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Corona Diaries: a gift from the virus

March 30, 2020

Yesterday, the coronavirus sent me a precious gift.

A few days ago I mentioned that, like many people in lockdown, I’ve come up with a number of domestic projects that have been waiting for a while to get done. One of them was to sort out my books. Not only do we have many shelves full of them, but the numbers were swelled when my father died seventeen years ago.

Some of the books he left went to my siblings according to their interests. The rest, including some seriously arcane stuff from the early part of the last century, stayed with me. The subjects range from history, geography, art, music and psychology, and that’s just the stuff I kept.

He also had a liking for big coffee-table books, many of which languished on our bottom shelves because they were too big to fit anywhere else. Part of my project was moving them to a place where I could easily pick one out in an idle moment, of which there are likely to be many in the coming months. I chose our conservatory, which is a bit cold in the winter, but not a bad place to hang out in warmer times.

So yesterday I merged his big books with mine and now we have a long row of volumes lining one side of the room. In doing so, I discovered the gift.

Hidden among the larger stuff was a modest cloth-bound book dating from 1922. Inside were letters and photographs. It was my grandmother’s Baby’s Record, full of colour plates of babies, sentimental poems and spaces where she could enter stuff about the baby’s development – height, weight and so on.

That baby was my father.

Like many mothers who start these records with the best of intentions, my grandmother left the story far from complete, but it’s still full of interesting information – to me anyway. One of the events she describes verified my father’s yarn about the time he swallowed an open safety pin which had to be surgically removed from his gullet, with no less a personage than King Edward VII’s surgeon in attendance.

Then there was a new mystery. Why after two months was he “skin and bones”? He was weaned off the breast after six weeks. My grandmother noted that that “he is not such a good baby as Brian (his brother), fidgety and nervous. Digestion ruined at 6 weeks old, due to the wickedness of Nurse Milsom.”

What Nurse Milsom did or didn’t do we will never know.

And why, at the age of 18 months, was his circumcision “a very necessary operation”?

My grandmother, whom I only met once when she was very old and afflicted by Parkinson’s, was by family tradition a bit of a character. My grandfather’s second wife, she was a silent film actress and a crafty tax evader. Like many relatively affluent mothers of the time, she seems to have delegated much of the child’s care to a live-in nurse and then a nanny.

The collection is full of little pointers to social attitudes of the time. For example, my father was christened by “Mr Woods. Irishman. Locum”, as if this was unusual. This caused my wife, who is Irish, to raise her eyebrows slightly. His toys included “Rattle, rubber duck. Big Dog from Biddy for Xmas, Teddy from us” and little else. Contrast that with the tsunami of soft toys and shrieking electronic devices showered upon today’s babies.

Then there were the diseases. My father’s were pretty typical for the 1920s: whooping cough at two, measles at three and chickenpox at five. MMR jabs were a generation away.

Among the loose papers was a letter that corroborates another family legend: that my grandmother wanted a girl, and chose names in advance for the baby that would work regardless of the child’s gender. The letter is from a Nurse Hiffersen, who apparently was my uncle Brian’s nurse before my father. In it she says she looks forward to re-joining my grandmother: “Only 6 weeks and 2 days. I shall be counting the time away. Now do try and hold out until I come as I want to receive the little stranger and manage her from the beginning of her life.”

Being a bit of a family history buff, I have a number of documents and photos, but mainly from my mother’s side. They include a spectacular diary of the First World War that I’ve serialised in this blog. To come across a little collection of records in my paternal grandmother’s hand is a special gift, for which I thank the coronavirus, without which I may never have discovered them.

In a strange way, it’s a message of hope. Three years before my father was born, the Spanish Flu pandemic ended. My grandparents were obviously among the lucky ones who survived it. Life went on. A hundred years from now, family stories from today are likely to be digitised. There will be video records but few letters. But only if we bother to collect them and make them available to our children and grandchildren, so that family historians in 2120 will know how their ancestors fared in the wake of the 2020 pandemic.

Surely that’s worth a few hours of anyone’s time.

From → Books, Social, UK

2 Comments
  1. The circumcision will have been because of Phimosis, which you have been lucky to miss….My late father had his done while in the army (FOC) during National Service, whilst my brother and I hung on until our 50s before bearing our manhoods, with varying discomfort and results.

    Debbie and I have unearthed loads of photos from Jeddah btw…

    Lovely story…portez-vous bien, toutes et tous! AR

    • Sounds rather unpleasant. Probably better to be done as an 18-month-old methinks. I also have plenty of Jeddah photos. I try not to lose an opportunity to drop one into the blog, as in my RetroSaudi series.

      Merci, et aux vous aussi!

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