Remembering GDD*

It’s strange how you see the simplest, most ordinary things, in quite a different light after you’ve lost someone.

It’s just over a year since my father died, and small things have triggered bigger memories. I was searching in my mother’s old button tin, and came across this little packet – so typical of him. Neatly and methodically labelled in his distinctive handwriting – and dated!  That’s a retired civil servant for you!RHE's note in button boxAnd there’s his tattered and very worn shopping bag which I lovingly repaired. (More on that in this Clearing the Decks blogpost)mending RHE's bagThere are more powerful prompts of family memory. I took all the family photo albums when my parents moved to a retirement home, planning to scan them so all their four children could have copies.  But what with one thing and another they got shelved, and it wasn’t until after my father had died that I thought of this project.  It was then that I realised one of the albums documented his very early years of life. Oh silly, silly me.

The album is neatly inscribed at the back – it was a gift to my grandfather, Vin,  from his parents.Gift to Vin from his parents A 1924 Christmas present – a very nice leather album (though deteriorating and shedding leather dust now).very worn leather photo albumPerhaps my grandparents put it to the side to use when they had a family?  Who knows now.  Whatever, the first photo in it is the arrival of their first baby, my father, on 9th March 1926, – taken in their garden, I think, in Melbourne.  Oh, I recognise that look of a new mum, clutching a bundle of blanketed baby, and just thrilled to bits!1926 - Dordy & 3 week old RHE (small size)As with most new families, there is thorough and detailed documentation of the early photos.  All the grandparents are photographed, lots of dates and details neatly added in white ink (my grandmother’s writing).  There’s proud Dad Vin, and there are Christening photos too.Page 1 (web version)The “firsts” are all covered.  First trip to the family holiday villa at Cowes on Phillip Island (October 1926) – proud smiling grandfather and happy baby.1926 WHGE & RHE Cowes (web version)Christmas day, and baby’s first dip (again at Cowes).My father's first Christmas dip 1926, CowesThere are more firsts – first swimming lesson – and my grandparents go off on a camping holiday trip in their Dodge to Gippsland. If you look carefully at my grandmother, you can see there’s another baby on the way.Page 10 (web version)So there is! – next page, there’s little baby Billy.  And yet another first: Dick’s first balloon.Page 11 (web version)The photographs give every sign of a blissfully happy little family.1929 Vin Dordy RHE Bill (web version)But as every parent knows, it’s much harder work with two, and there’s far less spare time.  Still lots of pics in the album, but less detailed writing.  Here they are visiting family in Sydney, October- November 1929.Page 19 (web version)Then the inscriptions completely stop.  Just what I did with my old photo albums – after all you know everybody in the photos anyhow. And what’s more there’s  a distinctly wonky slant to the photos now – perhaps my grandmother’s getting help with the sticking from one of her little boys?

Still lovely happy photos of a very happy family.  All the things we think of as part of a happy childhood – swings, trains, sandpits, games in wheelbarrows, seaside, cuddles from Daddy …Page 21 (web version)The firsts continue, though they are unmarked – but surely this is my father, oh so proud, dressed up in his new school uniform, for his first day at school?1930s RHE ready for school (web version)There are several more pages like this, and then the last page with just the one photo on it.  I think it’s my father at a school sport’s day, possibly?  It’s a desperately sad photo, because there’s my father, on the cusp of being a lad, and his whole life changed in a blink of an eye.  The photography stops there; the last pages unused.Last pic in album (RHE)

Vin obituary 1933

My grandfather, Vin, died on 8th October, 1933.  He’d served in Palestine as a medical orderly in the First World War, and contracted amoebic dysentery.  Apparently, he was never a well man, and I believe he died of a pulmonary embolism, at his home, the Gnoll, 60 Canterbury Road, Melbourne.

Fascinatingly, what happened next to my father is hinted at in the earlier pages of this same photograph album.  My grandfather Vin and step-grandfather Roger were business colleagues, and here they are with my father (the little boy) and my great-grandfather.  I don’t know where this place is or when this photo was taken.Roger and Vin and Dick and WHGEBut what I do know is that my grandmother Dora married Roger four years later (in 1937) and settled in the UK with his Leicester family.  So that was the end of my father’s Australian childhood.

