Angela and Lynda, who work in the shop at the Marriott Hanbury, were very helpful. They gave me a long historical report on the house and directed me to the nuns’ cemetery where I found the headstone of the Reverend Mother, to whom my mother must have curtsied many a time. Philomena of all names, for those who have seen the recent movie starring the incomparable Judi Dench.
I realize now what I’m feeling as I walk down these halls where my thirteen-year-old mother (can you find her?)dressed in her school uniform, ran to answer the call of the bells, the stern demands of the nuns and where, when she looked out the window at the cold Hertfordshire hills, must have longed for the ocean breezes and the orange trees of Gibraltar.
I’m way ahead of her. I know what happened and where she went from here while she knew nothing that was to come, the way none of us do. Neville Chamberlain declared war on September 3, 1939, the week before she returned to Poles for her second year. It was better than the first. She’d made fast friends with Bee Stourton, she’d proven to be quite the scholar and she’d survived one term away from home. It was the time of the Phony War when everybody trudged about London with clumsy gas masks hitched over their shoulders, but Hitler was still thinking he might bring England around so the Blitz hadn’t begun.
However, by her final year, when she placed high enough in the rankings to be considered for the Oxford entrance exams, the war arrived at her doorstep. Girls in England had to do their bit too. So she and Bee were forced to enroll in the Carr Saunders Secretarial School in Gloucestershire to start in the fall of 1942. That summer, the two girls would stay with Bee’s parents, Lord and Lady Mowbray at Allerton Park in Yorkshire. My grandmother was grateful to know Tish would be well away from drab and dangerous London that summer, never suspecting of course how much that visit would shift the trajectory of her sixteen-year-old daughter’s life. Those years so far from her home in the drafty halls of the Jacobean house toughened her up for all that was to come. Love yes, but so much loss too.
My mother couldn’t wait to get out of the place, but I feel an odd sadness at leaving Poles. For two days, I’ve walked along paths she walked before I ever knew her, I’ve looked through windows that she might have opened and seen much the same view that she saw, seventy odd years ago. I expect I won’t be back and yet, I don’t want to leave.
We stop at the end of the driveway for one last look. There’s that tree again. And the strange blue Xes on the walls that I’ve since learned are called, oddly enough, “blue brick diapers.” And the arched passageway that once led to the stables and now serves as the entrance to the hotel spa where my husband booked me a relaxing massage. That would have made my mother smile. She couldn’t stand anybody touching her, but loved it when I took care of myself.This entire trip is a way not just of finding her, but of taking care of myself. She would have approved.