Marriage Break-up

The week after the Royal Wedding, changes began in the Ewing family, changes that had been years in the making but which moved swiftly in the months that followed. The marriage between Cynthia’s parents, Carol and Gordon Ewing, was not a happy one.  I have said before that I suspect my grandfather Gordon suffered from depression, or bi-polar disorder, and in his sixties things seemed to get worse. His wife was the one who bore the brunt of his behaviour.  At the end of 1947, their troubles came to a head, and Carol decided to leave him, coming to live with Cynthia in Cambridge.

Eventually Gordon was diagnosed with hardening of the arteries of the brain. I don’t know whether he had vascular dementia or had had strokes, but within two years of his wife leaving him he had been institutionalized. 

In Cynthia’s late seventies, she wrote a short story “The Straw That Broke” that fictionalized the break-up, giving a good picture of the sort of life Carol and Gordon led and what their daughter thought of it.  Then there is a letter from Carol to Gordon- probably not sent to or read by him- that shows clearly the psychological abuse she endured and the toll it was taking.  Cyn’s letters to her mother that follow are supportive – and worried!- as Carol goes through the process of splitting up the home and moving.  But by April 1948, Cyn and Carol were happily sharing a flat in Cambridge and enjoying it- and there was no need for letters between them!  

Luckily by then Cyn had met Cec Costain, her future husband, so that 1948 is illuminated by a few of his letters to his mother, and holiday postcards to Cyn, as well as photographs from a happy Cambridge courtship.  In the summer of 1949, they began a much happier marriage than Carol and Gordon’s, honeymoon letters were sent to Carol, and then they all left Cambridge, scattered, and- 

          the letters continued.  

A short story by Cynthia Costain.

THE STRAW THAT BROKE

“Are you coming swimming Katie?” asked my College roommate.

I hesitated.

“No- you go ahead. I just got a letter from my Mother. She’s leaving my Father.”

“Oh. I’m sorry,” as she quickly grabbed a rolled up towel and ran out the door. Parents separating was not an everyday thing in the 1930s and she was glad to leave.

I looked at the letter again. I wasn’t surprised in some ways- I’d been glad enough to leave home and my Father’s dictatorial ways myself, but after 20 years of seeing my mother trying to please, pacify and on very rare occasions, rebel, I had got used to the status quo. I must write I thought. But no, she says that she is going to her cousin Dorothy in London – I’ll phone Dorothy tomorrow. I looked at the familiar writing. A letter every week at boarding school – a letter every week since I came to University. What did I really know of my Mother as a person? A loving Mother, a devoted member of a close family and a much younger wife of a stern husband.

When I was a child one of my favourite ways to spend a dull winter afternoon was to persuade my Mother to open the big cabin trunk which stood on the upstairs landing. It was cold but the excitement of seeing the fascinating contents made me forget the unwarmed landing. In the trunk was the satin wedding dress, mellowed to a deep ivory colour; evening dresses with demure necklines and elbow length sleeves made of silk embroidered with glittering beads, or pastel coloured georgette trimmed with ruffles. There were evening shoes to match with Louis heels and long pointed toes, beaded evening bags and delicate fans decorated with sequins. For me it was just a glorious afternoon of dressing up. I wonder what my Mother felt as she saw the lovely things never worn in England, remembered back to the time the trunk was first packed.

As the daughter of the British Resident in a corner of the Empire, just returned from Finishing school in Europe life must have seemed like a big exciting parcel filled with thrilling little packages in bright paper and silk ribbons, all waiting to be opened. Into the storybook setting of tropical sunshine and waving palm trees swept the handsome prince. The newly arrived Cultural Attaché was charming, good looking, travelled and was single!

“What happened next?” I would ask when I was told this story.

“Well” my Mother would say “My Mother thought he was too old for me, and Dad wondered why a young man had been moved so often but I wanted to get married – it was SO romantic.” and she would laugh at her 19-year-old self. “We got engaged and then we got married and not very long afterwards we came to England.”

How could my mother know that the charm could be turned on at will; that the friendliness could change to cold dislike if his opinions were challenged; or that irritability could become rage?

On returning to England my Father left the Foreign Service and joined a business firm. In the provincial city where we lived my parents at first knew no one. My Father’s work bored him and he had no hobbies. How quickly my Mother’s dreams must have dissolved, living in a small house in a suburb of identical houses, with one young untrained maid coming daily to clean. The shopping for someone who had never bought a loaf of bread; the cooking of three meals a day for someone who had only been taught to bake a cake for tea; the whole bewildering process of running a house with a husband and eventually a child. I remember in my teens realizing that no one had ever given my Mother a Cookbook.

“But what did you do Mum?”

“I just tried and tried again- not always very successfully. I had a nice neighbour, Mrs. Halliday- do you remember her? She helped me a lot, but I still made lots of mistakes.”

“I remember one mistake that I liked. The steamed puddings that sank in the middle and that was the part I liked! I was sorry when you learn to make them properly!”

With my Father’s boredom came depression and through my childhood the periods when he sat in his armchair staring at the fire for days on end while my mother tried to get him to eat or persuaded him to look at a paper or go for a walk. I would return from school, creeping into the house praying that he would be “happy” again.

As the years went by I escaped to boarding school and we moved to a new house. In that move the cabin trunk and its contents disappeared. My father was no sentimentalist. I began to want my independence and holiday times at home became more difficult as I rebelled at the strict rules. However, once I was away from home I was free.

Through the years my mother had found a few good women friends, but visits from her family were frowned upon and contact with his family was minimal. I realize that she had developed a “peace at any price” attitude; they went where he wanted for their rare holidays; they entertained as little as possible; outings to theatre and concerts dwindled. I got used to it but did my mother?

When I went to London to see her that weekend she told me that she had decided to go and live with her unmarried sister in Mexico.  It seemed like a very long way away. 

“Mum” I said “What finally made you leave?” 

“He called me a parasite.” she said.

The beginning of the critique from her writing class. Spot on!

Cynthia fictionalized the minutia of dates, jobs, and places in telling the story but the details of the relationship were completely true. I remember Cyn telling me about my grandmother’s ending the marriage.  The final question was the same- “What finally made you leave?” The answer even simpler. 

“He told me I was useless,” she said.  

When Cyn next saw her father, as she was collecting the packed boxes from the house during her holiday, she found him baffled.  After all, he had called her things like that for years…

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