The recent lockdown gave me time at home and at last I’d run out of excuses. For over thirty years, I’d been meaning to sift through that box of paperwork and letters. It’s not that I procrastinate, you understand; I’ve always attended to my affairs and left no correspondence unanswered. However, blowing the dust off my family’s heirlooms was a daunting task. An ideal moment hadn’t happened, or maybe I’d avoided making the time.
So, being honest, I’d chosen to forget about the chore, given there were two hundred envelopes to open and letters to read. Today, my good intention had been to file them in a sensible order or dispose of them. Either way, I was tidying up my old writing bureau when I stumbled upon a box of papers and photographs that my late grandmother had saved and handed to my Aunt Annie. In turn, she had bequeathed me the collection, and I’d put them to one side for safekeeping.
There was one brittle old envelope with yellowing edges that caught my eye. It was addressed to my grandparents and my Aunt Annie at an address that I recalled from my childhood. The writing was so similar to my hand that I could’ve addressed it myself last week. It had a neat cursive style seldom taught in British schools these days. The script flowed with a pleasing rhythm and the words were clear and bold. The characters were rendered in a rich oak-gall ink that had remained as dark as soot, having received no direct light for decades. My eyes scanned the envelope for clues to its origin before removing the contents.
A postage stamp bore the picture of King George the Sixth; Britain’s war time sovereign. His majestic presence lent the envelope a dignified air and hinted at its age. The fractured and faded postmark was just legible and confirmed the date to be the twenty-fifth of December 1944. I was a war baby and survived that era despite the constant aerial bombardment, ongoing deprivations, and the death of my mother in August 1945. She never lived to see her family survive those terrible years, but contributed to our positive outlook and plucky disposition.
I smiled at the coincidence that I’d picked Armistice Day to tidy my desk. The anniversary of an end to hostilities was an appropriate time to remember loved ones and especially my mother. Without her love and ingenuity, my two brothers and I would never have survived the relentless threats to our existence or lived to mourn her loss.
The envelope was addressed to Mr and Mrs William Gregson, however the letter inside was intended for my mother’s sister Anne; my dear Aunt Annie, whom I am named after. She lived at home with her elderly parents throughout the Second World War and the decade beyond. It wasn’t until her mid-fifties that she got married to her employer and helped look after his children following his wife’s sudden demise.
Aunty Annie was a jolly old soul, and we were very close after my mother died. She was like a big sister to me in later years and a maternal replacement after my mother’s death in child-birth. At the end of her days, she came to live with me and I cared for her when she became infirm. I was her last remaining blood-relative, and she left me the choice of her belongings in her will, including the archive of correspondences with her sister Agnes, my late mother.
The letter I’d selected at random was written on Christmas Day, 1944, at 9pm. That year, the government had rationed household goods and fuel, and discouraged Christmas ‘get togethers’. Our families had adhered to the strict national guidelines on travel during the holiday season; it was all in aid of the war effort and everyone was towing the line. The use of private vehicles was restricted to essential journeys and public transport was subject to last-minute cancellations.
It was telling that my mother began her letter, ‘Dear Annie, Mother and Father’. The two sisters were close, which is why I developed a natural affinity for Aunt Annie. Their parents were elderly, and Annie worked hard to support them and pay their household bills. The circumstances were tough for everybody in the country during those frightening years and yet somehow she’d given my mother an abundance of wonderful gifts for our family.
It was my fourth Christmas Day celebration, and I was still naïve; I’d no idea what to expect. I remember that I’d helped my two brothers, James and John, resurrect last year’s Scott’s Pine from the rear of our garden. We’d painted its bald branches in white paint, made decorations from tin foil, swathed it in colourful paper-chains and crowned it with a glittering papier mâché star.
I read the letter further and noted my mother’s words as she described how my young teenage brothers had tried to sneak down the stairs at 5am. They crept past her bedroom, hoping to glimpse the bounty under our makeshift tree. She’d struggled to keep a straight face but ordered them back to bed until a civilised hour. At 7am, she woke me from my slumbers and escorted me a step at a time down the steep staircase to our front room.
My face had a joyful grin all day, according to my mother. Despite the shortages, she described how I’d quivered with excitement at the sight of our ennobled tree and my pillow-case of presents. She didn’t need to encourage hugging the green knitted bear from Granny Isobel. Its brass button eyes glinted in the candlelight as I gave him a heartfelt squeeze. There was a doll from mother and a beautiful home-made dress from Aunt Annie. She was known for her needlework and my floral pinafore was finished to perfection and fit for a princess. With some amusement, the letter described how I’d fancied myself as a noble woman and practiced curtsying all afternoon. I imagine my aunt would have howled with laughter at the idea of my little paws shredding her festive wrapping paper and casting yards of raffia asunder. No doubt my brothers were tasked with collecting the discarded paper and twine as I waltzed around, regardless of the mess. In Spring they would reuse the binding in our kitchen garden to secure runner beans to bamboo stakes. It was the era of ‘mend-and make-do’ and we reused many things; we just didn’t call it recycling back in those days.
Aunt Annie had supplied our family with a leg of mutton to roast; not the traditional feast on Christmas Day, but welcome nonetheless. To accompany the joint, my mother prepared an apple sauce with the fruit from trees, splendid potatoes she roasted in goose fat and a forced meat stuffing. James had made crackers to pull that were full of almonds and hazel nuts and John had fashioned hats from coloured paper, in the shape of royal crowns. To follow, there was a plum pudding from last year that was lustrous and dense; she recorded that, ‘we were stowed after one small helping’. We feasted like regal dignitaries round our banquet table and prayed for all our loved ones in their absence; we missed our father, especially.
My mother’s letter ended with thanks for all our blessings and repeated her appreciation for all Aunt Annie’s kindnesses. In spite of the war, we’d had a wonderful day to remember, however, she suggested caution too. It was easy to be complacent at Christmas time and dismiss the urgency of the black out regime at nighttime. Enemy air raids were still a daily menace, regardless of that sacred day and the convivial atmosphere. She concluded her thoughts by sending much love to her sister and trusted granny and grandpa would sleep soundly in their beds; their gas masks at the ready, just in case.
Her last words wished for a happier New Year for all and she signed ‘from Agnes’.
I’m sorry that my mother never got to see her grandchildren and wonder what she would have thought about our present predicament. The Christmas holidays were her favourite time of the year, and she ensured a loving and secure home for us all. I fancy that she’d have made sure we were all together this year, even if we had to assemble around a table full of laptops and toasted a happy New Year via Zoom.