My father went on to have a busy and happy life.  He became a British diplomat so much of his working life was spent abroad –  he had postings in Tokyo, Belgrade and Tehran.  He also worked for the civil service in London, as a specialist in the oil industry, and later running courses for young EU civil servants. In retirement he was a Samaritan,  a political agent, a cathedral steward (both at Wells and Exeter cathedrals), a student (of languages, theology), a grandfather. Throughout his life he was interested in and enjoyed classical music and the arts. He was most knowledgeable about the places he travelled to. He was a gardener and a walker. He loved his dogs. He was generous to all with his time, energies and monies. A Christian gentle-man.

In 1952 he married my mother.RHE & JME wedding 1952They had four children – and lots of grandchildren!Chuzenji 1960sHe was a kind man, liberal, immensely hard-working.  He drove himself very hard, and expected the same of us, his children – and perhaps because of this tensions arose at home.  Unsurprisingly, the academic and intellectual was highly prized in our childhood, often to the exclusion of much else.

As he grew older (I have written about his illness at the end of his life here), his Australian youth came more to the fore.  When I was with him for his 80th birthday, he wept for his father who had died aged only 36.  And one of the many things I beat myself up about is the fact that I never returned this album to my father when he requested it at the end of his life.  It wasn’t deliberate – I just never got round to it.

He was particularly proud of his time at Magdalen College, Oxford.  He gained a scholarship to go there to study Classics, and was rewarded for all his hard work and application with a double first degree.

This poem by C S Lewis is about Addison’s Walk, a particularly beautiful and surprisingly rural part of Magdalen College.  None knew Magdalen better than Lewis since he was a fellow and tutor there for many years.  The poem was one of my father’s favourites, and he wrote it out in his own hand to send around the family.C S Lewis Magdalen poemI think perhaps for my father last year the summer did come true:  “We shall escape the circle and undo the spell.”


* GDD stands for Grandad Dick – which is what my children called their grandfather.



Yesterday we put up our Christmas tree.  For many years, we had a proper natural tree, and I loved the excitement of getting the tree,  but it is a relief now, in retirement, to have an easy little synthetic tree that just comes down from the attic.  And anyhow, it is the decorations that give me most pleasure.

Out come the boxes of old and new.  There are the felt stockings my mother made us when we were children, the American Thanksgiving paper turkey, sparkly decorations, the Christmas mobile, and much, much more.Christmas stockingThese are old glass balls that came from my grandmother.  These are so fragile that they could be cracked with just a squeeze of the hand.Granny's glass ballThe box (much repaired) alone is a delight.Ancient Christmas decorationsOdd little things have come into the Christmas collection – and stayed.  I love Zacyntha’s little card of wishes (including the wish that all her cats were with her from the old house …)  Not sure why we have mementos of Truro and Winchester Cathedral …  The golden Catherine Wheel (from New York) was a gift to me, of course!Old Christmas tree treasuresSome ornaments truly are treasures.  My American sister-in-law gave me this beautiful glass ball from San Jose’s Museum of Art.San Jose baubleAlas, there are always breakages.  We bought this charming couple in Krakow a couple of years ago.Christmas breakagesThere are new things to join the collection.  We already have Mary, Queen of Scots, so thought we should add Elizabeth I.  Some delightful freebies from the British Red Cross, a Mexican angel – and a happy memento of Jak and Ellie’s wedding earlier this year.New Christmas treasuresThe pièce de rèsisistance for me is my knitting angel.  How could I not find a knitting angel enchanting – especially when she was made for me by the dear, dear friend who taught me to spin in Devon a good few years ago!Eileen Seddon's Christmas fairyChristmas is often a time of looking back – memories are particularly poignant and powerful at this time of year.  Over the last few months I’ve been scanning the family photograph albums, so I’ve been looking at Christmas through family recollections.

