Letter from Augusta Wilkes to Gillian Tessa
How strange you followed my profession, skipping a generation, that of an antique dealer. Mind you, my speciality was English, German and French porcelain, small pieces of Victorian and Georgian furniture and Objets de Virtu in my shop in Walton Road, Swansea.
I know you came looking for your heritage two years ago. Searching for 'Milford', our house and both shops in Uplands. Interesting you chose to come at the time of the Centenary of our beloved National Poet - Dylan Thomas. Your mother, a poetry lover, knew him personally, loved his work and kept a written anthology of his work and of her favourite poets including Wordsworth quoting to you as a child, 'I wandered lonely as a cloud... A host of golden daffodils' until you could quote it too.
I met your grandfather, Abraham Lyons, when I was 15 at home in Bradford. He saw me pouring the tea and knew he would come back when I was of age and ask for my hand in marriage. I, of course, had no 'voice' as a female like you today. How life has changed in two generations for us women a century later. And where you live, Brighton - the most liberal city in England today. Wales and Yorkshire were so provincial and still are today!
Ours was a silent home, like your parents', but we were a devoted couple, growing old together having had five children. Peggy, your mother, was an afterthought. Foolishly I told her so thus she grew up shy with a complex that she was unwanted. I took to my bed exhausted after her birth. I admit I did not give her the affection she needed which she did not pass on to you because she had been isolated from loving feelings and withdrew into her shell. Your Auntie Gladys, her oldest sister, brought her up as her surrogate mother with Alma, the family's devoted servant who later nursed you and became your nanny in Liverpool. Alma was 'in service' all her working life with the Lyons family and read books in our library, educating herself. She followed Peggy to Liverpool after our death and the house sold at auction. The antiques we had at home were divided between all five children. Your mother inherited all the Georgian silver and for safety put them in the vault of the bank. Unfortunately the bank was bombed during the war and so she only got the scrap value. Such is life! You did, however, inherit from South Africa, the miniature set of draws from Doll and the Sheraton architect's table from Lewis. Your husband at least let you keep them feeling guilty that he had purloined so much else.
Your mother was quiet, introvert and sensitive, loving piano and violin concertos which influenced your life. The music still rings in your ears from those decades ago. Emil Giles and Vladimir Ashkanazi playing Rachmaninov and Grieg. Even today, you play Classic FM all day as a background in your home to calm you from the traumas and tragedies of 2006-9, your lost years.
Our lives were so different. Mine - stable and cared for. My visiting cards which you inherited in my tortoise shell visiting card case and my card left on a silver platter with my name with the words 'At home'. A Georgian silver pill box with the intertwined initials AL and the Georgian snuff box put on a fob watch chain to wear as a necklace. A gold and emerald little finger finger ring given to Peggy on her 18th birthday and given to you on your's, stolen by BB - 'Brian the Burglar' when he burgled your flat in Bayswater, London. He robbed you of your heirlooms. Later your husband was to strip you of the rest. A bronze tortoise from our dining table. I pushed its tail and Alma magically appeared. I am thrilled you demanding it back from your husband, who greedily took what material possessions he could. Now you proudly display it on your marble mantelpiece amidst the memorabilia and mementoes in your flat which you now feel is your true final resting place after years of wandering. Like a homing bird, you have come home to England.
I am delighted you researched your grandfather Abraham Lyons and discovered he was from Swansea. His parents came from Poland. You had their sepia photo with your great grandfather, also called Abraham Loeb, wearing the typical astrakhan fez shaped black hat. He came by ship from afar but we never knew if he was the captain or the cook! My Abraham was a high ranking mason and President of the Swansea Literary Society and the synagogue. A pillar of society who used to meet others in the coffee houses and discuss philosophical questions like 'What is a Jew?' A handsome man with a moustache who climbed up the ladder of success from being a humble pawnbroker to a highly respected and knowledgeable Georgian silver dealer with not one but two antique shops in Walton Road. You inherited his hand written little black reference book with the silver mark emblems drawn in his own hand which he carried in his breast pocket. There were, of course, no published reference books in the Victorian and Edwardian era.
I see you photographed our double fronted house 'Milford' in Walton Road now a charity to reeducate homeless young men. Only the facade remains, the interior has long gone. And you found the location of the two antique shops. Bravo!
I, like you, finally became a collector. The disease of a dealer. Only your vast Ephemera collection became a Nostalgia and Social History Archive, through consumer advertising and packaging, which you sourced, curated and ran as a photo library for 20 years in Notting Hill, London W11.
A far cry from the Mumbles and The Gower Coast that your mother had always spoken of hoping to inspire you to visit Swansea which never left her heart and thoughts. It took you 60 years or so to see it through her eyes and mine too.
I know she had the framed photo of her father and I, complete with our walking sticks, lying in the grass after a gentle stroll somewhere in the countryside. What a devoted life we had together producing five children unlike your life with Martin which lasted a mere 25 years and no offsprings.
Martin knew you were not cut out for marriage and rearing children. You were too independent and, being a magician, he manipulated you into proposing on leap year in Paris. He was no fool. He knew what he wanted. Your lifestyle between London and Paris! He captured your freedom and put you a gilded antique cage after his cry of 'This is not a marriage', having promised that he would never change you. If only I had been there to give you words of comfort. You had no one to confide in. Helga was in Jerusalem and Anna Mae too busy in London. Esther did not listen and Dani was dying of cancer. You had not yet met your Black Angel Pauline.
Your mother was still alive but useless other than materially. No words of wisdom. She never hugged, kissed or cuddled you, influenced by my behaviour I am afraid. I was a Victorian and she an Edwardian. You were born after her first child was stillborn. Tessa would have been 5 years older. You were conceived in 1944 and your father did not see you until after 1945 when he returned from Germany behind enemy lines.
You had a kiss cupboard to the right above your bed in your mauve bedroom. The antique floral painted cupboard Uncle Lewis inherited and gave to you with a big tassel hanging from the door knob. She would come in around 10.00 pm and remove a kiss from the cupboard blowing it to you as she said 'Good night', leaving you in your solitude in the dark.
'A leopard can't change its spots you know how shy I am'. Peggy would say. How you ever became who you are today, I'll never know. You were never guided by your mother that's for sure. I suppose going out into the world outside your comfort zone shaped you and gave you the courage of a lion. Our family name. She only suggested three things that inspired you.
At 15 she sent you to 'Le petite Afrique' a french language summer school in Beaulieu sur mer on the French Riviera for a month, your first time abroad alone. And, as she loved Italy and the Italian language, suggested you learn Italian at Perugia University for three months when you were 22. A door opened that would change your life forever. In desperation, after you gave up Law, she sent you to Miss Foulkes Secretarial College for 9 months in Liverpool saying typing would always come in useful and get you a job. She was right. It did. You were a fast excellent typist on the electric typewriter.
But the synchronicity does not stop. There is the mysterious sepia photograph of the pair of Mathew Bolton Georgian silver candlesticks the reverse of which bears your name in brown ink in your grandfather's script. GILLIAN TESSA. Your birth name. Your identity. From birth to death. The name you will always bear. So where did these names come from? Who was SHE? The Phoenix has risen from the ashes of time.
VIVA GILLIAN TESSA
AKA JILLIANA TESSA since 1970
We will meet at the end of the tunnel one fine day. I shall be waiting to greet you.
Your loving grandmother
Written in Rosie Jackson's writing course at Cortijo Romero, Orgiva, Spain in September 2016.