letters

Let These Old Lives Speak

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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

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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.

5113 Pte L. Mabey

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This is Lloyd’s second surviving letter and his last. Written in pencil on squared paper torn from an exercise book, words fading on the creases. I wonder how many times Grandfather read the letter, all he had left of his brother. I imagine it neatly folded in his pocketbook, close to his breast. Maybe as the years passed he removed it to his desk for safekeeping but never was it to be discarded. One hundred years later it is my privilege to hold.

It is July 1917, Lloyd is stationed in France with the 13th Royal Sussex Regiment. It’s possible that he has been in France for over a year, as the regiment landed in Le Harve in March 1916. Whatever his duties on those two summer days, there was time given to write a letter home. He imagines John reading it out to the family, to Mah and Pa, and sisters Frad and Ursie. He writes to make them smile, so fills the page with thoughts of jam-making, the “awful animal” (a fox?) and teases Frad about “her Bertie”. Whatever Lloyd has seen of warfare he does not, most likely cannot, tell. He says, with no trace of irony, that their brother Jim is “having a good time”. This was the model of the times, to ‘look on the bright side’, and not concern loved ones with the woeful realities of warfare. Lloyd lived in the midst of battles yet writes as though he is only sojourned in France and it would be nice to have a “month off”.

There are moments when Lloyd lets us into his inner world.  These lines from his jovial letter, “It seems as if I’ve wasted my last 7 years – I hope not – but I’ve really got nothing to show for them have I?”  -they pull at the heartstrings. I imagine the family contradicting this assertion as my Grandfather read the letter. Seated round the kitchen table in the oil-lamplight they shake their heads;  ‘Nothing to show for it? No! Lloyd is serving his country, he is a hero’ and so on.

It may not have been his last letter, I shall never know. There were 8 months left for Lloyd. But I wonder why this one has survived and no others? Perhaps because this letter shows the very essence of him. I hear him, full of humour, considerate of his listener, cognisant of the world he lived in, a young man missing the love and simplicity of home. And after he was gone, I wonder how often did they sigh for Lloyd? Collectively wishing him back, peering out of the window down the long sloping road, hoping that just maybe he would appear.

28/7/17

Dear home

I will now try and reply to yours of the 23rd which it was pleasing to get today. Im glad to say that I am still alive and well in spite of the hot weather & c & c & c. You’re no doubt in your glory as its jam making time. I wish I were home – I’d have a go at the spoon. So you’re really expecting Jim home again are you. I hope in a way that you’ll be disappointed – He’s having a good time. I’m very anxious to know what they will do with him. 29/7/17 – It’s just started raining and jolly hard too – one of our favourite thunderstorms – it won’t last long. I expect the kiddies are looking forward to their summer holidays aren’t they – I hope they will have decent weather. I should like a month off but like you my luck is out. Where does Frad have her evening class and who does she teach? I wonder how she’d like me for a pupil – I think she had enough of me when I was a nipper. I expect Jim G. has seen a thing or two to cause a straight face. – I wonder if the Groves got my letters – Perhaps Jack is on his way to Blighty. I’ll bet Frad is worrying over her Bertie – but supposing he does pay her a surprise visit – then she’ll “Tw….” [illegible]. Fancy Auntie paying Mother visits once in 6 years and only being 200 yds. Apart. That is a shame – I can faintly remember her last visit – I was 19 then wasn’t I? It seems as if I’ve wasted my last 7 years – I hope not – but I’ve really got nothing to show for them have I? I was rather interested in your tale of the awful animal you captured – I believe I caught one up in the yard years ago. I certainly remember having lessons on them at school. I’ve had a paper from Aunt Pollie and read that Cecil B’s exemption was overhauled (in his favour) – who was the farmer trying to give him away – It wouldn’t have been Bob M – ?? I forgot to mention that I noticed that Fred Pidgeon was amongst the missing Rifles. I’m sorry for his people. I’ve been following up the argument over a Mr Frodd of Ryde who has apparently taken a commission. The affair caused some feeling in a recent meeting. Does Dad very often get night duty as a Special Constable. I suppose times are not very exciting on his beat are they? It is now thundering very heavily. I’m afraid I don’t know what else to write about – It is shocking the state of affairs in Russia – just as we thought things well in our favour. That shows the curse of German espionage and the influence of their dirty money. It is pleasing to see that the Rumanians  have kicked off very well. I hope they’ll keep it up. I believe Fritz will have the shock of his life shortly. On giving my kind regards to Uncle and Auntie assure them that the war will be soon over – official. I hope you got my letter enclosing photos & c & c also one later posted 26/7/17. I’m afraid I’ve no more news to say so I’ll wind up – with tons of love & x x x x x x x x x x x x x x’s to all.