These lovely pictures of my father with his parents in Melbourne are the oldest Christmas pictures I can find.  Here is my grandmother with her 9 month baby, Christmas 1926, taking him for his first dip on the beach at Cowes.  She looks enchanting – so happy, so proud.My father's first Christmas dip 1926, CowesIn 1928, they were again at the beach at Cowes.  It’s my grandfather on the left, she’s in front, holding their little boy’s hand.  They are clearly having such a happy time.  I do wonder what they are looking at out to sea?  My father’s holding his mother’s hand – for reassurance?  He looks a bit worried – perhaps just that deep thinking of a child who is struggling to understand what the adults are telling him?My father at Cowes Christmas 1928Sadly, my grandfather, Vin, died in 1933.  He had got amoebic dysentery in Gallipoli, and never fully recovered.   Dora, my grandmother, later married an Englishman and moved to Leicester with her two little boys.  So these are the only photos I have of the hot Australian Christmases that my father would have known as a child.

The rituals of big English Christmases that my mother’s family liked gradually took over.  Here we all are at my grandparents’ table for Christmas Lunch, 1961.  My parents are there with their four children (err – yes, that’s me the bossy one with her arms folded at the end of the table), together with all my other aunts and uncles.  There are still a few grandchildren to come …. This photo records a rare family get-together.  My father (the photographer here) and uncle were both British diplomats so spent much of their working lives abroad.  My uncle Bow (on the far right) lived in California with his family.  No wonder my grandfather looks so pleased – truly a grand-paterfamilias moment!Christmas lunch Paddock 1961Aaah – those reprehensible 1960s habits!  Here is my father smoking a pipe – and, oh dear, holding the baby at the same time!!  It’s really an archetypal Christmas picture of its era.  The paper hats, the gathered family in their Christmas best, the well-behaved children, my cousin in his short trousers …. this could well have come straight out of a Ladybird book on Christmas.Christmas Paddock 1961 - sitting in drawing roomMy mother’s family always got a visit from Father Christmas.  Here is my patient Uncle Harry wearing the family Father Christmas costume with great aplomb (my mother’s the helpful elf behind).Father Christmas visit 1961A few year’s later, my father’s work took us back to Japan.  He was Head of Chancery (sort of Embassy Personnel Officer) during this time, so he felt very much that is was his job to look after the waifs and strays at Christmas.  This meant a formal Christmas lunch in the dining room, cooked (as usual) by our Japanese cook, Mori-san.  We were waited on by our two lovely kimono-wearing Japanese servants, Hisatsuni-san and Mitsuko-san.  There were always spinster secretaries and batchelor diplomats who joined us for lunch (during which we children obeyed the old adage to the letter of being seen and not heard).  Afterwards, my father would get us all out to play football on the lawn.  The fun was to see how poor Miss X from the secretarial pool coped with the garden mud in her unsuitable suit and heels.  How I wish I could find photos of those Christmases!

One Christmas – one awful, awful Christmas, – there was the disaster of the Chancery Guard’s lunch.  All the Embassy staff enjoyed a Christmas holiday bar one person –  the Chancery Guard.  He had to be on duty in the Embassy offices in case an important telegram came in, some crisis in Whitehall etc.  In his Head of Chancery role, my father promised that we would supply lunch for the Chancery Guard as the offices were just round the corner from our house.

Alas, we forgot!  It must have been about tea-time when we realised.  My father turned black with anger and mortification – how could he forget and fail!  A deputation of children was roped in to trail round to the Embassy offices with cigars, bottles of spirit, crackers, chocolates – and I guess some cold turkey.  But my father never forgave himself – a pall of black hung over the day.  Memories of the Day we forgot the Chancery Guard’s lunch remained with my family for a long, long time.

Christmas 1966, and I was given a camera for Christmas – a very nice Japanese Minolta.  These are some of my first photographs.

Here is my father, amid the detritus of Christmas paper and presents, in our huge Department of Works furnished sitting room.  Diplomats entertained regularly and – in those days – were provided with large, elegant houses and regulation Government furniture. RHE Tokyo christmas 1966I also photographed my Christmas presents in my bedroom. I was 12 – on the cusp of the teenage years, so I’d been given a smart black patent handbag (must have been my first “proper” handbag), and there’s a sewing basket I can see there, along with quite a few books.  How arid and unexciting that would seem to today’s 12 year old! My bedroom Christmas 1966Actually, I was quite contented with my Christmas presents – but I did have a rather big paddy later on those holidays about the endless old-fashioned hand-me-down dresses I was expected to wear.  My mother finally took me to one of the fantastic Japanese department stores and bought me a couple of Mary-Quant-style dresses so I felt better equipped for the parties of the season.

