Treasured Photographs Give Way to Grief

It’s been a long wait.

My namesake Aunt Alys died in London in August of 2008. It’s taken a decade to receive the promised copies of her photographs, reminders of her enchanted youth.

As years go, 2008 was one of my worst. My younger sister fell early that year and broke her hip, further complicated by her MS. She was in rehab for a month. My mother also had a series of falls in what was the beginning of her decline. She died that year three days after Christmas. My father-in-law died of a heart attack that June and my mother-in-law passed later the same month.

The following months were a blur dealing with attorneys (solicitors) from two countries, sorting through possessions, attending funerals, and tending to a multitude of tasks, while continuing to raise my boys. It was hard.

My aunt’s executor delayed her London funeral for a month so that I could settle my boys in school before flying to England.  I looked through her albums while in London, but on the day of her funeral, her solicitor took me aside and said I would have to wait before claiming them. Things got messy from there.

Though my aunt left us a generous financial legacy, it was the photos I craved. Initially they said “it takes time”. Later they said that her friend and executor would copy the photos to CDs. I left voice mail messages, sent unanswered emails, and appealed to their sense of decency. Her friend and the beneficiary of part of her estate stopped returning my emails. Periodically, I conducted internet searches to see if her name surfaced. If you Google “Alys Milner” it turns up searches for me or my aunt.

Alys Milner (later Lancaster) posing in a Windsor Wooley bathing costume

Alys Milner (later Lancaster) posing in a Windsor Woolly bathing costume

Through a search I learned that her friend donated her albums to the Victoria and Albert Museum. I contacted the museum by email, waited weeks for a reply, and was finally contacted with apologies and assured that the photo albums were in their care.

Aunt Alys’ photos were not on display, but instead stored in the museum’s archives. I can’t imagine she would have wanted this, but her friend seemed to think it was more important to store them in a museum than to send them to her niece.

I asked the museum’s archive department if they would send me copies, but they said they were not available in digital form. I was welcome to come to the museum and make my own copies, no easy task when you live across the pond.

Last month, eleven years after my initial request, I received a letter from her solicitor asking me to confirm my address. A CD with a few copies of her photos and scrapbooks would soon be on their way.

Aunt Alys didn’t have children, and she didn’t think anyone would want her photos. I assured her that we would treasure all of them and she verbally agreed nearly twenty years before her death.

At long last, the CD’s arrived. It’s been a thrill seeing her photos once again but how I wish she were here to fill-in the details of her interesting life.

Newspaper clippings from her scrapbook.

Sharing these photos evokes a mixture of nostalgia and loss. Aunt Alys married in 1937 and two years later, England was at war with Germany. My aunt took part in the war effort, bringing clothing to bombing victims after the air raids, while my father served as a translator in India. 

My delight at finally receiving copies of these photos, gave way to an unexpected sorrow. Grief travels its own path. For now I’ll just let it be.

 

65 thoughts on “Treasured Photographs Give Way to Grief

  1. What an amazing story, Alys. And how lovely to finally have copies of the photos and the scrapbooks. “Wonders will never cease” comes to mind. Your dear aunt made it safely to you, in the end. I am sure she is smiling her lovely smile somewhere over this 11 year journey.

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  2. Wow, those photos are amazing! Was your Aunt a model after winning a beauty contest? And she lived in Blackpool then. And that must mean you have kept your maiden name. Hope you don’t mind my curiosity, but I find this fascinating!

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    • Cathy, that is one of many questions I don’t have the answer to. She was a model (or in the day, mannequin) and she ended up representing the Windsor Woollies bathing suits, but I don’t know the order of things. From the pics, it looks like it spanned ten years. She did say that when she married her husband said she should “give the whole thing up” and she was quite hurt. But I think they had a good life together until his passing. To offset her sadness, she started going by Alyson instead of Alys, and started taking world cruises. She traveled into her eighties.

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  3. Anyone would think she was my Aunt, the way I’ve been poring over those photos. The ‘Leader of the Windsor Water Woollies’ Mannequins was, in contemporary British tabloid parlance, ‘a real stunna! ‘ My favourite photo is of her sitting on the bridge wearing that beautiful trouser suit (or was it an all-in-one?).
    I’m so happy for you that you are in now in possession of these gorgeous photos and slice of family history but sorry they brought some grief with them. I don’t know what sparked those feelings with you but I find looking at photos of my family and friends a mixed pleasure these days – there is something unbearably poignant about them which I can’t really put into words. When I’m on my shopping trips for antiques and vintage items I get upset when I see old photographs – whole lives consigned to a dark and dusty corner.
    Still, at least you have your longed for photos now and they are well deserved considering the hoops you had to jump through to get them.
    Thank you for entertaining me immensely while I had my morning cuppa x

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    • Your comments lifted my spirits and made me smile. Thank you. I’m pleased to know that you’ve also enjoyed her remarkable photos. I too love that shot and wonder if it is one piece or two. It looks like one, but I don’t recall if that was the style of the day. She certainly had fun, and got to wear some amazing fashion of the day. I marvel, too, at her confidence wearing a bathing suit with such ease. It’s something I’ve avoided my whole life, feeling either too thin, too pale, too fleshy and now simply too old.

