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Friday, February 3rd

February 3, 2017

It snowed overnight and it’s still snowing. My new(er) Echo has no snow tires. I’m going nowhere. So, a good day to carry on writing about Mum.

Before my rehearsal yesterday, I pulled some photos out of the old album and took them with me to scan. I thought before I continue I’d illustrate some of the material I’ve already written.

mum-dick

This is the oldest photo I have of my mother, taken with her brother Dick. At a guess I’d say she is three and he is five.  Obviously this wasn’t taken in east London, so I suppose there was some sort of family outing to the Essex countryside. I suppose it could be Wanstead Flats (the nearest green space to Dersingham Avenue), but it doesn’t look flat enough.

There are no photos in the album of the six years the family spent in Toronto during the Depression. Perhaps no one had a camera.

mum-land-army

As I said the other day, as soon as she turned sixteen, Mum joined the Land Army. Here she is in her teens (second from the left, second row from the bottom). I don’t remember her ever speaking at length about this period of her life, but she always spoke of it fondly. Understandable, really. The work may have been a slog, she may have been sleeping in a dorm (no real hardship, given that her childhood had been spent sharing a box room with her two older sisters), but she had the previously unknown freedom of living away from home at a very young age.

dick-valentino

She made one lifelong friend during those days, Eve Grey (back row, third from right). By the time Mum was old enough to join the Land Army, brother Dick had enlisted. Mum encouraged her friend to write to him.

Assuming Mum showed Eve a copy of this, Dick’s Rudolph Valentino portrait photo, I don’t imagine Eve needed a lot of encouragement.

 

mum-air-force

At the age of eighteen Mum (back row, third from left) and her twenty-eight-year-old sister Bess (back row, far right), soon to become Elizabeth, joined the Canadian air force. I have no idea what Elizabeth was doing before this, but I suspect she’d been working in a shop in London, living at home with their parents. I don’t imagine she needed much encouragement to get away from Dersingham Avenue.

I wish I’d ask more questions about her war years. I wish I could fill in the blanks, but mostly that’s what I have – blanks.

I can tell you more about the war years of other members of the family. Brother Joe was, of course, married with young daughters in Toronto. Bill, having served in the army in India, came back to London, married his cousin Helen, set up home down the road in another council house in Dersingham Avenue, where his two sons, Richard and David, were born. Jess’s husband Perce was a railway worker and thus exempt from recruitment. They’d bought a house in Loughthon where, one month before war was declared, Jess gave birth to Peter, four years later to Phil. Dick was a Desert Rat, spending most of the war years in north Africa.

Remember that lovely bloke Jim? The one Mum and her sister met on a train? He’d stayed in touch with Elizabeth. They say that some men had good wars and some men had bad wars. Jim, who served in Burma, had a malaria-infested bad war. On the leave before the one when he met the Holmes sisters, he’d arrived home to find his wife and daughter shacked up with another man. There was never any question of attempting to save the marriage. Elizabeth knew the whole story, but she was terrified of telling my granddad. Involved with a married man? Planning to marry a divorced man? The scandal!  She needn’t have worried. When Jim and Granddad eventually met they got on like a house on fire. As for the supposed scandal, Granddad shrugged it off. The family had known worse. (For starters, Granddad’s brother Bill had spent some years in Dartmoor prison.)

After years of corresponding with her, Dick came home and finally met Eve. Love blossomed.

I’m going to have to skip ahead many years, for reasons which will soon become clear.

When I was old enough to finally learn the full story of my mother being left by her lover with a diamond ring and a bun in the oven, Mum told me a story.

When she admitted her situation to her sister, now married to Jim with two daughters, Elizabeth insisted they would adopt the baby. My mother wasn’t having it. Apparently there was quite a barney until Jim intervened, telling his wife in no uncertain terms that their job was not to tell Kay what to do. Their job was to support Kay in any way they could with whatever she decided. Obviously, she decided to keep me, however big the struggle was going to be.

