The Ties that Bind – a love story for Valentine’s Day

These characters are fictional, any similarity to any persons, living or dead, is probably intentional…

The scene is an old fashioned hospital ward with high ceilings, big windows and curtain rails above each bed. It is mid-February, but a weak winter sun lights up the room. It is quiet, a lull in the middle of the afternoon. The only sounds are the quiet beeping of a monitor and the low murmuring of some staff at the nurses’ station. There is a rumble of distant traffic.

There are about 10 beds, only a few with any occupants. All are asleep or unconscious.

Three women sit by one of the occupied beds, Molly’s bed. One holds the old lady’s hand, the other two are talking quietly, heads close together.

There are some more figures around the bed, but none of the living can see them.

BRIDGET: Come on here Maeve, what the hell are you doing over there? Let that poor boy die in peace.

MAEVE: But he’s got no-one Bree, he’s confused, like our wee cousin Paddy, remember him? His name is Simon, surely it wouldn’t do any harm to just hold his hand until his Ma and Da come? I heard that nurse say they’re on the way. That one, with the red hair.

BRIDGET: Oh, bring him over here then, but stay behind me, I don’t want him confusing poor Molly. It’ll not be long now, maybe once Christine and Frances get here.

MAEVE: Oh, are they coming then?

BRIDGET: Audrey got a text message, they’re on the way from the station now. Which you’d know if you weren’t so busy poking your nose in other peoples’ business.

LIAM: Girls! We’re supposed to be here for Molly, not bickering like children.

MAEVE: Ah Liam, you always were the peacemaker. Sorry Bree. What about the grandkids, will they be here, and the little ones?

BRIDGET: Honestly Maeve you’ve a head like a sieve! The boys were here yesterday, don’t you remember? And the girls brought the wee ones in last week.

MAEVE: Ah, was that yesterday? I DO remember, it’s just this time thing, it’s a bit hard to get used to when you’ve come back from eternity. Those boys are fine young men, sure, one of them even has a tattoo.

LIAM: Ah, that’ll be young Joe, Vera’s boy, did you see the muscles on him? He’ll soon be rowing for the University I wouldn’t wonder. Or boxing.

MAEVE: Oh no, Vera wouldn’t like that, I think.

BRIDGET: Well Vera will just have to lump it. And who cares what YOU think anyway? You always did want to be the centre of attention, right from when you were a child. Ma and Da were far too soft on you.

MA and DA: No we weren’t!

MA: She was poorly as a baby. She was the wee lamb you needed to wrap in a blanket and feed with milk drop by drop.

BRIDGET: Ahh, maybe so, but she could always wrap you round her little finger so she could! She was the favourite.

LIAM: No, Da’s favourite was always Molly, remember how he’d always take her with him to mend the walls?

SIMON (whispering to Maeve): Is that your Mum and Dad? How come? You seem so… sorry… old. And they seem younger. I don’t understand.

MAEVE: Yes, that’s me Ma, and me Da. They died when they were a lot younger than me. I was older when I passed. You see?

SIMON: No, not really. They died? You died? And me? Did I die?

MAEVE: Yes son, you were in a crash, don’t you remember? Your motorbike? I heard the doc telling the nurses, massive brain trauma they said, no chance of survival, and sure enough you just slipped away before they could even stick a needle in you. Look that’s you over there, they drew the curtains around you when you stopped breathing.

SIMON: That’s…me? I don’t remember anything. I want to see.

MAEVE: They’re just waiting for your Ma and Da to get here and then a porter will take you to the Mortuary. You can go in and look – just pass through them curtains, that’s it.

GRANNY: Hello Simon

SIMON: Granny? But, but…

GRANNY: Come here my lovely boy, let me give you a hug. We’re just waiting for Betty and Alan so you can say good bye, I heard that red-haired nurse say they were stuck in traffic.

