Monday, January 27, 2020

The December Bride: The Love Story of my Grandad Michael and Nana Mabel

Today, I'd like to share with you an excerpt, from the years 1952-1961, of my nana Mabel and grandad Michael's love story.


When my maternal nana Mabel passed away in the summer of 2009, I inherited her memories. Memories preserved in her leather-bound photo albums, carefully curated with handwritten notes, diaries, love letters, dried flowers from her secret admirer – the love of her life, heirloom recipes, carefully clipped newspaper articles of important events, and memorabilia from her seven-decade life on earth.

With those memories comes the responsibility to preserve them for curious generations to come.

Many Sunday afternoons my nana Mabel could be found in her home library, sitting comfortably with her feet perched on her footstool, which she called her poof. In her lap, her memorabilia box carefully curated from decades ago. 

At Christmastime, she’d invite us to sit alongside her, and with her memory intact she’d tell the stories of how she and my Granddad came to be. She’d talk about “those days” as if they were so magical, she almost had to pinch herself to see if she were in a dream, only to realize she was one of the lucky ones who had found, and nurtured a fifty-five-year legacy of love. 

Mabel Bird, nee Thawley
May 27th, 1931 - August 17th, 2009

Thursday, May 1st, 1952

"Dearest Diary,
Today is the first day of my birthday month. It’s also one of my favorite days of the year, Mayday. My dear friend, Beth, from Sunday school, invited me to her friend’s church in nearby Ashby-De-La-Zouch to join in their Mayday festivities. The local villagers put on quite a spread, homemade scones, clotted cream, and homemade preserves served with tea. As we danced around the maypole with festive pastel ribbons a handsome looking chap, called Michael, kept smiling at me. It was love at first sight, a spellbinding once-upon-a-time moment.

Every week since their first encounter, Michael and Mabel’s mutual friends would get together, it was during one of these get-togethers Mabel got the courage to ask Michael to her upcoming birthday party. 

On a warm spring day, Tuesday, May 27th, 1952, my granddad Michael drove through the countryside in his 1950’s racing green, MG convertible to my Nana’s childhood home, for her 21st birthday party. 

He saw the carved wooden sign, Mill House, and drove up the winding tree lined driveway. He parked his car by the carriage house and walked along the crunchy gravel driveway amongst the wildflowers to the forest-green front door. He knocked and waited, most anxiously. 

My great-grandfather, William, opened the door and smiled as he welcomed Michael into his home for the first time. His sweaty hands were clutching onto a handpicked bouquet of forget-me-nots and bluebells, tied together with string. 

“Mabel.” Called her father.

“Yes, Daddy.” She replied.

“Your date is here.” He responded.

She came down the time-worn stairway all giddy with excitement. She was wearing a swing dress, in a chintz pattern she’d been gifted for her 21st birthday from her mother, Daisy, and youngest sister, Barbara.

She smiled at Michael, as he handed her his handpicked bouquet and gestured him to follow her outdoors to the patio. The patio had wicker tables and chairs in a late Victorian style, adorned with hand-embroidered tablecloths, handpicked flowers, and delectable baked goods from her mother’s kitchen, including her all-time favorites, rhubarb pudding and rhubarb pie.

I’m not sure when our family’s fascination with rhubarb started, except that my great-grandfather, William grew and harvested it, and my great-grandmother, Daisy baked, and made rhubarb jam and sauce, which was served at any family get-together, or occasion.

It was a picture-perfect day.


A few days after my Nana’s birthday celebration, a penned thank-you note prompted them to start writing fortnightly letters to each other. And as they grew to know each other they began initialing their letters MB (my granddad) and MT (my nana). 


Wherever Mabel went, she easily made friends. Her albums have so many pictures of her as a cheerful bridesmaid. This bridesmaid's dress is one of my favorites. 

Mabel, above far left, and below far right
My granddad’s paternal family, the Bird’s, go back many generations in Leicestershire. His maternal family, the Hurt’s, also go back many generations in Leicestershire, as framework knitters, before relocating to Wales as fishermen, where his parents, James and Betty May, met and fell in love, before returning and starting a family in Ashby-De-La-Zouch, in Leicestershire, England. 

Betty May Bird, nee Hurt, December 21st, 1910 - 1994


My grandad's family extended an invitation for my nana’s family to join them at church for Palm Sunday, and to a homemade Sunday lunch afterwards.

