“There was always music in our house. Tom played the piano, Maud played the guitar and Joe played the harmonica. Everyone else sang. We would sing almost every evening – sometimes for hours and hours. Music was so much fun in those days.”
I loved the stories my Grandmother used to tell me. I loved the far-away look she used to get in her misty blue eyes when she remembered. She could see the images so clearly and would describe what people were wearing, what they talked about and how they did things.
She told of picnics and pining admirers, riding in carriages to get to Sunday School and all the buttons it took to do up a dress. She’d laugh at how her father would follow her sisters ten feet behind when they walked with young gentlemen and praised her mother for sending all the washing out (except the smalls.) She had grown up with copper boilers for clothes and without Aspirin, with unlocked doors and no swearing at all. There was modesty, elegance, a serene sense of fairness and innocence in the world she had known. She grew up in a well-to-do family in England before World War I. It was a gentler time.
Sometimes her face would sadden and, lost in the bygone, she would nod her head deeply as if she were listening to a long finished conversation, then, suspended between the past and the present, she would translate for me like the link between two parallel worlds.
“My sister Minnie…” her voice would soften, “what a beautiful girl she was…”
As I listened I would often be holding one of her old, cherished sepia photographs and my gaze would rest on Minnie in her long white pinafore and black lace-up boots. She had a huge dark bow in her finely brushed hair and a tiny locket around her neck. At that moment in 1901 she would have been about thirteen and her eyes were large and bright and tomorrow was the future, not a ninety years ago.
She was surrounded by all the other family members, erect and poised, one of seven girls in a family of fifteen although when the photograph was taken they numbered only eleven. They posed in the garden of their home. Great-grandfather had a jug handle moustache and all the men had centre parts and starched white collars. The dreaming old lady who held my other hand was the lacy little bundle of smiles on Great-grandmother’s knee. Minnie was beautiful. They all were.
“Minnie was the eldest daughter, and ohhh, my father worshipped that girl. She helped our mother with all the children, she worked very hard but she was never hard on us and we loved her so.
“I was a sickly child, they didn’t think I would live past two but Minnie used to take me out to the cow every morning with my little metal mug and make me drink a warm cup of milk straight from the udder and I grew strong, I grew to be the biggest child of all – but back then I was so skinny that my other sisters would not bath me because they couldn’t bear to look at my ribs. One of them told my mother that I was consumptive and Mother slapped her. That was the only time I ever saw Mother slap anyone. So Minnie used to bath me and mother was very appreciative.
“In the evenings Minnie would take me walking. I was only three but I remember that I would point to the trees and the flowers and the stars and we would talk about silly things, and I remember laughing and holding her hand and not wanted to go home. I loved being alone with her and was jealous when she gave her attention elsewhere. In those days, with so many children in the family you didn’t get pampered the way children do today – there just wasn’t time. But Minnie pampered me – she saved my life by feeding me the milk and I was hers…
“…then one night something strange happened. We were walking along the path and there were thousands of stars, it was a beautiful night. I held her hand and chattered away until I noticed that she wasn’t saying anything so I said “Why wont you talk to me Minnie?” but she was silent so I got upset and didn’t talk to her on the way home.
“The next morning as everyone was getting ready for school Minnie told Mother that she wasn’t feeling well so Mother sent her to wait in our parent’s big double bed while she saw the others off to school. I was only three, remember, and I didn’t go to school. When everyone had had their breakfast, been given their lunches and left, Mother and the maid cleaned the kitchen and fed me.
“I remember there was a long flight of steps with polished wooden banisters that went up from the reception hall to the bedrooms. Mother held my hand and we walked up slowly together counting the steps as we went; one, two, three and then one again because I couldn’t count very high. When we got to the top Mother let go of me and walked ahead to her bedroom to look in on Minnie.
“I remember she went through the door and then there was silence for a moment and then she screamed and came out crying “Minnie is dead, Minnie is dead” as she ran down the stairs. I couldn’t walk down stairs with my little legs so I cried to her to come and get me but she disappeared into the kitchen so I toddled into her room and there on the bed was Minnie, very still with her eyes shut, but I didn’t know anything about anything at that age so I touched her arm and shook her and called to Mother “Don’t cry Mummy Minnie is only sleeping, Mummy she’s only sleeping.”
“Father was distraught. He wouldn’t let the doctors touch her to do an autopsy so we never did find out why she died. Oh, she was a beautiful girl.”
Grandma’s eyes would narrow and I would wonder what she was seeing and I would think how dignified death could be when you didn’t have to know all the clinical explanations of what had caused it. Minnie just died, for what every reason. As I said before, times were gentler then.
Grandma pass away too, eventually, and the stories ceased. I miss the soft skin of her hands, her slight English accent, her cheeky sense of humour.
A couple of years ago Great-uncle Jim, the very youngest of the family and the only one left alive, rang to tell me that he was having a garage sale to raise money for the Salvation Army. When I turned up there were vases and clocks and cutlery and the usual odds and ends. I was working my way through a line of old books when I came across a tiny black prayer book. Inside the front over in beautiful calligraphy was written;
To Minnie Spencer for regular attendance at Stanfree Sunday School, Xmas 1889.
In that damp, crowded garage her name came back me and I remembered Minnie. She had always been just a sad story to me – a beautiful image in an old photograph, a myth. But here was something she had owned, something she had earned and she suddenly seemed very real to me.
I bought the book.