Dear Auntie Norah
You taught me Scrabble. You took me and my brother to Kimmeridge to look for fossils. You sent me numerous lighthearted and witty letters when I was at boarding school. I was a child and you were my auntie’s sister-in-law. I am grown up now, playing Scrabble and looking for fossils with my own children.
You called me a few years ago to tell me you had published a book called “Dear Mr Bigelow”. I immediately Googled both you and the book. You were omnipresent: in your mid-nineties, you were on YouTube with around 1200 hits; your book had been ‘Book of the Week’ on BBC’s Woman’s Hour and you were (not so) quietly hoping the BBC might make a TV series. Naturally, I ordered the hardback from Amazon and discovered that your fondness for prolific letter-writing pre-dated my boarding school days.
In January 1949 you started writing a series of letters to a gentleman by the name of Mr Bigelow, a wealthy American widower, who lived in Bellport, New York. You wrote over 700 ‘Saturday specials’ from your address in Bournemouth, until he died in 1961. After his death, you asked for the letters to be returned but you were told they had been mislaid when his home had been cleared. In the light of this information, you disposed of his letters to you – a clearout I know you regretted. Forty years later, through an extraordinary set of circumstances, your full set of letters came to light.
As you might imagine, I gobbled up your book. My Auntie Audrey and Uncle Frank (your brother, “Mac”) feature heavily, and even my mum, Wendy – “Audrey’s kid sister” – take their places in the scenes described through your letters. The people, the settings and the Bournemouth locations were all very familiar; I was given an insight and an account of all your daily lives from a couple of decades before I was born. Priceless.
When I finished the book, I visited you in Bournemouth and took you out to lunch. You were still living in the same modest, immaculate, upstairs flat where I had learned to play Scrabble as a child. The “front” door was to the right of the building and, immediately inside, there was what I always considered to be a very steep staircase.
You wore a striking red hat set at a jaunty angle, donned a very fetching coat and negotiated your way down the stairs with what has to have been 70 years’ worth of practice under your belt. The Bournemouth one-way system has changed a bit since you used to drive me around as a child, but you had the “inside track” on which lanes to use, where to go and even where to park. We had a wonderful lunch, talking about family, your health, Mr Bigelow, your hopes that the book might be serialised – and who might get to play your part. Julie Walters? What a glorious thought!
You gave me a few original letters to Mr Bigelow which were not featured in the book. One of them is dated June 17th, 1952. It opens with “Did you ever read that rather charming, naive little book, “Daddy Long-Legs”?” The letter goes on to regale stories of what had happened to you that week. It was written in your familiar, inimitable style and with the usual charm.
It strikes me, Auntie Norah, aka Frances Norah Woodsford, that you were ahead of your time. As well as Mr Bigelow, you corresponded with over eighty people, using enticing and rich opening lines to reel the reader in. Once on the hook, you took them with you on a journey to a destination of your choice, enriching their leisure time with your weekly anecdotes and amusing – and sometimes mischievous – views on life. These are the qualities of a very skilful and entertaining blogger; I can only hope that, with your recent passing at the very respectable age of 99, this blog post does you justice.
Thank you for teaching me about Scrabble “triple word scores”and for showing me how to “balance my rack”; thanks for all those letters to an eleven-year old girl in boarding school; thanks, also, for sharing your letters to Mr Bigelow with the world-at-large (and me!) through your delightful book.
Goodbye. Sweet dreams. If Julie Walters plays your part, I will let you know…
Latest posts by Lindsay McLoughlin (see all)
- Writer meets… Performance Coach - Thursday 14 May 2015
- Writer meets… Positive Psychologist - Thursday 18 December 2014
- Which social media platform is best for your business? - Wednesday 17 September 2014
- Radio marketing: advanced marketing strategy - Saturday 30 August 2014