I am told that the first comprehensible word I uttered as a child was "home."
My father was driving his secondhand Austin 7; my mother was in the passenger seat beside him holding me on her lap. As we approached our modest house, Dad braked the car to turn onto the pocket-handkerchief square of concrete by the gate and apparently I quietly, tentatively, said the word.
My mother told me there was a slight upward inflection in my voice, not a question so much as a trying of the word on the tongue, with perhaps the delicious discovery of connection . . . the word to the place. My parents wanted to be sure they had heard me correctly, so Dad drove around the lanes once again, and as we returned, it seems I repeated the word.
My mother must have said it more than once upon arrival at our house — perhaps with satisfaction? Or relief? Or maybe to instill in her young daughter a sense of comfort and safety. The word has carried enormous resonance for me ever since.
The river Thames begins as a trickle just above Oxford in an area referred to in old literature as "Isis." The trickle has become a fair river and fordable by the time it reaches the great university city, and from there it winds its way through the English countryside, changing levels from time to time, spewing through the gates of some exquisitely pretty locks, passing old villages with lovely names like Sonning, Henley, Marlow, Maidenhead, and Bray.
It flows on through Windsor and Eton. Wicked King John signed the Magna Carta at a picturesque stretch of the Thames called Runnymede. It progresses through the county of Surrey, past Walton — the village where I was born — past the palace of Hampton Court where Sir Thomas More boarded the water taxis that carried him downriver after his audiences with Henry VIII, and continues through the county town of Kingston, on to Richmond and Kew. Finally it reaches London, gliding beneath its many bridges, passing the seat of British government, the Houses of Parliament, before making its final journey toward Greenwich and the magnificent Thames Estuary into the North Sea.
Because of the Thames I have always loved inland waterways — water in general, water sounds — there's music in water. Brooks babbling, fountains splashing. Weirs, waterfalls; tumbling, gushing. Whenever I think of my birthplace, Walton-on-Thames, my reference first and foremost is the river. I love the smell of the river; love its history, its gentleness. I was aware of its presence from my earliest years. Its majesty centered me, calmed me, was a solace to a certain extent.
The name "Walton" probably derives from the old English words wealh tun (Briton/serf and enclosure/town). Remnants of an ancient wall were to be found there in my youth. Walton is one of three closely related villages, the others being Hersham and Weybridge. When I was born, they were little more than stops on the railway line leading out of London into the county of Surrey. Hersham was the poor relative and had once been merely a strip of woodland beside another river, the Mole. It was originally occupied by Celts, whose implements were found in large numbers in the area. The Romans were there, and Anglo-Saxons were the first settlers. Hersham was very much a fringe settlement. Walton, slightly better off, was a larger village; Weybridge was altogether "upmarket."
Walton's small claim to fame was its bridge over the Thames. A very early version was painted by Canaletto; J. M. W. Turner painted a newer bridge in 1805. The span was reconstructed again long ago, but in my youth the bridge was so old and pitted that our bones were jarred as we rattled over it, and I was able to peer through the cracks and see the river flowing beneath. Driving across, away from the village, usually meant that I was leaving home to go on tour with my parents. Crossing back, though, was to know that we were in familiar territory once again. The river was our boundary; we could leave the busy world behind us and our front door was only moments away.
To this day, when I am flying into England, it is the view of the river that I search for as we descend toward Heathrow. And suddenly, I see it — stately, sparkling, winding through the meadows, forever soothing, forever serene.
I was named after my two grandmothers — Julia Elizabeth.
Julia, my mother's mother, was the eldest daughter of William Henry Ward. He was a gardener, and met my great-grandmother, Julia Emily Hearmon (always referred to as Emily), when they joined the staff of a large house in Stratford-upon-Avon. Great-Granny Emily was a "tweeny," which is the name given to the poor unfortunate who gets up even before the servants and lights their fires so that they, in turn, can see to the comforts of the household. She was eleven years old when she went into service.
Some years later, she and Great-Grandpa William married and moved to Hersham, where their first daughter, my maternal grandmother, Julia Mary Ward, was born in 1887. There was to be a barren lapse of nine years before the rest of the family came along at two-year intervals, in a vain effort to produce a son. Four daughters were born, who were collectively known as "the girls," all bearing highfalutin names, starting with Wilhelmina Hearmon, followed by Fenella Henrietta, Nona Doris, and finally, Kathleen Lavinia. Mercifully, they were all shortened, to Mina, Fen, Doll, and Kath. Finally, the longed-for son arrived — William Henry, shortened to Harry and then to Hadge, by which time Julia, being the eldest, had married . . . and soon after, gave birth to my mother, Barbara Ward Morris, in July 1910. This meant that my mum had an uncle only a few years older than she, and therefore a built-in playmate.
I remember meeting my Great-Granny Emily Ward when she was in her eighties. Great-Grandpa had died, and she was living with her daughter Kath. Great-Granny was small and round like a barrel, with flawless skin and fine, pure white hair. She always smelled of fresh lavender and called me "dearie."
