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Part 1. A Discovery At Christmas

December 27, 2014
by the gentle author

In the first of a series of three short memoirs, I reveal the contents of a locked box that my father carried his whole life and tell the story it contained, which I discovered after his death.

You deceive yourself into thinking that you know yourself and that you have made your own choices in life, until another hidden reality is revealed to you which explains how you came to be who you are. Such was the nature of my discovery, uncovering events that happened decades before my birth, and the existence of someone whose fate defined the direction of my father’s life and coloured my own.

In October 2001, I got an unexpected phone call on a Sunday evening in London to say that Peter, my father, had collapsed and been taken into hospital. “Is he conscious?” I asked, fearing the worst. “No,” came the reply. “Is he breathing?” I asked in surprise, growing suspicious. “No,” came the reply. “Is he dead?” I asked, seeking confirmation even though I already knew the answer. Each autumn, my father cut the privet hedge which surrounded the small house and orchard in Exeter where I grew up, and – after completing the task that year – he took a nap on the sofa and never woke up again. Aside from recurring feelings of weakness on his part, there had been little warning and, in retrospect, I think he was blessed to take his leave in the way that he did.

I am an only child, so it was just Valerie, my mother, and me for Christmas that year. We went for carols on Christmas Eve in the cathedral and I cooked a meal on Christmas Day. My fear that it would all become a painful empty ritual was unfounded, as we discovered consolation in repeating the usual activities in the familiar surroundings. Already, I had cleared out most of my father’s things and undertaken a few minor home improvements to inspire hope in my mother that life could go on there. After dark, while she dozed in front of the television downstairs, I sat upstairs in my childhood bedroom, following the pattern of my adolescent years when I spent my evenings in study.

As long as I could remember, my father had a padlocked document box, of homemade wooden construction and painted black. It was stored in the chest of drawers in the bedroom, among his folded shirts, socks and sweaters. He had a desk downstairs where he kept his bills and football pool coupons and my school reports – and this black box was used to store other papers, I understood. Yet it was both so peripheral and so familiar in my consciousness, I never gave it a second thought until after he died.

One night between Christmas and New Year, I decided to open it. Alone in my room, I took my father’s hammer and chisel and prised the box open. Inside, I discovered around a dozen letters on faded notepaper that my father had kept hidden through the years.

All but one were written by Gwladys Brown, a young housemaid working for a Mrs Dimond, who became pregnant and was compelled to give up my father as a baby in 1924. Immediately, I realised that the old couple who brought him up had died before he met my mother and I was born. He adopted their surname which in turn became mine. Thus, circumstances permitted him to bury the truth of his origin, which was such a source of shame that he had carried it as a lonely secret his whole life long.

The letters spoke eloquently across time. Touched by Gwladys’ pain and emotional distress, I was thrown into an intimate relationship with a relative whom I could never meet. I was filled with a strange sense of helplessness. Ironically, it was in 2001 that more babies were born to unmarried parents than to wedded couples in Britain and I was shocked to confront the meaning of this social change personally, recognising that for my father’s generation the stigma was sufficient to blight an entire life.

Yet even as I began to decipher the letters, tracing the unfurling of events and constructing the fragmentary story they revealed, questions proliferated. Who was my grandfather? What became of my grandmother? How much of my father’s life, behaviour and desires could be explained by the drama of his origin? And, as I became aware of my mother sitting downstairs, I asked myself if I should tell her or if – perhaps – she already knew?

Dear Mrs – , Just a line to say that  have written to [the] deaconess telling her about you, [that] you have been to see me about Peter & that you are going to have him altogether, which is more than kind of you. Mrs Dimond thinks there will be a written paper for me to sign for Peter, so now we shall hear something or perhaps they will send up to you. She will get her letter tomorrow morning. Mrs Dimond will sign it for me, dear Mrs – , a thousand thanks I give to you and Mr – for having my dear Peter which I cannot thank you enough for I am broken hearted over it & I will do my best for you when I am out & well again. Mrs Dimond is putting in a note as well, she is a dear woman & one in a thousand to me which I shall never forget her & you & Mr -. Shall be so thankful when it is over and I am back with my dear Mistress again. Will not forget to write while I am there. Love to you all, from G xxx    xxxxxx for sweet Peter

This is to certify [I] do hereby give full charge to Mrs – of 55 Victoria Street, St James, Exeter, Devon of my child named Peter Stanley Brown

Dear Mr & Mrs -,

Just a few lines to enclose with Gladys’ letter to you, I do think it is so kind of you both to take dear little Peter. It will be good to know the little soul will be in good keeping & looked after & I sincerely hope he will turn out to be a blessing to you. Gladys will be coming to me after the affair is over & she promises she will be a very different girl in future if I will have her here again. So I feel I must give her a chance. She has been a very faithful girl to me in every way, so I must hope for the best.

