Alice Hodgkiss

Alice Hodgkiss, Encaustic on Board, 48” x 48”, 2009

October 21, 1939

Selena, my Sweetest Heart,

Dearie, I can’t tell you how your Daddy and I cried when we received your package. We were to sit down for tea when your sisters – Lily and Phylis – charged into the house carrying the box. They both look like you, with their ocean blue eyes and hair the colour of the morning sun. We didn’t recognize the Leadbetter name. It sounds so proper. I’m so joyful you’ve found your beloved, Horace. And Honey, your note – you are filled with such love. We cried and cried, all four of us. Our tears were so thick, we took turns reading. Each word eased the anguish in my heart. And the photograph of your little Audrey! How precious your angel is. Please give her a hug and kiss from her grandmother.

Every day my heart has ached for you and your brother Ben. Imagine, my wee ones are both grown, married and in Canada! Alive and safe! How I’ve worried so for you Darlings. I always prayed you were treated well. I had heard stories, and I hoped you and Ben would be counted with the lucky ones. Your work with the pen shows me you got some education and I hope Ben did too. I am bothered that you weren’t allowed to keep the birth certificates and photos I gave you and your brother. Why that’s criminal.

Selena, I have hoped and prayed all these twenty-four years that I would find you – and now you’ve found me! I’ll write Ben a letter tonight and post it to the Kingston, Ontario address you gave me. Sweetheart, it has been over a month since we received your package and I am sorry that I didn’t write to you sooner. Much has happened this past month. The War just begun. Sad but necessary. We’ve built ourselves a bomb shelter in the rose garden and we’ve all been busy helping with the War efforts. Your brothers – Billy and Jack – left to fight for England. Billy left a month ago, a week after your happy package arrived. Jack left a fortnight later. We bid him a tearful farewell at the train station. I miss him so very much. A kind son he is. He has helped support the family over the years. He drives a lorry and delivers coal around Staffordshire. I miss the rumble of his lorry up the drive and his visits for tea. Whenever I’m sick, he comes by and makes his mum some OXO.

I must say Billy took quite an interest in your little Audrey, and I let him take her picture with him when he left. He said he’d keep it by his heart every day. The day he left he was so excited to go and fight the Germans. He had Audrey in one pocket and his sweets in the other. Such a good boy. He and Jack were so eager, they enlisted instead of waiting for conscription. I pray they find their way back sound and safe, my poor Dears. When they return I will breathe again.
Dearie, you have brightened my heart so. I can finally feel my love for you and Ben without the old hurt. You are so clever to have found us. I’m glad the people at the Canadian Social Works were so helpful in getting you and Ben your Canadian citizenship and in figuring out how to find me here in Walsall. We’ve had to move several times since I saw you last. To think the people who sent you away told you that your father and I were dead. How horrid for you Love. I’m so glad you remembered me telling you to never forget who you were and where you were from, and that some day we’d be together again. You say you always knew I was still alive because you could still feel my love? Oh now, my eyes are wetting the paper. I’m glad you never gave up. You always were a girl with pluck.

So much has happened since that dreary day I took you and Ben to the Dr. Barnardo Orphanage. I am sick thinking of it now. You in your red woolen coat and white mittens and your brother not wanting to let go of my neck for anything. I truly thought the Great War would be over quickly. I knew that at the orphanage you and your brother would be safe and fed until I could provide for you once the War was over and your Daddy returned home. I was told I could come and get you when I was fit to and that you would be able to go to school while you were there. For the next two years, I was at the Union Workhouse on Pleck Road working as a cook (which I soon realized was much better than working in the sick wards). Almost half of the elderly in Walsall had to live there, with no family able to care for them. Poor old souls. I tell you I’ll never miss those red brick buildings. They were something of an overcrowded dog kennel inside, though not half as respectable.

It took some time for your Daddy to get back on his feet when he returned from the fighting. The mustard gas had burned his arms and back something terrible and his lungs are still poorly indeed. The coalmines he worked in before the War were hurtful too I’m sure. He must take life slowly if he’s to last, the poor Dear.

Phylis and Lily are my two flutter birds. Always pitching in and so full of life. They paint my walls with laughter every day. I love them so. I’m hoping you will get to know all your siblings, as we’re all fixing on writing you regularly. The girls will be helping out in the factories soon – building fighter planes. We all are doing our part.

You had two other sisters – Rose and Violet. Twins. We lost them soon after they came into this world. Doctor was late in coming and the babies were born right here on the couch. Too tiny and delicate to survive, the poor Dears. At least they are together in Heaven. Oh dear, my eyes again.

I want you to know how hard I tried to get you and Ben back into my arms. After the War, I heard of children being sent from orphanages to Canada and elsewhere to work, without their parents’ knowledge or permission. The orphanage wouldn’t tell me anything and wouldn’t let me in to see you. I made such a scene at the gates! I thought perhaps you were already crossing the Atlantic. I stood outside those gates until your Daddy took me home. I even went to the district school at Wigmore in West Bromwich to see if you had been taken there. I was so upset when I couldn’t find you that I went to London and stood outside the gates of Buckingham Palace hoping to speak to Queen Mary for help. I thought if I could just explain to her our dilemma, she would surely help. But the guards refused to let me in. To think you were still in the orphanage and weren’t sent until you were fourteen makes my blood boil. All that time I was just a walk away!