She had a sweet smile and a soft voice that sounded as if it were coming from a great distance. She loved canaries, and kept an aviary in the back of Auntie Kath's house in Hersham. I have loved canaries ever since.
Aunt Mina, Aunt Kath, and the other great-aunts were wonderful ladies, great characters all. Uncle Harry — or "Hadge" — was the black sheep of the family, and an alcoholic. I always felt there was something a little rough and dangerous about him, though he could be kind and had a playful sense of humor. Like his father, he had a magical touch with the land, and he eventually became our gardener. Things flourished when Hadge was in charge. My mother had a soft spot in her heart for him, and he was so competent when he was sober that she always wanted to keep him around. I used his image for the character of the gardener in my first children's book, Mandy.
My sense of the family history is somewhat sketchy, because my mother kept a great deal to herself. She spoke of her early years when pressed, but she never volunteered much — other than to speak lovingly of her mother, my namesake, Julia. Mum always took primroses to her grave in Hersham on Primrose Day, April 19, which was Granny Julia's birthday. Clearly, she missed her mother very much. The earliest recollections I have are of my mother's sadness at losing her. She must have carried her grief with her for many years in order for me to pick up on something like that.
It was left to my father and my aunt Joan, my mother's younger sister, to fill in what little I do know about my grandparents.
Grandmother Julia was apparently a sweet mouse of a woman. Sensitive, shy, of a retiring nature, yet a lover of music — my aunt told me she sang quite well. She wanted no more of life than to look after and love her children. I was told that my grandfather Arthur found this state of affairs suffocating and that her obvious attempts to please irritated him.
Unlike my mother, Aunt Joan spoke rather scathingly about Granny Julia, putting her down as being inferior to their father in intellect and breeding. Piecing the details together, I have concluded that my maternal grandmother was uneducated, pretty, hardworking, troubled; and that her husband, Grandfather Arthur Morris, was angry, talented, a womanizer, a bully, a drunkard, and illegitimate.
Arthur Morris was conceived at a time when it boded ill to be born "on the wrong side of the blanket," even if sired by a "Sir." Being tall — over six feet — of good countenance, and brainy, he apparently had an arrogant personality, but if he desired, he could be a great charmer. His own childhood was unhappy to say the least, as he was banished to the scullery most of the time, for his mother eventually married and his stepfather couldn't bear the sight of him.
As soon as he was of age, Arthur ran away to join the army and became a Grenadier Guard. Here he learned music and gained a promotion into the brass band, where he played the trumpet. He also excelled at the piano.
While stationed at Caterham Barracks, Surrey, Arthur met Granny Julia. They started seeing each other at every opportunity, and according to family rumor, Arthur "took advantage of" Julia in a field and she became pregnant. They dutifully married on February 28, 1910, at the Register Office, Godstone.
My mother, Barbara Ward Morris, was born on July 25, 1910. Five days later, Arthur did the unthinkable and deserted his regiment. The small family seemed to disappear into thin air for a time, but two years later Arthur was identified by a policeman as being on the army's missing list and was arrested, tried, and sentenced to sixty-three days in military prison for desertion. His superiors may have recognized that Julia was a new wife with a young child and that she needed her husband, for pleadings were made on his behalf, and after only twenty-nine days in prison, Arthur was formally discharged.
Julia and Arthur made a fresh start. They traveled to Kent, where Arthur became a member of the recently established Kent coal-mining community. On June 30, 1915, another daughter was born to them — my aunt Joan. After her birth, Arthur "deserted" again for a while, this time leaving his family. He was subject to bouts of depression, but it may simply have been that he went to the more lucrative mining area of South Yorkshire to search out new prospects for himself — for not long afterward, the Morrises moved again, to the pit village of Denaby, where Arthur was hired as a deputy at the local colliery.
The girls were both enrolled at Miss Allport's Preparatory School for Boys and Girls, and later they attended the village school in nearby Old Denaby. According to school records, my mother was very popular, very attractive. Aunt Joan was more reserved, always nervous. She depended on my mother a great deal. Both girls were striking, with alabaster complexions and glorious auburn hair.
It was during the period at Denaby that Arthur started composing and publishing poetry, which was quite well received and which earned him the moniker "The Pitman's Poet."
He also used his musical skills to entertain the villagers at cricket club functions, "smoking concerts" (men-only evenings), fund-raisers, and other parties around town. Arthur began teaching my mother to play the piano. Temperamentally, they were very much alike, being both self-willed and used to getting their own way. According to my aunt, many a shouting match was heard culminating with the sound of a sharp slap and a box on the ear.
Mum's version of these events was a little harsher; she claimed that her father hit her across the hands with a ruler. Either way, Arthur seems to have been a tyrannical and cruel parent. Eventually Mum took private lessons from a Miss Hatton and built her piano skills to a very high standard. In July of 1920, at the age of ten, she passed the first stage of the London College of Music curriculum. Her father is referred to in the announcement as "Mr. Arthur Morris, the well-known entertainer."
