In December 1958 Birgitta was 20 years old and was just 4 months into her time as an Au Pair for the Porter family in Guildford.
“I was treated to the most magnificent week of my life up to that time,” she told me. “I never would have believed it was possible. One morning in mid December Mrs. Porter told me we were going to the seashore for Christmas. What? I thought to myself: Christmas in a hotel, not at home, the seashore in the winter?” But she explained it was a family tradition and we would be joined by Mr. Porter’s brother and his family and a couple of cousins with their family. We were going to stay for a week but would be home for New Years. So we had to pack up everything we would need for the week and I was responsible for myself and Fiona. And pack we did. Because Christmas was a dress-up affair and the Hotel Grand is a very posh place Fiona and I had a big suitcase each. Everything I owned was in the case. I had no idea what this was all about and did not want to take any chances. My only fear was that my clothes (Mother made) would not fit in. But they did! And to top that off I had to be packed two days before we left as the suitcases were going by train and would be at the hotel when we got there. I thought “what if they lose my suitcase”. The car was not big enough for us and the luggage.
The Grand hotel was a monstrous place. Big and beautiful! It was like an ever changing movie set. I was told it all was in Edwardian style. (It was he who established Brighton as a summer resort.) All of the beautiful buildings along the seaside are in the Edwardian style.
I had a room for just Fiona and me. It was bigger than the whole downstairs at home. Imagine, we ate every meal, three times a day for the week in the hotel dining room. I could have anything I wanted.
(Note: Birgitta was no stranger to hotels. Two Summers she had worked for her Aunt who managed large hotel Dining Rooms at resorts in Sweden. But this Grand Hotel was in a class of its own.)
We had a reserved table and I think there were 17 people seated there for every meal. I had never seen a table this big. And the silverware, there were three forks, three knives and two spoons at every setting for every meal. Even breakfast. Even the children. I thought Mr. Porter was just a businessman. But, I learned later he paid for the whole thing and had done so for the last five years. Nothing in their daily file indicated they had money. Never wasting anything, shopping for bargains . The only thing extravagant I thought was the opera. They had the very best seats. But, There had to be some family money someplace. I never learned where, or maybe he just sold a lot of TV’s.
It was freezing outside. None of us had enough warm clothes. On Christmas Eve we all had to go to church. My first time at an English church but it was like the Lutheran. All singing from a hymn book. This old big brick church was nothing like our small wooden ones. I liked ours better. In school, I had religion first period every day. But this was somehow more strict, more forbidding. I didn’t like it very much. On Christmas’ morning there were presents for everyone. Even me! Each day just seemed to get better and better. What will the rest of my year be like? I loved the experience, savored each day and will treasure the memory forever.” As you can see she did. What she did with her days there never came up. She knew that this Christmas was something special.
At that time there were two Brighton Piers. The West Pier directly across from the hotel and the Palace Pier a couple of hundred meters east. It was common for them to be decorated with Christmas lights. The West Pier has since been destroyed by storms and a fire. As you can see from the detail I heard this story many times. It was another part of Birgitta’s early development and contributed to her love of nice things.
So I have spread a small portion of her ashes in the Sea near the old pier and hotel. The South England coast is near the end of the Gulf Stream. Eventually her ashes placed at intervals along the East Coast of the US will join these placed here. Isn’t that a great theory? Right, wrong, whatever: you can see she is still traveling.
Note: The Grand Hotel was built in 1862-4 and today is in wonderful condition. It has been visited by Presidents Kennedy and Reagan. On Oct 12, 1984 it was the site of an IRA assassination attempt on Thatcher and her Cabinet. They only missed her because she had left the meeting to go to the necessary, as they politely say in England.
Pictures to follow …