I remain,

Your loving frere

Lloyd

P.S.  Re Mah’s note 25/7/17 I trust she has got mine now – and hope she’ll save some of that jelly for me. I will answer Ursie’s letter next post. X

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So there is no more of Lloyd. I have papers relating to his death which I will publish in following posts, but this is the last of Lloyd’s voice. He, like brother Patrick and sister Vera, leave no trace upon the earth, never having lived long enough to have children. There are none now living who knew them.

 

Lloyd

IMG_0770My Great-Uncle replies to my Grandfather’s letter in March 1912. He has left The Island. This is a letter full of puzzles, which no-one living can solve for me. I know that Edie and Elsie were the older Mabey sisters but why and where did they meet with Lloyd? I will never know who “Daisy of Ashey” was, nor what she knew of Lloyd’s state of mind. The 1911 Census records Lloyd as living at home and working as a nurseryman. One year later he is 19 and in West London; there are no clues to the cause of this separation. Lloyd chides my Grandfather for ‘certain practices’ suggesting  something sexual and not entirely wholesome. It seems my  Grandfather has given him unwanted advice about finances that still smarts – “That is hardly my nature.” Yet Lloyd wishes still to impress his scholarly older brother, for he writes that he will be submitting an article to ‘John Bull’ the following week, although he alludes no further to its subject matter. I wonder if he felt too shy to give details, or maybe there was no article to speak of.

It seems a jolly letter on first reading – brother to brother, worldly opinions, talk of horse racing and tobacco. But I sense a loneliness beneath the young man’s bravura. There is no mention of friends, his occupation or his lodgings. Lloyd is miles away from home, his “mental equilibrium” underlined and therefore, it seems, in question. I imagine his downcast expression as he breaks off from writing – “I suppose I shall be right out of the picture” – to stare into the fire.

Lloyd stirs from self pity and returns to his letter, to write about football, the increasing number of aeroplanes (which would have been a rare sighting over the Isle of Wight) and finally world politics;  “I really believe that before 10 years we shall have a most frightful state of affairs.” I gasped when I first read that, for I knew his end. Poor Lloyd would live to see his chill prophecy come true. What he foresaw, if anything, of his part in the looming war we shall never know.

Park Royal
Willesden
London NW

March 6th 1912

Dear John,

Thanks very much for your kind epistle. I am indeed glad to hear that you ARE alive and well. I beg humbly to apologise for my letters being so indigestible of late but trust that after regaining my mental equilibrium my literary efforts may be well patronised and meet with generous response. You must ask Daisy of Ashey all about the mental equilibrium. I am glad to hear that you have changed your practice, for certain practices during Xmas gave me to think that you went very much “behind the bushes”. However be that as it may, I am very glad that you have condescended to renew old acquaintance.
Re stopping here I can assure you that it will be only my fault if I leave, at least whilst Mr Wallace is here.
Thanks for your tip about living extravagantly. That is hardly my nature.
I am glad that your prospects are improving at school and hope that you’ll get on better with your smarter and smaller class. If you don’t – well they’ll smart-ER!!?
Do you really wish to make me jealous by detailing the Ashey Races? I suppose I shall be right out of the picture because I can’t dance – however manners mayketh man.
I was very pleased to meet Edie and Elsie. Edie looks jolly well but Elsie doesn’t look so full in the face.
You must excuse my scribble but I’m sitting by the fire writing on my knee.
What do you think of the German airship scare in France? Quite laughable n’est pas.
Isn’t it funny that every power is trying its hardest to make peace in the Balkans yet are taxing their own inhabitants for armaments.
Never has there been such dissension amongst the Powers and I really believe that before 10 years we shall have a most frightful state of affairs. At all events Germany is fairly asking for it.
I have seen lots of aeroplanes here lately and by the way – what do you think of the new “Daily Mail” prizes? I don’t think the Atlantic £10,000 will be won in a hurry.
I suppose you still keep your eye on Crystal Palace. They are running well but I think they will have to be satisfied with a second or third place.
People about here are wild at the weak form of the Queens Park Rangers Club.
I am now a constant reader of John Bull and think it a jolly sound investment – I am sending them an article this week. I must now close not forgetting to congratulate you on taking to a PIPE – but don’t overdo it.
Excuse writing and take my advice.
Goodbye love etc etc xxx
Lloyd.

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Great-Grandmother

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?)

Dear John,

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.

Your loving Mother.

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, 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.

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