Years later, my aunt wrote this of her father: "People would come up to our mother and congratulate her on being married to such a fun-loving man. Little did they know of his dark moods of despair, when he would sit in his chair and speak not a word for days, and I would take the longest way round when crossing the room to avoid going near him. After these bouts, he would go away for a while, and return laden with gifts for us."
It seems that desertion continued to be a theme in Arthur's life.
Toward the end of 1921, he left the Denaby Colliery and the family moved a few miles away, to Swinton. Mum was eleven at the time, and Auntie was six. As Arthur became increasingly busy with his poetry, music, and entertaining, my mother became more accomplished at the piano — and in 1924, at the age of fourteen, she left school to pursue her piano playing full-time with a private tutor, and just a year and a half later she had passed the London College of Music's senior-level exams.
Mum now often accompanied her father on his tours, playing at many provincial concerts. She took part in several early radio broadcasts from Sheffield, and by the time she was sixteen, she was teaching music. Listed among her students for that year is my aunt, though the lessons didn't last long for several reasons — one being an acute sibling rivalry. My aunt was proficient at the piano, but music inspired her in other ways, namely to dance. Though untrained, she used every opportunity as a young child to dress up in her mother's clothes to improvise and to dance whenever possible.
All this information came not from my mother, but from my aunt and from research. Other than telling me she had passed her exams at an early age — she gained her LRAM and ALCM degrees — my mother never spoke about those years. How she felt about her studies remains a mystery, and I do not know where she took her exams. Given that the family was so poor, I cannot imagine who paid for her lessons in those days. Even if she had a scholarship, which I believe she did, I never saw her actual diplomas: she never displayed them, never had them framed.
In the summer of 1926, Granny Julia took my mum and my aunt to Hersham to visit her own mother, sweet Great-Granny Emily Ward. This was apparently a bucolic holiday for the girls, and they discovered the joys of the countryside and all that it had to offer compared to the mining towns where they lived.
Great-Granny Emily took in washing for the more affluent villagers. The tradition of "wash day" was backbreaking, rigorous work and was typical of the hardship and poverty the family endured in those times. Weather permitting, washing was done outside in the garden. Two enormous tubs with washboards and the requisite bars of yellow carbolic soap were set on trestle tables. Buckets of boiling water were constantly carried to and from the house. Sheets, pillowcases, towels, etc., were set in heaps on the ground. Whites went into one vat, colored items in the other, all to be soaked, scrubbed, then set in baskets while the tubs were emptied of their foamy suds and filled with fresh hot water for the rinsing process. Clothes were pegged on lines strung between two apple trees. Sheets were laid out on convenient bushes. In the evenings, the sweet-smelling laundry was brought indoors and made ready for ironing the next day.
My aunt recalled the fun of bringing in frozen shirts and pajama tops sparkling with a silver sheen of frost, the sleeves stiff and straight, which she used as dancing partners while she cavorted over the frozen cabbage stumps.
The following morning, sheets were carefully folded and set on the kitchen table to be used as a soft base for the ironing of clothes. No ironing boards then, and the irons themselves were heavy and had to be constantly reheated on trivets that swung over the fireplace.
Arthur, meanwhile, was performing for club audiences in various towns in the north of England. He bought a set of drums, which he taught himself to play, and when he thought he was proficient, he hired the local church hall. With my mother playing the piano and her mother at the entrance collecting the admission money, he began to run a series of profitable dances.
This new era meant that he was invited to many social gatherings. Granny Julia became hopelessly out of her depth in this more sophisticated company, so Arthur started going alone.
He was seldom home, and one morning, predawn, Julia tiptoed out of the house with her girls and left Arthur, probably because of his infidelities and alcoholism. They took the first train, returning to Hersham to stay permanently with Great-Granny Emily Ward.
Granny Julia quickly found a job as a maid for a Mr. Mortimer, who allowed her and the children to live in. Arthur remained in Swinton, but then tragedy struck: his new lifestyle had driven a wedge between him and his family, and his casual liaisons with women resulted in his contracting syphilis. He traveled down to Hersham, and perhaps realizing that she was unhappier without him than she was with him, or knowing that he was ill and in need of care, Julia took him back and the family was reunited for a time. Arthur's vitality quickly dwindled, however, and he became thin and lethargic. He was admitted to the Brookwood Sanatorium in Woking on November 16, 1928. He died the following August, at the age of forty-three, with the cause of death given as "Paralysis of the Insane."
I think my mother mentioned this period in their lives just once, giving me only the bare facts. Later, I begged my aunt Joan to write about it, but she shuddered and said, "Why would I write about something so terrible? That place, the stench, the people . . . screaming, demented." She must have been traumatized, given that she was only thirteen at the time, but I sensed she was also ashamed and loath to discuss this with me. Syphilis was certainly not "genteel." The heartbreaking consequence of Arthur's actions was that he infected Julia, and shortly thereafter she, too, became ill and died just two years later. In retrospect, it's not surprising that my mother's grief was so transparent and lasted so long.
From HOME: A Memoir of My Early Years by Julie Andrews. Copyright (c) 2008. To be published in April 2008 by Hyperion. All Rights Reserved.