On this day, what would have been my father’s 100th birthday, I think it’s time to bring him on the scene. My mother
and my father
The Mowbrays have invited neighbors, friends and a couple of lucky American soldiers to come for the last party before the house is taken over by the Royal Canadian Air Force.This time I’ll let my father tell his side of the story. This excerpt comes from a letter he wrote home to his parents in Connecticut.
We were asked to spend the weekend at the country seat of the 23rd Lord Mowbray and Stourton. The whole thing was like a fantastic expedition into early nineteenth century England; Lord M & S has the undisputed and enviable right to kiss the King on the cheek at sight. The house is a hideous great pile of Early Victorian gloom built on the site of the original castle, which burnt down. The grounds are incredibly lovely, including a) a large herd of deer b) a curious domelike structure built by some duke to celebrate a minor victory c) a garden chock-a-block full of incredibly delicious fruit, and d) an artificial lake black with duck. The house is magnificently furnished, mostly in Regency furniture and Romneys and VanDykes.
My friend George and I were a trifle dismayed when we saw all this – we had visions of sitting glumly round the throne, speaking only when spoken to, and dying for a drink. But not at all. After a short period of iciness, while the English aristocracy were obviously wondering what species of barbarians these Americans were, a first rate impromptu-party – the best kind – started, and lasted till two in the morning. During the course of it I fell fairly deeply in love with the seventeen-year-old daughter of a belted earl (or something of the kind), and according to immemorial Alsop custom, urged on by ten glasses of port, soft moonlight, and the scent of roses, I proposed marriage around 1:15 A.M. For the first time, however, I did not wake up in the morning feeling like leaping into the artificial lake. In fact, even in the cold light of day, it looked like a pretty good idea. But since she’s moving almost immediately to some distant corner of England (and corners of England can be awfully distant these days) and since she comes from England’s oldest Catholic family, none of whom have married a Protestant for eight or nine centuries, it seems unlikely that any hands across the sea union will develop. But she really is utterly charming. Perhaps she’ll convert me to God, where you have so miserably failed. Anyway, the whole weekend, what with love and solid comfort combined, was wonderful.
My journalist father relied on facts as a reporter, but in his letters home from the war, he tended to exaggerate in the service of a good story. To set the record straight, he’d mixed up my mother with her best friend, Bee. They were both Catholic, but Mummy was hardly the “daughter of a belted earl.” She was also only sixteen, but she may have lied about her age. She certainly looked and acted older.
A few years ago, I read his description of Allerton Park to my eighty-two-year old mother. “Not deer,” she harumphed. “Highland cattle. He never did get that straight.”
My mother, never one to chatter and babble, made only one comment to my father during that dinner party. “You look like a criminal,” she said when she saw his close-cut hair. And with that, he appears to have fallen madly in love.
They were caught kissing in the Rose Garden, my mother told me, only because Lord Mowbray, who was at the opposite end of the garden in the arms of his mistress, happened to notice them and reported it to his wife. The next day, Lady Mowbray wrote my Granny Hankey a stern letter, describing this regrettable incident and suggesting that “something must be done to curb Tish’s hot Spanish blood.” In all my father’s letters home describing his efforts to find his love again, he called her Moonlight and Roses after a popular song of the time because he didn’t wish his mother to start querying her English cousins about this mysterious young girl.
However as my father sadly reports at the end of his letter home, this love seems doomed from the start as Tish and Bee were indeed headed to a distant corner of England. To prepare for war work, they’d enrolled in the Carr Saunders Secretarial School at Stanway House down in the Cotswolds a few miles from Whiteshoots, Granny Hankey’s house that I’ve written about in an earlier post.
On August 31, 1942, the exact same day my parents met at Allerton, a million miles away my mother’s only brother, twenty-year-old Ian Barnard Hankey, was dive-bombed by a Stuka
in the Western Desert on the first day of the battle of Alam el Halfa. Although he died instantly, it took weeks for the news to reach his parents in London.
Sometimes I wonder whether, on his way out of this world, Uncle Ian pushed Daddy in front of his sister.
You’ll have to take care of her, now. I won’t be here to do it