Story of a Storyteller

Her name was quite a mouthful, Julia Esther Mary.  She was born in Abbercynon, South Wales, to strict Victorian parents – the second-youngest of ten children.  “Props off!” their mother would say as they ate, to keep elbows off the table.  After chapel on a Sunday morning, they would visit their auntie Jane.  Julia’s mother would say:  “It’s raining” in Welsh.  Then Jane would wipe the coal-dust off the wooden stool with her apron, and say (again in Welsh):  “Sit down over there.”


Julia’s sister (Gladys) worked here, and she followed suit when she was fourteen, as a servant-girl to two elderly ladies.  “They were church people,” she would tell us matter-of-factly – not disparaging of the church, but she certainly didn’t like them very much.  “If I had spare time, do you know what they used to tell me to do?  Go and get the dead pansies out of the garden.”  They worked her unnecessarily hard, and she was so homesick for Wales that when her sister (Rene) visited and saw how unhappy she was, she took her home.


Her eldest sister (Delly) ‘Had her hair off about it’.  She thought she should “Work for herself and get some clothes on her back”.


So, when Gladys saw an advert for an assistant cook at the boys’ college, Julia tried again.  She was clumsy in the kitchen and once when she dropped a plate, the cook told her:  “When you have a home of your own, Julia, you won’t be so fond of breaking things.”  She worked there, at another school for boys, and for a doctor and his family.


A favourite story she told over and over again was of when she and her friend Phyllis were maids at the school.  Boys threw wet sponges at them from the cubicles where they were washing, and when the matron wasn’t around, they would pelt them back.


Whilst in service, she courted a Mr Davis (whether Arthur or Alfred we’re not sure).  She told us:  “He held my hand and said, ‘We can’t continue this, because I’m a bit of a fan of the usherette at the cinema’.”  Dumped for free cinema-tickets!  But, she said:  “I only ever had one man.”


She met her husband, Roland John, and they married in 1935.  Rowland was their first child.  When she was expecting him, she visited the wife of the doctor she’d worked for, who was just recovering from an operation.  When the telephone rang, she told Julia to look through the window while she took the call, explaining later that she had lost a few toes and didn’t want the shock of seeing it to affect the baby.


Allan came along next, just before her husband had to go out to war.  A problem with his feet meant he couldn’t march on the front line, so he worked in customs in the Middle East.  Meanwhile, civilians tried to make a living as best they could.  Some would rent rooms to soldiers who wanted one-night stands, but Julia wouldn’t be a party to that, until one day she was caught out.  Somebody said they were only in town for a while and could he and his wife stay the night.  Without a second thought she agreed, and was shocked to find them gone and money on the bedside table next morning.  The temptation was to keep this from her husband, but her mother encouraged her:  “Tell that boy the truth.”  When she did, he was furious with her, just as she had expected!


Julia loved to sing and was good at it.  Another favourite story was of a neighbour of hers, and his comment that he thought her singing was the wireless!  She was sad to be turned down for a place in the local operatic society because she couldn’t read music.


After the war, they had a third son, Richard.  This is the song that got him his name.  Since there was a twelve-year gap between him and his eldest brother, the next generation started coming along when Richard was ten.  His first niece was more like a sister.


Julia loved spending time with her grandchildren, particularly when they were small and she could make up stories for them, like the one about the boy who dropped his Easter egg.  He just went to the shop and bought another!  There was no dramatic ending; no getting there and finding they’d just sold the last one … and on Easter morning his sister giving him some of hers (that’s how I would have told it).


Julia lost her husband in September 1982, and her son Richard sadly in June 2005.  She spent the last year-and-a-half of her life in a nursing-home.  She had a commode by her chair, and you can imagine the smell when it hadn’t been emptied.  If you were there and the bedroom-door was open, all you heard was the strangulated sound of the buzzer, as someone along the corridor tried to ring for help.  I wish she hadn’t had to go through that, but still it was a great privilege to visit.  She’d never been one for hugs and ‘I-love-you’s earlier in her life, but at the end of my visits, I’d give her a hug and she’d say:  “You’re lovely”, and I would say:  “So are you.”

* * *

My nan’s been gone 3 years today, and I wanted the world to hear some of her stories.  She’s very much-missed, but she sang “Jesus Loves Me” in those last few months (a chorus she learnt at four years old), and I know if she trusted in His love, we’ll meet again one day.


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