SIMON: Mum and Dad? But, Granny! You’re… I mean, I was at your funeral… is that really you? You’re just the same as I remember you, you even smell the same. You feel like granny. Mum and Dad, will… Will they see you?

GRANNY: It’s only spirits that can see spirits Simon. But we will all meet up again, eventually.

MAEVE: I’m away back to Molly now Simon, you’ll be fine now your gran’s come.

SIMON: Thanks Maeve, for helping me understand.  And Molly, is she…?

MAEVE: My sister, she called to us. It’s the ties that bind, you see, the blood ties. And the one true love, of course – that’s yer man there at her head. Jack. She’s missed him every day for 30 years. And he’s missed her too, and all the family. He’d have loved to have been a great grandad, there’s nine little ones now you know.

SIMON: Why are there so many of you here? I’ve just got Granny.

MAEVE: Ah sure, her passing’s not been as sudden as yours, she had a big stroke and she’s been unconscious for a month and more. And she’s a very old lady, the oldest of us. 95.  Her mind has been wandering all over the place for years. She’s even forgotten the house she lived in for 50 years. Her thoughts just go back to Ireland, and to Jack.

Ah, here’s Frances and Christine arriving at last. I need to be there, Molly will maybe be able to let go now. You can come back over and watch if you like…

SIMON: Granny? Do you mind…?

GRANNY: Away you go, I’ll just stay here and watch over you until your parents get here.

SIMON: I’m sorry, Granny, I guess you’re not supposed to die when you’re only 19.

GRANNY: Things are as they are Simon. And I have you now, it’s Betty and Alan who have lost you, who have to say goodbye to their child.

There is a murmur of voices as Vera, Audrey and Lizzie greet Christine and Frances.

LIAM: Look, she’s stirring a little, I think she can feel those kisses on her cheeks.

MAEVE: And the tears.

BRIDGET: Come to us Molly, we’re waiting for you, dear sister.

MOLLY: Bridget? But…

LIAM and MAEVE: Hello Molly.

MOLLY: Liam! Maeve! And Mam and Da! I’ve been dreaming about you all.

And Jack! My poor dear Jack!

JACK: You’ve been asleep a long time darling Molly, but now the girls have set you free, free to fly to me again. Look at them, they’re holding hands just like they did when they were children.

MOLLY: Oh Jack, have you been there this whole time? Look at poor Lizzie, she looks worn out.

JACK: She’s come here faithfully first thing every morning and sat with you all day. And Vera and Audrey have come after work and made her rest and eat. And Frances and Christine would come up from London when they could.

MOLLY: Our girls, so full of love. They’ve always made us proud. And Jack, we have grandchildren, and they have children.

JACK: I know Molly, I’ve only ever been a whisper away from you, and now you’ve come back to me.

MOLLY: Oh, but I’ve got so old, so very old!

JACK: Nothing like that matters any more my darling. And anyway, you are the same to me as that day we first met. You were the best thing that ever happened to me, in life and in death. I loved you then and I love you now and I will love you forever.

MOLLY: Oh Jack….

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To Kiev and beyond – more of Mum’s Travels

Last time, we left Ellen just about to pack to travel from Moscow to Kiev. Let’s pick up the thread from there.

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18th May Wed. 

Bykovo Airport, then a lovely flight 1 hr 10 min to Kiev. Lovely, gorgeous place, full of nice flowering horse chestnut and poplars. Fantastic drive in from airport up in the 80’s. Every street is lined with seats. Thousands of Tourists. The Hotel – Rus – is the one built for the foreign athletes for the Olympic trials. The Stadium is next door.  Went for walk after lunch, different from Moscow. People very friendly, talked to old lady. Built on River Dneiper which is very wide. Had ice cream. 

Went to see the Ukraine Ballet Co in the evening –  very dramatic, I loved it. Theatre beautiful Venetian style. Walked home.

19th May Thur.

Went to the Beryoska shop but did not buy anything apart from book about Kiev. I could spend a lot on books but they are so heavy. 

