Today, a wad of letters written between 1956 and 1966 arrived in the mail for me. They are letters from one sister to another. To me these letters are some of the most precious documents I’ve had the privilege to read.
They are photocopies of photocopies. Faint with age, a strain on the eyes they were written by my maternal grandmother before she died at the age of 39 and were sent from Melbourne, back home to her older sister in East London. They surfaced recently because the older sister died last year and they were found among her belongings.
Many of them are signed like this.
My grandmother and I share a name. I am Helen because she was Helen. My mother says that when I was born, there was no doubt that my name would be Helen. My mum had been motherless since the age of fifteen and bestowing the name on her first-born daughter must have felt like a way to keep her own mother alive.
As a young woman in England, my grandmother looked like this. Elegant and beautiful. I think I see my sister Adele in her.
Every family has its stories and ghosts. She is the ghost in our family, the shadow over everything, the reason and explanation for so many twists and turns in my family’s history. I don’t think it’s overstating it to say that if she hadn’t died so young, my siblings and I might not be here. Who knows if my parents would have met or married, or if I would have been Helen, had she lived into old age. Certainly if she had, my siblings and I wouldn’t have grown up wondering what it was like to have a grandmother. My father’s mother was not part of our lives and so that loving, comforting space that is usually filled by a grandmother for most people was empty for us.
All my life I’ve known the sad story of Nana Helen. She was the beautiful girl from London who followed her husband, with four small children, to what must have seemed like the ends of the earth as ‘ten pound poms.’ She died suddenly before she ever got to go home again. In the later letters, she wrote of trying to save for a trip home – not to return – just a holiday. It never happened.
She was a portrait on our wall, with pointy glasses, and a box of trinkets my mother held onto with accompanying stories and photos, like this one taken on board the boat from England to Australia, a journey that took four long weeks. But according to the letter she wrote from the boat, it was a tremendous experience. They stopped in Greece and Sri Lanka; they ate four course meals; they experienced heat like they’d never imagined and they were served tea every morning in their comfortable cabins. Not bad for ten pounds huh?
But until today, my grandmother was never real to me. I thought she was, but she wasn’t.
She was an angel. A sweet, loving mother who provided a cushioning embrace for her children in a harsh new world. In short, she was a saint, captured in relics in a box and some stories so well-worn and so often re-told that I have long been sure I could re-tell them like they were my own. But that didn’t make her real.
I sat for two hours this morning reading one letter after another and getting to know my grandmother.
What surprised me was the utter ordinariness of them. Why should this have been surprising? I suppose when I heard the letters were coming I built up a romantic notion of what they would be like. It should not have been a surprise that a young mother would write letters home to her sister about such pedestrian things as missing English newspapers and about what it was like to work in a plastics factory. These are details that at first struck me as oddly ordinary but now, having pondered them for the day, I see they are a gift for me, but especially for my mother, who never had the chance to know her mum as an adult. When your parent is taken away from you in childhood, you’re left with an immature understanding of the central person in your life. You can’t ever make that transition into an adult relationship of equality with your parent and while these letters can’t ever make up for that, they do go some way towards filling in blanks.
She was a hard working migrant who worried about money.
She was a young wife who worried about her builder husband and the nature of his work.
She was a sister who longed for closer communication with her siblings and her parents.
She was a Londoner who didn’t fully understand the ways of Australian people and never felt entirely settled here, despite loving the sunshine and the lifestyle.
She was a mother who worried about her children and their schooling, their health, their activities.
She laughed at her children obsessing over the Beatles.
She celebrated the arrival of Coronation Street (which my parents still watch!) on Australian television.
She longed for news from home of babies and deaths and marriages.
And several months before she died of a cerebral haemorrhage, she spoke of excitement and nerves about the impending arrival of her mother. Eight years after the family left England, her mother was coming to stay for several months and she arrived just seven weeks before the terrible day. That her mother was here, on the far side the world, the day her daughter died was a chilling miracle. It’s just a pity her presence could do nothing to change the way events unfolded.
Helen was dead at 39 and four young children lost their mother.
Forty-four years later, I reached the last in the wad of letters and cried to read that she was missing home more than ever, that she was glad her eldest son had met a nice English girl, and that the Australian winter was really getting to her.
I must say this year I have been even colder than I’ve ever been since coming over here. My blood must have really thinned out.
Perhaps after eight years she had begun to settle in more than she realised.
What comes through is that all the stories I’ve heard are true. She is still the loving mother and wife I’ve understood her to be; she had wit and kindness in abundance but she had worries and fears and anxieties like anyone else. Of course she did, I hear you say and yes, I must have always known this but I couldn’t have said what her concerns and anxieties were. I’ve never had access to her thoughts. Now, here they are, treasures on hard to read pages. They’re not her deepest, darkest thoughts and feelings, but they’re the closest my family will ever get to knowing the real Helen Buckminster. She’s no longer the larger than life shimmering image of an angel.
She’s a real woman who, as it happens, once worked for Patons, packing wool. I liked learning that. And she was, to my Great-Aunt back home in London, always, your loving sister.