A couple of years ago my mother gave me a book, it’s old, it smells of ‘old book’, it’s more than a little bit tatty and is held together in parts with decades-old sticky tape.
It belonged to my grandparents. My mother gave it to me and told me it belonged to her father and it was his favourite book. My grandfather, William James Gray, died on 14 April 1941, aged 56, when my mother was nine-years-old. My grandmother, Anne Gray, nee Southwell or Mullins, died in May 1995, aged 96.
This book has lived through at least one world war, survived being bombed out, several house moves and even a couple of years gathering dust in my house! It will now live in the glass cabinet where I keep the other books belonging to my grandmother that my mother passed me when I began university in 2010.
It’s an illustrated copy of Handy Andy by Samuel Lover. Now aged and worn, the original beauty of the book can still be seen in the cover design and the gilt-edged pages.
‘Lover (1797-1868) was an Irish songwriter, novelist, as well as a painter. Lover produced a number of popular Irish songs. He also wrote novels, of which “Rory O’More” and “Handy Andy” are the best known.’ [From Goodreads]
Sadly, I’ve pretty much ignored it, until yesterday, when I de-cluttered my dressing table. After blowing a bit of dust off it, I turned the first few pages to find my grandmother’s name and address written on two pages; ’55 Bridgewater Street, Liverpool’. At first glance it looks like two different hands, but maybe not? I’m no handwriting expert.
My grandparents left this address around 1939. Bridgewater Street is near to the docks and my grandfather foresaw that the docks would be a prime target for the Luftwaffe. Number 55 doesn’t exist as it did before, it was previously a nineteenth century pub, by the time my grandparents lived there it was a lodging house, large enough for my grandparents, eight children and several lodgers.
Along with Handy Andy, I found a letter written by my mother to her sister in Australia. I’ve no idea why I have this letter, my mother must have given it to me at the same time as the book, but it’s perplexing. Was it ever posted? I can’t see that a stamp has been applied to it; if it made it to Australia, how did my mother get it back? It’s dated 19-3-95. Its four pages are filled with the usual family news but it also reports my grandmother’s waning health. Nanna’s birthday was 16 March and the letter discusses her visitors, phone calls and presents for her special day.
Mum told Auntie Mary that Nanna did not ‘seem well’ all the time she had visitors and did not eat much, furthermore, Nanna said to her later, ‘I think I’m deteriorating.’
Mum laughed it off and said, ‘So am I Mam.’
My grandmother was nearing the end of her life. Six and a half weeks later Nanna was no longer with us, dying in her sleep, in the house she shared with my parents. Auntie Mary travelled home for the funeral. Did she bring the letter back or was it never posted? Was my mother distracted by Nanna’s needs? Coincidentally, Mary and her son, Frank, were on the same train from London that I travelled on, but we didn’t see each other until I got off the train and saw her on the platform at Lime Street.
Nanna spent 54 years a widow, she told my mother that she would ‘never wash another man’s socks again’. She was 96 when she died and was born when Queen Victoria was still on the throne. My childhood memories are of her baking pineapple upside down cake for our visits to her and her lovely Irish lilting voice saying, ‘Well, hello there’, when greeting people.
But who could forget the hard paper loo-roll and the bathroom that smelled of Pears soap? The proper cup of tea in a china cup with a saucer as the water was always better ‘over the water’? [In Liverpool] Or the stuffed koala bear that was on display in her bedroom after her trip to Australia in her 70s? It was something we children were allowed to play with from time to time, only to find out as adults that it was a taxidermal specimen. I blame it on the Victorian in her.