They drove along the winding road, under a canopy of old oak trees. They arrived just as the service began, with all the parishioners singing “all things bright and beautiful.” 

The priest lit the paschal candle, and the vicar distributed palms to commemorate the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem, when palm branches were placed in his path.

-John 12:13-
They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting,
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!
After the service, my nana had mixed emotions, both anxiousness and giddiness, as she walked hand in hand along the country lane to my granddad’s parent’s home.

They opened the squeaky garden gate and walked under an arbor of English ivy and up the perfectly straight stone pathway to a thatched 18th century cottage, affectionately called, The Nest (as in the Bird’s nest).

My granddad’s mother, Betty May fumbled for her keys, as she opened the stained glass wooden door. 

“Please make yourselves feel at home.” 

My granddad’s father, James, walked my nana and her family into the to the well-appointed dining room. The walls were adorned in family photos, each carefully placed so that all their guests could see how much their family meant to them.

Michael and his younger sister, Wendy, circa early 1940's

They sat at the dining room table, held hands and said grace. They feasted on Betty May’s homemade Cornish pasties, a side of creamed potatoes with melted gruyere, and a side of pea shoots with spring onions, made by my grandad's sister, Wendy. 

Over conversation, the families realized they had a lot in common, they had a shared interest in the church and church activities, spending time with families and friends, tending to their gardens, which they called their victory gardens, and their home lives. 

My nana always shared the importance of marrying into a family that not only loves you, but your whole family too. Over time, my nana and granddad’s families developed a lifelong relationship where they gathered for family celebrations, events and holidays – together in celebratory and solid form.

James and Michael, at the beach, circa early 1940's


One chilly evening in April 1953, my granddad, Michael called my great-grandpa, William, and asked to talk with him. They arranged to talk at the nearby golf course. 

“I’d like the permission to court your daughter, sir.” Asked Michael. 

“What are your intentions?” Replied William.

“To marry her.” Replied Michael.

And with the shake of hands, permission was given.

A few weeks later, on the first anniversary of them meeting at the Maypole festival, Michael took Mabel to one side.

“Would you do me the honor, of entering a courtship with me?” He asked, nervously awaiting her response.

“Yes” Mabel beamed.

They embraced, and for a moment, time stood still. The gentle warmth of the sun, the dappling sunlight through the trees, their shadows, and the noise of family and friends dancing around the maypole.

Their families overjoyed at the idea, congratulated them. Daisy poured lavender lemonade and Barbara passed around some scrumptious homemade shortbread, as they sat in a circular pattern around the lawn, in time-worn wicker chairs, adorned with chintz cushions and frilly pillows.

Michael and Mabel’s first summer of love had arrived, and they had plans to spend time with family and friends both at home and abroad.


That summer, my nana Mabel, who was a secretary, took a few weeks off of work to travel to Paris, France with some of her dearest, childhood friends. While there she made a lifelong friend, and pen-pal, Renee. In a box, Mabel kept the letters she received, neatly tied up in lace ribbons and beside them was a picture of Renee riding her bicycle in the rural French countryside.


In one letter, she wrote;

Are you hoping to be Mrs. Bird? What a beautiful bride you’ll be.

As you look through the photo album you can see the joy and excitement on my Nana Mabel’s face. She was in love, and praising the LORD for her beloved, Michael. 

Mabel, 6th from the left, at the Ch√Ęteau de Fontainebleau


On Mabel’s return home, she stopped by the graves of her beloved maternal grandparents, John and Priscilla Baker. They too had a love story, but it was cut short when John was killed in World War I.
Priscilla had endured a lot of loss in her life. Her father, also called William, was a barge master, and so she had an idyllic childhood growing up along the English waterways, along with her mother, Emma and younger sister, Lily May, until her father’s untimely death. Her endurance, is a character trait that has been passed down, generation, after generation as we too experience loss, and hard times. It was on this day that Mabel placed a bouquet of fuchsias on their graves. 

In a letter to Michael she wrote;

Whether our life be long, or short, I hope to be by your side, as you do mine.


Their relationship was developing as they spent a lot of time together; calling on friends, playing bocce ball at The Nest, and talking about beaches at Mill House, as family and friends planned a trip for my Nana’s 22nd birthday.


