You’ll remember Anne’s earlier post, “As Arranged”, about her discovery of the receipts given for her previously unknown infant aunt and uncle, among her genealogically themed posts. This story concerns the same branch of the family; those children were born and died in the same rooms Anne mentions passing in streets familiar to her father.
After the death of my grandmother, her cousin, known universally in the family as Cousin Maggie, became the ‘go to’ person for matters of Palmer family history. By the time my father died in 1991, Cousin Maggie was unmarried, in her 80’s, still living in the flat in the shadow of London’s Tower Bridge she had occupied as long as I could remember, shunning most modern conveniences, including a telephone. In order to inform her of my father’s death, I sent a letter saying I would like to pay her a visit on a particular Sunday; and setting off on the Underground to London Bridge with the kidlets in tow, had no idea of the adventure about to unfold.
Walking along the stretch of Thames between London and Tower Bridges, passing the building in which my father and all his siblings were born, investigating the redeveloped Wharf area with the evocative names — and smells — once warehouses, now astonishingly expensive riverside residential conversions — I wondered about Maggie, not having seen her for eight years. I hoped she was well and happy, and would remember who I was. My father’s funeral was planned for the following day; it felt like a fitting way to commemorate his life, wandering the streets where he lived until he was 10.
We received a kind and gracious welcome; the offspring, both under 4 at that stage, were well behaved and didn’t disgrace themselves or me; and towards the end of our visit I started to embark on some family history questions which had been niggling for a while. Cousin Maggie broke off one reminiscence about a “ginger headed Scottish grandfather” (that was challenging enough news for me!) to ask if I had seen the “photo album”? I replied “no”, and my husband rolled his eyes, as he was itching to get out of there and take the children to jump up and down on the spot where the two sides of Tower Bridge meet. I glared back, then my jaw literally dropped in astonishment as Maggie returned with a book which seemed heavier than she was, and also looked extremely old. She opened it, and began to recite names. “My grandmother Mary Ann … my grandfather William Davey, he was a stern-looking old man … my grandmother lost a baby when she left her in the bath when she went to answer the front door …” My brain stalled, unable to comprehend that, staring at me from the pages of this album were ancestors whose names and details I had searched for so many times. “Mary Ann Jane Braybrook Kendall, born 1813 …William Davey Palmer, born 1841 …” and so on.
Eventually I realised Maggie was asking a question, and I tried to string together a coherent sentence. “Um … I don’t suppose we could borrow this album, maybe take it to a photocopier or even take it back to Scotland with us to get the photos copied and then I promise to send it back to you?” I knew what her response would be, even before I asked: “Oh no, dear, I can’t let you take this. You can always look at it here … Would you like to see the tapestry?” I think I reached genealogical overload as she emerged from the kitchen with a folded-up Woolworth’s paper bag, announced “I keep this in the kitchen drawer, I’ve nowhere else to put it”, and then produced a piece of cloth folded in four, which unfolded to a sampler, a typical example of those now available to purchase in cross stitch kit form, with the border, examples of stitches, a ditty, and ‘signed’ Mary Ann Dean, 1849. “This was sewn by my grandmother in 1849, but I don’t know how old she would have been”, explained Maggie. “Eight”, I replied, “she was born in 1841″. “Oh really? There, you’ve taught me something today. It is falling apart a little, isn’t it? But it’s nice to keep”.
The situation was to me, a genealogical equivalent of Hell. A book of Victorian photos showing ancestors born in the early 1800’s, photographed in middle and old age. A sampler stitched by my great great grandmother in 1849, folded up and kept in a paper bag in the kitchen drawer of a frail elderly relative in her 80’s with no descendants, only distant nieces living in Canada whom I had never met. We had tickets to return to Scotland a day after the funeral, and would not get back down again for a year. No Sunday trading in those days to even rush to a camera shop to buy a suitable macro lens. I had one forlorn hope. “When we come down next Summer”, I started, clutching at straws, “would it be acceptable for us to pop over to take photos of the photos in the album, and the tapestry? Would that be all right with you?” Cousin Maggie thought for a moment, and finally said, “Well, if we’re all still here then — because you know I am getting on a bit now — then of course you can”.
We left the flat and walked across the road to Tower Bridge, but whilst the children were gleefully jumping up and down on the Bridge — and even when we were cleared off the Bridge to allow for a rare opening to allow a ship to go through, a momentous enough event in itself — my mind was elsewhere. All I could think was, what will happen in the next year?
July 1992 suddenly seemed a very long way off …