicious, active Covenant breakers.   They were viewed with horror, really with horror.   Contact with them was feared for it was really believed, truly accepted, that their very breath was poisonous, especially to the weaker believers and to the young.   I was told by Mr Asgharzádih and Dr Lutf’ulláh of the following incident many, many years after it had occurred.   They told me about it during our Six Year Plan, from 1944-1950, when Dr Lutfu’lláh was once again in Britain, helping us to complete our Plan.

My mother was holding a meeting in our home – what proved to be a very large afternoon meeting to which many people had been invited and, of course, many of the Bahá’ís came too. The speaker was a young, handsome Persian, a fluent and persuasive speaker.   He had been in Britain for some time and Dr Lutfu’lláh was to accompany him to our home in Wimbledon.   This had been arranged especially so that Dr Lutfu’lláh could keep an eye on me;  keep close beside me, for I was then only sixteen years old.   You see, he and Mr Asgharzádih had serious doubts about this brilliant young Persian.   All they could do was confide in the Master.   They had written to Him and awaited, rather impatiently, a reply.   Remember, there was no air mail in those days.  However, not long after that meeting, the Master’s reply reached London in the form of a cable to the young Persian telling him to return at once to the Holy Land.   That young man was the treacherous Avarih.

In speaking of those early days in London I feel that I should refer to the Bahá’í Youth at that time. I can recall only eight of us in London and this included two quite small children.   I don’t remember that we were encouraged to teach at all and certainly not in the remarkable way in which the youth of today arise to teach;  to pioneer and render such splendid service to the Cause of Bahá’u’lláh.   Perhaps in those old days it was considered that the mature Bahá’ís, with greater knowledge, those who had been close to the Master, were better able to present the Cause with the wisdom and dignity that befitted the Teachings of Bahá’u’lláh.

Towards the end of 1920 there occurred a wonderful, an exciting event in Britain.   We knew that Shoghi Effendi Rabbani, the eldest grandson of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, was very dear to Him.  We had heard also of his deep devotion to his grandfather, ever since his early childhood.   It can be imagined, therefore, how everyone felt when it became known that he was to come to Britain, to go to Balliol College, Oxford, where, we were told, he was to read English so that he could more perfectly translate the sacred writings into our language.   There were books in English then, of course, but only those of us who now have them and can compare them with the superb translations of Shoghi Effendi can, perhaps, realise what gems have been bequeathed to us by our beloved Guardian.  That, of course, is by the way.   I never had the privilege of meeting the Guardian.   I can speak only of Shoghi Effendi, the student. [Alma is referring to the fact that she met Shoghi Effendi only before he was appointed Guardian, and never after. – Ed]

Just here I think it well to say that my mother, very forcibly, insisted that I should always refer to and address the Master’s grandson as Shoghi Effendi; never as Shoghi, as some of the older believers were inclined to do.

One of the first things that happened after his arrival with his sister, Rouhangiz, was that we were invited to meet him.   I cannot recall which home it was but I remember that the room was large and quite crowded with Bahá’ís.  That meeting is now vague in my memory.   It was far too exciting to have been properly taken in.   I remember Shoghi Effendi, of course; his lovely face, sparkling eyes and the warm clasp of his hands.

During 1921 there were many meetings with him for he came to London fairly frequently.   He attended public meetings that were then being held in Lindsay Hall, Notting Hill Gate.   He sometimes came to a 19 Day Feast and to our homes for tea or dinner when he could.

He was always so immaculate in his dress and so courteous and gentle in his manner, yet so alive, so full, it seemed, of the joy of living and was so happily looking forward to again working with and for ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.  Apart from this, I cannot remember a word he said.  I think I was like some of those who had been in the presence of the Master and could only gaze at Him without hearing all that He said!   Being with Shoghi Effendi was like that.  I could never decide what colour his eyes were; sometimes dark, other times lighter in colour; so changeable but always full of light and fire and laughter and I do remember his wonderful, infectious laugh!

During that summer Shoghi Effendi visited other parts of Britain, always meeting the Bahá’ís wherever he went.   It is comforting now to think that he must have been happy here, meeting the friends who were all so enchanted with him.

On 26th November 1921, Covenant Day had been celebrated.   Two days later ‘Abdu’l-Bahá died.   I remember so well feeling bewildered as I trailed round London after my mother, for the friends wanted, indeed needed, to be together as much as possible during those sad days.   It was then that I saw Shoghi Effendi for the last time.   I had never before witnessed grief and would not have believed it could have such a devastating effect on any human being.   Shock and grief seemed to have changed his very appearance.   It seemed to have broken him and his constant cry was, “The Master would have known He was going to die and that I would want to be with Him.   Why, O why, didn’t He send for me?”   This remained with me and troubled me for many years until I learned, decades later, from Hand of the Cause of God Mr Faizi, that the Master had asked that Shoghi Effendi be sent for.  We now know the full story but I can never forget the grief of our beloved Shoghi Effendi.

After Shoghi Effendi’s return to Haifa, the Master’s Will was read and we learned of the appointment of Shoghi Effendi to the station of Guardianship.   I remember how delighted and relieved the friends were – those with whom we were in close contact.   I know of only one who could not accept this and who quietly left the Faith.

Not so very long after the establishment of the Guardianship, Miss Ethel Rosenberg went to Haifa and spent quite some time there.   On her return she ‘phoned my mother in Wimbledon, inviting us to visit her immediately – the next day in fact.   She lived quite close to Wimbledon.