      Thank you, too, for sharing your own sense of poignancy when viewing family pics. I’ve often wondered about past generations who never even saw a camera, let alone what we have today. Even thirty years ago I remember carefully planning my film purchase and subsequent photo-taking on holiday. Now we snap photos with abandon, for good or not. It fascinates me.

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  4. Good heavens Alys what a saga you have been through with your dear aunt Alys. You have often mentioned her in passing, but not this prolonged act of cruelty. Having these amazing photos to pore over will reawaken many memories and especially those of 2008 – what a hard year that was for all your family! Thank you for sharing this with us, for letting us know it hurts. It must do of course, it will ease too, as you know. Then I hope you will be able to take some joy in these photos of your beautiful aunt and her unusual life. What an amazing woman she must have been!

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    • You always know just the right thing to say, Pauline. Thank you. I’ve already found myself thinking of these photos when I’m away from them, committed them to memory I suppose and wondering what each one meant to her. She was careful to label them in her scrapbook, but I don’t have the back story. Perhaps it will remain mine to imagine. I think what I really longed for was a connection to my father. I felt certain that one of them would have younger pics, but perhaps not. I have several albums from my father’s time in India and I’ll treasure them always. Love you. xo

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  5. I want to say that “all’s well that ends well” but, jeez, you shouldn’t have had to go through all this for a happy outcome! I am awfully glad you persisted, though, and that the museum did the right thing in the end. The photos are fascinating and so full of visual information of a golden era. Your aunt had an amazing, full life . . .

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    • Thank you, Kerry. She did have an amazing life, one I didn’t know a lot about. I visited her for four days in 1989 and learned a lot about her married life and beyond, but she didn’t share a lot about the war years or her childhood. You just can’t cram in a lifetime of questions in a few hours. Still, I hope one day to visit the museum and gather the remaining photos.

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    • Jan, I wept when I read your generous offer. I had to take a moment and let the emotions pass. It’s taken me awhile to come back and reply, too. This and other things have me feeling a bit weepy of late. I will think about your offer, though what would really be nice is to meet *you* in London at a future date. I’ve never been to Wales either, but would love to go. xo

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      • Jon is working in Reading at the moment, so it’s easy enough to go down for the weekend and into London (it’s less than half an hour on the train) – just let me know if I can help you in this way. And, if you are in the UK at any time, I’d love to meet up. We haven’t visited the US for many years and I know that Jon would love another trip, so maybe one day we will see you on your home turf!

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  6. Oh my gosh, I can see why these photos would be such treasures for you. I am so glad that you finally rec’d them, in spite of the journey to get them to you, they are with you now & will be treasured I am certain. She is stunning & you are so right, those pants in the glam shot!

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  7. Your long patience has been beautifully rewarded, they’re wonderful photos. People are so strange; who on earth would give a friend’s photos to a museum instead of offering them to the family, even if your aunt hadn’t already promised them to you and you’d requested them? I admit I’m a bit envious; when my mother died, my father heaved all their photo albums into a dumpster, sold the house and disappeared off to Spain for 30 years. I have virtually nothing; luckily I’d made myself hard copies of half a dozen favourites back in the early 80s, before digital copies were common. Now, my father is asking for copies of those…

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  8. It’s only natural that receiving these photos should reawaken your grief, because they represent the last bit of closure of your dear aunt’s estate — and therefore, her life. But I’m glad you have them at last, dear Alys, along with your sweet memories of her! She sounds like a truly remarkable woman … and she must have been SO PROUD of you for taking after her in so many ways. A big hug to you. xx

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  9. I can see who you inherited your beauty, wit and charm from! Perhaps you can take your grief and turn it into a positive? I visited the V & A museum when I was a fashion student and think that an exhibit on the history of fashion and modelling that includes your Aunt Alys is long overdue; she was quite the supermodel of her time! Can you write to them again to see if they’ll take her collection out of the archives and find a place for them in an exhibit? Maybe they can rotate something in the Textiles and Fashion Collection. It would be so interesting to see the progression of swimwear from the windsor water woolies of the early days up to modern day swimsuits! Very few ‘mannequins’ wore them better than her 🙂

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    • Sara, I’m positively blushing at your sweet and complimentary prose, but I don’t think I could ever live up to her beauty and charm. Thank you, though, for your love and support.

      I like the idea of revisiting a fashion exhibit at the V & A. I was there myself in 1989 and wouldn’t you know: that exhibit was closed! I must get back one day. I agree that seeing the progression of swimwear would be interesting, and I believe as well that the Windsor Woollies had some significance. Can you imagine swimming in wool? Another interesting fact in this day of six-foot tall models: my aunt was only about 5’5″ You would never know from the pics.