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These are just a few of the books Mum collected over the years! She also brought back souvenirs, but it was always books that first caught her attention.

19 to 23 May – Five days packed with yet more cultural delights. Here’s just a taste of them – click on the pictures to read the captions.

Let’s go back to Ellen’s diary for a description of what she regarded as the highlight of the Kiev visit. First, an anecdote…

We also went into a Hospital grounds and a shabby-looking man came and talked in English to us. His phrases were very flowery. He said he was a Doctor, but if so I’m the KGB – or perhaps it was a mental hospital!

After lunch the Highlight. We went to the Monastery of St Anthony, and went into the Catacombs. A monk, Anthony – and Theodacious – lived in caves near the River Dneiper in 1051. In 1070 they started to build the Monastery. The Catacombs are a series of caves which were burial places as well as for the Monks – I bought a book about them. The soil is such that it preserved the bodies and many of them are housed in caskets with glass tops. The bodies are quite short, in vestments with embroidered cloths over the faces, but the little brown hands are on view. St Anthony’s cell is there and what looks like little alcoves where they lived. Full of Grottos and treasures but an unbelievable place. They are still venerated as saints – I have never heard so much about Saints and Religious matters. Lovely weather, in 90s.

On Monday 23 May, the group headed off to Leningrad (now St Petersburg) for the final leg of the tour. Again, here is a montage of just some of the wonderful places they visited.

Our bus – the Leningrad Driver is so polite, he gets out first and helps each of us off! The others in Kiev and Moscow just looked out the window – though I always made a point of chatting them up! And thanking them for being so kind – you can do these things when you are a granny!!! We have a Leningrad guide, Katerina, a lovely girl – vivacious, lovely English. She has a great sense of humour! Like, Peter the Great’s hobby was dentistry – he used to take out teeth for free!

Katerina took us into the Winter Palace and showed us right through the Czar’s private quarters. Such rooms of gold, porcelain dinner services – the one presented by the English with the “green frog” lovely and the Clock under the mushroom. Fabulous wealth – I am not surprised the serfs rose and swept them away! Such opulence I never saw, furniture from France inlaid with gold and ivory, beautiful rooms and each room had its own theme and colour. The dining rooms and gold legged chairs and – oh I could not describe it all, you’d have to see it.

Tonight we went to the circus. Very good. Quick acts and some great acrobats. Beautiful horses and Cossack-type riding. Dogs, monkeys, 8 tigers, 7 lions. High wire walkers, 2 porcupines, rats, a cockerel and a young clown who was best of all. The tigers and lions were naughty all over the floor and the smell!!!

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After breakfast went with Guide to the House of Friendship – once a palace which Catherine II presented to one of her Courtiers, a most beautiful place of marble and gold, We went into a big panelled room and were met by 8 or 9 Russians who introduced themselves. There was a girl who translated, two engineers, a science and maths lecturer (a grandmother by the way), some teachers and an old boy who seemed to be from the Politburo. They invited us to form groups and ask them questions.

I went and sat beside a girl who turned out to be a post-graduate student of English, which she spoke quite well. Her mother had been in England and Scotland 8 years ago. She asked me about what kind of house I had, if I owned it, about my family, if we were diet-conscious, and what we ate – she was very hefty and had trouble dieting. She worked hard at English and played the piano. I told her all about our government, our orchestras, and film making, our election! The Loch Ness Monster (she had heard about it). I told her I believed in Nessie! I told her all about Dad. She gave me a carved spoon as a gift and we exchanged addresses. I must send her something from Scotland. Her name is Vera.

My chat turned out to be the most successful – they all talked about education and said afterwards they did not get any satisfaction of the visit. But I disagreed. Privately I think they all tried too hard to impress the Russians, who are not easily impressed. Vera told me about her mother, her holidays – she has been to Rumania and Bulgaria – but would like to come to Scotland.

