Chapter 2 – My Birth and Upbringing
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My mother left my father and me when I was just two years old. I was so young then that I can barely remember it. I do have this one abiding memory of an angel in a bright blue dress, with a beautiful sweet smile.
I was too young to attend the funeral, of course, but my father says that I cried all that day while at home with the servants. It was as if I somehow knew. Perhaps I did know? Of course, I cannot remember what my little two-year-old mind was thinking then, but how I’ve missed her: how I’ve missed her watching me grow up, holding me, perhaps scolding me now and then, and telling me she loved me. Dad always loved me much too much to scold me, of course. He always said I looked just like her, his own little princess.
I’d love to think that their marriage was an expression of deep hopeless love towards one another. However, it was not always like that. The truth was actually a lot more prosaic.
Mum’s father was the richest landowner in this part of the kingdom. In those days Papa was poor, but ambitious and hardworking. And handsome. Very, very handsome (or at least that’s what he tells me! Actually, he’s still quite handsome now, so I can readily believe it!) He was the second son of five of a struggling farmer (my wonderful Granddad – still strong and hardworking after all these years!)
The first time Mum saw Dad he had come to beg for work on her father’s farm. She had been young and naïve and sheltered, and she had laughed at his poor but neat appearance, his patched shoes. At this, he had become filled with shame and humiliation, but he had also seen his big chance. So Madam thought that she was high and mighty, did she? Well he would certainly show her a thing or two! And so he certainly had.
A few months later, he turned up looking like a lord, and applied all his charm to her inexperienced heart. When this duly fell, he persuaded her to elope with him. At this, her father had no choice but to accept the marriage, but in frustrated anger at her defiance over the poor peasant, he renounced the pair of them, sending them away with only two stockings full of gold.
It is such a common story, I know, but I feel a little ashamed to think of it as my own story. And how do I know all this? My father himself told me, adding bit by bit, little by little over the years, until I could finally piece the story together. I can’t help feeling that much of the love he feels for me is caused by the guilt he still feels about my mother, how he disdained the tender gift of her young heart.
So they moved away, and his adoring young wife did everything to win the love and admiration of her husband. But his charm had given way to unfeeling coldness towards her. And she, brought up in silks and velvets, unused to the rigours of manual labour, was not strong.
On telling me this, he would shake his head in bitter regret. He should have married a capable peasant girl, who lived and worked within the rhythms of nature, with strong legs, a sturdy gait, a brown face, and a laughing smile. My mother on the other hand had deserved to become the wife of a nobleman, fêted and cosseted with baubles and trinkets and sweetmeats.
He had been disappointed at the failure of his scheme. Through their marriage, he had hoped to win some wealth and standing for his family, but they had been disinherited, and instead of riches he had been encumbered with this pathetic thing, who could not even earn her own keep. How he had despised her efforts to brighten his hearth! The harder she had tried, the less appreciative he had been. It was only when she had become pregnant that his hard heart towards her had thawed. His eyes were opened, as if for the first time, to the love shining out from her own eyes, the pride and triumph at the thought of bearing him an heir. At this too, she had failed (of course), but by then he had already been won over. It was then that he had started carrying her about and caressing her expectant tummy and calling her “his own princess”.
Two short years of happiness were to be ours as a family. After I was born my father hired servants so that my mother could feel like a lady in her own home. However, the damage to her delicate system had already been done, and so she was carried off, leaving him with me, a carbon-copy lookalike of my sweet mother.
Thinking back on this story really makes me appreciate my parents as human beings. I love them both dearly of course, or at least I love the memory of my mother. My father cannot stop blaming himself. If only he had hired the servants earlier! If only he had learned another trade! If only he had moved to a warmer part of the country – then perhaps she would not have needed to expose herself to the harsh elements, perhaps she would still be alive. And why had he been so proud in the first place? Simply because she had laughed at him, he had gone to such desperate lengths…and he had eventually ruined her life, and his own to some extent.
Secretly, I must admit that part of me also blames him. I’ve always wondered what it would have been like to have grown up with real wealth. I know that he was young – they both were – but were there not more legitimate means to win her and her wealth, and perhaps win her family’s approval at the same time?
Could he not have chosen to prove himself to his prospective father-in-law, show his unswerving loyalty, demonstrate that he would cherish this young sweet girl? And as for her – I often wonder how much of her weaknesses I have inherited. She laughed at my father because he was poor. Surely I would never do that? We are now quite comfortably off; I know a few people might refer to us as being rich, but we are still nowhere close to the level of her upbringing – and we never will be. I sometimes look within my own heart. Do I look down on people who have nothing? If I saw a young but poor version of my father, would I also be tempted to giggle at mismatching socks, coarse cloth, trouser legs that were too short? Am I also of such delicate constitution? I try my utmost to “pull my own weight” and not leave everything to the servants; I have learned so much from the story of my parents in that I would aim to make myself useful wherever I might find myself. I would like to think that if I found myself unexpectedly stuck out in the countryside, the way she did, I would be considered an asset, rather than a burden.
And as for my “greater Grandfather”, and that part of the family that I have never met, I honestly don’t know what to think. Do they even know that I exist? I hope that I would not be seduced by the thought of immense riches, but I also hope that I am pragmatic enough to not totally despise the advantages that these would bring. I have written a number of times to my mother’s family, letters which have remained unacknowledged, unreplied. My father speaks about my mother’s older sisters, he maintains a vague recollection of their marriages, their moving away, through secret messages smuggled between the sisters. I sometimes think wistfully about these women; my Aunts. Somehow I always imagine them as great and noble ladies, bedecked in furs and jewels. I can never process the thought that they also might be like us, comfortable, but not wealthy, much less that they could actually be poor, and desperately looking for some family connections to relieve their affliction. And do I have cousins? Surely I must have one or two cousins?! What would it have been like to grow up with them, to play with them, to learn their pretty society manners? I can only imagine, I can only dream. I still hope that one day we might meet. Of course I have lots of boisterous and rowdy cousins on my father’s side – and some quiet ones too, and I love them all. I am so grateful for my real Granddad’s family, for family dances and dinners and parties and birthdays. However, I often catch myself thinking – “what if…what if…?”