The gulf in experience between Grandma Spratt and me is captured in two words from her letter of July 18, 1977: “at Wisconsin.” She lived in the town of Darlington, England. When I was four, my parents, brother and I, who were all born there, moved away, first to London and, when I was thirteen, to America. In Connecticut and Massachusetts, I went through high school, college and my first year of law school. Then, at the age of 23, I took a summer job in Wisconsin, a state I’d previously known only for its contradictory political history of Lafollettes and McCarthyism and, in sports, the Green Bay Packers. I hadn’t known, for instance, that Madison, its capital, was a mere three-hour bus ride from Chicago. For Grandma, however, the state’s name was as unilluminating as a Latin phrase in one of my law school casebooks.
Her complete sentence reads: “I … hope you are still enjoying your stay at Wisconsin.” she would never have written, “I hope you are enjoying your stay at London”; it would have been “in London.” I could imagine her saying “your stay at university.” Maybe she conceived of Wisconsin as yet another institution in my protracted American education.
I’ve been transcribing Grandma’s handwritten letters to a computer file, old and new forms of communication that suggest the different worlds that this clerical task is bridging between Grandma and me, and also between the infant me in far northeastern England and the older me in America.
In the past few months, a friend has charted my family’s genealogical history. Thanks to her research, I’ve learned Grandma was born into the Richardson family of Yorkshire in 1905, and public records show her family lived there until at least 1910. Later her family moved to County Durham. The counties of Durham and Yorkshire are separated by a minor river, the Tees, but the difference between them is vast, as perhaps only the English can appreciate. I never suspected that Grandma was originally from Yorkshire; for one thing, she didn’t speak the dialect.
Based on an anecdote that has come down through the years, I infer she was living in County Durham by the age of twelve or thirteen. In 1917 or 1918 she was crossing a bridge in Darlington, a town in County Durham, when she saw a Zeppelin (a German airship) coming down the railway right at her. She ran for her life. Later, it was determined that the Zeppelin had been captured by the British and was being transported south.
She would have begun her job as live-in maid for a doctor in nearby Stockton-On-Tees somewhere between 1917 and 1919, when she was at most fourteen but possibly only twelve. Although the school leaving age was fourteen at the time, it wasn’t strictly enforced until 1921, before which it could be as young as twelve. What must that have been like for a girl who was hardly a teenager? I’m comforted to know that her sister, Minnie, was the doctor’s cook.
I don’t know when Grandma and Grandad Spratt met, but by 1927 they were married, living in Darlington and had their first son, my father. By the time I appeared, they’d been there for three decades, and she never moved again.
Here are four paragraphs from my unpublished memoir:
The stories I heard about my start in life fitted around a few memories in a town far in the north called Darlington. From Harrow, the London suburb we moved to when I was four, Darlington was two hundred and sixty miles and an annual holiday away. It was Victorian, with street after street of terraced houses, cobblestone alleys at their back, and a clock tower at the town center. The world’s first passenger railway had started there in 1825, and Locomotion No. 1, a stubby, ribbed steam boiler perched sideways on wheels, was enshrined in a town museum. Despite a population of only eighty thousand, Darlington remained a station on the London-to-Edinburgh main line.
People said “bairn” for “child” and “mack” for “make.” The park near Grandma and Grandad Spratt was the “dene” and the stream running through it the “beck.” To me, the dene wasn’t a park at all, but a rain-soaked slope of grass numbed by the north wind. Likewise, the beck was the beck, something other than a stream. These words and this landscape had nothing to do with London.
Dad had grown up in the terraced house at 40 Surtees Street that Grandad and Grandma Spratt still rented. It had a cramped living room whose window faced the street, a kitchen in the back, a steep stairway separating them, and two bedrooms upstairs. The toilet was an outhouse at the end of the cobblestone yard, beyond the small rectangle of garden Grandma tended.
In their living room, you had to negotiate the small spaces between the brass fireplace, brass-studded leather chairs and the television set in the bay window. Grandad’s distinguished profile was a permanent fixture at the side of the television, at which he peered from an angle to watch horse races. Grandma passed back and forth from the kitchen. “There’s yer mugga tay,” she’d announce, thwacking it on Grandad’s table. Her short, rotund back would be scurrying to the kitchen by the time he looked away from the screen.
Grandma was a constant stream of chatter, her voice loud but not aggressive, her tone sometimes businesslike but always cheerful. She seemed invulnerable. By contrast, long hospitalizations and two-hour-each-way bus commutes to school had helped turn me inward, and I felt quietly estranged from her constant bustle.
