This is the story of Atherton Parsons and her daughters Susie Howard and Sarah Richards, written by Susie and Sarah.
At the beginning of the 60s Atherton Parsons and the rest of her family were all sailing happily along in ‘middle England’ when her sister, Cecily Trent, wrote from the United States to tell her that she must investigate a marvellous new religion. As Cecily often had rather bizarre ideas and had done very unconventional things in the past, Atherton took no notice. However, Cecily was not one to let things go and continued to insist that Atherton should investigate these new ideas. It was when Cecily’s son, Angus (whose modus operandi was more cautious), became a Bahá’í that Atherton eventually got in touch with the Bahá’ís and was sent some books.
We remember her very atypically disappearing on a bus to a secret destination in Watford every Thursday evening. This turned out to be Parry and Mehraban Firoozmand’s weekly fireside. After six months of this mysterious behaviour she announced that she had become a Bahá’í. [Suzie] I particularly recall my current, very conventional accountant boyfriend expressing extreme concern when he heard this; it might even have been the end of the relationship!
Thereafter the scene changed as the house filled with colourful characters from far and wide as well as every neighbour, vicar, friend and relation who could be enticed to partake of Atherton’s amazing teas which went with the Sunday afternoon firesides which she often arranged. David and Marion Hofman, Philip and Lois Hainsworth, Hassan and Isobel Sabri, Betty and Ken Goode, and many others came to speak. The discussions were lively with Anthony Parsons asking leading questions from the audience when needed. On occasion there would be a dramatic moment as the indignant vicar banged his Bible down hard on the table!
Atherton left no stone unturned and it wasn’t long before the first Spiritual Assembly of Dacorum was formed in Hemel Hempstead. This community of lovely people, as well as seeing Atherton bloom and flourish with her new found religion, made a big impact on me (Susie) although I stuck to my conventional friends and way of life for another fifteen years.
As mother set off to the Royal Albert Hall in 1963, I remember her telling us that she was attending an event that would go down in history.
Even more alarming than when she started taking the bus to Watford was when she took a plane to the Middle East (having never been anywhere without husband Anthony since they married) to meet up with Cecily for one of the early pilgrimages when the pilgrims stayed on site in the Pilgrim House. The most significant thing about this for us was the ‘cook’ who was employed from ‘Universal Aunts’ to feed us while she was away. Every meal was worse than the one before, culminating in the yellow part of the lemon meringue pie flowing over the table when Anthony tried to serve it. The cook brooked no complaints from us; Anthony was told he had not cut it properly!
Many colourful and interesting years followed with much Dacorum activity. This often involved dear Peter Kyne driving the Dacorum Bahá’ís hither and thither to events all over the country in his camper van.
The community in Dacorum was harmonious and loving, but a bit dull for a teenager. Sarah believed in Bahá’u’lláh, but did not attend many of the activities. In 1975 she spent the summer in St Louis, USA and went to a few of the Bahá’í meetings there. At the first meeting there was an animated debate about the meaning and implications of the Writings. It verged on the acrimonious, and the kindly couple who had taken Sarah were concerned about the impact that this would have on her, but it was a key moment. Sarah was delighted to find such interesting and stimulating debates going on. Another significant moment was later in the year when a friend commented, “You are always talking about the Bahá’í Faith but you never do anything”. She apparently started to get more involved, but I remember being very surprised when she returned to us in London (where she lived on the dining room floor for a year when she was eighteen), after a weekend away and announced that she was a Bahá’í. There had been no indication to us that this was likely to happen.
I was attracted from the start and always thought I would become a Bahá’í one day, but I didn’t actually join in until 1978 when I had young children. I doubt I would have found it without Atherton’s initiative. It has enriched my life immeasurably and led me to places, people and opportunities that would not have happened without it.
Susie Howard / Sarah Richards
Oxfordshire, September 2014