My dear Mum was a prolific diarist, charting every detail of her life in countless exercise books. These entries almost always included her shopping for the day (complete with prices - most useful for the social historian)
and the meals she cooked for herself and her “dear Len.” You can read some of her observations on National and international events, interspersed with the humdrum of normal life in Dolly’s Blog elsewhere on this website.
It was quite a revelation, therefore, to read some of my Dad’s writings - nowhere near as prolific but heart-wrenchingly honest. Here he is writing about his first memories:
“The first thing that comes to mind which strikes so vivid is of a pigeon perched on the landing banisters and although I was a very small boy there was a sense of
feeling inside me that I had lost something very dear to me, something which I felt at the time, part of me. I did not realise the cause of the loss on that day until I was about ten years of age. The loss was my mother who died at that time and I have always
felt this, that the pigeon on the banister was something I would remember all my life...”
I weep every time I read this and think of that little lost
lad, just two and a half years old, not realising that his safe, loving world had been turned upside down. Was he, perhaps, standing outside his mother’s bedroom? I can only begin to imagine the overwhelming atmosphere of grief pervading the little house
in Walthamstow which he couldn’t possibly understand, focusing, instead, on the pigeon which was warm, alive and settled on the banisters.
His mother, Clara,
died in the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918, aged just 31. Her new-born baby daughter died the same day as her mother when she was just twelve hours old, a double tragedy to hit the family. Later this month, Clara’s great, great granddaughter and I are
visiting a new exhibition at the Florence Nightingale Museum dedicated to the story of the pandemic which took the lives of so many young people, just when the world was rejoicing in the end of “the war to end all wars.” Some of my friends think
I am mad: “You sure know how to have fun!” more than one of them has said, when told of my planned visit.
As self-appointed family historian,
I felt that this was a visit which had to be paid. Plus my own granddaughter, Eleanor, was the ideal person to ask to accompany me. According to the newspaper article in which I read about the exhibition, it would be fascinating to anybody studying medicine.
Step forward, Eleanor - who has just completed her first year of medical school. She showed admirable enthusiasm for my proposed jaunt and immediately consulted everybody’s Best Friend Google for details of admission prices (senior citizen for me, student
for her) and opening times. She also found out why it was called “Spanish flu” which was apparently because it was only in neutral Spain that news of the pandemic was able to be widely reported - in fact it was a world-wide outbreak which killed
around 100 million people. It’s when one of those 100 million people was the grandmother you never knew, who left three children motherless including my two year old father, that the enormity of it strikes home.
I’m quite sure Eleanor and I will be able to fit in some less sombre activities. There will be lunch, of course, always most important for one, like me, who is Always Thinking About Her Stomach,
and Eleanor thinks we should walk back to the station through St James’s Park, taking the route her father takes every day as he walks to and from work. He keeps her informed via regular phone calls as he walks of the progress of the fast growing cygnets,
slowly transforming from Ugly Ducklings into swans. Eleanor thinks I, too, should be introduced to Life on the Lake. One thing is for sure, my granddaughter will be excellent company.
Life goes on. Poor Clara wasn’t fortunate enough to enjoy a long life but I’m glad her little lad had a loving father, a sister and brother he adored, that he married the love of his life and took enormous pleasure in his
children and grandchildren. Clara would have loved the man he became, able to make even the most mundane of experiences somehow special.
So Eleanor and I will
take a journey into the past. We will commemorate together a mother caught up in a world-wide tragedy and find out more about the illness that snatched her away so suddenly, and so brutally.
We will do it for the little boy on the landing, watching the pigeon on the banisters and wondering why he feels suddenly, inexplicably, bereft...