I’d always loved my uncle Jim, who really was a surrogate dad to me during my childhood. When the whole issue of parentage was still a bit fuzzy in my young mind, I used to fantasise that Uncle Jim really was my dad. After all, he got on so well with my mum, who, unlike Elizabeth, shared his wicked sense of  humour and he always treated me like a daughter. (I once asked Mum how a man with Jim’s sense of humour could possibly have married a woman as completely devoid of humour as Elizabeth. Mum just shrugged and said Elizabeth had been quite a beauty in her day.) Anyway, that story made me love Jim even more. I was so grateful to him for insisting they help Mum keep me.

What I didn’t know then – didn’t know until several years after her death when Dick decided to break the family’s vow of silence – was that Mum had been through this before.

In 1944 she met and fell in love with a Canadian pilot named George. They talked of marriage and of her returning to Canada with him after the war. She had such happy memories of her childhood time spent in Toronto. This prospect must have thrilled her – especially when compared to life in dreary, bombed-out east London. One night in March 1945 George took off on a bombing mission and never returned. Mum was twenty years old and pregnant.

A family conflab ensued. Mum knew she was in no position to raise a child on her own –  especially after my grandfather made it clear there would be no home for her and her illegitimate child in his house. Apparently this particular scandal could not be tolerated. (What my Nana thought about this, I do not know.) Everyone agreed that the best thing would be for Jess and Perce to adopt the child and raise it as their own. Everyone that is except Mum. She had no intention of being one of those “aunties” – mothers forced to watch their child being raised by a relative. She decided the child should be adopted. In October 1945 she gave birth to a son. She named him George, after his father. Dick and Eve went to see her and her son at the maternity hospital in Clapton. I’m sure Nana must have gone, too, but I don’t know if any other family members did.

When Mum talked to me about her post war years, I remember thinking how ballsy she was.

She signed up to join the British occupation/reconstruction force in Germany.

mum-gliderWhile stationed there she joined a local gliding club. Went gliding with others and by herself. (Bolder than anything I’ve ever done, although I do have two failed-due-to-weather attempts to go hot air ballooning and two similarly failed attempts to do a charity parachute jump.)

I have a small box of photos from this period in Mum’s life. I know I poured over them with her when I was a child. I’m sure she must have told me everyone’s name, some story attached to all these individuals. Sadly, I remember no names, no stories to include here. I just have a box of old black and white snaps.

When she had leave she went, not home, but more than once to Paris, where, amongst other things, she ate frogs legs. (When I asked her how they tasted, the answer was the standard “bit like chicken”.)  She also went to Florence and Amsterdam.

This is more amazing than it may sound. Yes, with the exception of Bill, who was serving in India at the time, the entire family had travelled to Canada. Yes, Dick had served in North Africa, Greece and Italy. But the idea of simply travelling in Europe (or anywhere else) would have been beyond comprehension at the time. I doubt Bill ever left England after his return from India. The furthest from Essex Jess and Perce ever got on a vacation was Scotland.

Pardon me. I got that wrong. She did come home on leave once.

dick-eve-wedding

She came home to be a bridesmaid at the wedding of her brother Dick and her friend Eve. (No idea who the flower girl or the other bridesmaid is, but the best man is their brother Jack.)

Of course, what I did not know when my mother was telling me about her post-war adventures was that she was fleeing from the heartbreak of a lost love and a lost child.

Small wonder that years later, when she once again found herself alone and pregnant, she told her sister Elizabeth to get stuffed when adoption was suggested. This was not going to happen to her again.

mum-meAt her funeral her brother Dick spoke about their  closeness as children, his never ending gratitude to her for encouraging her friend Eve to write to him during the war. He also said (I’ve just looked this up): “When Anne was born Kay seemed to find a purpose and her life took on new meaning.” Well, duh.

Several years went by before I received an unexpected letter from him. In it he told me that when I was born my mother made everyone in the family swear they would never tell me that she’d borne another child. She made them swear, he told me, because she didn’t want me to think badly of her.

That letter broke my heart. Absolutely broke it.

