Doris and Hilda – Part 01
My four great-grandmothers between them raised twenty-nine children, including one who turned out to be my Mum’s cousin and not her uncle as she’d always been led to believe, and so coming from the amalgamation of four huge families my big burning question was: Where did they all go? Many of them died before I was even born and this may explain why, apart from three grandparents I grew up with, I only have fond memories of two of these: Doris and Hilda.
I’ve been looking into my family history a lot of late, starting on a mission to digitise my parents old photos, and they’ve already turned up some eye-openers.
Alexander Graham Bell once said: “I truly believe that one day, there will be a telephone in every town in America”. It’s a statement that’s hard to give credibility to in this day and age, but history seems a lot more visceral after I turned up a picture of my Grandmother discovering the telephone for herself in my parents’ first flat in 1972. They were obviously la-di-dah back then. She was probably going to take her discovery on Dragons’ Den had it not transpired that some Scottish gentleman had already patented the idea almost a hundred years previously.
Another photo of interest was of a small family gathering, which included my unmarried parents, at my Grandparent’s house in 1970. Also present in the line-up was an odd-looking woman who I couldn’t identify and it was pointed out to me that it was my Dad’s Auntie Hilda. More pertinently it was Auntie Hilda wearing a wig which she’d been talked into getting during a visit to her sister Doris who then lived in New York. This was odd as when I knew Hilda, much later in the eighties, she had no wig and lots of hair. It was the American fashion I was told. Auntie Doris was that in vogue creature of the forties, a war bride, after being swept off her feet by an American GI during the second world war. I’d love to know the details, but what I do know is that an English rose from grim Manchester was transformed into a New York socialite when hostilities ended. Further to my surprise I also discovered a discarded audio tape she recorded on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the day she arrived in Brooklyn.
As Doris’s husband was very senior at a New York bank, getting letters from Presidents, my imagination tells me that they must have been movers and shakers on the social scene, and yet their idea of a party was getting their neighbour Jerry Harrison around to record their own psuedo-radio show into a tape recorder. It was short, with many interruptions, and featured poetry recitals, baseball novel reviews, laughing at jokes, and attempts at reading out portions from The New Yorker. She sounded so happy then, Doris, which was especially poignant for me as I knew what happened later, when the laughter ended, because when I knew her she’d left America behind and retired to Lytham St Annes where, widowed, she lived on her own.
I thought that the forties, fifties, and sixties were an era where people were sedentary, and migration around the country wasn’t common, and so I find it a bit odd how three of my Granddad’s sisters seem to have escaped an industrial Manchester and ultimately ended up in posh Lytham St Annes.
For those not in the know Lytham is effectively the posh end of Blackpool. Blackpool historically being the holiday destination of choice for northerners, but then that’s going back to before the invention of cars, package holidays, and votes for women. This, in a nutshell, is their problem as what Victoriana that’s been left behind is now viewed as tacky: a notion which hasn’t been helped by the town becoming Hen-do central and thus has no doubt borne witness to some horrific sights of teary would-be brides staggering about the pier in high heels and covered in vomit. Tacky?
Blackpool’s saving grace in the off-season is the world-famous Illuminations, and the tower of course which is a contemporary of that one in Paris, and thus during the autumn the place regains its raison d’etre with families travelling great distances to pay pilgrimage to long ago childhoods of wonder whilst trying to paint similar memories for their own children at the same time.
Lytham St Annes doesn’t require such frippery and they make do with a windmill.
Now I’m not saying that they’re all snobs in Lytham but should you ever ask a resident the way to Blackpool then they’d probably deny all knowledge of the place. Although as a child in the eighties I found that the tower is clearly visible from Lytham, with the attention seeking nature of a precocious child, as it was shooting laser beams into the night sky. Tacky? With relatives in Lytham I therefore have great childhood memories and I recall building castles on the sand, a long way from the Irish sea, and in deference to my medieval forefathers I obviously retained sufficient race memory intact to properly dig a moat for my castle. A castle with an empty moat, nowhere near to sea, but right by an abandoned can of Castrol GTX motor oil. There was only one conclusion, I’m sure you’ll agree, and Auntie Hilda obviously didn’t have any objections. I was an early polluter.
Amongst the small box of audio tapes my parents have, which I never knew existed, there are also short recordings of me at fourteen weeks and then again at about two, actually in Lytham, reciting nursery rhymes and lisping like Sylvester the Cat. If it hadn’t have had my name written on I’d never have realised: I mean sufferin’ succotash I know I went through some speech therapy, as a child, but seriously?
After Hilda died I was once permitted to visit Doris at her home. She didn’t like young children, and the damage they might do, and so we’d always been kept away. But I was older now and that visit was well worth my time as for all the worth of photos, tapes and second-hand stories for family history there’s nothing better than firsthand sources.
And that day Doris revealed two mighty family revelations to me, going back twenty-five to fifty years, that were staggering.