Why Mum packed Dad away inside a suitcase

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Rosheen Finnigan learned early that asking about the father shed never known was off limits. Then, one day, her ageing mother revealed a cache of letters that plotted the course of young love cut short by war

There were things about my early childhood that I did not understand. I accepted, but did not really question. I knew the bare bones: that my father had died in the war and that, to enable her to pursue her career in the documentary film industry, my mother sent me to a boarding school when I was nearly three. And I knew that she had married my stepfather in 1947, but it wasnt until four years later, when I was 10 and she was pregnant with my half-brother, that I finally came home for good to lead a family life.

My childhood before that was a bit unorthodox and rootless, but not unhappy. The schools I went to were well chosen, caring and liberal. I remember long, golden summers on the Sussex Downs spent with friends of my mother and filled with fun and kindness. My paternal grandmother, who often looked after me, was always loving and welcoming with buttons to sort and cakes for tea.

Looking back, I think that I was rather like a kibbutz child. I looked for and took affection from whoever had it to give. My mother was always there, but in the background. She was, however, the centre of my life, around whom I travelled.

Rosheen
Rosheen Finnigan, aged 18 months, with her mother, Mary. Photograph: Courtesy Rosheen Finnigan
These were my memories. But what I still find difficult to understand is why, during the times we were together, she gave me no idea or sense of my father. She never really talked to me about him. There were no photographs of them, or of him or us in the little house in Finsbury, near Clerkenwell in London, that she had acquired to welcome him back from the war, and which, tragically, he never saw. There was one vivid memento: an old wooden gramophone, nicknamed Griselda, with a huge leather horn, which I knew had been his. But that, too, disappeared when my stepfather moved in. I came home and it was gone, the last vestige of my father.

My grandmother had photographs and told me stories about him, but they were the stories of the boy David, not the man my mothers husband, my father. And although I was anxious and wanted to ask my mother about him, I somehow sensed that to do so would be to enter a danger zone; he had to stay a mystery to me.

So it would remain, even after I married and had my own family and my mother in late middle age had left her beloved London, where she had spent most of her life, for Ireland, the land of her birth and my stepfathers heart.

Then one day, when she was old, frail and widowed and I was staying with her in Dublin, she handed me, one by one at first, and then all of them, a cache of letters I never knew existed but which she had kept with her, hidden, wherever she lived.

They were letters that she, Mary, and David had written to each other from the day after they first met in 1938, and fell in love, to the day in May 1943 when the correspondence was abruptly terminated almost in mid-sentence by his death in faraway India.

Rosheen
Rosheen Finnigan. Photograph: Picasa/Courtesy Rosheen Finnigan
And what letters! They flowed in a continuous stream from Finsbury, Kensington, Bletchley, Skegness, Mombasa, Madagascar, New Delhi, sparkling with wit, passion, joie de vivre and despair, and a maturity and sophistication astonishing for a couple barely out of their teens. I was overwhelmed by the strength and urgency of their love, the ecstatic times they had together time made more precious by an increasingly brutal war.

Most of all, the letters at last gave me my father. The young man who burst out of them filled a hole in my heart I didnt realise was there. Clever, funny, sunny, his love and concern for me leapt off the pages. He fell for my grumpy indignant face on first sight and later mourned the fact that he was missing seeing me grow. Tears fell on the pages as I read and mourned for what could have been. He would have been such a sweet and loving father.

I discovered what a distinguished naval career he had had. How he played an important role in the first major combined operation of the war, to oust the Vichy French regime from Madagascar, for which he was mentioned in despatches, and how he went on to work for the intelligence service in India. How proud I was of him. Why didnt I know of their marriage, of their brief months living together as man and wife? Why did I never know that they married at the same Finsbury register office where my husband and I were married 22 years later? Why didnt I know that my mother was one of the first recruits to the newly created intelligence centre at Bletchley Park?

The letters filled many gaps in my understanding but could not answer the most important question that I asked myself, not as a child but as a woman with children of my own: why, when we had both lost so much she a husband, me a father did my mother send me away so soon and so young?

It was in another letter, written to Davids sister a few months after his death, that I found her explanation:

Lately, she wrote, the only message I have had for the outside world is that life stinks a monotonous theme for letter writing. But now life [is] still stinking, there is more to say. I recognise that I cannot look after Rosheen properly and have a career as well unless I bury us both in the country and try to eke out an existence on 5 a week.

Rosheen
Rosheen Finnigans mother, Mary. Photograph: Courtesy Rosheen Finnigan
I have found an excellent boarding school which has a nursery for babes of 2-4 and she can be with children like her brothers and sisters might have been. I am certain that she would be much happier there than living the peculiar sort of existence we lead now, which is half and half of everything, and both miserable. Rosheen will thank me more for making a career for myself and not claiming any return for outrageous sacrifice when she is older.

She goes on to say that she has met a man yes another, who seems to think that working in documentary films was what I was born for. His contacts in the film industry are numerous. According to him they will welcome me with open arms which they did!

And thats what happened. I went to the excellent boarding school and she went into the film biz, where she flourished and stayed until she became pregnant and normal family life began for us in the little house in LloydSquare.

But I think it was too late to be normal, whatever that is. My stepfather was a very honourable and decent man but rather distant and aloof. His life revolved around my mother and he was not at ease with a young adolescent girl dropped permanently in his nest after years of only flitting in and out.

My mother, a formidable and talented woman, completely controlled the emotional climate of the house. When it was good it was very very good, but when it was bad it was horrid and I was often anxious and wary. But there were lots of good things, the best being my relationship with my new brother, whom I adored and who returned me unconditional love. The house was full of books and pictures, their friends were many and interesting and always nice to me at the numerous dinner parties and gatherings. There were long holidays in Ireland (my stepfather was an Irish academic and writer). But I never felt it was my home.

And there was never any talk or reference to my father. My mother told me when she gave me the letters that my stepfather had fearsome nightmares about the sudden reappearance of my father. I wish Id known. Perhaps it helped explain the disappearance of Griselda and the hiding of the letters.

Ah! the letters. Reading them gave me some insight into how truly catastrophic my fathers death had been for my mother, especially following on the heels of that of her much-loved brother.

I understand why she told no one of Davids death for days. It was easier not to believe. I also understand why she hid the letters deep in the locked vault that was the David and Mary part of her life.

But I wish she hadnt hidden them from me. I wish that she had shown me, shared with me. I was his child, my children his grandchildren. I think that she saw Davids death as her tragedy, him as her lover and forgot that he was also my father.

Letters from the Suitcase, edited by Rosheen and Cal Finnigan (Headline, 18.99). To buy for 14.24, go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over 10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of 1.99.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/jun/24/mum-dad-suitcase-letters-father-mother-love-war-rosheen-finnigan

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