life

“My Love to My Love”

IMG_1146One hundred and one years ago my Grandfather sent this card to my Grandmother. Three years later, in 1920, they married. Their marriage ended with my dear Grandfather’s death in 1963. ‘Dear Grandfather’ – a phrase I never thought to utter before I began to read The Letters. I regard that as a benefaction of the universe, that now I feel a connection to a man I never knew whilst he lived.

It seemed fitting to publish a love token on this Valentine’s Day, although I confess this is not a Valentine’s card, rather a birthday card sent on 21 May 1917.  The 14th February 1917 was not marked by any romantic sentiment in my Grandfather’s diary. There was the daily letter from May (my Grandmother to be), but no cards or flowers sent or received, and certainly nothing so extravagant as chocolates.

My Grandfather was a romantic man though, and he expressed his love ardently in the ‘billet doux’ that he slipped within this card. I will not share its contents for even a century later the lines beg privacy, which I must respect. He signs himself “H.H.”, terming himself a ‘Happy Headley’. My Grandparents  were betrothed by May 1917 but could not marry until my Grandfather had paid off certain debts on behalf of his family.

I will share that my Grandfather remarked that his illness kept him from crossing the Solent to visit May in Havant, and that he had to borrow money to send her the card pictured above. It is wonderfully detailed and well-preserved – crisply embossed and hand-stitched, with colouring so fresh I would have guessed it to be only a few years old. Clearly this card was kept close to my Grandmother’s heart. My mother wrote, in the red book on which the card is photographed, that her parents had a happy, harmonious marriage and that ‘they never bickered.’

Last week Lloyd’s letter, and the loss of him,  prevented me from recording it in detail. This week also I have not transcribed the contents of this card, but for a happy reason for there is no sadness here. These words have no need of my interpretation. All I shall remark upon is the feeling that I woke up with this morning, that I hold a token not only of love’s beginning but a marker of the ceaseless flow of love on this earth. I witness here the love that would bring my Mother into the world and, ultimately, started the story of me.

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Great-Grandfather

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Now, in this New Year I introduce you to my Great-Grandfather, and to the oldest letter in the collection. John Mabey was born in 1859 and lived in Knighton with his grandparents. For most of his life he was a market gardener. This photograph shows him in August 1936 amongst his fruit trees. My Mother is the dear little soul beside him.

These days there are no other circumstances in which I might use “My Mother is.” She has gone and so one says “my Mother was“, “She did” etc. No present or future actions are possible.  Yet in a photograph, where a sliver of time is captured and stilled, she still exists. There she is smiling in the hot sunshine, how happy they look.

Great-Grandfather was a jovial man, by my Mother’s account, and she was very fond of him. She told me that he did not have the brains for business, my Great-Grandmother had those. Jane Mabey ran a shop out of Headley House selling all manner of household and farm goods. It did well until Apse Heath expanded.  Thereafter trade and income dwindled as the family grew ever larger. I believe it was the promise of gold that prompted my Great-Grandfather to enlist, aged 40, for the second Boer War. What his wife thought of him travelling half way across the world with no guarantee of return we shall never know. It seems that Vera Chrystabel was born in her father’s absence. She was the youngest of 7 children that Jane Mabey was left to manage alone, and there was the shop to look after too.

My Great-Grandfather writes from Keat’s Drift in South Africa. He addresses his son as though he is head of the household, done tongue-in-cheek we hope, for he was only 10 years old in 1900. My Grandfather, Headley John, had four older sisters  – Edith, Elsie, Frad and Daisy.

10-05-1900

My Dear John – I received your letter with Daisy’s – and I was very glad to hear from you – also to hear that the Little Mother is better. I hope that you are a good boy and that you help her all you can . How do you get on at school, do you like it? Your Good Friday was very different to mine. I was on a very long march and it was a very hot day and dusty. I shall remember that for a very long time. I was glad to hear that Vera Chrystabel was such a nice little girl – also that Jim was a fine boy. I suppose he will soon go to school. I hear he is getting pretty unruly. I think his mother had better pack him off out to me in a box and I will make a Dutchman out of him – and Mr Levy off too. Please remember me to to Aunt Frances and Uncle John Wheeler also to Mr Sprack and tell him he could make hay out here for it shines both sides of the hedges every day, also to Miss Salter and tell her I have forgotten the taste of “Sodie”. Goodbye John be a good boy and help Little Mother and take care of her. From your old Dad – in South Africa x x x x

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I’m glad to say that John Mabey returned to The Island to drink refreshing “Sodie” in his garden. He survived the war unscathed, but did not find enough gold to make him rich. He brought some back, a little nugget mounted on a tie-pin. We sold it after Mum died. Great-Grandfather’s war medals were stolen in 1960 when Frad and Ursie left the house. Vera Chrystabel died in 1901, aged 18 months. I do not know if Great-Grandfather ever saw her, I hope he did. They called her Molly in the family, long after she was gone – my uncle recalls this. Why she was known as Molly is a mystery. There were no photographs of her. Jane Mabey had only her memories, no picture to hold and say  “Look Molly is..”

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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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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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