On sorting through my Mother’s papers after her death last year, I discovered a battered old leather suitcase tucked away at the back of her bedroom cupboard. Inside was a cardboard box lined lovingly with pink tissue paper. A moving chronicle of thirteen years of a second marriage, the contents touched my aching heart and one letter in particular reminded me that happiness often graces our lives when least expected.
“I’ve got something to tell you…”, Mom announced confidentially, in the sophisticated surroundings of Debenhams café. “I think.. I might have a boyfriend!”
It was the early nineties and she hadn’t seen him for decades. Like an embarrassed teenager, she explained that a letter had arrived just before Christmas from a man named Harold. After a brief period of deliberation and a few phone calls she agreed to a meeting in person.
Pleasantly stunned, I replied, “That’s wonderful Mom – you’ve hardly ever ventured out of Sheffield. How on earth did you meet him?!”
They had first met in Buckinghamshire decades before but I have never known the exact year.
When she was seventeen, my Mother bravely forged her Father’s signature to join her sister Margaret in the Land Army there. This was a courageous and rebellious act in defiance of parents raised in the Victorian era.
After the war she would sometimes visit the quintessential Old English village of Swanbourne to spend holidays with Auntie Margaret and Uncle Jack. Whether she met Harold during her years in service or later will always be a mystery.
Betty was beautiful and elicited a fair amount of male attention and inevitably much female jealousy. Working outdoors during her year in the Land Army was a liberating and exciting period. She was the life and soul and loved to jive at local village dances.
After her Land Army adventures, Betty reluctantly returned to Sheffield but one summery Sunday afternoon while out walking with friends, was chatted up by a handsome young man in uniform. Believing he possessed an uncanny resemblance to the Hollywood heart-throb, Spencer Tracy, sailor Joe offered her a signed photo of himself. Apparently he possessed several copies and Betty was not the only lucky recipient of his autograph! A year later Betty and Joe were married.
Betty viewed marriage as a way of escaping the confines of the parental home once more. Incredibly I never knew the exact year and date of my parents’ marriage until after my Mother’s death, when I requested a copy of their marriage certificate. I always thought it odd that my parents never celebrated their wedding anniversary like other couples but never questioned it.
My Mother suffered a lot over the years. An intelligent, humorous and creative woman, her life had been dedicated to caring for others at the expense of fulfilling her own potential. The marriage was not a particularly happy one but she cared for my Father full time during an illness which affected the last eleven years of his life.
Harold’s letter arrived just before the second Christmas after my Father’s passing. Harold had not immediately been made aware of my Mother’s status as a Widow. The news prompted him to send my Mother a Christmas card, which of course was the perfect opportunity to test the water and see if he received a warm response.
I am very pleased to be able to get in touch with you again after so long. I was talking to Margaret at John Ginger’s funeral and she told me you were keeping well and had been on holiday with you.
Margaret also told me when you were at Swanbourne on holiday with them, must have been a year last summer you came to Winslow bowling green where I was playing. How I wish I had seen you that day. I would really love to see you again. Shall have to make a New Year’s wish.
I expect you know where your address came from. I asked for it to send you a Christmas card and last Thursday Margaret and Jack called to bring it. They came in and had a cup of tea and a chat, a nice surprise.
Well Betty I hope we can keep in touch now and I hope to see you soon.
Bye for now
Love Harold xxx (Vizor) if you didn’t know.
Restrained, respectful and full of yearning – I smiled when I read the last sentence. ’If you didn’t know’ expressed a concern that Betty might not be remembered him at all.
Engaged twice but never married, Harold lived alone in a bungalow in Winslow with his small dog and enjoyed an active social life at the Bowling Club. His life was governed by order and routine, the legacy of a childhood spent in a Children’s Home. Years later I would soon realise that it was not a good idea to ask him about those days as they were evidently painfully unhappy.
Betty raised five children and when they had all left home, she lost a sense of purpose. Increasingly, she became a prisoner of four walls, conditioned by an irrational fear of being out after 4pm. Terrified at the mere thought of a journey alone, she did her utmost to backtrack on her promise to meet Harold, much to my frustration.
I bought a coach ticket bound for Winslow anyway and pressed it firmly into my Mother’s palm like an eager Fortune Teller. The much anticipated morning of the trip arrived and predictably she refused to go. The following day I paid for another ticket and practically pushed her onto the allocated coach seat! She refused my offer to keep her company on the journey and I vividly remember her anxious expression as she waved uncertainly at me through the coach window.
The visit to Harold’s bachelor bungalow was a success and it was not long before he was introduced to the whole family. She was not prepared to move south and so Harold gave up his dog and moved north to marry Betty at Sheffield Registry Office, colloquially known as the ‘Wedding Cake’ due to its shape.
They honeymooned in Scotland and because she didn’t drive, Harold took Betty ‘on regular runs out’ to Derbyshire. Chatsworth House was a firm favourite, not so much for its historic grandeur and history but more for its close proximity the nearby Garden Centre!
Harold’s loving heart became my Mother’s home. His calm and generous manner reassured her fearful mind. She would venture out of her comfort zone as long as he was by her side. His death eight years before her own was a terrible blow. A few years before he sadly passed away, she became his full time Carer too and once she lost him couldn’t see much point in life anymore.
It’s almost 18 months now since my Mother passed away and it’s coming up to a second Christmas without her. Although still painful I can now look at photos and read her letters without dissolving into tears.
Discovering Harold’s life transforming Christmas letter is an early gift. I loved him dearly and couldn’t have wished for a more kind and gentle husband for my Mother and affectionate Father figure for myself. He was the only Grandfather my children have ever known. Nothing was too much trouble if it made us happy and we all adored him.
Always dedicating herself to others, Betty had forgotten who she was and that she too deserved love and happiness.
Before being reacquainted, Harold believed he would never marry and later told me, with a mischievous grin, that ‘love often finds you when you least expect it.’ Yes Harold.. there was no-one more patient or more deserving of love than you.
My Mother was radiant on the day she married a quietly content Harold. I hope they are together now and loving each other just as much as they did on this earth. ‘I shall have to make a New Year’s wish.’