On our arrival she sat us side by side on the settee, then produced a cardboard box and took from it sheet after sheet of tissue paper.   There were rose leaves between the sheets of paper. She then lifted from the box a robe, and laid it gently across our knees. This was one of Bahá’u’lláh’s robes.   Imagine!

He had worn it!   It had been entrusted to Miss Rosenberg by the Guardian.   She was to present it to the London Spiritual Assembly on his behalf.  I have always understood that it was kept in a strong box in the bank and brought out only on special occasions for the friends to see.   Since that afternoon in Miss Rosenberg’s home I have seen it but once.   This was, I think, in 1944 in London, during the centenary celebration of the Declaration of the Báb.

I remember so well, that when I was a young girl, and learning more and more of the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh, my mother would say, “And never, never forget the Báb.”   Now, in thinking of the youth today and the new Bahá’ís, I have a longing to say, “Please, never, never forget the beloved Guardian.”   The word `beloved’ has true meaning, for he was so deeply, so dearly loved.   My thoughts go back to our Six Year Plan in Britain, from 1944 to 1950.   In those days we were all so familiar with the Will and Testament of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.   Each clause was carefully studied and from it we learned, and could never forget, that our Guardian had been entrusted to us by the Master.   He said in His Will: “It is incumbent upon you to take the greatest care of Shoghi Effendi… that no dust of despondency and sorrow may stain his radiant nature, that day by day he may wax greater in happiness, in joy and spirituality, and may grow to become even as a fruitful tree.   For he is, after ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the Guardian of the Cause of God.”

In those earlier days I think the most important part of our Bahá’í lives was this striving for firmness in the Covenant, the meaning of which has been so clearly and simply put in `Trustees of the Merciful’ – “turn” to and obey.

The spiritual titles of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and the Guardian – “The Mystery of God” and “The Sign of God” were, perhaps, more savoured than understood but were accepted with deep faith and fervour.   As the early believers turned to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, loved Him, obeyed Him and longed for His guidance, so we, in the same spirit, turned to Shoghi Effendi, our beloved Guardian.

I recall the war time Summer School of 1942, which was held in a lovely manor house near Stratford-upon-Avon.   At that time, a year after my husband, in the R.A.F., was killed, my small daughter Lois and I were living in Cheltenham with my mother.   From there we entrained to Stratford.   The train was packed and I was afraid that we would not get aboard but a jovial and friendly guard boosted us into a high-standing freight car, strong armed men in uniform helping to haul us in and seating us beside three soldiers, on a long box.   It was a merry and friendly journey and, not until we detrained, did I discover that we had been sitting on a coffin, complete with inscribed brass plate!   Oh, well, there are but few niceties in war time.

That Summer School was a haven of peace, loving companionship and joy; full of hope for the future in a war torn world.   Just a handful of adults were there and two children, one three years and the other eighteen months old.   My small daughter and Molly and Hasan Balyuzi’s first born boy.

At Convention, 1944, the Six Year Plan began.  The British believers had begged the Guardian to give us a plan and this was launched from a basement in Victoria Street, London, a small but pleasant headquarters which was vacated at the request of our Guardian whose guidance was that a basement did not befit the dignity of the Faith, so other premises had to be found – not an easy task in those days.

From that time on the few active believers in Britain began to move to pioneer posts.   Time after time Spiritual Assemblies were formed; new Bahá’ís were deepened in the Faith, and the original pioneers moved on again to establish more goal Assemblies.   Rationing and clothing coupons were still in force and it was with deep gratitude that we received parcels of food and clothing from the North American Bahá’ís.   These we shared, for all the believers were known, one to another, wherever they lived.  In order to help each other in our various duties of travel-teaching, local and national Spiritual Assembly and committee work, we looked after each other’s small children when it was possible;  transported believers in our few cars (petrol was rationed) to meetings, Convention, Teaching Conference and Summer Schools.   The community was so small that we were, indeed, as a family, bound together in a common aim and in love for and devotion to our focal point of unity – our Guardian.  It is really difficult, I think, to convey that feeling of devotion, love, excitement and joy which we all shared.   Perhaps it is best conveyed in a memory of Convention in those days during the Six Year Plan.

The gatherings at Convention were small, truly small, for there were only five Assemblies at the beginning of the Six Year Plan.   After the opening devotional, there was a sort of restlessness, an air of expectancy.   More often than not, the hall in which we were assembled, had an entrance to the rear of the way in which we faced.   Whatever was going on, each time that door opened, heads would turn.   Invariably there were late-comers and heads would continue to turn each time the door opened.   Then, at last, someone would enter holding an envelope.   From colour and size it was recognised as a cable.   There would be a soft but audible sigh from the gathering.   It was like a gentle breeze wafting through the hall.   This was what we had been waiting for!   The cable from our beloved Guardian.  The relief and joy was such that there were tears, silent tears of sheer joy, for now we knew we would have our guidance for what was to be done in the coming year.   But not only guidance;  there would be loving encouragement;  more often than not, praise for that which we had already accomplished and, above all, an assurance of prayers at the sacred Shrines, from Shoghi Effendi, our dearly loved Guardian.

Alma Gregory

Stornoway, Isle of Lewis

[written to Ken Goode – May 1979]

National Spiritual Assembly of the British Isles, 1949-50

Back row (standing) L to R: Philip Hainsworth, David Hofman, Ursula Newman, Richard Backwell, John Ferraby

Front row (seated) L to R: Alma Gregory, Hasan Balyuzi, Constance Langdon-Davies, Dorothy Ferraby

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