Today would have been my Mother’s 88th birthday. What does one do on these strange anniversaries, when Mum has gone and the grief has faded? Three years since I sent a birthday card and made the trip westwards to spend a weekend. I’ve written the date in case notes several times today, without sadness, pausing to wonder ‘well, what do I feel?’ I have bought daffodils and put them in her vase. Yes, that made me cry a little, but not too much. Time has passed.
After my little bit of weeping I remembered this photograph that Albert took of my Mother, when she was maybe 8 or 9. How perfect a gift it is for today; in London we have sunshine in a peerless blue sky, blossom trees punctuate the streets with white and pale pink. Spring is here.
Thank you Albert, for showing me Mum, with everything before her. She had a good life. She was the best mum. Happy Birthday.
I have mentioned before that my uncle was a keen photographer. And being a photographer in the 1930s and 1940s meant developing one’s own photographs, with all the expense and labour which that entails. The photograph above is, I think, of such a high quality that it deserves to be the first that I share with you. Albert must have been rather proud of it too, for he included it in his 1940 album. You can see below how he chose to mount it, with a precise hand-drawn frame and caption. I’m sorry that I could not get an entirely straight shot of this page, because the album is a little warped, in spite of my Mother’s care in keeping it. Albert’s choice of title “The Quiet Stream” hints at his romantic spirit, of one in love with the English Countryside. I wonder if he ever looked at his work and dreamt of a future where his photographs graced the pages of a guide book or ‘Country Life’.
I also love the photograph below. This really is of ‘another country’; a bygone era, unknown to all but a few people now. It might be of farmland on the high hills around Winchester, if not there then I am sure that it will be somewhere in Hampshire or Dorset. These counties were his favoured lands. I have two versions of this photograph, one is a test print on a postcard and this is the final print, which he mounted in another album, preceding the 1940 one. Certainly the photos in the album are not quite so lovingly mounted, which is why I didn’t include the frame! I think it is beautiful.
On the back of the test print are some notes made in pencil. Initially I thought Albert had hurriedly set down his thoughts, for the letters slope uncharacteristically elongated and almost illegible across the card. But as I slowly deciphered the words, I realised they were by another’s hand. I had not given any thought to how or where Albert developed his photographs. Given the costs and space required, he most likely shared resources, maybe at a club. The critique below must have been written by a friend or a club member, someone who had some expertise to pass on to my uncle, but I don’t know who. Maybe my Uncle Peter will be able to recall?
‘Apparently sun wasn’t shining – so don’t expect highlights on the horses. Besides my horses were classics – these aren’t. Composition might have been improved by having sky behind house instead of a horse. I’m always doing the same thing. Plus sunshine, this might have been a prizewinner.’
Oh but I think it absolutely is a prizewinner, Uncle Albert!
I have the last letter Great-Grandfather wrote in my hands. He signs off ‘Your Old Dad’, and that has got me thinking about my own Father, who I have not seen in four years now. Four years since I have called him ‘Dear Old Dad’. We all used to call him that, for he was always an old Dad; he was 45 years old when I was born, and to have a father that old was quite unusual in the 1960s! So he got very close to his 96th birthday before he passed away. I have missed my Dear Old Dad rather a lot in the last few days, for no particular reason. Four years will turn into five, and so it will go on like that. I regret this. He is more distant to me now, the accumulation of years absent takes its toll. I look at the photographs, I recall the sound of his voice; I try to stem the ceaseless flow of time and what it carries away.
Great-Grandfather writes from his bed, laid up with bronchitis. Touchingly he acknowledges that he is ‘Well looked after in every way.’ He thanks my Grandfather for the secateurs, which sadly he would not get much time to use.
I feel that I must try and write you a line or 2 re the “Secateurs” &co. What a bit of real “Luck” that you should manage to drop on a pair so very similar to the ones that I’ve lost &co and that you purchased for me so many years ago. I forget HOW MANY but they have done such GOODWORK and Now to be lost!!! At any rate I am wellpleased and Hope to do some good Work with these and tho’ at present it don’t look hopeful &co, as I am writing this in Bed and not very well pleased with myself so far – but must be well satisfied that I’m not worse &co &co. And thankful that I’m well looked after in every way. BRONCHITIS is no favourite complaint of MINE!!! Well I went round the Garden yesterday afternoon almost Heart Breaking &co and nothing done & the 3rdWeek in March. Well goodbye for the present. Glad to hear you are keeping well and busy Gardening with kindest regards THANKS &co. From your ‘OLDDAD‘
I believe that this was the last letter my Grandfather received from his father. And so Grandfather chose to keep this letter very safe, demonstrative of the same sentiment I have for the things my Father left behind. Father did not leave me letters, but little notes and drawings appended to my Mother’s letters. I have other things by his hand too, paintings (of course) and other oddities such as this stone that he drew upon. I cherish these things because they keep him close.
