Grandmother 

IMG_0584There 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.

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Mother

Jean, my Mother painted by my Father.

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.