It was a crisp autumn day in 1929 when Veda Elston took three-year-old Betty to the beach to play with her new pail and shovel in the seaside Lincolnshire village of Chapel St. Leonards on England’s east coast, just a short walk from their home. After turning her attention from the little girl for a few seconds, Veda looked up from her knitting to find that Betty had disappeared from view. Knowing that there hadn’t been time for her to wade into the water, Veda began a search of the area, soon enlisting neighbors and summoning her husband, George, back from his work as a traveling salesman. With the police involved, five tense days went by before Betty was discovered at a home a few miles away, wearing a different dress from the one she’d had on, and in perfectly good health.
Betty, who changed her name to Elizabeth as an adult, is now in her 90s and the mother of author Laura Cumming. Despite its title, Laura’s book is not a true-crime thriller but a memoir of family and community secrets. (The book’s British title, On Chapel Sands: My Mother and Other Missing Persons, is a more accurate reflection of its content.) Elizabeth Elston Cumming never learned about this episode in her childhood until over fifty years had passed; George and Veda never told her about it, nor, hard though it may be to believe, did any of the dozens of neighbors who certainly remembered it clearly. And this was not the only secret kept from young Betty: George, Veda, and most of the residents of their village undoubtedly knew all along exactly who had stolen the child, and why.
During her very happy childhood, Laura Cumming was fascinated by her mother’s occasional tales of her own very different upbringing--to the point that Elizabeth wrote down these memories as a much-appreciated present for Laura’s 21st birthday, and much of the early part of this book alternates between the two women’s equally articulate voices. Betty’s childhood with George and Veda was extremely circumscribed: she was rarely permitted to play with other children, and in her early years she could only venture out of the house in the company of one of her parents. Veda was gentle and kind, but not particularly maternal, while George grew increasingly abrupt and grumpy as it became more difficult with the passing years to hide his bright, inquisitive child away from the world.
At ten, Betty started riding the bus back and forth to school in a neighboring town, and one afternoon when she was thirteen, a woman approached her on the ride home, and said, “Your grandmother wants to see you,” and held up a small photo she recognized as herself. Shocked, Betty simply turned away from her, but when she told her parents what had happened, George responded in a manner that would change their relationship forever. He told her that she was adopted, that he and Veda had generously taken her in, and that she was never to speak to the woman on the bus again. In reality, the story was more complicated than that, though not particularly surprising, and if George had told her everything at that moment, he might have salvaged their relationship. Instead, he had made a sensitive young girl feel unwanted and abandoned, and as soon as she could, she escaped Chapel St. Leonards for art school in Nottingham and an eventual happy marriage to a fellow artist in Edinburgh. When George died while she was in her mid-20s, she did not go home for the funeral. It was not until she was forty, with young children of her own, that she uncovered some of the truth about her early years, and it took another twenty years after that for some of the last pieces of the puzzle to be filled in.
As the child of two artists, it’s not surprising that Laura Cumming became an art critic, and she uses her professional skills to examine and interpret the numerous photos that George took of Betty as a child, and to relate elements of her mother’s story to a number of famous paintings, most notably Pieter Bruegel’s Landscape With the Fall of Icarus. For this reason, I would recommend reading this book rather than listening to an audio version if possible because the photos and paintings are described in detail in the text, but actually seeing them adds enormously to the story’s impact. Though Laura clearly adores her mother, she does not hesitate to come to her own sometimes contradictory conclusions about some elements of this troubling case, and a final revelation involving one of the family photos suggests that even George, who’s definitely the villain of the piece, may have had some redeeming qualities after all.
Available on e-media.