‘These are The Days of The Unexpected’

IMG_1906Just as I was about to start on Albert’s letters, Great-Grandfather makes another appearance! I found this letter from 1940 as I was collating Albert’s. Looking at the letter propped up against my computer, it seems to come from a different age. I suppose it does, for what did my Great-Grandfather, born in 1858, know of the trappings of my modern-day, connected world? I wonder what would he make of it all.

Great-Grandfather writes, as he did in October 1939, to wish Grandfather a happy 51st birthday. How different their lives are now, compared to the year before; Grandfather has been evacuated to Dorset with his school and bombs are falling on the Isle of Wight:

27 October 1940

Dear John – just a few lines to wish you all the Best for your 51st Birthday. How Time Flies &co. I suppose that you will not spend this B’day at Home as you were Home last Sunday. Well last Sunday JIM and Olive were here. What a lot of unexpected things have happened this last Month &co – all for the good we hope. These are the days of the unexpected for just about half an hour ago, we – Mah, Elsie, Daisy and Norah were in the kitchen busy talking &co when all at once THE LAMP jumped – THE WINDOWS rattled and the house SHOOK &co and 5 Bombs dropped, seemed Quite Close. Caused quite a consternation but have no idea where they dropped possibly WINFORD WAY? Shall possibly hear about it Tommorow? So must leave it at that!!! But we must be thankful that we do not live in London – or any large TOWN &co. Well let us hope that by your next B’DAY THE HITLER GANG will have THEIR TEETH severely DRAWN &co. Well GoodBye Cheerio “OUR CHINS are Still up” DAD.

Wouldn’t the world have been very different, if Great-Grandfather’s hope had been realised and ‘The Hitler Gang’ were defeated within the year? Great-Grandfather seemed unaware that Southampton had already been attacked by Nazi bombers; 23 September 1940 is widely reported to have been the first night of The Blitz. Perhaps information was kept to a minimum. Southampton was very heavily bombed because it was a major port and the Spitfire factory was located at Woolston. A good account of Southampton’s Blitz can be found here The Blitz. As a naval base, Portsmouth was also targeted and often bombs were discharged on the Isle of Wight as  planes returned to Germany.

Periodically I ask myself, when sifting through my box of letters, why a particular letter was saved from the vast correspondence Grandfather received in his lifetime. In the case of this little letter the reason is clear, Great-Grandfather died in 1941. This was the last time he sent birthday wishes to his son.

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Detective Work

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I opened this bundle of letters from 1943, thinking of my Grandmother who secured them together how many decades ago?

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 nobody died, 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

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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.

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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