They told me that John Harris, my grandfather on my mother’s side, was tall and strikingly handsome, with brown wavy hair and Delft blue eyes. They said women found him witty and charming. They also agreed that he was a blackguard, a rake and womanizer.
He may well have been as mesmerizingly good-looking and charming as they all claimed, but there’s no doubt that, in the British lingo of those days, he was also a cad and a bounder. He married my grandmother, May Twitchen in the 1880s, and bought a big, elegant house in the city of Winchester a dozen or so miles from England’s South Coast. Here she delivered him seven children – Margot; John; Elna; Issie; Kate; John; Peace, my mother, and Andrew. Not long after Andrew was born, John Harris senior deserted the family, leaving them not a penny, and they never saw him again.
Remarkably, John Harris’s father, a wealthy man of some standing in the city, came to the rescue. He was fond of May and her children, and must also have been publicly shamed by his son’s behavior. He, and his estate when he died, provided enough money to support May for the rest of her long life, and to raise all seven children, educating them at private schools.
May was a fine, tall and graceful woman. When I was small she seemed possibly regal, sitting as though in state, all dressed in black like a widowed queen holding court. Most women born at the end of the 19th Century had not been prepared to make their own way in life and earn a living. May was a competent painter in oils and watercolors, an accomplished cathedral organist and piano player and even, later in her life, published an acceptable novella based largely on her own story.
Life was an ordeal for May and her family. Three years after her husband deserted her, Andrew, who was born deaf, was run over and killed by a runaway horse and carriage. By that time the family had left the Winchester house and moved to a more cramped and humble home in Broadstairs, a seaside resort on the South East Coast where, on a clear day, you could see across the twenty or so miles of the English Channel to France.
A decade or so after she and the family were abandoned, May became a Catholic with the fervor and devotion that only converts seem to achieve. Margot, her oldest child, followed her into the church, as did Kate and Peace. Catholicism bestowed an almost saintly calm and benevolence on May, but Margot’s new religiosity spawned a blend of dogmatism and a disagreeable bigotry. Some people felt that her personality was transformed not so much as a result of her change of faith as the tragic end of a love affair, when she fell for a young infantry officer who died in the trenches in Flanders during World War I Flanders. She never married, and for the rest of her working life looked after two wealthy spinster sisters in a nearby village as their companion and chauffeur. When they died they left her a modest pension.
I never met John and his family, who was no more than a whispered topic of conversation in the family by the time I was old enough to take notice. He worked all the way to the top in the Civil Service at the British Passport Office headquarters in London, and married a woman named Winifred. They had a son, Ian, and shortly afterward John, following his father’s example, left Winifred for another, younger woman. He turned his back on his mother and his five remaining siblings, and they never saw or heard of him again.
Elna, christened Eleanor, had polio (then called ‘infantile paralysis’) as a teenager, and spent most of her fifty odd years on a contraption like a gurney. She was a kindly, affectionate and remarkably brave and lovable person, with a mane of beautiful auburn hair and a sad smile. I never saw her stand on her feet, and she died shortly before her mother in the mid-1940s.
Then there was Issie (Isobel), a plain, bespectacled, bone thin, indomitably cheerful woman. She was an avid reader, had an infectious giggle and an unexpectedly bawdy sense of humor. It was her burden for decades to look after her mother and Elna who, because of her disability, had no choice but to lie down for the rest of her life. After Elna and her mother died, Issie bought a pretty flint-stone cottage, looking forward to a long and well-deserved rest in retirement. For a year or two her garden, with its flintstone walls, was a riot of color, alive with bees and butterflies. She spent her days working voluntarily for the ancient 11th Century church next door, and developed a talent, envied by her friends and neighbors, for discovering valuable antiques at rummage sales in surrounding villages.
Isabel’s peace was shattered when Margot, after her employers died, decided to move into her sister’s cottage. As her mother had done in her own home, Margaret took to her bed and her rosary beads, making no effort to help with the chores. The other sisters likened this to an invasion of a sparrow’s nest by an overfed cuckoo. Soon, Issie, by now frail and in her sixties, died from a heart attack. It is no stretch of the imagination to believe that her death was at least accelerated by her everlasting journeys up and down the steep stairs in response to her older sister’s demands, and to her daily rounds of shopping, cooking, cleaning, washing, ironing, darning and mending, not to mention the gardening.
Kate was a husky-voiced, strikingly handsome woman, with bold black eyes that were the downfall of many suitors. During the first war, at least two years before the law allowed, she left home and worked in an armaments plant, wearing rubber boots and up to her shins in water, making artillery shells. Between the wars she made a career of nursing, and in World War II was a colonel as the matron of a hospital ship on the Irrawaddi River in Burma. She was in her forties when she married an RAF wing-commander, who turned out in peacetime to be an abusive drunk. In the closing years of their lives, she and my mother, both widows, found themselves back overlooking the sea at Broadstairs where they had spent their youth together. They were close neighbors and inseparable friends, and Kate died in the late 1970s, followed not long after by Peace.
My mother was a kindly, warm and serene woman, with laughing eyes and a ready laugh. She was named Peace because she was born on the day in 1901 when Britain signed the peace treaty after the South African War with the Boers. By the time my mother was twenty-one, none of May’s five daughters were married, and they all lived with their mother in the house at Broadstairs. Little wonder that, thirty-six years later, while we were walking together, she confessed that her main reason for marrying my father had been to escape from the suffocating atmosphere of that sorority of spinsters.
Peace was the last survivor of that generation. In some ways, her married life turned out to be lonelier than if she’d stayed with her family. While she and my father were fond enough of each other, he was a much older, kindly but cautious and none-too-ambitious man. Theirs was a passionless marriage that lasted thirty-one years until he died in 1958 at the age of seventy. She lived for about thirty more years in her house by the sea before she herself died in the 1980s, at 89.
There was indeed something tragic about May Harris, and the largely unfulfilled lives of my mother and that assembly of aunts. Between them all, the six sisters and their brother John brought only three children into the world. How different might the story have been had May and her husband John stayed together? But asking “What if?” is a futile exercise. Life deals us a hand of cards, and we have no choice but to play it as best we can.