On my nana Mabel’s 22nd birthday, she went to the beach with her dearest childhood friends. They spent their days frolicking in the sea, making sandcastles, and evenings going dancing in the dance hall. 

Mabel, on the far left

Mabel, standing in the middle, back row. 


Every Sunday, Michael would drive along the country roads to attend church with Mabel, and her family. They’d share the common book of prayer as the lector would read, and the hymnal as they’d sing.

After church, Michael would come to Mill House for Sunday lunch. Daisy would prepare a proper English roast, with roast beef, au jus, Yorkshire puddings, creamed potatoes with chives, copper pennies (carrots), shelled peas, and a delectable desert of rhubarb pudding (in the summer), or rhubarb pie (in the winter). 

William would take pride in having his family together, hand in hand saying grace; 

“Bless the food before us, the family beside us, and the love between us. Amen”

The table linens were off white, with an embroidered hem, carefully washed and starched to display the china, cutlery, glassware, handpicked wildflowers and food. 

The china was all handmade and hand painted, by my great-grandfather, William, who was well-known for his decades long career for the Staffordshire Pottery. His pottery is in many family homes, like Mill House, and has been passed down from generation, to generation for families to have Sunday roasts and holiday dinners.

After dinner, William and Michael retired to the rose garden in the back garden. It was there Michael asked if he could have William’s daughter’s hand in marriage and William gave his blessing. 

William Thawley, at the potter’s wheel, December 27th, 1905 - October 7th, 1980


Autumn, turned into winter, and Michael knowing he’d soon ask Mabel to be his wife rolled up his sleeves and got to work. He worked in the mines like his forefathers before him as an explosives engineer. His skill as a detonator made him invaluable to many local mining communities, thus he’d have to travel for a few days at a time for work. 

Once Michael had saved enough, he asked his mother, Betty May, and younger sister, Wendy to help him pick out a ring – the ring he’d ask for Mabel’s hand in marriage. 

They picked out an 18K gold band with a .61 old mine cut diamond set in 8 prongs, and inside it was engraved MT with love MB. He placed the ring box in his mother’s jewelry box, until the magical night he proposed.


Christmas was my nana’s favorite holiday. Every year growing up her family would bake gingerbread cake and embroider tea towels to gift their family, friends, and neighbors. They would go to her paternal grandparents, Arthur and Ada Thawley's home to cut a fresh pine tree and decorate it with handmade gingerbread biscuits tied on with plaid ribbons. 

One year at church she shared how she always wanted to be a primary school teacher, so every year thereafter they’d ask her to help with the children’s production of A CHRISTMAS STORY. She’d cast all the Sunday school children and together with her mother, Daisy, and younger sister, Barbara they’d make an array of costumes. 

Christmas Eve 1953, my nana Mabel stood confidently on the side of the altar directing the play, then tip toed back to the pew to share a hymnal with my granddad Michael as they sang some of their favorite Christmas carols. 

After the service, they walked hand in hand up to the altar to look at the festive church decorations and blow out the candles on the advent wreath, when spontaneously Michael went down on bended knee. Mabel’s first thought was he was kneeling to pray, ‘til he pulled his hand outside his blue blazer pocket and opened a midnight blue suede ring box, with a dazzling diamond and asked;

“Mabel, will you be my bride?”

To which she excitably exclaimed “Yes.”

Their families joined them in congratulations, and clasped each other’s hands as William led them in prayer;

“LORD we pray today for Michael and Mabel, as they enter into an engagement. We pray that they walk closely with you through this process, and glorify you on their wedding day. Amen”

My nana’s journal entries from December 1953 show how the magic – of Christmas and of being engaged filled her heart.


A few weeks after the Christmas festivities began to die down, my nana and her mother, Daisy started to plan her wedding. 

Growing up, my nana always wanted to be a December bride. She enjoyed the merriment of Christmas, and loved how the church was festively decorated. So, she scribbled a few days in shorthand in her journal, eventually deciding on the 12th of December 1954, two weeks before Christmas Day. 

Her parents sent out a formal invitation inviting both my nana Mabel and my granddad Michael’s close family, friends, neighbors and colleagues.

