Inspired by the Gentle Author at Spitalfields Life, I fell to thinking of great grandmother Rachel, who I never knew but whose memory was cherished by my grandmother, Richmull, and her two sisters Edna and Eliza-Anne. It saddened them deeply that they were never able to visit her grave.
Widowed young, Rachel's youngest child was born out of wedlock. Just
after the first world war, she took her two younger daughters to
Australia, leaving the elder one, who was working and ‘courting’ behind. The story does not end happily. As a child, the idea of wicked relatives was not confined to story books. Bullied by her sister-in-law - my
grandmother would recall her mother being burned on the arm with an iron - soon Rachel became ill. A couple of years later, she died from cancer.
My grandmother and great aunt decided to return home with only a handful
of photographs and some locks of Rachel’s hair, one of which my grandmother kept for years in a sewing tin, to remind them of their mother and their shared misadventure. Returning home was quite an adventure, however, with
exciting rickshaw rides through Singapore and an board romance for
Great Aunt Edna.
As a result of the move to Australia, my grandmother had lifelong issues with her kidneys, after becoming
dehydrated in the intense Queensland heat. Back in the damp, cold north-west of
England, she married a miner, who contracted a particularly nasty flu virus in the
1930s, which would leave him disabled. My grandmother worked full time while her
husband looked after my mother. A non-smoker, my grandmother died aged 68 in 1968 from lung cancer
triggered, perhaps, from working in the carding room in a cotton mill or
from pouring liquid explosive material into bombs as a munitions worker
in World War II.
Thinking and writing this has made me realise the narratives of our forebears are important and should not be
forgotten. Yet they will be if we fail to tell our children or fail to write them down. And even then, the stories of their lives will
vanish as if they had never been.
Joy and sorrow blown away like dust
from our hands.