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  10. Alys
    These photos are incredible and the clippings. Most family photos are nothing like these. I am so happy for you that you finally received them. I understand absolutely your mixed feelings of joy and melancholy. I know you will treasure these. Hugs.
    Wilma

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  11. Photos can be emotional time bombs, especially ones that have taken so long to reach you. and they must be tied up with memories of your beloved Dad, as well as Aunty Alys.
    I can’t understand why the friend would be so mean spirited and not send you the photos. However, it is good that they have ended up in a public collection, where they will be kept in good archival conditions. (I like Sara’s idea of using them in an exhibition.) And that they did the right thing and sent you copies. And what an amazing archive it is! The poster of Alys over Blackpool (?) is beautiful, and worthy of hanging on a wall. I would love to know more about her too.

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    • True that, Anne: “emotional time bomb” is an excellent way to describe them. One picture can evoke so much, as these certainly have: sorrow, grief, curiosity, family pride, loss…all of it.

      Her friend seemed to think that her London flat was unique and should therefore be preserved in some way. I suppose he felt the same way about the photo albums. I think the albums should have been offered to us first but there you have it. That poster is pretty cool. I’ll have to see if the copy is a high resolution for enlarging. xo

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  12. Oh my! Your beautiful Aunt Alys was absolutely glamorous! I’m so glad you finally received some results from your inquiries, but also lament with you that it has been so hard to receive what was rightfully yours to begin with. People do so often confound me! Hearing the stories of your significant losses in such a short span of time I can only imagine the emotional trauma, and that grief travels its own path, is certainly experienced by anyone who knows loss. Thank you for sharing such a remarkable story, and I trust your renewed sense of loss will meld with wonderful memories and bring you peace. xx

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    • Hello Debra, I’m sorry it’s taken so long to return to your lovely comment. I sometimes suffer what I call “comment fatigue” where I feel that I can no longer be authentic in my reply to such gracious comments. I take a wee break, then come back refreshed. Does that make sense?

      I’ve never understood the withholding of my Aunt’s scrapbooks and photos. There is some sadness around that, too, but for now I’m grateful to have these treasures, and now that they’re on the web, they’re available to others as well. xo

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  13. Wow, these are something Alys. What a stunning woman and what a life she seems to have led! I’m sorry the executor was such a s**t. You really should have the originals. But, it’s great to have a look at them in whatever form. I do hope whatever grief they triggered eases through at an appropriate speed for you. Thanks for showing them to us.

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  14. At long last. Bravo for, at least copies finally being in your hands Alys. I know, you *will* treasure them. Isn’t it a shame the executors were so short sighted and insensitive. I can’t even fathom what their thoughts were. Shame on them. The photo’s are really so interesting aren’t they. It’s fun to see the cars, fashion and haircuts. Your Aunty appeared to have lived a pretty glamorous life. It must be fun to see your own name printed in ad’s and photo’s from the 30’s. I think the fashions were so opulent and youthful compared to just a few decades early.
    It’s awesome that you got to have time together too. Were you in shock when the lawyer called? I guess we can’t help how others act, only how we react and you’ve been nothing but gracious and patient through disappointment! Time to enjoy and who knows what you’d find out just from the penciled info on the photo’s

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    • At long last! It’s hard to fathom that so much time passed. I had mostly given up after so many years. I’m grateful to have digital copies and now that I’ve published them, they are out in the ether, so to speak. I would love to one day visit the V&A and hold the scrapbooks, see how she captioned all the rest of the pics and perhaps green a bit more history. I agree that it was a fun time for cars and fashion. Everything seems so classy. Thanks for understanding. xo

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  15. Alys, these are stunning. I’m so glad you finally have copies but it is a shame it was so hard won. I find that our hearts will be sad for a bit after seeing someone we have been missing but I pray your lovely memoris will carry you to happy days very soon. What a difficult year 2008 was. Your aunt was beautiful. What a wonderful life. God bless you friend.

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    • Thank you, Amy. You’ve captured this beautifully. I’m feeling better about things and so grateful to have these pics. I’ve even had someone reach out since publishing them who knew my aunt was a guest at a Lido pool. Isn’t that amazing! I hope you are doing well.

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  16. Wow! Very interesting and your Aunt rocked it just like you do today. “Never give up/ or quit” really paid off in a very long delay on receiving these pics. I am so proud of you and I am sure your Aunt is too!

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  17. Dear sweet Alys! “Grief travels its own path.” That is a profound statement and so very true. I can see why you were named after your aunt. You have the same essence. The desire to give runs as deep in you as it did in her. It’s more than just the name you were given. It does seem like some point in time we are being run through a meat grinder and somehow expected to come out whole. 2008 was so awful that at one point I thought the stars were vacating the skies. Your photos are wonderful and they bring your aunt back to life in many ways. She looks like someone who loved life and gave it all she had. I’m so happy you have some of those photos now. Giant squishy hugs. Wish I could hug you for real but sounds like Kelly might just do that.

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