After lunch we went to the Hermitage. After a while the crowds and noise got too much so five of us went for a sail on the River Neva, 2 hours out on the open deck. I enjoyed it so much. Only 70 Kopecs. I saw the Cruiser Aurora. Then back to the Hotel, dinner and dress. We went to hear the Leningrad Symphony Orchestra. Wonderful music. 

Sat 28th May.

Breakfast and a bit of shopping. I went across to the Monument of the Leningrad Freedom Fighters. As memorials go it is superb. There is an underground way in. Full of flowers, an eternal flame. There are groups of sculptures, dark bronze, and an underground museum. Most dramatic place. Rows of lights flickering – one for everybody who is buried there. Showcases where there are mementos of the siege. A continuous film at which teachers give a commentary to groups of school children. There were older people there who had lost loved ones – the siege lasted for 900 days and nights and thousands of people starved and were killed by the German shells. There is a violin in one of the cases presented by Shostakovich. An old Russian woman who was crying told me whose violin it was. Makes you think – these people really suffered.

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At 12.15 we got on the bus to go to the Airport. A lovely drive, sun shining. Had good look back at Leningrad and took last picture.

3.30 pm. I am sitting on the plane next to the window.  My five medals are placed as follows: 1 in the Kremlin, 1 just outside the wall in the Convent of the New Maidens duck pond! 1 in Kiev near the Hotel, and 2 in Leningrad in the River Neva. Our Lady will do the rest. Now I am just longing to see my loved ones – funny, I’ll be home by teatime.

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Ellen loved her family dearly. At the same time, she remained a self contained person whose instinct was always to rely on her own inner strengths. And not always easy or comfortable to get close to, at least not perhaps until later years. That’s why it has been such a delight to catch a glimpse, in the pages of this diary, of another Ellen, a more relaxed, mischievous, unencumbered Ellen, free to be truly herself with like minded people who shared her passions.

It was lovely to see our first glimpse of Scotland, dear old Scotland, so green and small! And do you know all our roads are curvy and the walls around our fields, and our houses and farms and hills. Lovely but so small! Even our blocks of flats look small, great to see individual houses. The lack of officialese at Glasgow Airport was just lovely – just a couple of guys standing there as if they would rather go for their tea! And best of all a little man on the tarmac waving two red flags – we all laughed at that, after the headphones and walkie-talkie things in the Russian Airports! Mary Chapman, Dinah McKay and I took a taxi from the Airport home and I was so excited to see my Grace and Catriona – who gave me a lovely welcome. I am glad to be back. I have had a fabulous trip – the most amazing holiday anyone could have. I shall never forget Russia in the warm sun. I hope they can come over here to sample our ‘Scotch Mist’.

Finito. God bless. Mum

In the next decade or so, most years saw Ellen – and Mary Chapman! – intrepidly signing up for one cultural tour after another. In 1986 it was to the Baltic, when she fulfilled her desire to revisit Moscow and Leningrad (where she and Mary were as likely to branch out on their own as to follow the official itinerary) as well as Tallin and Riga. Over the years, the passions that they shared for history, art, architecture, everything, took them on tours in Italy, France, Estonia, West Germany, as well as numerous interesting historical locations around Britain.

By this time, Ellen, with her inexhaustible thirst for knowledge, was a member of the archaeological society and various history study groups; she took art courses ranging in style from the Italian renaissance to Cubism, two classical music courses and she obtained diplomas in French and German. A true journey of the mind and a chance, at last, to indulge in the learning she always felt had been denied her as a child.

Visits to the family also took Ellen to Holland, the Cotswolds, Tyndrum, Switzerland, London. She also visited her family in Ireland and had them come and visit her in Glasgow. Ellen’s final long-distance trip came in 2001, when my sister Grace surprised her with a ticket to New York and the pair of them took off together for the Big Apple for a few days of sightseeing. Here she is, aged 78, still eager for new experiences.

