This is my grandmother, as she looked just over a hundred years ago, with all her adult life ahead of her. This photo brings tears to my eyes. It marks a turning point in her life, a very brief period between adolescence and adulthood, the end of innocence and the start of hard experience. She is about to leave the sheltered nest of her parents’ home and meet the man she will marry.
She looks so serene and hopeful in this portrait. It breaks my heart. I want to warn her of what lies just around the next corner, say, “Don’t! Don’t do it! Don’t marry him!” but if I did, if I could, I wouldn’t be here. Because she did do it, she did marry him, she did take on all the responsibilities, hardships and grief, she did persevere and make the best of things as well as she could, and she lived her life.
That steady, dark-blue-eyed gaze sees no further into the future than waiting for the “birdie”. Would it have faltered if she could have known? She was about to meet and fall in love with a charming, handsome man who had his own business; perhaps she already had met him and was already envisaging a life of married bliss? Is this a picture of a young woman in love? There is certainly an air of assurance about her, and I know she was a strong-willed, passionate person even in her old age. That indomitable will and passion must have been there in her youth, also.
She was the tenth child of thirteen, one of the few still at home, her father by this time a respected pillar of the community, a local Councillor and JP, and home would have been relatively comfortable. Most of her older siblings were married and had started their own families, she and her unmarried sisters were in service. Marriage and a family must have looked like an attractive option.
How could anyone a hundred years ago have foreseen what was going to happen in the twentieth century? It’s a platitude to say that some were luckier than others, but it remains a fact. Her handsome, charming husband kept his charm right into his eighties, but he lost his looks, his business and his money.
Ethel married soon after this photo was taken and spent the first dozen years of her marriage pregnant. Eight babies, one stillborn and twins who died in infancy, a couple of miscarriages, and five children who survived. A husband who was away most of the time, travelling the country to wherever his work took him, and sending money home sporadically, returning at intervals to father the next child, then gone again. Struggling to cope with three lively young children during the years of WWI when their father was fighting in France, and they fighting among themselves at home. The deaths of her next three babies and the illnesses of the fourth survivor, in the economic misery of the nineteen-twenties; moving frequently from one rented house to another, and then the birth of her last child.
That serene, hopeful gaze must have vanished pretty quickly. Her older children inherited her passionate nature, so tempers ran high on the domestic front, and when he was home her husband escaped to the pub.
I want to warn her, I weep for her, at the inevitability of what is just beyond her vision. Then I console myself with the thought that, whatever happened next, at the moment this photograph was taken, she could still gaze steadily and serenely at the camera and dream of a happy future.
And this was my grandfather: