My great-grandfather did not cry when his wife of 60 years died. He loved Ella, but he had survived the trenches and lost his son in the second war. He was equally unmoved when his own time came: every day was a bonus and to die at an old age in your own bed was hardly a tragedy.
I remember only an old man, stout where he had once been powerful. He was still the boss, with opinions on most things, including some where you might not expect an Edwardian man to claim much expertise: ‘breast-fed babies don’t burp’. But Harold Jackson came alive to me through my mother’s stories and sepia photographs – Harold in uniform across two wars; Harold getting married so that Ella could have a widow’s pension, he fully expecting to be killed like so many others who’d joined the Leeds Pals; Harold on a camel during one of the couple’s unexpectedly adventurous holidays.
If he was a tyrant, he wasn’t petty. Harold’s duty was not only to keep our family on the straight and narrow, but to care for everyone, and this he did with automatic, perhaps unconscious, kindness. My mother recalls how he used to play with her when she was a child, stoically drinking revolting ‘medicine’ and being a horse. He taught her to swim with her eyes open underwater; later he taught her to drive, took her to Paris and put down the deposit on her first house. To my mother, having loving grandparents wasn’t a nice little extra; her home life was terrible and a visit to the cold old house with dodgy wiring a blessed respite.
As an Englishman and a Yorkshireman, my great-grandfather obviously had a lot on his shoulders. Like most young men he signed up eagerly for the First World War. More unusually he also joined up again in 1939, and his file holds aggrieved letters he sent out looking for a bigger role than training engineers from the safety of the North Yorks Moors. He felt the Army lost out on his hard-won experience, but the Army’s attitude is summed up in one handwritten comment on his recruitment papers: ‘old-looking’.
Harold and Ella’s son Arthur – known as Nippy – drowned in the North Atlantic on his way home to be married, the body never recovered. On what was supposed to be Nippy’s wedding day they instead buried old Grandma Jackson, killed by the shock. But Nippy’s fiancée never left the family, playing the role of daughter-in-law that ought to have been hers. When Veronica finally married someone else, Harold and Ella were in the church.
Also in the church was my grandmother Mavis, Harold and Ella’s daughter and only surviving child. Mavis may have consciously carried Ella through the day by making bitchy comments about the guests’ dresses and ridiculous hats; less kind members of the family say Mavis was just being Mavis.
So why did Harold and Ella, with their own daughter, need to sort-of adopt another? A dreadful phrase hangs over our family, perhaps said just once by Ella, perhaps never spoken until years later: the wrong one died. With my great-grandparents’ apparently open hearts and old-fashioned solidity, how did they produce a daughter would inflict abuse on the following two generations?