Today is the anniversary of my grandparents’ wedding. They were married on the 3rd of January 1928 in Calstock, a beautiful, tiny place in Cornwall – Edith Christian to Josiah George. Her own parents, Minnie-Annie Frances and Alfred had made him wait 7 years for her.
It sounds Biblical, and in 2016 unthinkable. Now they would just have gone and done the deed, but back then I suppose things often happened that way. They didn’t want him to marry their daughter, not for any other reason than that he would be taking her away to far off Derbyshire. It was a long way, in an age when lots of people didn’t move very far. The irony was that Christian had met him on a reluctantly agreed day out with some of her girlfriends – they went off to St Michael’s Mount together and there he was, a ‘foreigner’, waiting to sweep her off her feet. She must have been 20, or 21 and I daresay she’d had plenty of time to weigh up the local lads by then, and obviously none of them cut the mustard.
I never knew my grandmother. Either of my grandmothers, for that matter. They both died very young, so perhaps Minnie-Annie Frances or Alfred had a premonition that time was short, and kept her close for as many years as possible. She died when my mother was just 11, going on 12, and I believe that she died on Valentine’s Day, which seems a cruel twist of the knife.
I remember my grandfather looking at me, when I was about 16 or 17. I remember the expression on his face startling me, frightening me almost, because he looked so – vulnerable. Hurting. With tears in his eyes, he told me that I looked just like her.
He didn’t have a very happy life, I think. He waited 7 years for the woman he loved, travelling up and down to Cornwall and taking her for walks through the woods by the river there. Hare Wood. They named their house after those woods. He took me to them once, when I was quite a small child. I remember it still, running down through the sloping glades, the bluebells coming up to my waist, a sea of lavender blue stretching in every direction, the smell of them – the never-to-be forgotten smell of them, the river glinting in the valley beneath. He married again after his wife died, but not for love. I don’t know why he did it, probably to provide a maternal figure for his twin daughters, but it was a mistake. She was tight-lipped and unloving, and she possibly regretted it too, realising that she could never take my grandmother’s place, either in his heart or theirs. My mother hated her, and I have often wondered whether she ever forgave her father.
He wasn’t a large part of our lives, although he wrote, and sent presents and cards. We lived abroad all through my childhood and into my teens, so we rarely saw him, apart from my elder brother who, at school in England, spent the shorter holidays with them if it wasn’t feasible to come home. When my family finally moved back to England, he would come to stay two or three times a year, but his wife never came at all, and if anyone referred to her ever, is was as ‘Aunt’.
I grew up loving him and hating ‘Aunt’ for the hurts she had inflicted on my mother, but it is only as an adult, looking back, that I have sensed the uncharted territory that surrounded my childishly simple emotions. The complexities of family relationships are unfathomable, and the difficulties that lay between my mother and her father are no exception. Difficulties that have never been discussed at home, but they have come into my mind often recently, now that my mother is frail and needy, and often very difficult herself. My sister lives only 15 minutes away from my parents, and there are times nowadays when I could wish, for her sake, that the distance was a good deal further. She and I have both had cause to ask my mother: ‘How would you have felt if Grandad had lived so close to you?’ Her lack of response has, as they say, spoken volumes.
The other – inevitable – legacy of all this is that my grandmother has lived her whole incorporeal life on a pedestal, and – which is far worse but completely understandable – my mother has never recovered from her loss. It is heartbreaking.
I may have been painfully like my grandfather’s first and only love, but there are little things I have inherited from him too. He kept birds, apparently, in a large aviary in the garden when my mother was young. She often tells me now of the day she accidentally left the door open when she went in to feed them, and the miracle – the sense of which has never left her – that none of them flew away while she and her twin were at school, and her father was at work. Her garden birds are her only ‘pets’ now. She cherishes them, as he cherished his. And as I do mine. But then, perhaps my grandfather kept birds because Christian loved them? I guess I’ll never know.