A long line of strong women

The older I get, the more I look to the past as a source of interest, curiosity and inspiration.

As a feminist, it pleases me to know that I come from a long line of strong English women.

My female relatives were strong in mostly nontraditional ways, but nonetheless, they inspire me. Here are two of their stories.

My great aunt Bombie, on my father’s side, was born in 1898 and was a businesswoman. Those two facts may seem incongruous, but it’s true. Bombie never married or had kids, instead focusing on her career. She worked with her father in his patent business and ultimately became his right hand.

Thanks to the miracle of the Internet, a search on her name brings back patent applications with her  signature as witness.

My Bombie was quick-witted, strong and a class act in all the years I knew her.

Her real name was Isabel Frances Viola Walker but because she was so beautiful as a girl, she was nicknamed “Bonnie” (an English expression meaning pretty). As a kid, my Dad couldn’t say Bonnie so he renamed her Bombie and it stuck – that’s the name I always called her as well.

Although single all her life, Bombie never lived alone. She lived with her sister’s family (my grandmother and grandfather) in their parents’ Victorian mansion; it was a place I remember being fascinated – and a little terrified – of as a child.

Bombie shared a story with tween me about being in love once. She said that he went off to war (it must have been World War I) and that was the end of it. I wish I’d been old enough to ask more questions because, apparently, she didn’t tell anyone else in my family about him. I’d absolutely love to know more.

Bombie loved to dress up and be glamorous – she had an amazing wardrobe of elegant suit dresses, furs and gloves. Yes, gloves; she never left the house without white cotton gloves in warm weather or white kid leather gloves when it was cold outside. Bombie had traditional values but was also extremely progressive and open-minded in many ways.

Bombie adored kids, especially her little American great-niece, aka me. She shared my love of sweets (the English term for candy) and always plied me with them anytime I visited her. Did I have a sweet tooth before Bombie, or is it her legacy to me? I don’t know, but English sweets always remind me of her.

Bombie loved watching TV and was fascinated the first time I showed her my camera and the pictures I took with it. She once asked me if I took a picture of her black and white TV, would the picture still come out in color? She was also intrigued by my 80s acid wash jeans and instead of mocking or shaming them, as some of my other relatives did, she said she really liked the look of them. That was Bombie.

As a tween, I had lots of dad issues and related stress, and Bombie was someone I could talk and vent to about it. She shared with me that her dad was authoritarian and a cause of stress in her childhood; no wonder, since she grew up in Victorian England!

I still have every letter and card she ever sent me. We didn’t have email, Facetime or texting in those days, so our communication was mostly written, plus occasional phone calls and our family’s once or twice yearly visits to England.

Bombie, although she was an educated and professional woman, never learned to drive, never flew in an airplane and never left England. She was a whiz with the bus and train systems, though, and took me into Liverpool from her rural home with no issues whatsoever even in her late 80s.

Sadly, Bombie passed away after a short illness late in her 90s. She remained completely sharp mentally until the day she died. I treasure my memories of her and our time together.

Since I didn’t get to know my Nana, my paternal grandmother, being close to her sister Bombie was so special to me. I’ve heard that my Nana was also brilliant and a powerhouse in her own right. I wish I could remember Nana but she died from untreated breast cancer – being a bit bullheaded, she refused to acknowledge she was sick until it was too late – when I was only two. 

My maternal grandmother, whom I called Gran, was another very strong English woman. Strength in women looked a little different in those days – my Gran certainly wasn’t a raging feminist or trailblazer, but she survived crippling measles as a child and definitely did things her own way as an adult.

I carry the name Elizabeth because of my Gran – it was her name, it is my mother’s name and it is my middle name.

I remember that my Gran always worked hard alongside my grandfather in the hospitality and tourism industry. Together, they owned the Kimberly Hotel, a respected destination along Blackpool’s beachfront promenade that at one time was considered a grand estate hotel with a glamourous ballroom. I have many happy childhood memories at that hotel during its heyday!

Unfortunately, after they retired and sold it, the Kimberly fell into years of disrepair and has literally since made headlines as “the worst hotel in Great Britain.” I’m just glad that they weren’t alive to see their beloved hotel’s sad fate.

I have fond memories of my Gran. The childhood measles had settled in her hip, which left her with one leg permanently shorter than the other; she had all her shoes customized with a lift on one side. Gran walked with a pronounced limp. She had experienced a terribly difficult childhood due to her health problems, and experienced discomfort and pain all her life, but you would never know it – Gran never complained.

My maternal grandmother smoked – something that was more socially acceptable in those days – but I never remember being bothered by it. Gran used a cigarette holder that seemed very glamorous and mysterious to me. She smoked only at certain times and outside or in well-ventilated areas, never around us kids, unlike most other people at that time.

In retirement, Gran loved to vacation in the sun, so my grandparents were often found in Mallorca, Spain or other sunny climes. She loved visiting us in the summer time and sunning herself on our top deck. She was always very kind and encouraging of me, and I think I got my positive spirit from her. I remember being very sad when she passed away while I was in junior high.

So, there you have it – two nontraditional, strong women whom I count among my ancestors and role-models. They never got to see me grow into an adult, but I like to think they would have been proud of the woman I’ve become.

Do you ever spend time thinking about your ancestors and predecessors? I’d love to hear your stories in the comments below or over on Facebook or Instagram.

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About the author

Proud and loving midlife mama. Lucky and devoted wife. Dog, cat and snake mom. Travel nut. Natural born writer. PR and social media pro by day - tattoo doula by night.

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