Anything she told you immediately became exciting and significant.
Sameness bored her and she would jump from one subject to another in a way that sometimes made her conversation bewildering. As my father used to tell her, she had no sense of humour. To that accusation she would protest in an injured voice: ‘Just because I don’t think certain stories of yours are funny, Fred…’ and my father would roar with laughter.
She was about ten years younger than my father and she had loved him devotedly ever since she was a child of ten. All the time that he was a gay young man, flitting about between New York and the South of France, my mother, a shy quiet girl, sat at home, thinking about him, writing an occasional poem in her ‘album,’ embroidering a pocket-book for him.
That pocket-book, incidentally, my father kept all his life.
A typically Victorian romance, but with a wealth of deep feeling behind it.
I am interested in my parents, not only because they were my parents, but because they achieved that very rare production, a happy marriage.
Up to date I have only seen four completely successful marriages. Is there a formula for success? I can hardly think so. Of my four examples, one was of a girl of seventeen to a man over fifteen years her senior. He had protested she could not know her mind. She replied that she knew it perfectly and had determined to marry him some three years back!
Their married life was further complicated by having first one and then the other mother-in-law living with them-enough to wreck most alliances. The wife is calm with a quality of deep intensity. She reminds me a little of my mother without having her brilliance and intellectual interests. They have three children, all now long out in the world. Their partnership has lasted well over thirty years and they are still devoted.
Another was that of a young man to a woman fifteen years older than himself–a widow. She refused him for many years, at last accepted him, and they lived happily until her death 35 years later.
My mother Clara Boehmer went through unhappiness as a child.
Her father, an officer in the Argyll Highlanders, was thrown from his horse and fatally injured, and my grandmother was left, a young and lovely widow with four children, at the age of 27 with nothing but her widow’s pension. It was then that her elder sister, who had recently married a rich American as his second wife, wrote to her offering to adopt one of the children and bring it up as her own.
To the anxious young widow, working desperately with her needle to support and educate four children, the offer was not to be refused. Of the three boys and one girl, she selected the girl; either because it seemed to her that boys could make their way in the world while a girl needed the advantages of easy living, or because, as my mother always believed, she cared for the boys more. My mother left Jersey and came to the North of England to a strange home. I think the resentment she felt, the deep hurt at being unwanted, coloured her attitude to life. It made her distrustful of herself and suspicious of people’s affection. Her aunt was a kindly woman, good-humoured and generous, but she was imperceptive of a child’s feelings. My mother had all the so-called advantages of a comfortable home and a good education–what she lost and what nothing could replace was the carefree life with her brothers in her own home.
Quite often I have seen in correspondence columns enquiries from anxious parents asking if they ought to let a child go to others because of ‘the advantages she will have which I cannot provide–such as a first-class education’. I always long to cry out: Don’t let the child go. Her own home, her own people, love, and the security of belonging–what does the best education in the world mean against that?
My mother was deeply miserable in her new life. She cried herself to sleep every night, grew thin and pale, and at last became so ill that her aunt called in a doctor. He was an elderly, experienced man, and after talking to the little girl he went to her aunt and said: ‘The child’s homesick.’
Her aunt was astonished and unbelieving. ‘Oh no,’ she said. ‘That couldn’t possibly be so. Clara’s a good quiet child, she never gives any trouble, and she’s quite happy.’ But the old doctor went back to the child and talked to her again. She had brothers, hadn’t she? How many?
What were their names? And presently the child broke down in a storm of weeping, and the whole story came out.
Bringing out the trouble eased the strain, but the feeling always remained of ‘not being wanted’. I think she held it against my grandmother until her dying day. She became very attached to her American ‘uncle’. He was a sick man by then, but he was fond of quiet little Clara and she used to come and read to him from her favourite book, The King of the Golden River. But the real solace in her life were the periodical visits of her aunt’s stepson–Fred Miller–her so-called ‘Cousin Fred’.
