It was a somber announcement which took Chris and I back to Louth on Saturday, back to the north in the chill English weather. The sad news reached us recently that Chris’ paternal grandmother, the ripe age of 94, had passed away in the early hours of the morning, and her funeral was to take place on Monday at a small church in the her hometown of Legbourne. The rains of early spring tapped on the roof of the church during the ceremony, and remained as we stood committing her body to the ground.
Having only met her once for a brief visit over the summer, I didn’t have the pleasure of coming to know her. In her final years she was frail and ailed by poor hearing, and was cared for by her youngest son, Chris’ father at her home. Following the funeral, he was kind enough to allow me the pick of some of her books. I was elated and excited to search through the treasures of her bookshelves, through dusty tomes and much loved bibles to take a selection to adorn my shelves, in her memory of course. Some bore dedications and annotations, others were personalized with a ID slip on the inside cover. There were even a few library books either withdrawn from hire, or checked out and never returned. I’ve always marveled at how much you can tell about a person by browsing their books, and I started to piece together a lady I wish I had been given the opportunity of knowing. Not least because someone I love dearly spoke so fondly of her.
I thought once the books had been chosen, we would be done with our discoveries, but houses which have been homes for so long are rarely without surprises, and Chris’ grandmother graced us with one more treasure trove, the likes of which are immeasurable.
Before departing, Chris’ father took us upstairs to show me the final bookshelves in the hall. These were more modern texts of which I declined. He also suspected some books had been tucked away in the bottom drawer of an old dresser on the other side of the hall. The drawers set was clearly old, though not antique; the first two drawers contained old clothes and shoes, but the third drawer down was a sea of old papers, pictures and boxes. Believing his initial suspection to be correct, we began to route through the mis-mash of things, only to discover a life inside.
It began when, curious, Chris and I explored the contents of some envelopes, to read a well-written letter from his grandmothers former lover, a Scottish airman denied marriage due to differing religious beliefs, trying not only to talk sweet nothings to his love, but to ingratiate himself to her parents. From there the floodgates opened. We peeled through the contents with joy finding letters from friends and family, and pictures with carefully written sentiment. Christina’s life represented in stunning detail – she had kept her old school reports emblasened with her skills in English and her lack of effort in geography. A pile of 21st birthday cards were stacked together at the back, alongside girl-guide belts and framed school photographs, as well as large maps of the area during her youth in the town. Chris and I spent hours sat on the hall stairs sifting through, uncovering 94 years of life, piecing together the jigsaw of a woman through letters, pictures, drawings and scraps. It brought us both immense joy to be the people uncovering everything she had tucked away through sentiment, perhaps never wondering who would come across it after her passing.
Hers was not the only life preserved there; that of her father, Chris great-grandfather, the family patriarch, was also stashed away. We found a scroll and ring, pertaining to his participation with the masons. We came across a broken box; the top of the lock had fallen offmuch to Chris’ elation, a perfectly preserved passport from 1920, including a photograph of him as a young man. I smiled at the resemblance. Chris simply stated he was a good-looking man. Passports were uncommon in those days, and they were highly detailed in terms of identification; the mentioned aspects included chin (pointed) and face shape, as well as height, weight, and hair and eye colour. It folded it like a map, and was signed by a member of Government (I’ll change that as soon as I remember who it was – or I ask Chris). In order to get the box open, we have to manually flip the inside clasp with a fingernail, and we wondered if Christina was even aware it was in there, or whether she had known and been unable to break in to retrieve it. Either way, it’s a perfectly preserved piece of family history.
While strolling through these objects I tried to imagine knowing this lady throughout her life. I combined our unique finds with what I had been told about her by the people who knew and loved her most to create someone who could or could not be a good representation of who she actually was. And I wish I could have known her, wish I could someone discover if I was right, or close, or completely off base.
Life is such an astounding thing, and it ripples on and on, even after we die. I realised how we impact the world even if we don’t try to; simply by living a life, we add something, parts of us to the universe. Letters and photographs and friendships and people. A whole metaphorical drawer of your existence which reach through time even after you are gone, comforting those you loved, and sparking the imagination of those who didn’t have the honour of knowing you.
Rest well, Christina Mellows. Thank you for that unexpected gift.