And so farewell Great-Grandfather. I started this project knowing only your name and where you had lived. Apart from knowing a little more, I feel a sense of your spirit, which surprises me. Were I younger and my parents still living, my connection to you would not be so heartfelt, of this I am certain. Now I have lost my Mother and Father, the lives of long before (ushers in of us all) have a pull upon my heart.
Truly John Mabey, it has been a great pleasure to be with you.
I mentioned in These Letters that many of my Uncle’s letters did not have complete dates, in fact most do not show the year. It’s not a problem if the letter is snuggled in an envelope, as the postmark will do the job, but there are many that have survived loose, so for example ‘Sunday February 28th’ is all I have to go on.
Oh the wonders of the internet! I can, with a few clicks, search the calendars of 1941, 1942 and 1943 and pinpoint the year for each letter Albert wrote. It has taken me about an hour to go through 50 or more letters. February 28th fell on a Sunday in 1943, in case you wanted to know!
Filling in the missing years to sequence the letters in chronological order would have been an impossible task without access to the ‘universal brain’, which we seem ever more reliant on. Being the age I am, I feel ambivalence about the virtual world that we collectively stride ever deeper into – because for most of my life I have lived without it. The library used to be my place to find things out, and I recall many contented hours searching for information in reference sections. I show my age when, asked how I decided to retrain as a speech and language therapist, I say I went to the careers section in the library and read about it. It sounds quite archaic!
I have not been to a library in over a decade, for I have no need. So libraries, deemed no longer ‘necessary’ by us former patrons, have lost their status in society. By eschewing their primary service I forgo their secondary free benefits: peace, a comfortable chair and a magazine to read, some friendly faces, acknowledgement, warmth, and a sense of being in a safe place in the outside world. I have no need of these things now, my home, my friends and my occupation provide all of the above. But in later, more isolated years, will there be any libraries left for me to visit when I need a change of scene?
I procrastinate; Albert’s letters lie waiting and I look at them and feel cowed by the task. This is all there is of Albert. Can I do him justice? I have wondered about him ever since I was a child. Only ever wondered, for I knew I could not ask my Mother. If ever I picked up his photograph that stood on the chest of drawers in my parents’ bedroom, she was quick to chide me with a look. ‘That’s my brother’ she would say, her expression underlining that no more would be said. Mother would make herself more busy and I understood I was to occupy myself with something less contentious. In my childhood adults still talked about ‘The War’ and I learnt a fair bit about it, but one would think nobodydied, in spite of the bombs that fell on Southampton and my father’s 6 years of service. Death was not to be spoken about.
Back then my parents deemed that Albert was not a subject that their daughter needed to know a thing about. Not so now, now I can do as I please. It’s a notion on which I have floundered; what do I want from this process of opening up the bundles of letters and publishing them in this virtual world? It is to let him speak again. To have as many living souls as I can muster listen to his words, and know that he was in the world.
These letters are from my Mother’s brother Albert. He did not live long enough to become an uncle to any of his four nieces. It is these letters that I always knew of. These are the letters that I knew were stored and safeguarded, because one day someone would read them again and Albert would come back to life.
He died on 12 January 1944. He was 22 years old. My Mother was 13, an evacuee in Bournemouth. His brother, my Uncle Peter was 17 and at Cambridge University.
The three bundles of letters are from 1941, 1943 and 1944. Those loose are from 1942 – I believe – although many have incomplete dates and so could be from other years. I look at this pile of letters and wonder where do I begin.
I think on how their contents are all I shall ever experience of him. The Letters as a whole entity are all I shall ever know of my Mabey relatives passed away, yet Albert’s letters have a particular poignancy. His death was the tragedy of my Mother’s family. She rarely talked of him but the silences of grief were still palpable in my young childhood.
I have two letters left from 1939, which I will publish in the next two weeks. Then we move to 1941, when the world is at wholeheartedly at war and thus Albert’s voice will take centre stage, and I shall come to know my uncle.
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
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.