I am sorry I could not see you this afternoon. I had such a worrying week last week with the affair, my nerves would not permit me to see anyone. I am so grieved over her, I cannot express how I feel it is so terrible.

I will try to go out tomorrow morning to get the little shoes for Peter & some socks, so your daughter can take them back with her tomorrow evening.

My best wishes to you

Yours sincerely

A M Dimond

My Dearest Ma, I am sending dear Peter’s vest. So sorry I could not send it before, but have been so bad, but glad to say I am feeling so much better. Well dear I must tell you, I am broken hearted, I only wish I was up with you. My Mrs is like a devil to me. It is hard as I have no-one to go to & no home. It makes me cry bitter. You are the only best friend I have & I can tell you all my troubles. I do wish I was with you. She is a devil & the work I do for her, I am heart broken dear. She makes me cry bitter. Will make Peter some socks now. Do burn this dear when you have read it dear. Don’t write dear in case she gets hold of it. I will come up to see you, don’t send any letters. Have finish with him. Well dear I must hurry up as it is nearly dinner time only I thought I must tell you what she is like to me ( it is hard for me, eh dear ) My love to all & dear Peter. My best love & xxx to you dear ma who has been the best friend in the world to me & will always be a good friend. God bless you dear from broken hearted Gwladys. I am so miserable dear.


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22 Responses leave one →
  1. Ellen in NEW England permalink
    December 27, 2014

    Oh, my. How poignant, how compelling, how mysterious! Your poor Dad.

    I saw a note in a family genealogy book: “genealogy is a science; let the chips fall where they may”. My g-g-grandfather is called “Mr. X” on the family tree. NO idea who he was. But he was someone.

  2. Susan permalink
    December 27, 2014

    I had the same reaction as Ellen – this story gives true meaning to the word “poignant”. (You have also written it beautifully.)

  3. December 27, 2014

    A very touching story. Valerie

  4. Jacqueline Sarsby permalink
    December 27, 2014

    I made similar discoveries in a little attache case of my mother’s, after she died: such sad letters from her birth mother, Gertrude Corney, supposedly to my mother (aged two) telling her to be a good girl, and to the woman to whom she had just given her for adoption, the woman I had thought of as my grandmother. The letters were sent in 1912, when my birth grandmother had gone to America, leaving her daughter behind. She had had her child in Jersey, no doubt to keep the birth secret, because she actually lived in North London. My mother told us nothing of this and said that her birthday was August 25th 1910; in fact she was born at Christmas, and 25th August was the day that she was married. The letters stop when Gertrude was expecting another baby with her new husband, Mr Morris, in California. Illegitimacy was a terrible thing in those days. Nowadays mental ill-health has an equivalent stigma, and this too is something that must change.
    Jacqueline S.

  5. December 27, 2014

    Mystery and angst and intimacy and loss and secrecy so long, long ago ~
    yet seeming – amongst the handwritten sheets – so present and real ~

  6. Madeleine permalink
    December 27, 2014

    This sad story has I am afraid revealed your own identity, but maybe you realise this and feel that the time is right. I think that there is more mystery to be uncovered in the past of your father’s adoptive family and you may wish to persue this.
    Kind regards

  7. December 27, 2014

    This is so sad.

  8. Mem permalink
    December 27, 2014

    oh what a story . I wonder if that is why you are so good and sensitive to the history of the ordinary people . Thank you so much for sharing this .

