A Portrait of my Grandfather

IMG_0883
My Grandfather painted by my Father

This painting was always in our home, by which I mean for as long as I can remember. I knew that the name of this man was ‘Grandfather’ before I understood the concept of grandparents, for I had none. In truth it used to scare me. As a young child this large portrait towered above me, stern-faced and silent. The ‘Grandfather’ must be a giant I thought.

I remember the dark evening when Grandfather fell off the wall. My sister and I had been ordered to the front room so that Mum and Dad could enjoy some after-dinner talk with their guests (I remember this because ‘having people round’ was a rare occurrence). Of course we were bored and trapped and so resorted to climbing on furniture. It was our forbidden amusement to kick off the seat cushions of the two armchairs and jump on the springs stretched across the frames beneath. These were our trampolines and we were in trouble if caught, so we were mindful not to squeal. The higher I jumped the closer I got to Grandfather’s face and his hard stare. I must have been quite a young child because I was certain that if I got close enough and willed it so – then his expression would change and he would become real. Sadly exhaustion set in before I succeeded and my sister and I ceased our game, lolling on the hard, brown, tapestry cushions. And then Grandfather, with a terrifying bang, slipped off the wall and tipped over onto the seat-less chair.  Frozen, we waited for Dad to storm in and punish us, but we were saved by Mr Lowe’s loud laughter, which had drowned out the noise of our mischief. Undaunted by the height of the canvas (taller than us both) we rehung the two fishtail hooks on the picture rail and found a quieter occupation. Mother discovered our wonky hanging the next day. She admonished us but not too harshly, for I think she was quietly impressed that we managed to reach so high above our heads (with the aid of the chairs of course) without causing any breakages or serious injury.

Later in life I learnt that my Grandfather, in stature, was the very opposite of a giant. He was “A dear little man”, in my Mother’s words. He was 5 foot 8 inches tall and when aged 26 he recorded his weight as an astonishing 8 stone 3 pounds.

I  have come to know, by reading through ‘The Letters’, how truly loved he was. Mostly that is carried in the tone of letters rather than their contents. However there are also direct sources such as his obituary in the Culham College magazine of September 1963 which I have reproduced below. I smile to read that he was “A man of modesty but great wisdom, a friendly man, a true servant” and I feel proud.

The same writer tells us “his memorial will be his faultless reputation” and again I smile. But I know that Grandfather has another memorial. He made himself the guardian of his family’s voices through preserving the letters of their lives. That legacy, expansive and illuminating is a living one. So my childhood intuition is proved right, my Grandfather was a giant.

IMG_0899
Grandfather attended Culham Teacher Training College between 1909 and 1911

IMG_0893

Private Langridge’s Reply

IMG_0860

This week it is Private J. Langridge’s  turn to speak to us, a very different letter to last week’s. He gives us an account of 22 March 1918, entire and plainly stated, which brings Lloyd’s life-story to a close. Yet in spite of its content this letter moved me less than Mrs Dawson’s, for hers was heartfelt whereas this letter from Lloyd’s comrade is written out of duty.

Private J. Langridge writes from Hut 27 B Company, Royal Sussex Depot, Chichester one February morning in 1919 Using a regulation pencil and regulation paper he replies to my grandfather’s letter. The military man answers the enquiry directly, ‘he was killed by a bullet in the head’. A plain, hard fact that no family wishes to know. Did Grandfather’s hand tremble, seeing the words that extinguished all embers of hope?  Did Grandfather sense the thinness of  these lines “I feel quite sure he was killed outright and that he did not suffer” – a form of words surely?  In those times families seeking information from the military would receive a sanctioned reply, devoid of recounts of misery, failure, pain. I surmise (but cannot say for certain) that there were many letters written containing exactly those lines.  J. Langridge troubled to write a four page letter in his laboured hand, troubled to detail why he could not report Lloyd’s death – so he was a good man, a survivor of bloodshed and battles that I do not wish to imagine.

