Always, your loving sister.

Today, a wad of letters written between 1956 and 1966 arrived in the mail for me. They are letters from one sister to another. To me these letters are some of the most precious documents I’ve had the privilege to read.

They are photocopies of photocopies. Faint with age, a strain on the eyes they were written by my maternal grandmother before she died at the age of 39 and were sent from Melbourne, back home to her older sister in East London. They surfaced recently because the older sister died last year and they were found among her belongings.

Many of them are signed like this.

My grandmother's signature

My grandmother and I share a name. I am Helen because she was Helen. My mother says that when I was born, there was no doubt that my name would be Helen. My mum had been motherless since the age of fifteen and bestowing the name on her first-born daughter must have felt like a way to keep her own mother alive.

As a young woman in England, my grandmother looked like this. Elegant and beautiful. I think I see my sister Adele in her.

Helen Joyce Fox

Every family has its stories and ghosts. She is the ghost in our family, the shadow over everything, the reason and explanation for so many twists and turns in my family’s history. I don’t think it’s overstating it to say that if she hadn’t died so young, my siblings and I might not be here. Who knows if my parents would have met or married, or if I would have been Helen, had she lived into old age. Certainly if she had, my siblings and I wouldn’t have grown up wondering what it was like to have a grandmother. My father’s mother was not part of our lives and so that loving, comforting space that is usually filled by a grandmother for most people was empty for us.

All my life I’ve known the sad story of Nana Helen. She was the beautiful girl from London who followed her husband, with four small children, to what must have seemed like the ends of the earth as ‘ten pound poms.’ She died suddenly before she ever got to go home again. In the later letters, she wrote of trying to save for a trip home – not to return – just a holiday. It never happened.

She was a portrait on our wall, with pointy glasses, and a box of trinkets my mother held onto with accompanying stories and photos, like this one taken on board the boat from England to Australia, a journey that took four long weeks. But according to the letter she wrote from the boat, it was a tremendous experience. They stopped in Greece and Sri Lanka; they ate four course meals; they experienced heat like they’d never imagined and they were servedĀ tea every morning in their comfortable cabins. Not bad for ten pounds huh?

On the boat

But until today, my grandmother was never real to me. I thought she was, but she wasn’t.

She was an angel. A sweet, loving mother who provided a cushioning embrace for her children in a harsh new world. In short, she was a saint, captured in relics in a box and some stories so well-worn and so often re-told that I have long been sure I could re-tell them like they were my own. But that didn’t make her real.

My mother and family

I sat for two hours this morning reading one letter after another and getting to know my grandmother.

My grandparents

What surprised me was the utter ordinariness of them. Why should this have been surprising? I suppose when I heard the letters were coming I built up a romantic notion of what they would be like. It should not have been a surprise that a young mother would write letters home to her sister about such pedestrian things as missing English newspapers and about what it was like to work in a plastics factory. These are details that at first struck me as oddly ordinary but now, having pondered them for the day, I see they are a gift for me, but especially for my mother, who never had the chance to know her mum as an adult. When your parent is taken away from you in childhood, you’re left with an immature understanding of the central person in your life. You can’t ever make that transition into an adult relationship of equality with your parent and while these letters can’t ever make up for that, they do go some way towards filling in blanks.

She was a hard working migrant who worried about money.

She was a young wife who worried about her builder husband and the nature of his work.

She was a sister who longed for closer communication with her siblings and her parents.

She was a Londoner who didn’t fully understand the ways of Australian people and never felt entirely settled here, despite loving the sunshine and the lifestyle.

She was a mother who worried about her children and their schooling, their health, their activities.

She laughed at her children obsessing over the Beatles.

She celebrated the arrival of Coronation Street (which my parents still watch!) on Australian television.

She longed for news from home of babies and deaths and marriages.

And several months before she died of a cerebral haemorrhage, she spoke of excitement and nervesĀ about the impending arrival of her mother. Eight years after the family left England, her mother was coming to stay for several months and she arrived just seven weeks before the terrible day. That her mother was here, on the far side the world, the day her daughter died was a chilling miracle. It’s just a pity her presence could do nothing to change the way events unfolded.

Helen was dead at 39 and four young children lost their mother.

