The Autobiography of Veronica Wright

As I did not know my Grandparents, I hope you will allow me some indulgence when I instead, tell the tragic story of my husband's Grandparents. When I first heard of their life together I was profoundly moved. I researched their background and very quickly became immersed in their diversity and unlikely union and too I guess, their forbidden, love.

To carry this tale quickly forward, a brief introduction may be helpful.

Grandmother - Nellie Curtis

Grandmother - Nellie Curtis born 1882 in the working class suburb of Moss Side, Manchester.

Nellie married when she was nineteen and subsequently had a daughter. Her husband abandoned her and at the time of this story she lived in Manchester with her parents and eight siblings. She was a popular, outgoing girl, blessed with a happy nature and a remarkable singing voice. She earned her living performing in Music Halls.

Grandfather - Clarence Wiener born in 1878 in Philadelphia USA He was born into a wealthy family and inherited an immense fortune after the death of his father when he was only sixteen. His only sister, to whom he was close, also died. Clarence spent several years in the army and earned medals for gallantry. After which he worked as a journalist travelling the world. Clarence was perceived as a troubled man never really finding what he appeared to be searching for. He had a reputation for being a libertine and not settling down with any of the numerous women with whom he associated. It has to be said, he lived a somewhat reckless life in lavish luxury.

For reasons unclear, Clarence decided he wanted to live in England and subsequently bought a castle in Ewell Kent, England.

Thus, the stage was now set for Clarence and Nellie to meet! It is not clear as to the reason he was actually in Manchester but what is clear, is that he was in the audience when Nellie, who was then twenty one, was singing in the local music hall. Did I mention she was rather beautiful ?

Well, not being hindered by shyness, Clarence made a swift appearance at the stage door and met the girl who was to become his only love. They eventually lived in his castle in Ewall with Nellie's two year old daughter. From various sources these were very happy times. The castle stood in several acres of land with a small island and woodland. Nellie and Clarence were delighted when they had an addition to their family.(my husband's mother). They gave lavish dinner parties and the two little girls used to sit at the top of winding stairs and watch the guests arrive.

Clarence wanted to marry Nellie, but if you remember, she had previously, married a man who had a banded her, and had literally disappeared. In spite of this, they lived in harmony travelling abroad .He took Nellie to Philadelphia to meet his family and put her name on the patent, for something he had invented. Life was good even idilic.

Have you got the picture ?

In 1908 Clarence and Nellie traveled to Austria (they had left the children in the care of their Grandmother, in Manchester) It was whilst they were travelling by car, on a mountain road to Germany, that a car collided with them. It was reported, that this car car was travelling too fast. It caused a devastating and fatal accident. Nellie was killed instantly, as was the hired driver. Clarence survived but had severe injuries.

I said this was a tragic story - the worst is yet to come !

As you can imagine Clarence was beside himself with grief and was never to recover. He convalesced for several months in Austria and eventually returned to England where he planned to take up guardianship of his daughter and return with her to Philadelphia. However, Nellie's Mother, refused to allow him access! Clarence took the matter to Court but lost the case and his daughter was permanently placed in the care of her English Grandmother!

Clarence sold the castle and returned to Philadelphia. He had lost both Nellie and his only child. He lived a life of sorts but he plummeted into deep despair. He wrote continuously to his daughter over the years and sent her several heirlooms belonging to his father but was never saw his daughter again.

Clarence squandered all his money, spending unwisely and eventually became literally homeless. He borrowed money from his rich uncle but eventually the Uncle refused to pay his endless bills. Clarence was at this point living in a hotel in New York.

Finally he fell into deep depression and unable to cope any longer, he hung himself in his hotel room.

Clarence was interred in the Wiener family vault in Lavender Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia.

Nellie's remains are somewhere in Germany. I have searched endlessly but am unable to find her death certificate or the official papers relating the accident. I know they are in existence there but I can't find them.

I wasn't exaggerating was I? It really was sad!

Irene - My First Friend

I had not been attending school for very long - a few weeks at  the most. I can place myself sitting on a small chair  amongst the other children. I can easily pick up the smell of the classroom. The small bottle of milk in front of me was warm and had a horrible taste as did did the  olive oil  and the thick stuff  on a spoon which was pushed into my mouth.   I didn't much like this  strange environment, though to be fair the drink of orange juice in the afternoon was almost ok! I felt very lonely on that chair!

