Monday, 2 July 2012

Beatrice Mead

Her family name was Johnson, and it was said that her family were connected with a family both rich and louche - the Rollwrights of Ebury Street Westminster.  There was a remembered scene in which two aunts, or maybe older cousins, who had left the family home and who wore make-up and furs (this would be about 1904) and who were said to be actresses, appeared at a family occasion:  there was an altercation, and rings were pulled off and thrown into the fireplace, possibly because of an inheritance.  This memory is as told to me by my grandmother, also Beatrice Mead, who witnessed something like this as a small child.  The elder Beatrice, as has been said, came from a family which had (perhaps) fallen on hard times.  She married a man named Mead, who owned, it was said,  several pubs in south London.  Quite soon they had a son, George, but after that the babies, who arrived annually, turned blue and died within hours of birth. It is likely that Beatrice was blood group rhesus negative, so the first child was rhesus positive and the antibodies in her blood killed the later ones.  At that time nobody knew about this.  A few years later another child was born and survived, named Beatrice too.  She was my maternal grandmother, and was rhesus negative, which is presumably why she survived.  Later, fourteen years later, a sister, Doris, known as Doll, and later still a brother, Fred.

Mr Mead, my great-grandfather, drank away the money and lost the pubs, it was said.  He did not live to a great age.  Beatrice Mead, his widow, known as Gran, became the matriarch of the family, and through the 1920s and 30s, as the men of the family joined the army, came back, lost their jobs, found new ones and lost them again in the Depression, it was to her house they came.  Everyone was taken in, and had a place to stay.  Children slept on window sills and underneath curtains: young men ironed shirts in the sitting-room; cousins formed alliances and told stories on Saturday nights as the men drank light ale and the older ones played cards.  The younger Beatrice, always known as Sissy to her family, married Leonard Thomas, of a Welsh family, whose brothers were lay preachers.  They were my maternal grandparents.  They had four children.  The firstborn, Lenny, died at the age of four from complications of mastitis.  Two years later their first daughter, Patricia, was born, in 1928, followed by Betty in 1930 and Tony in 1936.  All four looked exactly like their father.  Patricia was my mother, born in south London and married to my father, John Griffiths, in north-west London in 1952.  I was born in 1954, my brother Paul in 1955 and my sister Sara in 1959, all of us in South Ruislip, north-west London.

Beatrice Mead the younger (who was Mrs Thomas by then of course), known to us as Granny, lived a walk away when we were small and was often in our house.  We loved her very much.  She had fierce blue eyes and a fighting spirit that she used in defence of her family her whole life - although she could be critical of her grandchildren, no-one else was allowed to be.  She was bemused by the marriage of her youngest and favourite child, Tony, to a Norwegian woman, my Auntie Inger, a laughing blue-eyed Scandinavian, and his departure to live in Norway in 1962, where he remains.  They had one child, Stephen, my youngest cousin, who is the only blond in my maternal family.

Beatrice senior, our Gran, lived with Granny at the time of my earliest memories.  I was afraid of her.  I was her eldest great-grandchild, and so should have been best placed to understand, but I didn't really.  Gran's behaviour was strange.  She growled and muttered.  One time she stood between us cousins and the television we were watching and said "These children and their filthy talk, they've got to get out!"  I knew our talk wasn't filthy, but I didn't know what to say.  The others kept their eyes firmly on the television screen.  In those days nobody talked about dementia.  I remember my father using the words "going senile".    Then, when I was about seven, Granny had a new flat, and she and Grandad were there.  We used to love going to visit them.  We had Christmas there more than once.  Later, Granny came to live with us, after Grandad died.  But Gran died only some years after that, when I was thirteen.  She was ninety-six.  And I found out only recently that, probably soon after the "filthy talk" incident, Gran had been "put away".  Granny went to visit her every week, sometimes accompanied by my mother.  Aunt Doll, her younger daughter, would not go, after the first time, the place was horrible, she said.  And, it seems, it was horrible.

I remember Gran from when I was little, and I remember when she died, when I was thirteen, but I had, and have, no memory of her in the intervening years, the ones when she was put away,  She was at Granny's house, then she wasn't.

I put this to my mother, very recently.

She said, "You children never asked about her."


Anonymous said...

Which is, of course, exactly what she would have been expected to say because it was no doubt true.

What an awful story.

I am, at present, reading an historical book called Mrs Robinson's Disgrace ( by Kate Summerscale , she of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher) based on the actual diary of an unhappily married Victorian woman called Isabella Robinson who was described at the time, during her scandalous divorce trial as a British Emma Bovary. Her sad and delusional Emma/Leo/ Rodolphe fantasy was played out in, of all palces, Reading -- naturally. Reading is indeed the seat of infamy.

Read it.

Christine said...

Far too much of "don't tell the children", "don't ask" and hushing up, in past years.

On my mother's side, my maiden great aunt, born in the mid-1880's eventually suffered from dementia. Admittedly by then I lived on the south coast, my parents in the north east, and my grandmother, her brother, and her sister (my great aunt) lived in north London. I met my other great uncle for the only time at my great uncle's funeral in my mid-twenties. By which time my aunt was in some sort of residential care - unspecified - and not at the funeral. I do not think I was actually told when she died or have any idea when.

We were not brought up to ask about relatives except for the minority we did know. Helped by the fact that we grew up hundreds of miles north of the families of both my parents. (We never met or had any contact with my father's only sibling or his family)

Row with your siblings and your cousins and your other relatives as much as you want - but if you cut off all contact, your kids and theirs lose swathes of relatives.

Jane's tale reflects a family which generally looked out for each other in the bad times. I cannot blame Beatrice the younger, in her sixties, for giving up trying to care full-time for a strong and strong-willed old woman wht dementia such as Beatrice the older must have become.

Jane Griffiths said...

nor me. I was only shocked that I never asked about Gran, or wondered where she was, even when she died I didn't ask where she had been. I wasn't allowed to go to the funeral of course, such rhings were not for children.