My mother always told me I was beautiful. And, as an awkward young girl, I never believed a word of it. My nose was too big, I was short and wore thick glasses, and my hair was frizzy. My eyes were a nondescript muddy grey rather than a pretty clear blue. But, every once in a while, she'd say one thing that would fill me with a swell of pride. She would cup my face in her hands, look into my eyes with rapt attention and say in slow, deliberate syllables, “Your eyesâ€¦are the colour of the North Atlantic.&"
I always loved this compliment because it was the most poetic description of my murky eyes that I could imagine. More importantly, it carried with it the depth of a family legacy. The North Atlantic was more than just a chilly stretch of ocean to me. At the age of 13, my grandmother, Madeleine Mellenger, had spent an icy night adrift on it praying for rescue as one of the few to survive the legendary sinking of the Titanic on April 15, 1912.
I never knew my grandmother. We met only once, when I was four months old, and she died about two months later. I was tiny when I met her, recovering from a premature birth by emergency C-section and my first month of life in an incubator. I was crying that cold, March morning, but my parents, April and Carl, remember how I quieted immediately as I was placed in her frail arms. “She was thrilled, you could tell by her demeanor,&" my mother recalls. “You just gazed up at her intently and then you went to sleep.&" I like to think that on that morning, as we peered into each other's eyes, my grandmother imparted some of her survivor's spirit to me.
When Madeleine and her mother, Elizabeth Anne, boarded the Titanic, they were already survivors. Madeleine was one of five children but the only one travelling with her mother from England to a new life in America. Elizabeth was to work as a housekeeper for a wealthy family in Vermont. Her husband had fled to Australia to avoid some sort of financial scandal, abandoning her and the children and leaving the formerly well-to-do family penniless. The children were divided among relatives until she could earn enough to send for them. When mother and daughter were escorted across the gangplank of the Titanic, the pair thought their luck had finally changed for the better.
Diary from the Titanic
I don't remember the first time I heard about my grandmother's story. When I was young, Madeleine's Titanic voyage was always just there. Unlike other scattered pieces of family history -â€“ how fighting in the war had changed my grandfather or how my parents fell in love as young high school graduates working summer jobs in Bala, Ont. -â€“ I was always aware that the Titanic “thing&" was a big family legacy. Another big deal was the diary. After settling in Toronto and raising a family, my grandmother wrote a 26-page account of her memories of the voyage, the sinking and its aftermath as a response to the numerous Titanic enthusiasts and journalists who would call, write and interview her about the tragedy that had claimed the lives of more than 1,500 people. She wrote the story down in order to preserve the truth. She was concerned about reality becoming lost in the growing legend of the unsinkable ship. Every one of her four sons had a copy, including my father, Carl, the youngest. It was an unpretentious document, written on an old typewriter with the occasional smudged letter and spelling mistake, littered with some handwritten annotations, stapled in the left-hand corner and simply entitled “My Story of the Sinking of the Titanic.&"
Connecting through a diary
I didn't realize the significance of the document until I was about 16 and decided it would be great to use for a book report for school -â€“ a definite A. My mother made a photocopy for me, and I studiously began to read the story through for the first time as I sat at the desk in my bedroom in Calgary armed with a highlighter and some multicoloured plastic flags. Madeleine's writing was honest and straightforward and she shared many of her strongest memories. I saw the Titanic through her young eyes and it felt as if she were telling the story just to me. She told of the “pretty green bath water&" that was so salty she couldn't make a lather and the way the ladies' long, heavy skirts swept the decks as they strolled. I imagined a picture of the young Madeleine and identified with it. There were also glimpses of my grandmother as the grown woman narrating the story. I could see a generous spirit in her kind descriptions of people such as the “nice young fellow&" that operated the elevator and the “angel lady&" that gave her mother a pair of shoes after they were rescued.
When I got to the part of the story where the ship slipped under the water, my eyes blurred with tears as I thought of all the lives lost and families shattered. I realized how close our family had come to extinction; my uncles, my cousins, my father, my sister and I wouldn't have ever even existed. I'd heard the story told by various family members before, but this time my grandmother's own voice was behind it all.
Madeleine had been a stranger to me as I had no memories of her, but suddenly I wanted so much to know her, but I couldn't. She was gone, and the diary was all that was left. Like most teenage girls I put the ghosts of the past aside and got caught up in the here and now, worried instead about boys and bad hair days. I'm sad to say I let thoughts of my grandmother fade into the background.
Forming tight-knit relationships
As an adult, deeper questions and a sense of urgency arose in me as my parents grew older and other family members passed away, taking their stories with them. So I started asking questions about Madeleine. In the 30 years since she died, her memory hasn't faded in the minds and hearts of the people who loved her. My father remembers how she waited for him every day after school with a snack and a sympathetic ear. He remembers her rose garden and how she always used to wear wool sweaters in August. Madeleine had close relationships with her daughters-in-law and my mother and aunts spent hours upon hours talking with her over tea. They recall that she adored her four sons but also longed for a daughter to talk to. After five more boys were born to her sons, she was delighted when I came along in 1975, the first girl born into the Mann family in two generations.
Madeleine's influence as a woman and a matriarch is in the background of my family, and now I've begun to catch glimpses of her in many of our family's nooks and crannies. She's the reason my father loves to play the piano; the one who taught him never to shout in the house. Through the memories and mementoes of my father, uncles and cousins, she continues to speak to me.
In an old box, I recently found a ragged envelope containing her original notes. They were lovingly handwritten in an even, flowing script on small sheets of unlined paper and each one was crossed out with a single line to indicate it had been correctly typed. On the backs of several of the pages were unsteady messages she'd written to nurses and family in her final days, when, due to illness, she could no longer speak. She'd kept the pages with her as she lay on her deathbed, afraid her legacy would be lost, discarded or forgotten. I think she would be quite pleased to know just how far her words have travelled.