My grandparents’ secret courtship
MY mother was a good storyteller and when I was about five she began one of the best stories of my childhood. It was about a pretty Cuban girl and a handsome Englishman falling in love secretly, and to me it sounded like a fairy story.
But it was all true. It was the love affair between her parents, who finally lived happily ever after – to our great relief, of course, because at five you need to know that everything turns out well in the end.
But, as I found out many years later, the real story was far more interesting and if my grandmother’s last wishes had been heeded, all trace of it would have been destroyed after her death.
When I was 10, my brother and I spent holidays with my grandparents, as our parents lived in Africa. To keep us entertained – it was a big treat for me – out came the family photograph albums full of pictures of our grandmother’s youth in Havana and our grandfather’s time out west in Colorado.
Many nights I lay on the floor at their feet staring at this world gone by – Margarita and her endless siblings (she was the eldest of nine), military parades (as a young man my grandfather, Charles, was in the American army), gold prospectors standing on piles of stones in the desert and page after page of their own family life in England with their five children, one of whom was my mother, also Margarita.
Some evenings there was something extra: my grandmother’scolourful postcard collection, which was kept in two large thick leather albums. These contained some 600 postcards, all from the belle époque period of 1900-1906 sent to her by her family and friends. Each page contained six exquisite postcards, and hours went by as I turned them over and lost myself in the early 20th century. They were a glorious mixture of enchanting women, babies and wispy ladies, angels, skaters and skiers, violets and other flowers, German soldiers with plumed helmets, bears drinking champagne, elegant horsemen, tennis players, stars of the French stage and many others.
These postcards came back to me in the most random manner when I was an adult, to reveal the story behind Margarita and Charles.
When I was 12, my grandmother died, leaving instructions that all her letters and diaries should be destroyed. I think it was an agreement with Charles as none of his letters or diaries survived after his death some five years later. I can only imagine that they didn’t want younger generations to read their intimate correspondence.
Sometimes the younger generation don’t listen, as I found out 20 years later when staying at the family home in the 1970s.
One evening I noticed a low door in the wall of the room I was sleeping in. It had been a laundry and sewing room and wasn’t used any more. I opened the door and stared into a cubbyhole. It was pitch black and I couldn’t stand up. Feeling around I found it was full of long-forgotten junk, battered suitcases, a couple of paintings no one wanted, old lampshades, photo frames, bits and pieces and the two albums covered in dust after 20 years.
I carried them out carefully to show my aunt, who gave them to me. She explained that when her mother died, the children followed her wishes but they couldn’t bear to destroy the albums as well, so they were hidden from view in the cubbyhole and forgotten about.
The albums represented the extraordinary story of my grandparents’ early years and their secret love affair.
To understand the significance of the postcards, it is necessary to know a little more of my grandmother’s childhood and family background.
She was the eldest and favourite of the nine children of Manuel Johnson, who owned the Drogueria Johnson, one of the biggest pharmaceutical businesses in Cuba. To keep himself abreast of medical advances, he spent six months of every year in Europe. When Margarita was eight, he decided to educate his children in Europe – interestingly, this included the two girls.
Margarita, her brothers Manuel and Alberto (aged six and four) sailed with him to England and boarded at a school in Sussex. In due course, they were followed by four siblings. From here, her subsequent education took in France and Germany.
By 1900, Margarita’s family were well scattered. The family, though apart, were very close and because there were no phones, their main means of communication was by postcard. At the time there was a passion for postcards in the US and Europe, and thousands were sent every day. Margarita also loved them and constantly sent cards to her friends and family, receiving immediate replies, for the German post was delivered three times a day. At the time the law forbade writing messages on the address side. F, many of Margarita’s cards have tiny writing in every possible space surrounding the picture. Colourful cards arrived every day from correspondents in Cuba, Germany, England and Paris, and Margarita kept them all.
In the spring of 1900, Margarita, 20, fiercely intelligent, with a ready smile and well travelled, returned from Cuba via New York on a voyage that would change her life.
On board ship she met and fell in love with a fellow passenger: Charles Lumb, a dashing young man fresh from America’s gold fields. They lived worlds apart but on that week-long voyage fell hopelessly in love.
At the end of the voyage the cruel reality was that they were separated by an ocean. So they began a courtship exchanging letters and postcards. It was these postcards that emerged from that stuffy room into my hands, two decades after Margarita’s death.
However, there is an extra layer to the story that they do not tell, namely that they had not allowed for the wrath of her father.
Manuel had big ideas for his children and these did not include his daughter falling in love with a poor (as he saw it) Anglo-American who was not a Catholic. He also hated Americans (who had invaded his country). His plan for her was an arranged marriage to some rich, grand, Catholic Cuban. He challenged his daughter, but she refused to give up her man.
But from now on, Charles’s cards and letters failed to arrive and all communication ceased. Margarita was heartbroken, believing he had forsaken her. Now the story becomes extraordinary because fate intervened.
Three years later, in July 1903, Margarita was still in Berlin, when one day, wandering down Unter den Linden, she went into a shop to buy postcards. As she browsed, someone tapped her on the shoulder. She swivelled round and came face to face with Charles, who was in Berlin on business.
Initially they glowered at each other, Margarita believing that she had been spurned while Charles blamed her for ending the relationship. However, all was soon explained when, through her brothers, she discovered what had happened to Charles’s letters and postcards. They suspected their father had a hand in it, and when challenged about the missing correspondence, he confessed that while Margarita was in Havana on one of her visits home, he noticed in the post some familiar handwriting. He opened a letter and saw to his horror that the couple were continuing their relationship. So he intercepted and burned all mail after that.
Now the love affair blossomed once more but this time they were careful to keep it a secret. This was difficult as by now her father was dividing his time between Paris and Berlin. Fortunately, her brothers ensured that all Charles’s cards and letters escaped Manuel’s attention.
In December 1906, after three years of secrecy, Margarita and Charles eloped to London and were married at St George’s Church in Hanover Square with only a hotel receptionist and Margarita’s brother Alberto as their witnesses.
All hell was let loose when Manuel heard. He cut his daughter out of his will and told her she would never again be welcome at his home in Havana and that he would never set foot at any home of theirs – he never wavered.
My mother always said how hurt Margarita was, though time softened the blow. Fortunately, her mother was a gentle soul and visited regularly, as did her sister and brothers who did all they could to help. Charles and Margarita finally came to live in London in 1909, all the family joining them over the years in the summer to avoid the Cuban heat. Manuel never came.
Margarita and Charles remained happily married and had five children. Margarita’s six brothers all became scientists, some of them joining the family business. Her brother, Theodoro, eventually took over the Drogueria Johnson from his father. In 1960, he received a surprise visit at 3am from the revolutionary leader Che Guevara who announced the removal of the business from the family’s control and its nationalisation. That year many family members left Cuba, never to return.
The family business may be gone, but the postcards remain: 600 of them, reminders of a spellbinding love story between a pretty Cuban girl and a handsome Englishman. -Guardian.com