It was because of this perception that I was moved by the April 29, 1965 letter she wrote when I began boarding school at the age of eleven:
My dear Adrian,
I have just received a letter from your daddy this morning saying you’ve gone to school at Coventry. Grandad and I hope you will be settling down and making new friends, and we hope you like it after you’ve been there a few days. We eagerly wait for a letter from you telling us all about it. Daddy said it’s a lovely school and you’re sure to feel strange at first leaving home, but it won’t be long before Daddy and Mammy go and see you and bring you home for a weekend. By the way, thank you very much for your beautiful written letter you sent thanking me for your birthday present. We thought it a wonderful letter, and I will treasure it always.
We are having awful cold and wet weather here. It will be lovely to see little sunshine soon. I am busy spring cleaning, making it nice and clean for when you come and see us. Sandy [her dog] loves going in the dene, but his hairs are coming out and it makes a lot of work for Grandma.
Anyhow, write when you can. I shall love hearing from you and am eagerly waiting to hear what activities you do at school. Daddy says there seems a lot to do, swimming, so you should like that. Grandma and Grandad send all our love, also Sandy, and hope you are getting more settled at school. Take care of yourself, dear, and very best wishes for the future.”
She wasn’t one to express affection so openly in person. More important to me at the time, while her letter conveys her unfailing positive attitude to adversity, I sensed she understood the unhappiness I felt. All these years later, I realize she hadn’t been much older when she was taken on as a maid in that doctor’s home, a place that must have felt at least as alien to her. Did she think back to her own experience as she tried to imagine mine? Had she, too, felt “strange at first leaving home,” but then felt better after a few days, as she hoped (in vain) I would?
Writing these recollections, I become aware that she had just turned sixty. Her birthday and mine were on the same day, albeit that we were separated by forty-nine years.
Two and a half years later my parents, brother and I emigrated to America, soon after which I lost my vision due to a worsening congenital condition. During our first trip back to England in July of 1969, we happened to be staying at Grandma’s when an American became the first human being to walk on the moon. I’m tempted to make something out of how that trip to my birthplace coincided with what until then had been only an imaginary future for mankind. Yet I didn’t feel it the way I did other newsworthy events, from Winston Churchill’s funeral in 1965, Britain’s seemingly humiliating currency devaluation in 1967 or Richard Nixon’s election in 1968. For a boy who once bought astronomy books and devoured science fiction on television, my relative indifference is surprising. The reason might well be that I’d felt homesick for England ever since moving to America, and during that first trip back I was preoccupied by a fear that I’d lost my sense of belonging there.
I think it was the spring of my high school junior year that Grandma and Grandad came to stay with us for two weeks in Connecticut, which would mean the year was 1971. I have almost no memories of Grandma from that visit, perhaps because being away from her home diminished her normally strong personality. I do remember showing Grandad a three- or four-page poem I’d written. Other than that trip, Grandad has registered on my memory mostly as the quiet elderly man watching horse races on their living room television. Reading my poem in an armchair across from me in our Connecticut living room, he took his time. Then he looked up and said, “A bit airy-fairy, in’t it?” It was so direct, so unexpected and so funny that I was charmed. I think, too, that I understood it meant he took me seriously.
My next clear memory of my grandparents is from December of 1974. It’s hard for me to fathom these dates. In 1968, when we moved to America, I was thirteen. When they visited us in 1971, I was seventeen, a completely different age. By December, 1974, I was twenty, a college junior in America, although I’d just spent a term at university in England (my ironic partial “year abroad”). For the week following the end of term, I did a whirlwind tour of England and Scotland, staying in a different town for each of those eight nights before flying back to the States. One of those stays was at Grandma’s, shortly after Grandad had a severe stroke. With him unable to talk and I unable to see, Grandma did all the communicating for us. Each time I put a question to him, I looked directly at the couch where he lay and, in some psychic way, try to reach out to him. Grandma would interpret and speak aloud his answer. Her cheerful prattle permitted no getting upset.
In that light, her February 23, 1975 letter, two months later, is especially affecting:
It’s amazing how the spring flowers are in bloom and lovely they look. Makes one feel that warmer weather will soon be here. … Grandad is about the same, but eats much better now. We have a 26-inch colored television now. It is the only pleasure Grandad as, so I thought it money well spent. And of course Grandma likes it too.
The only hint she betrays of how hard it must have been to give Grandad the care he needed was through one of her characteristic complaints about prices:
Everything is going up and up. Even letters first class will be [illegible], not to mention coal, electric and gas and food. But not to worry, we always manage.
From her letters, I calculate that Grandad died two weeks later. In April, recognizing our shared April 16 birthday and responding to news of my riding a tandem bike with friends at Amherst, she said simply: “I am keeping well but feel very lonely at evenings and weekends and miss Grandad very much. But time heals everything.”
Although after that she kept grief to herself, she freely admitted that the weather could get her down, as emerges in her August 28 letter that year:
What a summer we have had, much too hot to be comfortable. I haven’t the energy to do anything, and the long weather forecast warm for the next month and not a bad winter to look foreward to.