Forty-four years later, I reached the last in the wad of letters and cried to read that she was missing home more than ever, that she was glad her eldest son had met a nice English girl, and that the Australian winter was really getting to her.

I must say this year I have been even colder than I’ve ever been since coming over here. My blood must have really thinned out.

Perhaps after eight years she had begun to settle in more than she realised.

What comes through is that all the stories I’ve heard are true. She is still the loving mother and wife I’ve understood her to be; she had wit and kindness in abundance but she had worries and fears and anxieties like anyone else. Of course she did, I hear you say and yes, I must have always known this but I couldn’t have said what her concerns and anxieties were. I’ve never had access to her thoughts. Now, here they are, treasures on hard to read pages. They’re not her deepest, darkest thoughts and feelings, but they’re the closest my family will ever get to knowing the real Helen Buckminster. She’s no longer the larger than life shimmering image of an angel.

She’s a real woman who, as it happens, once worked for Patons, packing wool. I liked learning that. And she was, to my Great-Aunt back home in London, always, your loving sister.

Bells

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33 thoughts on “Always, your loving sister.

  1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Such a loving tribute to your grandmother. Even though you never met her, she lives on through the letters and photos you have of her now. Bless all the immigrants that left their countries to start new lives in faraway places. How brave and courageous they were!

  2. I so enjoyed reading this post. What a gift those letters are. Your writing truly captures your grandmother’s spirit and serves as a lovely tribute to her.

  3. What a lovely treasure to have, and so wonderful for you to share with us. I love seeing the handwritten words. Today I was lamenting the loss of the handwritten recipe, too often my recipe journal gets filled up with emails when I request a recipe off someone. One of my biggest treasures I have asked my parents for is my Grandmothers CWA cookbook, not only is it a cookbook of her generation, but it is filled with notes scrawled in the margins, it has handwritten recipes stuffed between the pages (included Mrs Streeters Lemon Pudding – delicious!). For me it allows me to ponder what my grandmother was like when she was my age, and not just remember her as a memory, or an old lady.

    The photos are lovely – all the kids look so happy, it must of been tragic to lose her so young. xoxo

  4. After spending a week with my two grandmothers, your beautiful post has given me a whole new perspective on how much I do and don’t “know” of them both. Seeing her through your eyes is an amazing story – those letters and photos are treasures to keep and hand down. Maybe print the post out and add it to the box for your future grand children?

  5. Thanks Helen, what a wonderful post! I hardly knew where I was when I finished reading (oh,… still at work, and only 9.20am!). The combination of photographs and story were so compelling. I am so sorry you missed out on a grandmother but very glad you’ve had the opportunity to know her through these letters. I’m off to archive some emails! Jennifer

  6. Helen, I was so overcome last night I was unable to write a single word, so I called you crying and just saying Thankyou. You have captured my feelings and yours so beautifully. Mum was real, of course I know she was but to see your words and feelings means more to me than anything. Mum would be so proud of her grand-daughter who bears her name, just as I am. Thank you so much my darling. Love Mum xox

  7. What a beautiful gift and connection. I feel a similar connection with my paternal grandmother (who died when I was about 4 years old) when I make her cookies from her recipes. My peanut butter cookies are not called peanut butter cookies – they are Grandma Gross’ peanut butter cookies and that makes them all the more special. Your post has inspired me to get off my seat and try to adapt the recipes to GF like I’ve been meaning to for months – and then write a post. Perhaps it will happen within a month…

  8. Thank you for sharing this. As an expat this touched me in unexpected ways. As someone who treasures her grandmother, this is a reminder of me needing to call her tonight or tomorrow.

  9. Thank you for sharing this, Helen. It reminds me that all our families have our ghosts, our lost ancestors about whom we all feel we have legends but not enough day-to-day descriptions. Your photos were a lovely addition to the post.

  10. Wow. This was such a great post! So sad, though. But so interesting, too. Wow. I’ve always thought it strange how “ordinary” people really are, in the end. I’ve probably told you this before, but when I was in Greece for my honeymoon, one of the many museums we went into had this jar, with a word on it. The sign said the word translated to “Cookies.” That said it all for me. If they had cookie jars in ancient Greece, well, then, what really could be new? People really are the same, in the end, aren’t they? What a terrible loss, though, to lose a mother so young – and in such a sudden, brutal way. Has your mother ever read the book Motherless Daughters? I’ll look up the title/author for you, but it was a really fascinating book, with a lot of insight on how women who grow up without mothers end up becoming who they are, and why.

