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a blog by Chris Barrow

May Day

You know what’s special to me about May Day? You’ll never guess…

  1. international labour day? Nope.

  2. spring festival? Nope.

  3. distress call? Nope

In fact it’s the maiden name of my paternal grandmother. May Day. I’ve searched high and low and cannot find a photograph of her. But I spent a few minutes this afternoon remembering her. My grandfather, Jos Barrow, was a Coldstream Guard who, on duty at Windsor Castle in the 1920’s, met and fell in love with a young, recently married girl with a baby daughter. This, of course, was outrageous in the prevailing culture. She confessed that her husband was a commercial traveller who rarely came home and abused her when he did. The story remains opaque but we are led to believe that she left the husband and that, against the advice of family, friends (and superior officers), my grandfather took her in and raised the girl as his own. They subsequently married and were quite inseparable until death did (perhaps) part them. What’s the most amazing chapter in the tale is that my father Charles and his 3 other siblings did not discover that his mother had a previous marriage or that his elder sister was, in fact, his step-sister until the early 1970’s. I was present when it happened. My grandfather has passed away and “Nana May” was visiting us for dinner one evening (I must have been about 20 years old) when she suddenly stopped eating, calmly placed her cutlery by the side of her plate and “announced” that she had something to tell us. Some 60+ years after the event, May decided that she could not go to her grave without sharing a secret that only three people had kept – May, Jos and my Aunty Dolly. She quietly announced that, although she and Jos had never celebrated the day before, the day of our dinner would have been her 60th wedding anniversary had my grandfather lived. After a moment of reflection, she asked my father if he knew how old his elder sister was. My dad kind of counted his fingers and said, with a rather puzzled look, “62?”. I can remember clearly the stunned silence around the table – and the wry smile on Nana May’s face as she made us realise that, old as she was, she still had a few surprises to pull. Today I toast her memory and the courage of a quiet man who dedicated his life to her, against all odds. I never really knew my paternal grandfather – but he must have been a hero.

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