Family Fortunes: Granny’s over-mantle and an uncle we never knew

My father carried the mantle from house to house. It now sits above my fireplace

Her grandmother’s over-mantle still has pride of place in Breda Nathan’s house.

It was the window cleaner set me thinking of her again today. He was working at the back of the house and the sun was shining in. I had just polished the over-mantel.

“That’s a beautiful piece of craft,” he remarked.

“It was my grandmother’s.”

“You must have been her favourite.”


I don’t know about that but I know I was called after my granny. They say I looked like her, just less genteel. There are old family portraits in the attic. My grandfather with her and their children. While they are all smiling, there is a sad look in her face too.

My father’s adoring reminiscences of her were the memories of a child. He was just 10 years old when she died. My grandfather was away on business and my father was with her at the end. She mentioned the mantel and asked him to mind it. We don’t know why, but he treasured it for the rest of his life. It stood in all its glory in our “parlour” for all of my childhood.

Secret stashes of treats and small toys were often produced from the top shelf, unreachable to us. Santa would always manage to rip his red coat on the way down the chimney and a piece of red cloth would be hanging on one of the knobs. It never crossed our minds that this repeated carelessness was strange. They were innocent days.

Dying wish

When we hit hard times and ended up in rented accommodation, Dad stored the over-mantle under his bed. Many times he told me the story of her dying wish, that he would look after her mantel. He never knew why it was so important to her, but he certainly took care of it. And when he got back on his feet, the first thing he did was return it to pride of place in the best room.

Through the years it has survived moving house many times. It has been insulted and we have been told it was old-fashioned and didn’t fit in with the other furniture, but it stayed. After my father died, I kept up the tradition. My first house saw it mounted over the fireplace in the sitting room, where it still stands. I will never part with it.

Genealogical discovery

Just recently a nephew of mine, doing a bit of genealogy, discovered that Granny had another child, named Thomas. He asked me did I know this. I did not and I know my father never knew either. Further investigations uncovered the story of Tommy. He was one year younger than Daddy and lived for only 24 hours.

It was a strange feeling for me. I had an Uncle Tommy, I never knew. This year he would be 100 years old, and we never spoke about him. Is this why Granny had that sad look in the photos? It must have been a terrible time for her. And in those days, you didn’t talk about it.

He hasn’t left my mind since I heard. Today I lit a candle in his name. I would love to think that somewhere Granny and Uncle Tommy are together really smiling. Meanwhile I will keep polishing her over-mantle. The window cleaner was right, it looks very nice when the sun shines in.