He was then about twenty and he was always extra kind to his little ‘cousin’. One day, when she was about eleven, he said to his stepmother:
‘What lovely eyes Clara has got!’
Clara, who had always thought of herself as terribly plain, went upstairs and peered at herself in her aunt’s large dressing-table mirror.
Perhaps her eyes were rather nice…She felt immeasurably cheered.
From then on, her heart was given irrevocably to Fred.
Over in America an old family friend said to the gay young man, ‘Freddie, one day you will marry that little English cousin of yours.’
Astonished, he replied, ‘Clara? She’s only a child.’
But he always had a special feeling for the adoring child. He kept her childish letters and the poems she wrote him, and after a long series of flirtations with social beauties and witty girls in New York (among them Jenny Jerome, afterwards Lady Randolph Churchill) he went home to England to ask the quiet little cousin to be his wife.
It is typical of my mother that she refused him firmly.
‘Why?’ I once asked her.
‘Because I was dumpy,’ she replied.
An extraordinary but, to her, quite valid reason.
My father was not to be gainsaid. He came a second time, and on this occasion my mother overcame her misgivings and rather dubiously agreed to marry him, though full of misgivings that he would be ‘disappointed in her’.
So they were married, and the portrait that I have of her in her wedding dress shows a lovely serious face with dark hair and big hazel eyes.
Before my sister was born they went to Torquay, then a fashionable winter resort enjoying the prestige later accorded to the Riviera, and took furnished rooms there. My father was enchanted with Torquay. He loved the sea. He had several friends living there, and others, Americans, who came for the winter. My sister Madge was born in Torquay, and shortly after that my father and mother left for America, which at that time they expected to be their permanent home. My father’s grandparents were still living, and after his own mother’s death in Florida he had been brought up by them in the quiet of the New England countryside.
He was very attached to them and they were keen to see his wife and baby daughter. My brother was born whilst they were in America. Some time after that my father decided to return to England. No sooner had he arrived than business troubles recalled him to New York. He suggested to my mother that she should take a furnished house in Torquay and settle there until he could return.
My mother accordingly went to look at furnished houses in Torquay.
She returned with the triumphant announcement: ‘Fred; I’ve bought a house!’
My father almost fell over backwards. He still expected to live in America.
‘But why did you do that?’ he asked.
‘Because I liked it,’ explained my mother.
She has seen, it appeared, about 35 houses, but only one did she fancy, and that house was for sale only–its owners did not want to let. So my mother, who had been left £2000 by my aunt’s husband, had appealed to my aunt, who was her trustee, and they had forthwith bought the house.
‘But we’ll only be there for a year,’ groaned my father, ‘at most.’
My mother, whom we always claimed was clairvoyant, replied that they could always sell it again. Perhaps she saw dimly her family living in that house for many years ahead.
‘I loved the house as soon as I got into it,’ she insisted. ‘It’s got a wonderfully peaceful atmosphere.’
The house was owned by some people called Brown who were Quakers, and when my mother, hesitatingly, condoled with Mrs Brown on having to leave the house they had lived in so many years, the old lady said gently:
‘I am happy to think of thee and thy children living here, my dear.’
It was, my mother said, like a blessing.
Truly I believe there was a blessing upon the house. It was an ordinary enough villa, not in the fashionable part of Torquay–the Warberrys or the Lincombes–but at the other end of the town the older part of Tor Mohun. At that time the road in which it was situated led almost at once into rich Devon country, with lanes and fields. The name of the house was Ashfield and it has been my home, off and on, nearly all my life.
For my father did not, after all, make his home in America. He liked Torquay so much that he decided not to leave it. He settled down to his club and his whist and his friends. My mother hated living near the sea, disliked all social gatherings and was unable to play any game of cards.
But she lived happily in Ashfield, and gave large dinner parties, attended social functions, and on quiet evenings at home would ask my father with hungry impatience for local drama and what had happened at the club today.
‘Nothing,’ my father would reply happily.
‘But surely, Fred, someone must have said something interesting?’