By Lena Smith
It is almost here, Christmas Day! Just one more sleep.
Today, I’m reflecting on an especially important day for my family and, how events of 100 years ago, seem to resonate with what has been happening in 2020.
Christmas Eve has always been a poignant time of the year for my family, as it was my Grandad’s birthday. After being attacked by her stepdaughters, my great grandmother, Eleanor, had run away from her home in Charlton. Heavily pregnant, she made her way with my great uncle Len, who was only a toddler, through Greenwich; walking under the Thames via the foot tunnel, to eventually find herself in Poplar.
There, a Chinese family took pity on the bedraggled pair and gave them shelter. Shortly afterwards, my great grandmother went into labour. To help distract from her painful efforts, the Chinese family summoned the ‘Hurdy Gurdy Man’ to play music to her from outside the house. So, that is how, on Christmas Eve 1920, to the sound of Bow bells ringing in the distance and I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles playing in the street, Harold Richard Charles Smith entered the world; a true Cockney.
The story goes on to end happily. My great grandfather came home and discovered what had happened. He banished his older daughters to live with relatives in Suffolk, and went on to bring his wife and two little boys home safe and sound.
It’s 100 years ago, to the day, since those events took place; a very significant anniversary for our family!
Grandad was such an important role model for me and he went on to live a most adventurous life; most definitely a book in the making. And, yes one day I will write it. Growing up, we had so many happy memories of time spent with him and Nan. Our Christmas childhood memories always start with Fish ‘n’ Chips ’round me Nan and Grandad’s’ on Christmas Eve, to celebrate his birthday! It’s something we all took for granted. You never appreciate how special something like that is, until it is gone.
Grandad lived an 73 amazing years on this Earth and I still miss him every day. Since we lost him, Christmas has never been quite the same. For me therefore, it’s a bitter-sweet time of year, made even more poignant as my Nan also died around Christmas (22 December), a few years ago. With so many people lost to COVID and, regrettably, likely more to come, it is, sadly, a feeling many more people will be experiencing this year
As I look back at a 2020, I see a year filled with so much fear and sorrow. However, it’s also a year that has demonstrated kindness and compassion. 100 years ago a Chinese family took pity on my great grandmother, taking her in and caring for her in her time of need. I am forever grateful for this act of compassion and don’t know what would have happened if they hadn’t been so kind. It’s also worth bearing in mind that in the 1920’s, Poplar was an extremely poor district so, it’s likely they had nothing to offer her and her little boys – other than shelter. This makes this kindness, shown to a stranger, even more generous.
There have been echoes of this in 2020, with many people taking the time to be better neighbours and to be compassionate and caring for others. NHS and Key workers have risked their lives to keep us going and, others have volunteered to help when they could have, just as easily, hunkered down at home. All this, to a backdrop of uncertainty, job losses and fear around security for the future as a whole. It is also worth remembering the magnificent, charitable fundraising efforts seen this year: demonstrating that even in these difficult times, people are still generous with their time and money. This is particularly relevant this Christmas. Christmas 2020 sees us facing the difficult choice of spending this special time with relatives or sacrificing it, so as to be more hopeful of being able to spend next year and many years to come with them. Alas, though, for some of us this choice has been taken away, with Christmas, indeed, being cancelled!
Time is finite. You will miss these simple moments when family members are no longer here. Cherish your time with them, they are your greatest possession, but protect them as best you can. Yes, it is possible to endure a Zoom get-together for just one Christmas. And, if you are lucky enough to be able to spend this time together safely, relish it!
My hopes for 2021 are most definitely for a better, albeit much-changed, future. On a personal level, I’m looking forward to one very big change – we’re awaiting the arrival of the next generation of the Smith clan. Yes, I am going to be ‘Granny Smith’ in June!
So, perhaps next year I will start a new tradition of Fish ‘n’ Chips at Granny’s on Christmas Eve, and create more special memories, who knows?
On behalf of myself, Lisa and Mohammed, our grateful thanks to the many people and partner organisations who have made Pen to Print and Write On! possible in 2020. You are far too many to mention individually (and I have got to watch my word count!), but you all know who you are.
Special, thanks to our participants, audiences and readers. You are the reason we exist and we are always humbled by the contributions, large and small, you make to our growing community of writers. After this year’s events, you feel even more like family!
We are also very grateful to Barking & Dagenham and the Arts Council, England for supporting Pen to Print. Thank you for believing in us and our work.
We wish you all a very merry and safe Christmas and all the best for a happy COVID-free New Year!
Here is the Write On! & Pen to Print Team’s special Christmas gift to you all!
Merry Christmas to all!