Above a section of my Great-Grandmother’s sampler, completed age 7.
My grandfather’s family were from the Isle of Wight. For generations Richards and Mabeys lived in the environs of Newchurch. Stephen Richards built a house at Branstone in the 1700s, which still stands; ‘Headley House’ (so named for being the first house in the village). There is not so much of Branstone now. Jane Richards married John Mabey in 1882 and they lived at Headley House until her death in 1944. She bore 12 children, and had three grandchildren. None of the six surviving daughters married, for the ‘Great War’ took the young men that would have been their suitors.
I know the letter that I hold in my hands is near one hundred years old, yet its age is betrayed neither by fragile paper nor faded ink but by the script of my great-grandmother’s handwriting. Jane Mabey writes to her son John and the content is timeless. I am struck by how my own mother might have written such a letter to me, on subjects of weather and family friends and that self-deprecating “nothing in the way of news”. And yet there is an out of the everyday and ordinary about this letter – for Lloyd is missing and Jim’s whereabouts are unknown, although the family know he was gassed. My great-grandmother’s anxiety and sorrow is simply, humbly expressed and no less powerful for that. It is her loss, and abiding love for all her children that transmits through the pages so long after the heart that beat for them has ceased. Lloyd and Jim were my grandfather’s younger brothers. Lloyd did not come home.
Branstone Feb 16th (1918?)
I daresay you have been looking for a word from me but I have waited till today to see if anything came from Jim. I wonder if they are only allowed to post one letter weekly, it would mean a lot of trouble if there are many of them and they all wrote as often as they wanted. Uncle and Auntie Sprack had a letter last Wednesday. It was written on the day after mine Jan. 28th but not posted till Feb. 1st. There was nothing fresh in it, only to wish them good wishes for the year and he said he was just going to have 1 and a half inch needle put into his leg to make him well. So I hope we may get another letter next week. Oh how glad I shall be when we can once more get in touch with him and get answers to our letters, the time seems endless. I was glad to get your card and hope you did not renew your cold. The weather has turned to wet again and not very warm but it’s nice to be not so piercingly cold as it was the beginning of the week. Mabel Merwood was married today. Not much sunshine for her. A letter came for Jim from Victor, he is demobilised and has set up housekeeping in Newport. He said he had just got a letter returned that he wrote to Jim in July. You will be pleased to know that Ursie was delighted with the new records. Pat put up the big horn this week and they sound lovely. I’m afraid I have nothing in the way of news. Your Dad was called upon to shoot a horse for Mr Mayow. That has been the chief excitement of the week. I suppose you have heard nothing more as to Lloyd? My heart is full of sorrow when I realise that I shall see him no more. I dearly loved the lad as I do all of you and I had fondly hoped that he might have been spared. But its useless to repine. I must close now having no more news. Hope to be able to write more of Jim next week. With love from all.
There are no memories of my Grandmother; all my life an absence of recollection. In those two years before her death in 1965 I know she would have held me, countless times. I know she must have murmured over my tiny form, held my steady, infant gaze, kissed my forehead and felt my tiny fingers wrap round hers. And I imagine that she would bless me before handing me back to her daughter, and I would have made her glad, hopeful – in the miraculous way that babies do.
In the box there was this torn page, ripped from an album. No explanatory notes on the back. Why it was kept with the bundles of letters is unknowable. Nor do I know who took this photograph, with its careful label of ‘Mother’. It is not my own mother’s hand and Albert was killed two years previously. I have concluded that my grandfather titled his wife thus, for the family album. Here May Mabey stands, patient and steady in Spring sunshine. Is that cherry blossom in the back garden in Bitterne Park, Southampton? The war is over. The men have come home and her eldest son is not amongst them. All the letters that Albert would ever write are already in store.
Grandmother’s voice does not survive, for there is not a single letter from her hand. There is one birthday card, for Mum’s 21st, “from your loving Mother and Father”, that was written by my grandfather. When my mother moved to Sheffield in 1951, my father wrote, intermittently, for a period of three years. Mum faithfully kept her love letters but none from her parents. I don’t suggest this was a deliberate act; I know Mum was living in Sheerness during the flood of 1953 and her lodgings were ruined. So perhaps those letters were washed away, sluiced off by the cold North sea.
Mum said that I reminded her of her own mother. I remember she would say our eyes were alike, “the shape of them, and the colour”, a shadowed green of still water and dark woods. I understand now the importance of naming those similarities, the subtle edges of inheritance, for recognition somehow hints that not everything has passed. I carried the echo of May Mabey whenever I looked up slowly, distracted from my absorption in drawing or reading (my usual occupations as a child), and Mum would say “You look a bit like my Mum you know.” Her voice was casual, mild, careful not to betray the sorrow felt – of this I am certain – at her sudden, unexpected death. My younger sister was barely two months old. My mother was 34.
One year ago today my Mother died. She breathed her last at 7:52 in the evening. Born on a Wednesday, died on a Wednesday. Later we commented on the neatness of that. “Wednesday’s child is full of woe”, was that so for my Mum? I choose not to think so.
I crave these moments of stillness – now when a bird is singing in the still, damp evening. Outside the leaves are loosening and the sky is grey and unfathomable. In this last year I have not fought against grief nor tried to stay on the surface of life without looking into the sorrow in my heart. But this year is turning now, drawing to its sad end. Something else will begin now, something to do with the letters left to me.
She asked me to find her red book, for there were things she had written that best not be discovered. It was in the cupboard she said. I looked where I could, but no, I could not find it. Mum closed her eyes and gave her little shrug. Her mouth moved, wordless yet I understood, ‘It did not matter’. She was leaving me, letting go, breath by shallow breath. Hour after hour I watched her face, stroked her hand, placed my palm upon her still warm head. And then she was gone.
We found the letters at the bottom of the coffer. The cardboard box labelled with her neat handwriting. There must be over a hundred letters there, spanning (I know this much) over 100 years. All my life that box lay somewhere in the house, filled with the voices of long-passed relatives and I never knew.
My intention is, letter by letter, to write about those who wrote and those who received, every Wednesday until the box is empty.