Not long before my father died in 1995, he asked me to contact his cousin, Joyce, and share with her my research into our family history, at least that part pertaining to my father’s mother. Joyce was most curious but did not have the means or skills to research her own family history for herself. We exchanged numerous mails and I traced her family back to the 1700s in Birmingham. Given the tools and databases available today, I could have taken her lines back much further.
It was later that I finally got around to visiting Joyce. She lived with her husband, Gordon, in Leamington, just south of Birmingham and Coventry.
Joyce was very much part of my father’s extended family and she spent a lot of her youth in Harpley, my father’s home village in West Norfolk. She seemed rather shocked by some of the illegitimate relationships that I had uncovered within by grandmother’s family, relationships that were never spoken of, that were ‘brushed under the carpet’, in typical Victorian fashion. She found it hard to accept my findings, until I showed her the proofs.
In her turn, Joyce shocked me with facts about a relationship involving my grandfather, a relationship about which she was certain my father was never aware. She was told about it by her own mother, shortly before she died, and Joyce saw the evidence for herself.
In that era, I travelled a lot, both within the UK and internationally. When I had an early start, usually around 05:00, I went to bed early and slept in our spare room. When on my own, I always left the curtains partly open. I almost always woke up with the early morning light. I rarely ever needed an alarm.
Not long after I had visited Joyce, I was disturbed in my sleep. I felt a hand stroking my head. I thought that I was dreaming. But the feeling persisted, and when I opened my eyes, in the half-light I saw an old woman bending over me.
She was dressed in black, and her hair was long and looked rather greasy. There was nothing threatening about her. On the contrary, she was touching me lovingly, as if I was a child.
I tried to speak, but no words came. I was mute. I tried to reach out, but I could not move my arm. It felt paralyzed. She must have sensed my increasing agitation, for she seemed to panic, and before I could do anything further, she disappeared out the window, like a scene being reduced to the size of a pin hole.
I did not get back to sleep that night. I remember having an intense feeling of euphoria, a realization that communication with those who have become before me, might just be possible.
That night, even though I did not have to get up early the next morning, I slept in the same room. I tried to recreate the conditions of the previous night. I willed the old woman to come back to me. I wanted to know who she was, but to no avail. There was no repeat visit. In the years since, she has never re-appeared.
Of course, it may have been just a dream, stimulated by my recent conversations with Joyce, coupled with a fertile imagination. But I am not so sure.
One day I may know more.
Although we corresponded from time to time, I only ever met Joyce in person that one time. Shortly after, I changed employment and was based in Switzerland, and later, in Paris.
Joyce died in 2005, followed by her husband in 2006.
She may be gone, but she is not forgotten.