And now here we are. Writing letters over the Ocean! I will always regret sending you to the orphanage, even though I thought I didn’t have a choice otherwise. I decided it would be better than taking you to the awful workhouse with such filth and sickness. I wanted you and Ben to survive. Dearest, I hope Ben’s work on the farm and your nanny work in Toronto wasn’t too hard. Thoughts of you during my years at the workhouse were what kept me alive. Dear One, I am so sorry things didn’t turn out differently. It’s a miracle you and Ben never lost touch, and that you were able to find an address for us. I heard the child migration has finally stopped this year. Why it went on so long is unthinkable.

How are you all now? Are you and your family alright? Cabbagetown sounds lovely and I’m glad to hear you have many friends around you. Amelia Street sounds beautiful and I know your rose garden must be delightful when in full bloom. Your description of Kensington Market – well, I felt like I was right there and could smell the food and see all the interesting people. I have so many questions for you and I just want to hug and kiss you and set things right.

I will start my knitting for little Audrey. I love you my Darling and I will write and write and write. Say a warm hello to your Horace and kiss Audrey again for me my Sweet. I pray I can one day see your beautiful face and hold your hand in mine again. I am so blessed. I will send you pictures of your Daddy and I, and of all your family here in England. They have never met you, but love you dearly. You take care Sweetheart, and know that I love you.
Mum xo

July 17, 1940

Dearest Selena,

My Love, it is with unbearable sadness that I must tell you our Little Billy will not be coming home to us. Last month, I received a telegram that he was ‘Missing In Action’. I was filled with dreadful worry, but I hoped for the best. The most terrible news arrived three weeks later. I fainted on the front steps as I read the wire. I was stricken with such wretched grief. Not having a grave to visit here at St. Mathew’s, nor anywhere at all makes it especially sorrowful. I apologize for the smudges my tears are making of the ink.

This week I received two letters. Honey, you’re letter arrived first. In it you wrote that a framed photograph of Audrey (the same one that Billy had kept by his heart) inexplicably fell off your wall at home on May 26th and that you feared it was a forewarning of something grave to happen to little Audrey. You needn’t fear for Audrey, my Love. The omen was for Billy. May 26th was the very day Billy died.

The second letter arrived a few days later. It was from Joseph Valler, a fellow soldier who was in the BEF with Billy. He wrote that Billy was shot near the Franco-Belgian border, and that he held Billy in his arms until death came a short while later. ‘Nothing could be done to save Bill,’ he wrote. I am comforted that he did not die alone, but with a true friend.

Joseph was shot later, but he was one of the lucky ones to have been evacuated from Dunkirk, and is still in hospital. He sent me something that Billy wanted me to have – Audrey’s picture. The sweetest boy, our Little Billy, only seventeen. My heart is broken.

I pray for Billy’s soul every day. I also pray for Jack’s safe return. He is fighting the Japanese in Burma. These times are wrought with grief and worry for everyone.

I’ll post this letter quickly, as the skies are quiet at the moment. We had quite the shock yesterday when there was a raid on houses on Walsall Road, up by the Stone Cross in West Bromwich. The Germans were after the ack-ack gun. They tried several times, but never got it. So much damage was done. I’m glad Horace won’t be joining the fight. His flat feet are a blessing. You and Little Audrey won’t be alone.

Sweetheart, thank you for the tea, shortbread and chocolates you sent. With the war and its rations, we don’t have a lot here, but you shouldn’t rob yourself Dear. I would give up all the rations if it meant we could win the War and stop Hitler’s madness! The air raid sirens remind me of the sirens that went off at the coalmines when there had been an accident. They are the sound of fear itself. This War is terrible, and I hope it ends well and soon!
I love you, Selena. Kisses to you and your family. Let’s pray for happier times.

Love Mum xo xo xo
December 1,1945

Dear Selena, Horace, and Little Audrey,

Happy Christmas! What a joy it is to celebrate Peace and Family! Thanks to God, our prayers have been answered. Jack is due home within days! He had a very rough time of it in a Japanese POW camp, and has been in hospital since his release. But he has survived and is expected to make a full recovery. And he’ll be home in time for Christmas! I’ll be the one making OXO for dear Jack this winter.

We still have our home, and each other. Billy and his sisters can look down on us from Heaven. Many families were not so fortunate as ours. The War’s atrocities were unthinkable. For the rest of my days, I will pray for all those millions of lost souls.

I hope the red woolen jacket and mittens for Audrey will fit her for the season. The scarves for you and Horace should help keep the Canadian winds at bay.

Happy Christmas and here’s to a most joyful 1946!

All my love,

Mum xo xo xo

Story written by Tori Jones

copywrite 2004 Tori Jones