How could my mother – the mother I loved, the mother I thought I knew and, more importantly, I thought knew me – have ever thought I would think badly of her? How was that possible? It still breaks my heart.

Yes, I understand when I was a child and she felt the need to spoon feed me my own origin story. I understand that. I can even understand when I was in my teens and – “sexual revolution” notwithstanding – illegitimate teen pregnancies were still frowned upon. (I can’t believe I just used the word illegitimate. What an archaic and ridiculous word to apply to a baby.) But in my twenties? After I was in my thirties? It beggars belief. I ask again: How could she have ever thought I would think badly of her?

I’d like to believe it was just one of those things. That she intended to tell me, but the time never seemed right and then the time was gone. I’d like to believe that, but Dick told me that when he visited her in hospital a few days before she died, she made him promise again that no one in the family would ever tell me.

It just breaks my heart.

It took Dick several years to break what he now considered a death bed promise, but, encouraged by Jess, who felt I should know, eventually he did. Even now I’m not sure I’m glad that he did, because this knowledge makes me feel as if I never really knew Kay Holmes at all.

I sat on the knowledge for years. Partly out of the same respect I’d shown for my mother’s wishes when I’d decided not to attempt to track down my apparently still  alive father and make him pay. Partly out of respect for this half-brother of mine, who might not know – or welcome the knowledge – that he’d been adopted. Partly for selfish reasons of my own. I didn’t really want to share my mother with anyone else. And then there were the unknowns about this unknown sibling. Yes, he could turn out to be a wonderful older brother, a fabulous bloke like my cousins Peter and Phil. Or he could turn out to be an ignorant, alcoholic slob like my seldom seen cousin Richard. Let sleeping dogs lie.

Oddly enough, it was Mike’s sudden death in 2011 that prompted me to revisit this decision. Or perhaps not oddly at all. There I was, an orphaned, childless, sort of widow. No, not really odd that I might want a close family relative – even if I didn’t know him from Adam.

In July 2011, during a trip back to England for my aunt Jess’s 100th birthday celebrations, I spent a fruitless day at the national registry. No birth certificate for George Holmes in October 1945 (or in the six months prior to or after that date). No birth certificate listing the mother’s name as Kathleen Mary Holmes. Perhaps there were records at the Clapton Mother’s Hospital? Alas, the hospital closed in 1986. I suspect its demise was mourned by few. Turns out the Clapton Mother’s Hospital was run by the Salvation Army. Belated research revealed that it used to have three wards: one for married women, one for unwed mothers and one for Jewesses. The penny finally dropped. The birth of baby George (assuming that name was kept) was never registered in my mother’s – his mother’s – name. Whichever childless couple came to fetch baby George got to register him in their name. That’s how things were done in those days. I hope Mum didn’t know this, but I suspect she did.

It broke my heart all over again.

mum-glamour-shotThis is my absolute favourite of all the photos I have of my mother. I’m not sure when or where it was taken. If she ever told me I’ve forgotten.

Seriously, how fabulous is this photo? The little black dress, the string of pearls, the cocktail and the cigarette. An era personified.

After she died, I had the photo copied and enlarged as much as possible. It is in a silver frame, sitting on top of my chest of drawers, as it has for many years.

I am not religious. I do not believe in heaven and hell. But a part of me likes to imagine a cosmic cocktail party going on somewhere, a party to which only the best, the smartest, the funniest people are invited. Noel Coward is there, playing the piano. Oscar Wilde is there. My mum, exactly as she appears in that photo, is there. My uncle Jim is there. (His sour-tempered, humourless wife, my mother’s sister Elizabeth, is not there.) My friend Tim, an early victim of AIDS (who adored and was adored by my mother) is there and has recently been joined by his father Gordon. They’re all having the best time imaginable. They all deserve it.

 

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2 Comments
  1. krysross permalink

    Of course they are all at that cosmic cocktail party! Love it.

  2. Donna permalink

    What a fabulous photo. That face. Down to earth and yet classy as all get out 🙂

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