My father’s memory is fading. I find two old books that are new to me, on the shelves of my parents’ front room. One, a tattered Bible, claret cover, and is inside inscribed:
3011, Private S. Mitchell of West Yorkshire [Regiment]. from Mrs Dent, Soldiers Institute, Portsmouth. May 1st 1902.
We knew Great-Granddad Sam was on the Gold Coast – I have his Ashanti Star; and know he was on Spion Kop too (the story of his talking to his pal while on guard through the night, and finding out at first light why he hadn’t been talking back). We’d never known anything about his passage by Portsmouth. What reaction, I wonder, to being gifted this book?
At the end of the Old Testament my father, at fourteen, is practising his signature (far from how it ended up). One neat sum at the top of the page. Back on its bookplate the Bible is claimed by my father a year before Great-Grandad Sam passes away. ‘His Grandson’, the new note explains.
The other is a story book, a ripping yarn effort of colonial derring-do (Jones the Mysterious, by one Chas. Edwardes), awarded by a vicar in 1916, reads the bookplate, to Sam’s son, my dad’s dad, my grandfather (never met). The bookplate names him James, though the family knew him by his middle name Walter. James Walter Mitchell was named for the two lost brothers of his father, Sam. Lost, it should be said, to the family here, but found in the end on Ontario farms.
I mention to my dad – with a slow stroll up to the subject of finding these books – how I’d never seen my granddad noted as anything other than Walter. And Dad tells me a little tale of his own being surprised one day, when as a child on the tram in Leeds that my granddad was conducting, his oppos – his comrades, his colleagues, his opposite numbers – calling him ‘Jimmy’. My father fixes me with the stern and urgent eyes that have long defined him, and repeats: ‘his oppos called him Jimmy‘. Then a pause, and a calculated switch to ensure his point is understood. ‘He was Jimmy to his oppos.’
I take away this memory, not the books, and my father’s telling of it.