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The Epoch Times
The Epoch Times
21 Feb 2023

NextImg:A Grandmother's Guestbook Records a Life of Love on Every Page

I sit in the living room of my grandmother’s bungalow in Kent, England, a stone’s throw away from the Dover Cliffs, where we spent the afternoon drinking tea in the National Trust gift shop while watching the ferries come into the harbor in pouring rain.

My girls are asleep, tucked up in the coveted “fluffy beds” I slept in every time I visited as a child. I stretch my legs out next to the gas stove, lit to ward off the chilly November evening. My grandmother, now 86 but every bit as full of life as I’ve always remembered her, sits on the couch. We’re both half listening to the documentary on television about the new King Charles as we flip through the bulky, spiral-bound book sprawled open on my lap.

I know this book, filled with different handwriting and labeled “Visitors.” It was a regular fixture on the side table in the guest room, and growing up, we argued over who was going to fill it out almost as much as we did over who would get to sleep in one of the fluffy beds.

My grandmother started this guestbook 40 years ago, when she and my granddad were living in Haddenham, England, where she directed the church choir and he restored their barn, which was originally built in the 1500s. My grandparents have always had the enviable trait of making friends for life everywhere they go. Because of my granddad’s job with the railroad, they moved often, meaning that they spent most of their weekends hosting their large collection of family and friends. My grandma’s book was her way of remembering these visits.

Entries in the opening pages date back to 1983, right when my dad started dating my mom. They’re formal, providing only their names and address. “Wendy and Ray, Rose Cottage.” “Alison Cristin, Jersey.”

As I flip through the pages of the book, I watch my parents’ story unfold and the notes become a little more casual. Alison Cristin becomes Alison Genders. Dave and Alison move to America. Alison and “Bump” come for a visit.

Sprinkled among visits of friends, my dad’s brothers leave home and come to visit. They sign the guestbook, then their wives do, and then their children do. Neat, contained handwriting is replaced by the exuberant and wild scrawl of grandchildren learning to write.

My grandmother’s friends become more elaborate in their signatures, adding in what they ate and what they did. Guests write that “they ate enough to last a week” and that “no pudding can beat Audrey’s.” Weekends at Derek and Audrey’s appear to be nothing less than entertaining, complete with trips to Ely, long walks (sometimes in heavy rain), tea in the garden, and choir concerts. I read entries of my own, from when I was 8 years old, when the highlight of a trip to England was feeding the ducks with Grandma and fish and chips with Granddad. Reading my entry written at 21, it doesn’t look like much has changed.

The author’s grandma, Audrey Genders, with the author’s youngest child, Jack. (Rachael Dymski)

Page after page, I’m struck by the impact that a single, intact home can have on so many others. My grandparents opened their home to hundreds of people over the course of their lifetime. They built lasting friendships and created a stable environment for an extended family to thrive. I see where my cousins and I have commented on one another’s entries, joking with one another and looking forward to seeing each other again. Growing up an ocean away, my grandparents provided a consistent place for us to connect and build relationships. Everyone knew the marriage between my grandparents was strong, and that kind of stability gave them permission to relax in their home.

As the years went on, the book continued to fill, until there were only a few blank entries left.

A few months after my wedding in 2012, my granddad began to get sick. He eventually was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The last week of his life, he was surrounded by the family he built: sons, daughters-in-law, and grandchildren who made him tea in his meticulously cared-for garden and played piano and cello for him in the evenings. He passed just a few days after everyone left. It was as though he knew how much the way they hosted meant to us, and he had to do it one last time.

In August 2013, my dad flew back for his funeral, a packed service that included all the people who had graced the guestbook over the past decades. Before my dad left, he filled out the very last entry on the very last page, which summed up the book (and its owners) so well:

“With much love and thankfulness for the place that will always be home.”

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