It's hard to write in the present just now. Granny has been working on another family piece. Here it is.
Middle and upper-middle class women of granny’s grandparents’ generation did not expect to look after their own children. They hired nannies instead, many of them good as well as competent women, loved by their charges more than the mothers they stood in for. Some, on the other hand, treated their charges in ways that would now be termed child abuse. A recent documentary about the Duke of Windsor suggested that in order to ensure the good-looking boy remained her baby his
nanny used to pinch and otherwise torment him before he went in to see his parents, thus making him appear so timid and frightened that his father despised him. (This might possibly, explain poor Eddy's subsequent enthralment to Wallis Simpson, an abusive child minder if ever there was one.)
Granny has written already
about the housemaids delegated to take care of her after-thought father. No evidence of abuse there – not of a lot of interest in him either. But she does have vague memories of a terrible story her mother told her about the nursemaid who looked after her before her mother’s death. Females in her family are strong, not at all easy to deal with. (She knows; she was one; she reared one; she watches her son and her daughter rearing others.) Her mother was a famously stroppy child. When she was around eighteen months the nursemaid tried to tame her by setting her down on a chamber-pot full of boiling water. Granny assumes this was something of an exaggeration- burns resulting from that would have put the nursemaid in prison. Even so, the water was hot enough to shock the child into the first of her asthma attacks. The next nursemaid – it could even have been the same one - was suspected then of drugging Granny’s mother to make her more docile. Granny has seen a picture of her mother at about that age which makes this seem more than likely.
It was taken in a photographer’s studio, the kind with props. The prop in this case was a sickle moon, set before a backcloth painted with stars. Her mother, still less than two at the time, sits on the arm of the sickle moon; her more docile elder sister leans against the tip. Behind the moon stands the nursemaid, a dark, smart young woman in a boater hat, and with a nipped-in waist – think Mary Poppins, in looks alone. She shows no sign of interest in the children. No-one in this photo is touching anyone; an anomaly in a photograph of an adult with such young children. What interests the nurse far more is the photographer at whom she appears to be making eyes. Granny’s mother makes eyes at noone. She isn’t saying ‘cheese’. She lolls and gapes, her face flushed and dopy. Maybe she has just woken up. Maybe she hasn’t.
Her parents certainly suspected something was going on. Her father hid in the night-nursery one night, to see if he could catch the nursemaid administering a drug. All he saw, much to his embarrassment was the nursemaid taking her clothes off. Both parents were in their thirties then, but judging by this story as innocent as chickens. Granny doesn’t know if his spying came before or after the chamber-pot incident, she doesn’t know if, with or without the evidence,the flirt was given the sack. She hopes so.
One thing clear about her grandfather from almost every story she was told was that though he may have been a very good naval officer he understood nothing about young children. Very fond of practical jokes, he turned up at the family house one day pretending to be a stranger, Mr X, his face disguised by a beard. His youngest daughter, Granny’s mother made, reluctantly to sit on Mr X’s knee, heard a familiar voice above her head suddenly calling her name. The screams when she turned to find the beard coming off, her father’s face behind it, echo in Granny’s head even as she writes this.
It was still worse after her mother died
. Her father so adored his wife that about six months before, tired of the way his first love, the Royal Navy, was always taking him from her he resigned his commission. At her death, locked into his own grief, he insisted on everything in the house being sold. Even his children’s toys, even their teddy-bears, spoke too much of his dead wife to be allowed to stay. They were replaced of course. But that is not at all the same thing. Every time Granny viewed and views first her children’s, now her grandchildren’s, passionate attachments – when she rehearsed - and rehearses - the litany of Fenchurch Bear, of Euston Bear, of ‘my cuddly’, of Teddy Taylor (knitted in blue wool) of Snow Bear, of ‘Doggy’ – or tries to comfort the distress if one of these goes missing, she remembers her mother. Such toys may just be pieces of craftily stuffed cloth; - in the case of ‘my cuddly’ they are, simply, pieces of -often tattered - cloth. Yet for a small child, the particular texture of the cloth, its particular smell, the sudden, brutal, absence of it stands for every grief there is. Her mother’s grief is unbearable to imagine even now.
Granny’s mother adored her father, nonetheless. But Granny’s father harrumphed slightly whenever he was mentioned. Granny does not think his opinion of his father-in-law was high - ‘a Walter Mitty character,’ he called him. Comparing too, not entirely favourably, the slight battiness of the family from which this Walter Mitty came, to his own more stolid, not to say conventional one.
The battiness is not so obvious in the portrait photograph of Granny’s grandfather wearing his naval uniform. He was not a tall man – only five foot four, but in a head-and-shoulders shot that is not apparent. He looks very stern and imposing, every inch the seaman, staring out into some distant horizon. Even in black-and-white the extraordinary blue blaze of the family eyes (not inherited by Granny) leaps out. His family, batty or not, is and was proud of its Viking descent. In Denmark years later, visiting austere and beautiful Danish castles, the portraits on the walls of past paterfamilias – their eyes in particular - reminded Granny of him.
After his wife’s death, his daughters were passed round a series of unwilling relations, while he went back into the Navy to captain a minesweeper for the duration of the First World War. A reservist owing to his previous resignation, he was not allowed to stay on when it ended, much to his regret. He spent the rest of his life in a series of jobs he hated, cooking up wild schemes for making money. Though he took a second wife - the daughter of the organist at St Alban’s Cathedral - though he did have a son with her, he never really settled. At just over sixty, having lost money, not much money – a pathetic amount of money in fact- on yet another scheme, betting on greyhound and horse racing, he put his head in a gas oven – or shot himself. Granny doesn’t know which. (She only learned of it when her own mother lay dying; though it explained a lot of things, it left no time for asking questions.) At the time of his suicide her mother was pregnant with her first child. Grief continued passing itself down; in this as in other ways.
The story goes on.