Lemon Sherbet and Dolly Blue, family history, adoption memoir, women's literature writing, Clarice Cliff

Lemon Sherbet and Dolly Blue: The Story of an Accidental Family 'Prologue'

Photograph of great-aunt Eva COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL

There is no childhood photograph of my great-grandfather. His parents gave him away when they left for America. They did not even tell Dick when his birthday was and so were hardly likely to pose for a family group (and I doubt they had the sixpence to spare). There is a photograph of my great-aunt Eva, however, and she's standing in the garden shortly after she was brought home to the corner shop. And there are several pictures of my mum, a babe in arms, soon after she joined the family. All the women wanted to be photographed with Cora.­

It is said that you can't choose your relatives, but some of my fam­ily did. Three generations were adopted, and adopted in three distinct ways. I know of no other family like this one. Perhaps it was their precarious beginnings and sense of how­ slippery facts can be that made them enthusiastic storytellers. I grew up hearing their stories and have been longing to pass them on, but I've also wanted to uncover some of the mysteries and silences behind them. In exploring a family stitched together by adoption, there is much I have needed to discover for myself. I've also been longing to recreate a place which was a rich part of my family's life and of the tales told to me during childhood. I never knew my great-grandma's corner s­hop, but I've heard its stories so many times, I feel I know the ching of its bell.­­­­ 

Annie and Eva My great-grandparents died before I was born, but I spent a lot of time with my grandma and great-aunt, Annie and Eva. I had my own shop too, courtesy of a game we played in their pantry. Buttons were my ready currency (and, on other days, the buttons themselves entertained me, Annie saying: 'Oh, those jet buttons were Mam's. I remember ...' and heading into another story.) Annie and Eva bought imaginary chocolate and ice cream, as well as soap powder and pegs, and quarters of cough drops (red buttons) and, Eva's particular favourites, Pont­efract Cakes (large, black). To lend authenticity to our game, Eva approached the pantry with her shopping bag, but she had not forgotten her­ days on the other side of the counter and showed me how to twist newspaper into the narrow cones in which I sold the imitation sweets.

The real corner shop stood in a tu'penny-ha'penny district, hardly a district as such, on the edge of Chesterfield, Derbyshire, the county where, in the words of native-born Violet Markham, 'north meets south and the Pennines swoop down to gather up the flat and placid midlands into a stern embrace of rock and moor'. Administratively, Chesterfield is defined as the East Midlands, but it is North Derbyshire, twelve miles south of Sheffield ('the true North-country', according to J.B. Priestley) and its characteristics (and humour) have always seemed northern to me. Today, the town is famed for the Crooked Spire on its parish church, St Mary and All Saints. Some say the devil sat on it; others that, on observing the rare sight of a virgin marrying within, the spire leaned down to take a closer look and could not straighten up again.

You could see the tip of the Crooked Spire when you stood outside my great-grandma's shop. Those first photographs of my mum were taken on the shop's doorstep, which overlooked the pub and had a clear view of the branch-line railway station below. Shank's pony was the more usual transport for those in the immediate vicinity, but Betsy's shop was a good place to pause and see who might arrive on the next train. It functioned as a kind of drop-in centre too: people came to talk as well as shop.

The shop's main window, reserved for sweets, held the large glass-stoppered jars of dolly-mixtures, humbugs and a dazzle of Quality Street in coloured foils, but individual chocolate bars were kept behind the counter, beyond the reach of thieving hands. In the sunny window to the side, where advertisements curled and faded, a cardboard Vim declared that modern women had been released from household drudgery, though everyone round about took that for the nonsense it was.
Copy of Fancy Needlework Illustrated circa 1923 By the time I knew my great-aunt Eva, she was the spirited adventurer. Being with her was sometimes like being with an older child, a wholly reliable protector, but someone who knew about fun. My grandma, Annie, was more reserved, but hers was the lap I snuggled into, her big doughy arms ­wrapped about me while we read the same books she'd read to my mum. My grandma read to me each Sunday, the two of us sinking into her leatherette chair, the Jacobean-print curtains behind us screening us from the afternoon sun.