  11. lovely post. how tragic that she died so young, and what a gift that the letters found their way back home. and how strangely synchronicitious that she worked for patons!

  12. My mum’s parents and her big brother came out as ten-pound-Poms a few months before Mum was born. My grandmother left her family when Mum was 6 or 8 or so… She died a couple of years after I was born, but had long been in and out of touch with Mum. (My Gramps died a few years before that, so I never knew my maternal grandparents.)
    I don’t know many stories about my grandmother – and even fewer positive stories.
    A few years ago, I got an email through a genealogy site – from my mum’s cousin (who we’d never known about); she told us about my grandmother’s first child (again, who we’d never known about!), who she’d had to her boyfriend when she was 17.
    Mum told my aunt about this; my aunt mentioned that she’d found some letters while cleaning up (after my uncle’s death)… Letters that the father of my grandmother’s first child had written to my grandmother after moved out here with her new family. Letter that are now in my bedside table.
    I don’t have my grandmother’s words, but I have words that were written to her in response to her unhappiness in this new country. It’s given me an insight into a woman that I never really thought very much about (I don’t even have a pet name for her; my maternal grandfather is Gramps, but Mum’s mum is only ever “my grandmother” or “my mum’s mum”); I feel sorry for her (and for my mum), but on other levels I can empathise with her apparent discomfort with responsibility.

    This post is beautiful. It’s so lovely to read the wonderful discoveries you’ve made of your Helen. I know I’ve made my reply “all about me”, but it reminded me of my maternal line in many ways – although, obviously, not in others. Thank you so much for sharing it with us!

    The more I’ve learned about my family and others’ (I’m a big fan of Who Do You Think You Are, for example), the more I know that we all, essentially, share the same story.

  13. That was the nicest thing I have read in a long long time. What a wonderful gift those letters are. Finding out about the people who inadvertently shaped your life is the coolest thing. I love reading old letters. It brings people to life in a way nothing else can.

  14. A lovely tale about you and your family. I was a little teary at the end too, what a wonderful gift. It gives me pause, making me grateful for having known my grandparents and great-grandparents. I am very lucky.

  15. Its so wonderful that you’ve been able to fill this gap, and learn more about your family. And even more so to realise your namesake was a real, complex woman, not a myth. I think the handwriting helps with that too. A lovely tribute.

  16. Oh what a precious gift those letters are Helen! I know exactly how you feel as my own mother’s mother passed away on her 10th birthday from leukemia so I never got to know her apart from the stories my mum and auntie and grandfather told me. She left my mum and auntie at such a young age too and they had to live in a home until they were teenagers and found work which was very sad as my grandfather couldnt afford to look after them. I only know her from photos and it is strange when you speak to other people who know them and they give you another aspect of their lives as normal. I too wonder how my mother’s life would have been if she hadnt died so young and whether my sister and I would be here now too. It does make you wonder doesnt it. It sounds as though your grandmother was a very strong young women who changed her life to live in another country.

  17. I wonder what year she was born. She sounds like my aunts.
    My grandmother was a child when they moved from Nebraska to Alberta, Canada. She married up there and had several of her 7 children up there, including my dad. They didn’t come to the states until he was about 7 years old. That would have been about 1934. She would talk about the differences between the countries, and what it was like completely uprooting a family.
    We are fortunate that circumstances haven’t forced us to move long distances, or leave family far behind.
    Thank you for sharing Helen with us.

  18. This was a really lovely post, it bought tears to my eyes. A very sad part of your family history, how amazing to have that link to the past!
    My maternal grandparents were ‘ten pound poms’ and a lot of the feelings your grandmother has expressed my Gran had as well. She deeply missed her family and England. Now I have gone the other way (moved to the UK) but I have the wonderful convenience of being able to contact my family (especially my Mum & sister) every day. Now I must talk to my Mum and tell her I love her!

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