Evelyn Maitland Roy
It was July 2007 and we had just returned from Canada. The first thing my husband did was to ring Arrowe Park Hospital, Birkenhead, to enquire after his aunt. She was comfortable. She would last another night. Evelyn, always known as Jim, had been admitted just before we left for our sixteen-day holiday and we feared that we had seen her for the last time. The first phone-call came in the early hours of that night. Colin answered. She had taken a turn for the worse. Could he come? He explained that we were miles away in Malvern but asked them to inform him immediately of any change. The call came at dawn. The end was peaceful.
Having completed the necessary paperwork and noted the wishes in Jim’s will, we turned our minds to her funeral. We chose a poem, a bible reading and a hymn but we struggled to find much to say about the lady herself. Colin knew her well as a boy but since the 60s, her life rarely involved the rest of the family. When we visited from the ’90s onwards, she wanted to know all about our family. There was never enough time to ask about the past. She sometimes harked back to her younger days but only in a general way. Family was of utmost importance.
Jim had moved into the house in West Kirby, Wirral, with her sister Mary in 1962. Already in poor health, Mary died a few months later. The tragedy hit Jim badly. She turned to her dogs as constant companions. She took them on nearby Caldy Hill every day, sometimes twice. The daily exercise also contributed to her life of ninety-eight years. It was on the hill that she wanted us to scatter her ashes.
Clearing the house
Deteriorating health had forced Jim to live on the ground floor of her two-storey house for some years. All her needs were within reach and, upstairs, the rooms had gradually become empty of the objects of everyday living. It was not until we looked further that we found the mountain of family papers which Jim had bequeathed to my husband. Drawers, cupboards, spaces under beds were all to reveal a rich and fulfilled life hitherto unknown to us. The contents of envelopes, albums, scrapbooks and suitcases were soon to take over a large part of our lives. They contained the detail of Jim’s life that was lacking at her funeral.
We thinned out, recycled and gave away but still made little impression on the mass of material. It seemed that most of the items dated from the decades of the first half of Jim’s life.
Finding the diaries
The diaries, ranging from large Boots Scribbling Diaries to Letts Pocket ones, occupied several bookcases. Along with other items, we placed them in boxes galore to take home. Our spare double room was soon piled high so that there was hardly room to walk. It was tempting to pick out random items and wonder in awe at the variety of documents which represented a life. Eventually, I decided to concentrate on the diaries.
Once put in chronological order, it became clear that there was a run of seventy-five years from 1928. Admittedly, some had only a few entries but most gave a picture of Jim’s way of life. She had chronicled her education, her friends, her pets and her hobbies. What was emerging was a life story spanning almost a century. Jim’s diminutive figure belied her earlier life of which, up until then, we knew little. We gradually discovered, through her possessions, the details of her experiences.
There were puzzles, questions to be answered. Who was the man in the small photograph labelled ‘Hugh Whyte’? Why was his signature on a menu card? How did Jim come to receive a letter from the Admiralty? Was the Hugh of a 1996 diary entry the same person?
By delving into the other boxes, I was able to find documentation to expand and explain the journals. The possibility of writing a biography sprang to mind. I transcribed the diaries and sorted the content into topics – her family background, teaching career, her love-life, her travels.
Then there were the letters.