They were great keepers of things, Annie and Eva (keepers of secrets too, I've since discovered): clothes and jewellry, beaded purses, handbags - my visits in later years were like feasting in a vintage shop. They also kept family documents and papers; newspaper cuttings in biscuit tins; handwritten recipes; notebooks. That vital documents were saved should not surprise me, but in a family shaped in such an unusual way, it feels remarkable that they were. All kinds of material survives, whether by happenstance or intention; the cuttings in my grandma's commonplace book, for example, helped me understand more about the young woman she was in the years before I was born.

My mum picked up the habit of keeping record: notebooks, childhood poems, drawings, the minutiae of her young life. She also learned the habit of telling stories - her tales of her grandparents and the corner shop expanded those told me by Annie and Eva. She had her own fund of stories too, some involving the dance dresses of her youth -pink sateen with ric-rac braid, or yellow with a sequined heart in emerald green - which became the dressing-up clothes of my childhood.
Figurine One of my favourite excursions when I was young was lunch with my mum at Woodhead's Cafe, all dark wood panels, chrome and pistachio green, its decor barely changed since the 1930s. Here, provincial ladies lunched on creamed carrots and shepherd's pie, as provincial ladies had lunched for many years, the sound of an EPNS teaspoon scraping the last of a strawberry ice the only disruption to their quiet afternoon. In London the 1960s were happening, but London was a million miles away.

By the time I was a teenager, we'd shrugged off Woodhead's and the High Street and headed, instead, for Sheffield and its shops, scudding along leafy lanes in Mum's powder-blue Mini, talking ten-to-the-dozen all the while. We've talked (and laughed) a lot in recent years, sitting at her dining table, sifting through old photographs and papers, reluctant to interrupt our conversation to get up and peel potatoes at the sink.

My mum's dance dresses are long gone, but I live surrounded by everyday objects that tell their own stories. There is something of the past in every room: the squat Gray, Dunn & Co's Biscuits tin, a reminder of the corner shop; the wooden box with a sketchy cottage scene on its lid that my great-grandfather bought years ago; the huge chest of drawers that was Betsy's and then Annie's before it came to me, and it was my turn to tug on its large glass handles or prise open its secret drawer. ('When I die,' Annie told me, more than once, 'don't forget to look in the secret drawer'.)
In my attempts to uncover further stories about my family, I've been discovering distant histories, but also exploring those closer to home. When I started writing this book, I knew little of my mother's birth mother, and had no idea if I - and, far more importantly, she - would ever know more. Writing about people you love is a tremendous responsibility; stranger, still, is the act of taking someone else's childhood and playing it back to them, as I'm doing here, with my mum's.  
Photograph of weighties My grandma made the dress in which Cora was photographed shortly after her adoption. Annie also made a 'weighty' for her pram, just as she and Betsy, my great-grandma, made weighties for their own beds: eiderdowns named for their comforting heft and bulk; layer upon layer of fabric. Each layer told a different story - the cotton print Eva wore to stride across the gala field with her sweet tray; a strip of silk from Annie's favourite sash; the yards left over from serviceable flannel petticoats and Dick's work shirts; the crimson brocade Betsy favoured for best curtains. To sleep beneath a weighty was to be embraced by the past and the security of knowing you were home.

Some of my family stories, like those layers, are as light and colourful as silk or sprigged cotton; others, darker and heavier. Some belong to the people without whom the family could not exist, who, though invisible, are present all the time as shadows behind their narratives - the stories of those who gave up their children for adoption. If I could, I'd invent a different beginning for at least one of the adopted children. But that part of the story comes later. The best place to start is when my great-grandfather was brought to the town.

Copyright (c) Lynn Knight

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