The invitation read;
Mr. and Mrs. William Thawley
request the pleasure of your company at the marriage of their daughter
Michael Idris Bird
 Sunday, the twelfth of December
Nineteen hundred and fifty-four
at two in the afternoon
at our home church
Reception at Mill House to follow

Many weekends Daisy and Betty May would have tea as they hand embroidered table cloths for the tables. My nana’s flowers of choice, both cream and red carnations which the local newspaper used as the title for their wedding announcement;


A 2 p.m. ceremony at home church, at which the Right Reverend officiated, married Miss Mabel Thawley to Michael Idris Bird on Sunday, 12th December 1954. The bride is the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. William Thawley of Tamworth, and parents of the bridegroom are Mr. and Mrs. James Albert Bird of Ashby-De-La-Zouch. 

Baskets of carnations in colors from cream to red were decorations in the church, and organ music was Pachelbel Canon in D. The bride was escorted by her father. She wore a gown of white slipper satin. Bodice and sleeves of the gown were of satin and the neckline collared and slightly beaded. She wore an heirloom veil of embroidered lace, which was held by an heirloom tiara. She also wore pearl earrings, which were a gift from the bridegroom. She carried a bouquet of cream and red carnations with heirloom ribbons and lace. 

Miss Barbara Thawley, sister and maid-of-honor wore a floor-length gown with buttons and a fur hand muffler with a corsage of cream and red carnations centered on an heirloom pin. 

Miss Wendy Bird, sister of the bridegroom and bridesmaid wore a gown which matched Miss Thawley’s and wore an identical corsage. Both attendants wore fur trimmed hats which were a gift from the bride. 

A reception after the ceremony took place at the bride’s childhood home, Mill House, where bouquets of cream and red carnations were decorations. The bride’s parents served as host and hostess, baked and served the cake, tea and coffee. The bridegroom’s parents kept the guestbook and received the gifts.

Betty May, James, flower girl, Wendy, best man, Michael, Mabel, William, Barbara, flower girl, Daisy.


Michaels wedding gift to Mabel was Honeysuckle Cottage, a 16th thatched cottage close by to their parents’ homes. 

Covering her eyes gently with his hands, Michael walked Mabel up the footpath and surprised her. He opened the English walnut front door with symmetrical stained-glass panels which projected colorful patterns on the hallway walls and floor as he carried her over the threshold. Downstairs was a library, living room, dining room, kitchen, and sun porch. Upstairs was four bedrooms, each with a wide window seat, and two bathrooms. The gardens were unkept, but with a little work, and the help of their fathers - William and James they had flowerbeds of roses, and a victory garden with marigolds planted around the perimeter to keep pests away. 


The spring of 1955, following their wedding, Michael and Mabel went on their honeymoon. They were waiting for the snow to melt, and the signs of snowdrops were a sign that it was beginning to warm up. They had a paper map, arrangements for where they would be staying, and a camera – to capture these pictures, as they travelled Europe by motorcycle and side car. 

Mabel on her honeymoon, 1955


Three years after Michael and Mabel were married they started a new adventure – parenthood. They welcomed their firstborn son, John Idris, into the world in May 1957. 

John Idris Bird, circa 1957

Mabel, Daisy, and John, circa early 1960


During the ealry 1960's, Michael, who was a highly skilled explosive engineer, was sought after by various mining companies worldwide. The family were offered the choice to relocate to either Canada, or South Africa, they chose the latter. Michael and Mabel would continue living in the continent of Africa until the early 1980's, before returning to England. 


Michael and Mabel welcomed their second born, Julie Ann, into the world in March 1961. They named their children after the 1955 British comedy film John and Julie, about two children who to make their own way to see the coronation of Queen Elizabeth, II. 

John an Julie, circa 1961

In March 2009, after a long-fought battle with black lung, due to exposure in the mining industry, my granddad, Michael Idris Bird went home to be with the LORD. Five short months later, in August 2009, after several falls which weakened her strength, my nana Mabel Bird, nee Thawley went home to be with the LORD. Together, they leave behind their two children – a son and daughter, and five grandchildren. 

Michael and Mabel, next to their son John on his wedding day, September 1985. 

Their legacy continues, and is remembered through stories, photos, letters, journals, and recipes passed down. And most of all it is remembered during the magic of Christmas – as THE DECEMBER BRIDE. 

Kiki Nakita 

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