Although I never found them, I knew, from my early childhood, that Mother had guardianship of her brother’s letters. Letters he wrote to their parents during his RAF service in World War Two. I was an inquisitive child, always opening drawers and rummaging through their contents in the hope of finding a treasure. Mother often told me off for ‘fiddling with things’, by which she meant poking my nose into places I should not go. I am quite sure that she hid the letters well away from me, in a place that I would never think to look – for I was rather good at uncovering things. So, although I knew they existed I never knew where they might be.
It was after Mother died, in the late Autumn of 2016, that we discovered the box. Emily said to me ‘I think you should take them’ and when I asked her why, she said that she thought Mum would have liked me to. A mother knows a young child’s mind. I kept the box closed up for nearly a year. Then, as I felt the weight of her anniversary press upon me, I started to read.
I confess I had a sensation close to horror, on discovering there was so much more than my late Uncle’s legacy contained within. The box revealed to me letters over a century old, correspondence from those familiar by name and from strangers unimagined. What should I do with it all? Some action was required, I was quite certain of that. My Mother preserved these skeins of family history, mindful of her own father’s care in gathering them close. I had to honour their guardianship. After grey afternoons of reading I began this blog, on the anniversary of my Mother’s death. Mother was the first post of course, the beginning of all things.
I have not counted how many letters there are, I would estimate over 200, written by a relatively small number of people, only two of whom I met in my lifetime. In the main they tell the story of the Mabey family from the Isle of Wight. An ordinary family of their time, neither rich nor poor. They tell of my Grandfather, who went across the water to Southampton, and of his eldest son Albert.
In each post I offer one letter and add some words of my own, writing whatever seems pertinent or appropriate at the time. I don’t want to write too much myself because it is important to me that I let the old lives speak for themselves. I hope that what I write will illuminate rather than obscure them – that is my sincere intention. I will keep on going until the box is empty. Who know how long that will take?
Reading these ancestral voices has revealed to me something profound – how love endures through ink on paper, and has the power to move us although the writer and recipient have passed on. I gained access to The Letters after Mother died. They were if you like a gift of loss, yet at the same time they are a gift of beginning, access to a timeless landscape filled with family I never knew. This is my lifetime’s treasure.
(All paintings by my Father, Philip Lambert 1918-2014).