She sent me a postcard most weeks, often including information about the tortoise. Handwriting was scratchy and the postcards included a set of dinosaurs. My paternal grandmother, Granny to me, named Kathleen Iris Knowlman, lived in Nailsbourne, a village near the Somerset town of Taunton. The garden was stunning, I recall Granny, with white curly hair, pruning and removing dead flowers, and I remember the smell of honeysuckle. The house, ‘Lynchens’, was on Staplegrove Road, and had a view over the Quantock Hills. Staplegrove Road was windy, narrow and bound by steep hedges, Lynchens was reached up a steep tarmac drive. Half way up the drive, on the right, was the garage where Granny’s, and later our, blue Mini 850, TYB753G lived.
My dad had three sisters, all older, Miky, Ba and Betty. Miky was a half sister, because my paternal grandfather, Andrew Knowlman, was married before, had Miky and then lost his wife to tuberculosis. Andrew Knowlman ran a draper’s shop on High Street, North Finchley in North London. With the onset of war, the family excluding Andrew, moved to the town of Wareham in Dorset, where they initially lived in my Granny’s mother’s house, before selling the drapery business and moving to Wareham completely. Although my dad was born in 1928, he missed the devastation of the Second World War. His sisters joined the Women’s Services, Miky joined the WRENS and Ba the WAAFS. Iris and Andrew believed that a good education was very important, and for them that meant private, boarding school. My dad went to Shrewsbury School, of which he doesn’t seem to have any positive memories.
My earliest memories of my dad’s family, reached by either a long train journey from York or an even longer car ride, were of the garden at Lynchens, the gravel drive at Brookfield, home of Ba and Tom, and of my hilarious Uncle Eric married to the equally amusing Miky. Miky was married before and had Peter and Susi, neither of whom I know. Brookfield was located in Kingston St Mary, also near Taunton. Miky and Eric were renovators, so moved around, mainly in Devon. Eric reminded me of Bertie Wooster and Miky had a cutting wit. Tom, a colonel in the army, spent several years in a German prisoner of war camp, and was always very kind. Ba was very active in the community, and was a brilliant gardener. Ba and Tom’s children, some of my few cousins, Jane and Paul, were older than me and I didn’t really know them. Dad’s family, though not dad, used words like Ghastly, Beastly and Quite, when agreeing with something. They used the third person impersonal singular, One, uncommon in daily English. There was afternoon tea and croquet. They were posh in my mind, but what does that matter? I loved the visits to Somerset and Devon in my childhood.
We would visit about twice a year, a slow pace of life. Ba and Tom moved to Millpools, also in Kingston St Mary, which had a stream flowing through the garden. Granny died in 1977, aged 80. The Times crossword, demolished in minutes, would be left to others. I didn’t get to say goodbye, because I didn’t go to the funeral. She was afraid of flying, because her brother had been shot down in World War I. Daughter Betty had moved to the US in the late 1940s, and Granny would visit her. She travelled to Southampton and boarded the transatlantic liner, then took a train across America until she finally reached 6412 Sonoma Mountain Road, located north of San Francisco. One time, she took the ship to California via the Panama Canal. She then did it all in reverse, and made the trip several times. Such was her love for her daughter.
Betty, a keen gardener, met Robert de Ropp when they were both working at Kew Gardens in West London. Robert had an exceptionally tough childhood and was a very intelligent man. By the time he met Betty, he had two children from his first marriage, Jim and Sue, both of whom would have a hugely positive effect on my life. When Jim visited in April this year, he reminded my dad of the fun and kindness shown to him and Sue, as children, including days at Studland beach near Swanage, Corfe Castle and the Blue Pool.
Robert moved to New York State in the late 1940s, where he worked in biochemistry, both as an academic and for a corporation. Betty and the children followed shortly afterwards. She and Robert had two children together, Jeff and Sally, two more of the very few cousins I have. Sally lives in a New York State care home with cerebral palsy and I have never met her. Jeff is a retired academic scientist living in Davis, California, and I have met him once.
In late October 1980, with me being 13, my dad drove the brown Pontiac rental car further and further along a windy, hilly road. He had not seen his sister for at least 30 years. The house number is 6412, but this does not mean that 6410 and 6414 are on either side of it. For all I know, the nearest house could be 6030, half a mile away. This didn’t help navigation, but eventually we made it. The house was a one level wooden construction, surrounded by brightly coloured flowers, vegetable beds, fruit trees and chickens. The air was warm. They owned land on the downslope of the road, which I would only see on my second and final visit eight years later. Robert had a big white beard and Betty was quiet. I am sure that she enjoyed seeing my dad, her sister in law and her nephew. Betty lived in Sonoma County for forty years. Robert had an ashram at the bottom of their land, he wrote extensively about the mind, and about the influence of drugs on the mind. He developed a loyal following, and people would stay at the ashram. Betty made a lovely lunch, which included pumpkin pie, an acquired taste, for dessert. When asked what he thought of it, my dad said that it wasn’t worth crossing the Atlantic for.
As I became a teenager, visits to Devon and Somerset became less. Tom, Eric and Miky died. Ba lived in a nursing home with dementia, and I wish I had visited her. So it was, that the next memorable family contact was in Sonoma County.
I spent the summer of 1988 living near Havelock, North Carolina, with Sue, Robert’s daughter from his first marriage, and her husband Gene, working on a construction site. They had a family holiday planned with their daughter, Glee, but being a stubborn teenager, she refused to go. Thus I spent two weeks in the fishing country of Colorado and horse trekking in a northern California wilderness area. The trip included a visit to see Betty and Robert. Since there was not enough room in the house to accommodate us, Gene pitched the tent inside the ashram at the bottom of the land. Conversation about vegetables, growing seasons, shelling peas and preparing a meal. We left early the next morning. Robert died in a canoeing accident in the Pacific Ocean, and I very much regret that I wasn’t old or mature enough to have a good conversation with him. His son Jim, now 76, is one of the most marvellous people I know, kind-hearted, smart, capable and hilarious. I drove from Havelock to Jim’s house in Knoxville, about six hours west, including the ascent of the Smokey Mountains. It was on this climb that my 1976 Plymouth Fury, purchased for $180, overheated. The tow truck guy gave me the choice of a costly repair or $50 to take it off my hands. So it was that I hitchhiked to Knoxville. While there, Jim got me involved in painting a barn, with most of the paint ending up on me. Hours in the hot tub, a good night out, a trip on the Tennessee River. Jim has been and is one of the key people to keep me and my family going during the illness. He and his fantastic wife, Diane, will be hosting Jane, Valentina and Sebastian in Knoxville this summer.
Ba passed away, Betty lived many years alone at Sonoma Mountain Road, before leukaemia came. I got back in touch with my cousin Jane, shortly after the onset of MND and we have had some good times.
Had Betty not worked at Kew Gardens, then our family would not have the American connection, which I value so much. I feel proud to be part of the Knowlman family. This has been a huge effort to put together, but I want future generations to know about the past.