  9. Victoria permalink
    December 27, 2014

    Just to say I can’t wait to read the next instalment. With more free time than usual over the christmas break I’ve been reading your posts from the beginning and have particularly enjoyed all those about your weekly purchases from Columbia flower market and reclaiming your London garden back from bamboo. And interesting to see how your threads have developed. Would very much like to register for one of your writing courses as you really do have a recipe for a blog that people want to read. Victoria

  10. December 27, 2014

    Poor Gwladys, it must have been so difficult for her.

  11. December 27, 2014

    A most touching story – how things have changed. ‘Gwladys’ is a Welsh spelling, though, so she must have come from Wales origninally.

  12. December 27, 2014

    Once again it is shown how the meaningfulness of long gone times differs…

    Love & Peace

  13. December 27, 2014

    Such an interesting story tinged with sadness. My great grandmother’s name was Dimond – an unusual name so I wonder if the Mrs Dimond in your story could be a relative!?

  14. Susie Holt permalink
    December 27, 2014

    Dear Gentle Aurhor, a friend sent me the link to your website as we had talked about my love of the City and the East End. Mt family originate from Bethnal Green but I am now sitting in Pennsylvania, Exeter. My home for the last 17 years.
    I loved reading about your Christmas memories. So different from mine. We lived in a council house in Walthamstow when I was growing up and Christmas was always celebrated with my mother’s sisters and their families in a prefab just near the High Street. This involved lots of food all the men dressing up as women and lots of scottish dancing to Jimmy Shand. Now it’s a much more sober affair.
    I had an uncle who only discovered my maternal grandmother was not his birth mum when he married after the war. My grandmother used to child mind him and according to family legend his mother never collected him one day and is thought to have died in the Great Flu epidemic.
    My uncle suffered all his adult life from mental health problems. Not serious but enough to affect his life.
    I feel a great sense of loss of the kind of family life I lead a child. It was full of colorful people and small dramas. Thank you for helping me to reconnect with it through your blog.

  15. Gary Arber permalink
    December 27, 2014

    This is yet another example of the hidden tragedies of working class girls being taken advantage of by their so called betters and the subsequent births being covered up.
    One of my mother’s sisters had been put into service as a maid in a large house of a rich family.
    After her death I found out that I had a male cousin, older than me of who I had no knowledge, the hidden son of my aunt. The story concealed by the family was that she had been “raped by a soldier.” The truth was that the pretty young maid had been taken advantage of by a member of the posh family, the child taken handed to someone to bring up and the whole matter hushed up, just a small financial cost the the wealthy family.
    The hidden son traced his mother just before her death and I met him at the funeral, a nice chap who could have been a member of my family if things had been straight.

  16. Katie permalink
    December 27, 2014

    Poor Gwladys, made to “cry bitter.” We’re so soft nowadays!

  17. Patty/NS permalink
    December 27, 2014

    A box of sad secrets. His poor Mom! And the sides of the story from the last note you posted reveals the heartache and sadness. I so love your posts and the people and their past and present lives. I am trying to trace my grandmother who arrived at age 11 on Canada’s shores with her family name of Tossel, which is an unusual name. I feel they may be linked to the silk weavers of the East end of London. Still digging…..

  18. December 27, 2014

    Dear GA, there is a mystery in every family. We know them well and not at all. I felt the sadness of your father and of you discovering this. I’m sending you (and him) hugs and love.

  19. December 27, 2014

    How poetic and sad that those letters had to be hidden in a strongbox.

    How brave and correct it was of you to break it open.

    I know my family is a tragic wreckage of broken lives, as are so many. Somehow in the dark days of Christmas it all seems to come into focus.

    Thanks for sharing and thanks for your wonderful blog.

  20. LIz permalink
    December 28, 2014

    Such poignant words brought me to tears. I wonder if the fact that these letters still existed means that Peter found Gladys. I do hope so, for her sake.

  21. Terry permalink
    December 29, 2014

    How heartbreaking to read G’s last letter to her mother. How cruel life was back then for such young women away from their families and treated almost like animals in such situations like this. I was so very moved to know you’re father treasured her letters and do hope they were reunited in their lives. Thank you for sharing such a personal yet important historical story.

  22. Molasses permalink
    January 3, 2015

    The social mores of the time brought unnecessary hardship to innocents….we live in a so much better times now (despite the pinning for the past by so many).

    In great sadness, these social pressures still exist in other parts of the world….in some cases, so much worse. When will we truly learn to love…….?

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