But toward the end of the letter, she belies these opening words:
I am keeping very well apart from the heat, busy hooking a mat for St. Luke’s sale of work. It passes the time away. I hate having nothing to do.
That letter also gave me a glimpse into life in my hometown:
Darlington is very busy with railway exhibitions. Duke of Edinburgh is coming Aug 27th to open the Railway Museum at North Road Station. Mrs. Merritt [her loyal next-door neighbor] as been to see a lot of them, and she said what a lot of work as gone into it, and they are collecting money en route to buy two machines for the “intensive care unit.” It goes on until September.
My father must have given her an unfavorable account of my summer’s work for a community action agency in North Carolina, where Mum and he visited me at the end of my stint there, because Grandma wrote:
I am glad you found the work interesting at North Carolina, but it sounds a poor place, unemployment etc., sort of happy you have left.
I’m struck by her “sort of,” one of those filler expressions that I don’t associate with her. In my mind’s ear, I don’t hear her saying “I mean” or “you know,” never mind “um.”
Her limited formal education is evidenced in her letters by her dropping “h”’s (“as been” for “has been” and “of” for “have” (“of been”). But I also notice in that letter the phrase “en route,” correctly spelled. No one would want their letters dissected to show a disadvantaged background, as (at the risk of patronizing her) I’m doing here, but what she got unimportantly wrong is outweighed by what she got significantly right.
Her letter of February 22, 1976, is addressed to me at Amherst College, where I was in my final year:
I have meant to write ages ago, but with all the alterations to my house, life as been very hectic. I have finally got all the workmen out and am just waiting for the decorator to come and decorate the bathroom and the kitchen ceiling when the plaster dries. We have had very cold foggy and damp weather to make matters worse. We haven’t had much snow up to now, but awful gales which did alot of damage and many persons killed. I have managed to escape getting the flu up to now, but there seems an awful lot of people with it, and many old people have died. I am taking raw onions and am a great believer in keeping flu at bay.
I am so sorry at not been able to come to your passing out (I can’t think of the other name). [She meant graduation.] I would have loved to have come, but nobody will fly with me, and I don’t fancy coming on my own. But your Dad will be taking photos and as promised to send me some and I shall be with you in thought, and I hope you have a lovely day and remember it always. …
Well, dear, I hope it isn’t long before you come and visit me again. I loved having you, and so glad you liked been here. I always look forward to seeing any of you. I love you all dearly.
The renovation and her price consciousness were on display a month later in her May 16 letter:
I have almost got the house finished after all the alterations, its being a long job but worth it. We are having rather cold weather again after some glorious spring days. … But rain will be welcomed now and again if only to make the potatoes grow. Our price now is 17P a pound for new potatoes, old ones 14P a pound, but we expect them to be cheaper in the next few days. With eating less, I may lose a few pounds.
On March 6 the next year, 1977, flowers are paired (as they were in a letter two years earlier) with a rare reference to Grandad:
The crocuses are in bloom, and lovely they look. Such lovely colors. And it makes one feel that spring is not far away. … It’s two years on Friday since Grandad died, and I’m going to take some flowers to the cemetery.
From her August 14 letter that year, I learn that I must have called her while I was a summer law clerk “at Wisconsin.” Needing to be as frugal as Grandma, I’m surprised but also pleased that I was willing to lay out the expense of a trans-Atlantic call:
Thank you for describing what work you are doing. It sounds interesting, with lots of decisions have to be made in court cases which I’m afraid would worry me to death in case I did the wrong thing. But of course, you will be trained to cope with such matters.
I have to go and working in the betting shop for a fortnight while Rose is on holiday. It will give me something to do as I always have all my work finished by dinnertime.
Her many devoted family members meant Grandma was never alone. Still, in proclaiming her work ethic in that last short paragraph, she revealed, with no self-pity, that she was contending with loneliness.
Two years go by. On October 9, 1979, by which time I was living in New York City and at long last had a full-time job, she wrote: “How are you liking working for a living? It would feel strange at first, but you will soon get used to it and make a good job of it.” I’m touched by her effort yet again to envision me in what to her was my remote environment in order to find an experience she could share. Except that I was starting my first full-time job at the age of twenty-five, while she’d begun working full-time when she was still an adolescent. In this reminiscence, I keep coming back to her maid’s job, though the details are lost in the mists of time. Could such a tenuous connection have brought us closer in understanding? She would have wanted it to, and so would I. But she never mentioned her early years in her letters, which might have helped bridge that gap by engaging me in her life story. Was she being reticent, in the way of so many in her generation? Or did she assume I wouldn’t have been interested? Of course, the two possibilities aren’t mutually exclusive.
