(written 14th August 2009, on a first life writing course)
Her twenty-first-birthday portrait, a sepia photograph, now hangs on my bedroom wall. Alongside it are black and white or sepia pictures of other family members – a collage of family history. I had never seen this photograph until it appeared on the wall of my parents’ house, either very late in my grandmother’s life or even perhaps after her death in 1987. But she had written on the back of almost every photograph that she left behind – a note of date and occasion and sometimes also who appears and where the picture was taken. There is little detail on the back of this picture, but just enough – her name and the date. Somehow she had always been around sixty to me, until this photograph surfaced. She is beautiful, and the picture shows just her head and shoulders. Her skin is flawless and without a trace of make-up. Her hair is short, not straight like a true 1920s flapper but just that length – down only to her ears, but soft, wavy and thick and curling onto her face just below her cheekbones; it suits her perfectly. She is looking over the right shoulder of the photographer rather than straight at him, something I almost always do when confronted by a camera lens. This gives her a shy, almost wistful expression – is she enjoying this birthday appointment or looking forward to something else? She is not smiling but neither is she solemn. Instead, her lips are ever so slightly parted, like someone listening intently or pondering the answer to a question.
When this picture was taken, she had just celebrated her first wedding anniversary and is not Beatrice Lyndon Cormack as she had been born – to a Scottish father and an English mother – but Mrs William James Ethelbert Harper. As yet, mystery surrounds how she and William met, but it was certainly in Scotland – and it was in Edinburgh, the city of her birth, that they married only two days before her twentieth birthday.
She had been born at 5 Dalgety Avenue on 17 February 1899 – at 10pm. Her father, Donald Stewart Cormack, was just thirty and her mother, Eliza, was thirty-three. They had been married fourteen months and Beatrice was their first child. They did not give her a family name when they called her Beatrice, but in her middle name, Lyndon, they recorded her maternal grandmother – born Eliza Lyndon about seventy years earlier – who lived on, in Worcestershire, for another twenty years. When I was born, over half a century later, I was given this same middle name and I have always felt a special link to this grandmother.
It was almost six years before Beatrice was followed by a brother. Named after his father, Donald Stewart Cormack lived only seven weeks and had it not been for my grandmother’s notes on the back of photographs, his existence might have been recorded only back then, and in the Scottish registers, rather than within my family. My grandmother never mentioned this baby brother, but in a picture found among her possessions after her death there she sits, delicately cradling a baby on her lap, in perhaps the only photograph ever taken of him. He is almost invisible in his blanket and it was just a week before he died. His parents may have wondered whether they should after all have maintained the Cormack family tradition, in which Alexander’s son was called Donald and Donald’s son Alexander, going back at least five generations. But nevertheless, in May 1906, when another boy was born, they gave him his dead brother’s names. My grandmother adored her brother and perhaps he was especially treasured because of her earlier loss.
In 1924, when Beatrice gave birth to her only child – my father, Donald John, named after both his grandfathers – she was living with her in-laws John and Elizabeth at 222 Staines Road, Sunbury. It was The Greyhound public house, immediately opposite Kempton Park racecourse. She must have missed Scotland, her parents and her brother. They visited and got to know her young son but it wasn’t really home. Home was where she escaped back to in the 1930s, when everything in her life fell apart.
In 1930 her beloved father died suddenly at the age of sixty-one at the family home, ‘Lyndons’ – not content to give the name to his daughter, his house also bore his mother-in-law’s maiden name. A chief newspaper reporter by then, Donald was a huge man who had been given a special pass to ride on the back step of the trams because he couldn’t fit inside. I am sure that Beatrice would have travelled back to Edinburgh for her father’s funeral, and perhaps she stayed for a while to be with her widowed mother. But back in Surrey, William had become extremely ill. In August 1931, he died in St Bartholomew’s Hospital, London, aged just 34. The death certificate reads ‘terminal paralysis of the insane’, but in 2007 the hospital archivist told me the post-mortem results and it didn’t take long to discover that his condition must have been syphilis. Too early to benefit from modern antibiotics, his death would have been unpleasant and far too frightening to have been witnessed by his seven-year-old son, who never spoke about his father, other than to say that he hadn’t been allowed to see him in hospital because he ‘wasn’t right in the head’ at the end, and to suggest that it was the result of a war wound. I suspect he never knew the real cause of his father’s death.
Beatrice was now a widow at thirty-two, losing her husband just twenty months after her own mother was widowed. She remained single for the rest of her life, although for an attractive young woman, always smart and well turned out, there must have been admirers. But whatever her secret wishes her life was now devoted to her son.
I look again at her photograph and now there seems to be almost a hint of amazement in her twenty-one-year-old gaze as she looks out at me. I think I am glad that she could not see all that lay ahead of her on that birthday in 1920.