1860 was a vintage year. Abraham Lincoln was elected president, and Annie Oakley was born. In Europe the year marked the birth of Chekhov and Mahler, and Britain’s launch of HMS Warrior, the first iron battleship. A far less celebrated person was also born that year in England. She was Mabel Harris, my grandmother who, though she may not have made it up there among those notables, would rate a few pages in anyone’s family history.
Besides being a devoted mother, Mabel – everyone called her May -- was a painter, author, musician and a bit of a mystic. She was deeply religious, with a devotion to which only converts to Catholicism can aspire. Many people said she was a saint but, when I was about eight, I looked her up in Volume I of Butler’s Lives of the Saints, and was disappointed not to find her there.
As a young woman, May was a startling beauty -- part Wagnerian diva and part Pre-Raphaelite artist’s model -- tall, with wavy, braided brown hair and an hourglass waist. So it wasn’t surprising that John Harris, a mustachioed realtor, fell deeply in love with her and, in her 30s -- late in life for those days – married her and presented her with seven children in just over ten years: Margaret, John, Eleanor, Isabel, Katherine, Andrew, and my mother, Peace.
But the marriage wasn’t to last for long. John Harris, who had a lifelong passion for port wine and pretty women, vanished one night around 1905, leaving May the house they lived in, but no money and no income. Shortly after her husband’s disappearance, Andrew, who had been born stone deaf, was killed in the street by a runaway horse. A year later, Eleanor was crippled by polio.
May was distraught with concern for her family. To feed them and pay the doctor’s bills, she sold the large house in a prosperous section of the beautiful cathedral city of Winchester, and the family moved to a smaller, less expensive one near the North Foreland lighthouse outside Broadstairs, a little seaside town overlooking the English Channel. This move realized enough money to cover the necessities of life, but there were seven children to feed and educate. May’s father-in-law, who was fond of her and the children, came to the rescue. Ashamed of what his son had done, he not only provided financial security for May for the rest of her long life, but also put his many grandchildren through private schools.
There’s an intriguing legend about May’s conversion to Catholicism. Late one winter afternoon, she was playing the organ, alone, at Minster Abbey, a remote, marshy place on the Thames Estuary, where a monastery was founded in the 7th Century. She looked up and saw a monk in a shadowy gallery overlooking the choir stalls. He was beckoning to her, but though she searched for a door or staircase, there seemed no way up to the gallery. A few days later she met Minster’s Abbot, and told him the story. He shook his head. There was no way up to that gallery, he said, because it had been closed-up for more than three hundred years.
The result of this phantom summons was that May, an Anglican, very soon became a Catholic. Perhaps buoyed by her new faith, and by the unexpected generosity of her father-in-law, she experienced an upsurge of creativity in her middle age. She took up painting, producing pious Renaissance-style pictures, and sometimes huge flower-pieces as much as six feet wide. One of these, I remember had a none-too-well-disguised patch in one corner after her son, John, had poked some sharp-edged object through the canvas in a fit of temper.
In the 1920s, in her early sixties, May wrote and self-published a novella, First Line of Defence (sic), a 17,000 word story about a woman widowed during World War I. The little book, dedicated to her parish priest, has vivid scenes of air raids by Zeppelins over the town of Broadstairs. Her scenes in the communal air raid shelters deep in the town’s chalk cliffs, are grippingly realistic and evocative, though the story is almost painfully devout.
May was 71 when I was born. I never remember her wearing anything other than black. A call on her was not so much a visit as an audience. When we met, she was nearly always propped up on pillows, dressed in her day clothes on her big bed upstairs. She spent a great deal of time there, and it would have to be said that, if she were indeed a saint, she was a somewhat lazy one. Outside, through the windows, lay the cliffs and, beyond them, the sea, and the room seemed to me like some holy reliquary. There was a large black crucifix over the bed, and statues were everywhere: the Blessed Virgin, Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Anthony, Saint Theresa, and others. Rosaries dangled from both bedposts on hand for instant use.
Sometimes she’d descend and entertain us on the piano in her elegant Victorian drawing room. Her favorites were the Three B’s – Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, though sometimes she’d tackle short virtuoso pieces by Chopin and Lizst.
I never heard my grandmother raise her voice. My aunts told me that, when they were teenagers, and the Zeppelins came over the Channel in the First World War, they’d all run to her for comfort as the bombs fell and the shrapnel clattered on the roof of the house. Unflappable, and exuding calm, she’d smile and say soothingly “It’ll pass, dears. It’ll pass.”
The only occasion on which anyone recalled May losing her temper was when her children found hefty crates of Belgian chocolate washed up onto the beach from a torpedoed tramp steamer. They arrived at her door, grinning with chocolate-smeared faces, proudly presenting their loads of foil-wrapped chocolate bars. But their mother, who feared the chocolate might have been deliberately poisoned and floated ashore by the Germans, flew into a rage and chided them for their lack of caution.
May Harris died in her sleep in the spring of 1946. She was 86. Peace Birch -- née Harris -- my long-widowed widowed mother, died in Broadstairs forty years later at much the same age. I’ve never returned to the town, where Charles Dickens wrote David Copperfield, and where the mansion that inspired Bleak House broods on the cliff tops. Nor have I ever seen a ghost, but it would neither surprise nor frighten me if, along the narrow path near her house, I were to meet that lazy saint, rosary in hand, on her way to Mass.