I began to properly take in my surroundings and I noticed a little girl sitting apart. She seemed to have some kind of iron contraption on her leg and crutches were propped against her chair. No one spoke to her and when she got up she walked differently to everyone else.   The children for some reason didn't like her and she was never included in class activities. She was known as the cripple girl.

Now, I don't know how it came about but I became friends with her (Irene was her name) and the other children really couldn't understand this and kept telling me not to play with ‘the cripple'   But Wow, I had found the most amazing friend in this little girl. We took on the world together ! She was the sweetest most lovely girl and when I look back, I recognise  that she had such extraordinary insight  for such a young child.  When she was called a cripple she used to say ‘It's ok - they just don't understand !'

We giggled most of the time and indulged in wonderful imaginary games. Irene let me use her crutches and I remember how we both laughed when I fell over. ‘Not like that!' She would shout at my clumsiness and  then seriously  explain exactly how to stay upright.

From the moment Irene and I became friends I changed my view about school.  I loved it, wouldn't stay at home, even if I could. The dreaded cod liver oil and warm milk was ok too!  in fact it became fun. We used to practice our most horrified expression after swallowing it.     Every morning I would run into the playground and there Irene would be, waiting, leaning on the wall, her white crutches on the ground. When she saw me arrive she would wave frantically and hold her arms for  a hug. Eventually the teacher allowed Irene to leave her seat in the corner and join me at my table. Although the other children still called out  horrible names occasionally, we were both completely oblivious to this. Together, we would contentedly chat away together - totally happy. Irene was the best friend in the  whole world. Life for a four year old just couldn't be better but instead, I hate to say, it became a whole heap worse !

One summers morning I ran into the play ground expecting to see my friend  leaning against the wall  and her  white crutches by her side but she was not there -  I was bewildered, I kept running around the various entries to the playground. Irene was nowhere to be found. The bell rang and we entered the class room.  I ran to the teacher and breathlessly asked where Irene was?  She sternly looked down and said Irene  is not coming today and promptly placed  her little chair back in the corner of the room.  

I badly wanted to cry. I missed her so much.   At the end of the school day I told my Mother about Irene and she said maybe she will be back tomorrow.' ‘Yes of course that's right, she will be back tomorrow.‘  I felt consoled.

I ran to school the following morning... she wasnt anywhere to be seen.  I asked the teacher again when would  she come back and could I put her chair back so she wouldnt have to stand. I was told to leave the chair where it was and Irene wasn't well.   ‘Yes but when is she coming back?' I asked tears falling down my cheeks.  I remember ignoring  ‘the not well ‘ bit as it normally a long name Which I couldn't understand.  The teacher avoided my question and told me to sit down.   When I went home that day I was distraught. My mother couldn't console me and said she may have an illness that kept her in bed for a while.

The following morning and many more mornings Irene remained abscent. Every day I asked the teacher the same question and got the same reply. I even approached the head mistress when she appeared in the playground - but she said the same thing ‘ Irene isn't well ‘ and I replied  again ‘ but when is she coming back?'

Many days later everything changed.

I sat in class feeling very miserable indeed. I looked out of the window and to my surprise I saw Irene's mother in the playground. She stood with Irene's Daddy and the Headmistress. But they were all wearing black which I thought was a strange colour for them all to wear at the same time. Then I noticed that Irene's mother was carrying her crutch. ‘ Oh Joy Irene must be here  today, maybe in the toilet.'  

Without asking permission I ran out of the class and straight up to Irene's mother.

‘Where is Irene I asked?' To my surprise Irene's mother bent down and kissed my cheek.' Where is she?' I whispered?' She then started to cry, silently at first, then loudly.

I stood looking at her and wondered if she had a tummy ache, like I had sometimes.

The headmistress came rushing over and pushed me away. ‘Sit over there - you shouldn't be out here. I sat on a step  - if only they would tell me when she is coming back.  Irene's mother wiped her tears and came and sat next to me on the step. Putting her arm around me she said softly. ‘Irene has been very ill and Jesus has taken her to heaven to live with him. ‘. Can I go too I asked forlornly?'  ‘No darling' she smiled through her tears and looked up at the sky. ‘Heaven is up there. Irene is probably looking at us both right now.'  I asked one final time ‘ She ‘s not coming back then, not  ever?'

‘No darling not ever'