In that same letter, she gave me a sense of how badly she was suffering from injuries that I believe she’d sustained some years before from a fall:
I have been doing a lot of gardening, cutting rose trees down, before I go in hospital. I got word from St. John of God Hospital at Scorton to go for blood tests, etc., on November 23rd and addmited November 26th for the operation where I will stay for a fortnight and four days, so the specialist said, and I won’t be sorry. I have never being downtown since February, and the pain in my leg is very bad at times, and an operation is the only cure. I am hoping everything will go well so I can travel to Mike’s [her youngest son and my uncle] for Xmas.
Mrs. Merritt [her next-door neighbor] is having to do my Xmas shopping. She is very good, won’t let me go up steps to clean windows. I do all my other work for something to do and have just finished a second mat for St. Matthew’s sale of work. I am now busy knitting a pullover for Clive [a brother-in-law].
Well, dear, I hope you and all the family are keeping well. I am well in myself. Also all the families.
“I am well in myself.” I respect Grandma’s distinction between, on the one hand, bodily pain and limitation and, on the other, mental well-being.
Grandma had six sisters, and their mutual devotion comes through in her November 18, 1979 letter, where she tells me that one of them, Amy, will take her for blood tests and a second, Dora, had just dropped by with “a lovely box of fruit and a canister of tea.” She includes a rare physical description: “Poor Aunt Dora looks very bad. She’s lost a lot of weight and looks very haggard in her face.”
For that hospitalization, Bill and Mike, her two sons in England, did most of the transporting and visiting. But “Poor Mrs. Merritt as done all my Xmas shopping as I can’t even attempt going downtown.”
That letter began with her thanking me for one I’d written to her:
I am so glad you enjoy receiving mine. It was good to know you like your work. It should be interesting. But I really don’t know how you manage and with living in a flat on your own—beats me. You really are a marvel.
She’d begun this theme in her August 14, 1977 letter during my Wisconsin summer:
It was lovely speaking to you over the phone and I must say you sounded very happy. However you managed to live in a flat on your own and cook meals I’ll never know. And a shame I couldn’t taste that spinach pie you said was delicious.
The theme recurs in her May 11, 1980 letter:
Thank you so much for your lovely letter. I enjoyed reading it and felt so proud of my grandson. I am so glad you are able to cope. How you do it, I don’t know. You are marvelous.
I’ve always felt ambivalent about praise of this kind, a subject I wrote about in my 2015 post on this website called “Compliments.” Meanwhile, in that 1980 letter, Grandma disposes of her own physical problem in three sentences:
I am feeling fine now, and being free from pain is lovely. I have finished with the hospital. The specialist said I was a credit to him and needn’t go back to see him and I needn’t worry about my hip.
I’d forgotten about the 1980 New York City subway strike when, for nearly two weeks, I traipsed from my Brooklyn apartment to my Manhattan office over the Brooklyn Bridge. But Grandma’s letter brings it back: “I do hope you are feeling well and didn’t get a cold when you got soaked to the skin when the railway people were on strike.” I have no recollection at all of walking through a heavy storm, but I’m glad to know I had such an adventure.
Grandma had lots of life left in her after 1980 until she died at the age of eighty-eight in 1993. Reading her subsequent letters, I’m brought back to the progress of my legal career, my parents’ two years living in South Africa before returning to Connecticut, Uncle Mike’s farm, my cousins’ coming-of-age parties, engagements, weddings and working lives, Grandma’s trips to the seaside at Lowestoft, her church life and managing painful arthritis. Though she sometimes complained of loneliness, her life was eventful and filled with the love she gave to and received from her family.
Reading her letters can make me sad, but mostly they give me pleasure and pride. The sadness comes from being reminded how little I’ve been able to contribute and share with our family members back in England. With the exception of Rhoda (widow of Grandma’s son Bill), all my grandparents, aunts and uncles have died, while I never grew close to my cousins because we went through our formative years three thousand miles apart. This isn’t to express regret; I can hardly complain about how events turned out for me. But it is to admit sadness. Sadness, as Grandma demonstrated, is part of life and something to be accepted with simple statements of fact.
As for pleasure and pride, I didn’t consciously think of Grandma during my formative years as an example to follow, but there’s no question she had a great and good influence on me. Her letters can’t convey her lively sense of humor, since jokes and verbal play weren’t her way. It was when she was telling or listening to anecdotes about people that her spontaneous laughter would erupt and have everyone laughing along with her. I hear that laughter in her letters.
Grandma had a name: Eleanor, nee Eleanor Richardson.
In her letters, Grandma would switch from one subject to another, then return to the first, but I haven’t always noted the gaps with ellipses or other indication. Typically, her other subjects were members of the family, the latest cricket scores and, of course, the weather.
For the sake of clarity, I’ve revised and added punctuation to the quotations from Grandma’s letters.
“Grandad,” without a third “d,” is the spelling in England.
Finally, my sincere gratitude to Pauline Hulme for her painstaking work on my family’s genealogy.