“I don’t want to look like you when I grow up,” I cruelly informed my mother when I was about 3 or 4. “I want to look like Lily.”
Lily was a friend of my mother’s who sometimes babysat me, a dazzling young woman with Hollywood film star looks. She left a trail of swooning swains in her wake, and probably broke dozens of hearts, but she was also a kind, caring and cheerful young woman. On one occasion I believe she saved my life, when I tried to walk on the velvety green carpet of duckweed that covered the canal where she took me for a walk. Luckily she was holding my hand very tight and was able to return me to my mother with just one soggy green left foot as a token of my foolhardiness. Sometimes she took me to visit her mother, whose garden backed onto the railway line, and I have vivd memories of being lifted up to watch the steam trains puffing by, shaking the house as they went.
At one point she fell out with her mother, and turned up at our house together with her bed: she occupied our front bedroom for a while, which gave me ample opportunity to study her beauty routine, especially the strange ritual of plucking her eyebrows. My mother didn’t have time for a beauty routine: moisturiser at night and a dab of powder on her nose when she was going out was enough. Lily must have made up her quarrel with her mother, though, because after a short while she went back to live at home and certainly lived there at the time of her marriage.
Lily married a handsome young sailor called Les at the beginning of 1945, while he was still serving in the Royal Navy. Would he survive the War? He did, and their Christmas present was a beautiful baby girl, christened Hazel. Les was looking forward to being demobbed and returning to civilian life and his little family, finding a home of their own instead of having to live with his in-laws, and generally enjoying the post-war peace. Lily was yearning to have her husband at her side and relieved that she would no longer have to fear the arrival of a telegram saying his ship had been torpedoed.
Early in 1946, Lily was suddenly taken ill and died. This was the first time anyone I knew had died, and I was puzzled. Old people die, not young ones. Lily was only twenty-two and blooming like a rose. How could she die? My mother explained that she had gone out in the cold, sat on a bench and caught a bad chill, but she had also had a “white leg” with a blood clot that had moved and stopped her heart. I was four and a half, too little to understand much about thrombosis or pneumonia or whatever combination of the two had proven fatal, but this explanation was enough for me. Lovely Lily had gone.
What about her baby? Les was still in the Navy, so unable to look after her, and Lily’s mother couldn’t cope. However, Les had an older married sister, coincidentally also called Lily, and she offered to adopt the little girl. This seemed like the best solution for everyone.
Then, a little pitcher with outsized ears, I overheard my mother telling our neighbour the next part of the story.
When Les was finally demobbed and came back from the sea, little Hazel was about a year old. She didn’t know him at all, of course, only her adopted parents, and they decided it was best for her to remain in ignorance. They refused to allow Les to see her or have any kind of access. Surely they had the child’s interest at heart, but it was a devastating blow to Les. He had tragically lost not only his beautiful young wife, but also now his only child.
In his depressed state, he was easily captured by another young woman in search of a husband, and early in 1947 he married again. By the end of 1948 they had a little daughter. His second wife felt that now was the time to reunite Hazel with her biological father and half-sister, so she confronted her sister-in-law with her demands. This didn’t go down well, and sparks flew. The relationship between Les and his sister hadn’t been good, but now it was disastrous. His younger daughter was brought up in the knowledge that she had an older sister, and his second wife made every possible effort to get the two girls acquainted, but Hazel’s adoptive mother was equally determined to block these efforts.
What happened next? Disappointingly, I have to admit that I don’t really know. I was a little girl at the time, and though I had been very fond of Lily, I wasn’t much interested in Les and his troubles. I knew his second wife, whom I instinctively disliked, but that is entirely subjective. I do know that the marriage ended in divorce.
Why do I tell this story? We have been sorting out old papers and photos that my mother has kept for many decades, and there were these pictures of Lily’s wedding and her little daughter Hazel, with a teddy bear that my mother had made for her. Of course, memories came back, not in a flood but in a steady flow.
I turned to Ancestry.com and FamilySearch for further information, which was scant, but confirmed a few dates and facts. As I said, Les’s second marriage ended in divorce but he remarried, was widowed, and married for a fourth time shortly before his death in his eighties. I hope he found happiness. His sister died in her seventies. What happened to his daughters? They must now be elderly ladies, and Ancestry.com indicates that they married and had children of their own. Did they ever meet as sisters? Again, I hope so, and that they were able to connect as such. If not, maybe this is a case for Long Lost Family.