Dear Mr Mabey,

I now have the pleasure of answering your letter which I received this morning.Your brother, as named in your letter, was with me on the 22nd March when I am sorry to say he was killed by a bullet in the head. At the time of his death he was my no. 2 in the Gun team to which he belonged. I feel quite sure that he was killed outright and that he did not suffer. I am sorry I cannot tell you what happened to his body as I was took prisoner shortly afterwards. The sad affair happened on the 22nd March between the two villages of St Emile and Villers Falcon about one o’clock just after we had orders to retreat from a railway cutting. Our captain in charge of the company at that time was Capt. Powell who was afterwards killed and the Platoon Sergeant was Sgt. Mason. I didn’t report your brother death as I had no chance whatever while I was a prisoner as we were not allowed to mention anything in our letters in that line. If there is anything else you would like to know I shall be very pleased to answer it if I have and [sic] knowledge of it. I feel quite sure you have had an anxious time about your brothers and I am pleased to hear you have heard of the other one and hope he will soon be back home again with you. Now I will close trusting this will reach you safe.

I remain, Yours Truly, Pte. J. Langridge

Let These Old Lives Speak

IMG_0804

My intention this week was to share the letter written by a comrade of my Great-Uncle’s but the box had other plans for me.

It was my desire to bring order to the letters in the box that thwarted continuation of the linear narrative concerning Lloyd. Within the box so many letters lie loose and many are folded in on one another, letter within letter. The majority are from my uncle Albert, referred to as John by our family. Some of these are held together with tightly knotted string, bundles which I could not bring myself to disturb – to untie the knots secured for who knows how many decades seemed somehow disrespectful, even unkind. Who was I to unsettle the snug security of private correspondence? So my focus yesterday was to sift through all the papers that were un-enveloped, sorting by author – the young, the old, the remembered and the unknown. Such sorting requires reading of course. I read so many lines from ages past, and as I read I sensed my own thoughts fall silent. As in moments of meditation my mind grew still, released from the fast currents of the here and now. Peace descended as I let these old lives speak. Mostly I heard Albert – writing his weekly letter during training, writing from London, Wiltshire, Lincolnshire, Manchester, Cumbria and then, as Flying Officer Mabey from Canada; there are so many from that faraway country. Of all the letters that passed through my hands I fully read only a few. And what force of serendipity led me to read of his billet in Manchester “I could not wish for lodgings more like home” and then to find the letter from  Mrs Eleanor Dawson, the very woman who had opened her home to the young airman as he waited for his overseas posting.

I did not expect her letter to move me so, for tears to rush up so quickly. It is the universal contained within those lines that touches the soul – she writes of a mother’s love, the unending worry for sons sent to war. What humanity I hear in her words of gratitude and good wishes, faith in a happy future for all because that is the only faith possible. Grace lifts off the page and passes through me. Her words rested in my heart all night long. Grandmother must have felt glad and comforted to receive a letter so full of kindness. It is remarkable that a stranger’s words draw me a fraction closer to my own grandparents, people who I never knew, or ever spoke to, never having the privilege of hearing their stories. A little more light is cast upon them now. Thank you Mrs Dawson.

Dear Mrs Mabey,                                                                     November 19th 1942

Thank you and your dear husband for your very thoughtful letter, I had been thinking a lot about your dear boy and wondering if he had arrived safely at his station overseas, so you can imagine how relieved we all felt at the good news. Enclosed you will find stamps your dear boy asked me if I would send to you. I am sorry for the delay. I have had my son ill – just after he left me. I am glad to say he is much better but still under treatment. You must be very proud indeed to have such a lovable son, as he is always so bright. I shall never forget when he said good bye to me, God bless him he might have been one of my own dear ones, I could not have felt more touched. I was sorry we could not do more for him, I am quite sure where ever he may be everybody he meets will just love him – they just couldn’t help but do so. I am anxiously waiting to hear from my dear son. I do not know if he has arrived at his station or not. We mothers have just to be patient and know the same God is watching over them. I must close now with all good wishes and many thanks to you and your dear husband. May God bless and keep you and your loved ones from all hurt. I do not forget you in all my prayers.

Yours very sincerely, Eleanor Dawson

IMG_0818

If by any chance you think you might be a descendant of Mrs Dawson, please let me know. I would like you to have this letter.