It wasn’t the clothes that upset me. They were no problem: I sorted them into 3 piles, charity shop, jumble sale and bin, and put them in black plastic bin bags. It was her personal things which she had kept in her little box in the dressing table drawer which brought the tears flooding. Mum had never let us children see in there – “there will be plenty of time when I’m gone” she would say, and now she was.
We’d buried her yesterday, alongside Dad. All the relatives had gone home now and the house was very quiet. Laura had offered to help. Bless her, she’s been a wonderful daughter all through this, but I felt it was something I should do by myself.
I lifted the box from the drawer and looked at it for a moment, and then slowly opened the lid. Inside was a tightly packed pile of letters, photographs and cuttings. Me as a small child, my dark hair a riot of curls. The twins, so close to me in age, their fair hair cut with a straight fringe. Mum always said I took after her side of the family with my dark hair, but where the curls came from she couldn’t say. I looked through the rest of the photos, Mum and Dad on their wedding day – no white wedding for her, and no bridesmaids, it being wartime. Dad stood stiffly beside her, the empty sleeve of his jacket neatly pinned across his chest. Just him and her. Underneath was an envelope with some letters and cards, and a couple of photos. I looked at them, and something stirred in my mind. There was a young man, surely only in his teens, looking at me with the same mop of dark curly hair that I saw in my mirror every morning. And his eyes were just like Laura’s. I turned the photo over. “George” it said. Just that.
There was a very worn official envelope and in it some letters. I opened them carefully. The address was Grandmother’s house, just round the corner from here.
1st September 1914
I felt so proud of you as you marched off down the street, but I was crying so much I could hardly see you. Did you see me wave? I shall miss you so much. Dad says the war will be all over by Christmas when we’ve given those Huns what for. Come back soon. I love you so much.
Your loving Emily
The writing was childish and laboured, but undoubtedly my mother’s. the letters were heavily creased and worn as though they had been read over and over again. I opened the next one.
9th September 1914
I was so pleased to get your card and know that all is well even if the food is not very good. Dad says the Maginot Line will keep us all safe. I dream about you every night.
Your loving Emily
20TH January 1915
I am so afraid you will be hurt when you go to France. I went into the Church this evening and said a prayer for you. Please come home safely and when I am old enough we can get married.
Your loving Emily
2nd October 1915
I was so happy when you came home for 2 days leave. I love you more than ever. You were so gentle with me. I’m glad you have that photograph of our family. Dad never looks in the album anyway. I hate this horrid war! Please come home soon.
Your loving Emily
Underneath these letters were a few personal items – a creased and folded photograph, a pass book, and a simple prayer printed on a cheap card. And one more letter.
5th January 1916
My dearest George,
I’m so frightened. I’m going to have a baby. Yours and mine. What am I going to do? Dad will kill me. Please come home quickly if you can.
Your ever loving Emily
And underneath that was the telegram every woman dreaded receiving. The brutal announcement that their son, or husband, had been killed in action. George Morrison, he was. I put everything back in the official envelope. I hadn’t known personal items were returned. Why had Mum received those things? What had happened to the baby?
The house had grown very silent. I could hear the heavy tick-tock of the big clock in the parlour. I looked further into the box. A letter from my Grandmother to my mother, apparently living in Surrey at an address I vaguely remembered as my Aunt Maud’s.
19th September 1916
I am pleased you are well and that baby is all right. Georgina seems a funny name, but I expect you know best. However, your Dad and I can’t afford to feed another mouth. He is not well and cannot always work. The boys do their best though. Dad and I have been thinking. Do you remember Jack Norris, whose poor wife Lily died when she had those twins last year? His sister Ethel has been helping him, seeing as he has only the one arm and anyway can’t be expected to look after two babies and go to work. Ethel has to go, and Jack is willing to give you and baby a good home if you will marry him. He will do right by you if you do right by him. You are a lucky girl and if you know which side your bread is buttered you will come and do as we say and make the best of it.
Your loving Mother
By now, the tears were streaming down my face. I am Georgina Norris. I had always regarded Jack Norris as my Dad, and the twins as my sisters. But Jack was as fair as the twins were, and my other two brothers the spitting image of him.
I tried to put myself in Mum’s place, but failed. I couldn’t imagine what she felt. The time of the First World War seemed another age, another culture.
Right at the bottom was her marriage certificate. Emily Rowson to John Norris, on the 12th November 1916. She was 17. I put everything back in the box and closed the lid.
EPILOGUE – a letter from Laura Cole to her mother, Georgina Cole.
We found it! George’s grave I mean! Took us ages but we got there – just where the War Graves Commission had said. Took some photos, like you said and put some flowers there. The wind was perishing cold, but everything was so calm and serene. I wish Gran could have seen it. It seemed funny to think that was my Grandpa in there. Really weird. Tim and I thought we were jolly glad we didn’t live then.
You do like Tim, don’t you? Only I know you don’t much like us living together. But I am going to have a baby. You are pleased, aren’t you? If it’s a girl we are going to call her Emily, and if it’s a boy, George. You’ll make a smashing Gran!
Love and kisses, Laura