There were lots of parties in the Embassy world over Christmas.  I didn’t go to this one, of course.  It’s the 1964 Imperial Court New Year party – that’s some dressing up!  My father is standing at the top right, very smart in his diplomatic uniform, and my mother is second from the right at the bottom of the picture.  She looks gorgeous.Imperial Court New Year party 1964 Tokyo EmbassyIt was also during these holidays that my parents took us Christmas shopping to the Ginza shopping street – an incredible glittering Christmas experience.  They bought each of their four children the Christmas ornament of our choice.  This snowfamily was my choice – a bit worse for wear now, but still very much treasured.Christmas snowmanBy the 1970s we were back in England, and, his Australian summer Christmases long forgotten, my father settled into comfortable paterfamilias mode.  There’s even a spinster secretary (on the far left) who has joined our family Christmas dinner.Christmas 1975 FarninghamThere were no Japanese servants working for our comfort any longer.  Here the kitchen is staffed by family: three generations (my mother, grandmother and sister) making brandy butter together.Christmas 1970 Tasting brandy butterOne year (1970) we had proper snow.  How opportune! That’s one of my Australian cousins clearing the steps (as though he had done it all his life) and my Californian aunt is standing on the left of the picture.  A really proper picture postcard English Christmas laid on just for them.Clearing snow Fanringham 1970We walked to the church through the charming snowy English village.Christmas 1970 walking to churchAnd we sang carols around the piano over the holiday (my mother playing).   It could almost be out of the same Ladybird Christmas book that I mentioned earlier.Christmas 1970 carol singing round pianoJust when you think you’ve got this Christmas thing sorted, along comes a complication.  Yes, it’s a delightful complication – but not at all what I expected.  I had a Christmas baby!   I still have the letter in which my mother wrote to me in the days before James was born, telling me that I must make sure not to give birth too close to Christmas – it just wasn’t kind!  (He was 10 days early.) James' Christmas birth in Express & EchoA Christmas birthday puts a whole new complexity on the celebration of Christmas.  There were yet more presents for James (at tea-time), – and there were special cakes.  I worked so hard to make this gingerbread cake!Gingerbread cake for Jam's 3rd birthdayIn 1981 Father Christmas started visiting us.  James is definitely very intrigued  – does he know something about the person wearing the costume that we don’t?Father Christmas visit 1981He visited again in 1985.  I think it may be my brother wearing the Father Christmas robes.  By now the children seem to be taking Father Christmas rather more for granted.Father Christmas visit 1985 FarninghamA Christmas birthday was, of course, a great excuse for a children’s fancy dress Christmas party.  Here we are in a rather cold and draughty Devon village hall.  It’s 1988.  Judging by the costumes, I think I must have asked the girls to come as Christmas fairies and the boys as Christmas decorations. Shobrooke Christmas party 1988Skip through the years quickly, and I’ve been through a divorce and embarked on a new marriage.  I have four step-daughters – we are a step-family!  Perhaps the hallmark of stepfamilies should be flexibility.  We certainly were open to change.  One year’s Christmas lunch was Shepherds’ Pie, Star-gazy Pie and Angel Delight.  Hmm … an experiment never repeated.

Of course, what really changed in recent years is the abundance of photos – digital cameras make a big difference.  For the new step-family, there were ups and downs, comings and goings, swings and roundabouts.  Lots of happy Christmases in amidst all the changes, perhaps summed up with this lovely picture of four of our children in the fancy dress costumes that I had made them for Christmas.1991 Christmas fancy dress costumes editedJust as Christmas is a time of looking back, so it is a time of looking forward.  Dawn is a metaphor for hope, for blessings, for future promise of goodness.  So I leave you with this magnificent picture Stephen took of the sunrise this December solstice morning.Sunrise past Bamburgh CastleHappy Christmas to you all!