It was Mum’s idea. ‘You need to know who’s who.’
She had a small blue attache case, the sort that usually contained cotton reels or buttons. This one was jam packed with black and white photographs. She picked up one near the top, running her finger around the figure on the right. ‘Your grandpa was a handsome man.’
Mum adored her father. He could do no wrong.
He was a dashing WW1 pilot, a romantic who saved my grandma from some degree of shame, who drove cars around the race track at Brooklyns in Surrey and who died of injuries he sustained in that awful war at the tragically early age of 50 with her nursing him (she was 14) while her own mother went out to work.
Oh and she cared for her two younger brothers too, at the same time.
A lot is made of our Queen and her sense of duty, her belief that she has no choice but to serve because of the example set by her father, George VI, an example which contributed to his early death. Mum, in her own way, was forged from a similar set of ideals. She had a duty to serve, in her case her family. It brooked no compromise: she’d no more abdicate her responsibilities than will Elizabeth II.
As one of many examples, her mother became so frail, in the mid 1980s that she needed some sustained care to restore her health.
For mum that was easy: she had to come and live in the family home. At the same time my father’s mother, happily ensconced in sheltered housing began to complain at the favouritism being shown to mum’s mother.
Mum curtailed any debate. She invited her mother in law to come and stay too.
We all said she was mad; dad used riper language. She went ahead anyway.
For ten years the two elderly woman, who frankly detested each other much like the two ‘grannies in the wainscot’ from Laurie Lee’s Cider With Rosie, occupied different parts of the family house. Dad retreated farther and farther down the garden, while the Archaeologist and I lived away from home so avoided the daily sniping. Mum rose above it all, keeping the peace, finding the best in people and just getting on with things. She kept sane by (a) finding humour in most situations (b) taking no one very seriously and (c) treating any behaviour that was childish as she would if it was enacted by a child. That and keeping the supplies of Harvey’s sherry (for her mother) and Stones ginger wine (for her mother in law) well topped up. It seemed to work as everyone thought she was a total treasure. And she believed that it was a small price to pay compared to so many other sacrifices made by so many others not least her revered father.
‘This is your great uncle Bernard and Aunt May.’ She held out a group photo. Bernard was Percy’s elder brother and May his older sister. ‘You need to write on the back who is who. After I’ve gone no one will remember.’
We spent three Sundays, sampling her scones, her lemon biscuits and her fruit cake, me scribbling and her talking. As I listened to the stories of her family and what she remembered of dad’s I thought of the book I could write – a 20th century family saga – my very own Any Human Heart, following William Boyd’s masterpiece.
My father’s father was illegitimate – usually a recipe for a life of toil and hardship but his mother was the local squire’s wife and his father a tailor (who brought him up with his sister); somehow the scandal was avoided and he, too, became a tailor who built his own business in Northamptonshire only to see it collapse in the Depression. My mother’s father came from far more affluent stock – his father, Benjamin Francis was a dress maker who dressed royalty at the end of the 19th century, having fashionable premises off Oxford Street and appearing in the Lady magazine in the 1880s as the inventor of a method of copying patterns.
‘This is your great aunt Ethel. Your grandmother saved her from becoming a prostitute. She liked the attention. Very busty, if you know what I mean.’
I’m not sure how I reacted to that. Probably I processed it by assuming it was an exaggeration and said so. ‘On no. She was definitely on the game. Doing her bit during WW1. Your gran had to drag her home. Didn’t help much. She married a Norwegian sailor in the end. Divorced as well when the club she was in was raided and her name appeared on a list of those charged.’
It was good to find out some of the family scandals, some other black sheep. Mum wasn’t finished. ‘Mind you, your grandmother had her moments.’
That did surprise me. She was proper, my gran.
‘During the Great War she was engaged three times. It was the only way to go out without a chaperone. This was before she and your grandfather ran away to get married.’
We have the usual smatterings of alcoholics, crooks, at least one arsonist and a sad case of incest that sounds dreadful to anyone’s ears – my great grandfather’s brother appears to have had a child with his eldest daughter and to avoid the shame the child was treated as his and his wife’s youngest child until he, or she, was given away.
I don’t suppose my family is much different to many others with its fair share of tragedies and individuals defying the odds. But there is romance too. The elopement for instance.
‘After the war, your grandfather was seriously injured – he flew a plane into the cliffs at Dover; he lay there three days before he was found. When he recovered he set up a motor cycle and home electrical business in an abandonned pub opposite your grandmother’s family bakery.
‘He was so shy he found it difficult to talk to women, especially one as forthright as your grandma. But she adored him, not that she could say. So she helped him with his accounts – he had no head for business – and dreamt.
‘Her father was an alcoholic and womaniser. Horrible man,’ mum shuddered at some memory I didn’t think it prudent to probe.
‘And one day in 1923 they had one argument too many – by then gran was 27. She told her mother, a tough woman who’d had the family business transferred into her name so the old soak couldn’t drink or gamble it away, she had to leave. Her mother understood but gran had nowhere to go. Who knows what made her cross the street to tell your grandfather she was going? She did, he proposed flooring her utterly and she said yes.
‘To marry properly you needed 3 weeks of banns read. Your grandfather had been in the forces with someone who was the Secretary to the Archbishop of Canterbury. I don’t know what favours he pulled in but he sourced a special licence meaning they could marry immediately. And Bernard, your great uncle lent them a plane from his flying school. Imagine. One minute your grandmother is homeless, the next the man she’s adored from afar is flying her in an open cockpit by-plane to Paris for a honeymoon.’
I don’t know about you but I wasn’t dry eyed when mum finished. Mum just patted me on the leg while I controlled my breathing. She stood creakily. ‘I’ll go and pop the kettle on. Then I’ll tell you how your father met me.’ That’s even more romantic but for another time, methinks.