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Travels with my Parents – Mum

Mum and DadNellie and John – Mum and Dad – loved getting away from the city and heading for the hills. I have no doubt that once John retired, with the family flown the nest they would have extended their horizons and started taking longer trips across the Channel and beyond. But it was not to be; John hadn’t even reached retirement age when he died, aged 60, in 1981 and whatever dreams they may have had were never fulfilled. But much though she missed her “poor dear John”, Nellie, or Ellen as she preferred, was not one to sit around moping and it wasn’t long before she was signing up for adult education classes at Glasgow University, namely Art and Architecture, and she also trained as a Guide in the Kelvingrove Art Galleries.

So, by 1983, the year she turned 60, Ellen’s diary shows a packed schedule encompassing work (Ultrasound Assistant in the Western Infirmary), classes, guiding, babysitting (daughter Grace and grand-daughter Tia had come to live at number 8), visits to and from family members, rambles with her walking group, concerts, reminders to write letters, make phone calls, send birthday cards. And, in the May, she signed up for a two week cultural exchange visit to Russia, an extension of her University class. Ellen brought back photos, but even better than that, she kept a journal (6,000 words), which conjures up the trip and her impressions of it perfectly – lets just say she was a much better writer than a photographer! I’d like to think she might be intrigued and delighted to know that edited highlights from that travel diary are now going to feature in this post. So, in her own words:

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Sat 14 May ’83. Moscow.

My Dear Ones. It is 11.37 pm and I have just got into bed. I am so tired and my neck is stiff from looking from side to side. I can’t really believe I am here in the Belgrad II Hotel. It is in the Smolensk Square and is not far from the Kremlin. I am on the 15th floor, room 18 – we got single rooms after all. 

Ellen had been due to share with one Mary Chapman, whom, she reports, she had met up with at the bus station in Glasgow at the start of their journey. This is a notable meeting because it marks the beginning of what would become a lifelong friendship. Ellen and Mary hit it off from the start and they not only buddied up on further cultural exchanges and trips to historical places in Scotland, but were more or less continuously in touch and would meet up for lunch or a cuppa whenever they could. In 1985, when that year’s trip to Florence was cancelled, the pair of them booked up for a Cotter’s Tour of Ireland, with Ellen visiting her home country as if she was a tourist, which I suppose was something she’d never done before.

But, let’s get back to 1983…

It is very warm in Moscow – in the 70’s in fact, and my room is sweltering. It is small and compact with a bay window – double glazed – but you can open it, it looks out over the River Moscova and a bridge. I can see the Red Star lit over the Kremlin. I am just looking out over the city and there are millions of lights. There are 8.8 million people in Moscow! And it stands on 240,000 acres.

The drive from the Airport was something I won’t forget. Huge blocks of flats as far as the eye can see, and it was amazing to see a small boy playing with a dog on the banks of a canal – might be Glasgow!  Or a woman hanging out clothes on a balcony. Everywhere there seem to be huge cranes looming into the sky and things being built. The Highway was wide and fast into Moscow from the Airport – there were fields and open spaces – and a little group of black wooden sort of little cottages. I saw a woman in a little garden and I think I saw a cow – or was it a dream?

As we lost height to refuel at Riga in Latvia I could see out the window and the country is completely flat. Roads stretch for miles as straight as a die and there are many canals. Nothing is curved – everything has straight angles. There are forests. The country is quite remarkable. And vast. I could see small groups of houses and houses on their own and some cars on a road – but usually rivers and in the distance the sea. We flew for an hour and the landscape did not vary. Rivers, canals, roads, what looked like fields and even the forests were all squared up as straight as a ribbon – quite extraordinary and fascinating. Could hardly believe I was looking down on Russia!

Another aside – immersed in reading this diary, I’d find myself, on the bus, looking at the passing vista with new eyes, as if I was Mum. For example, on the approach to Kilmarnock: “And here we have a row of ordinary looking pebble dashed council houses, rather run down and with unkempt gardens, some with rusty old cars in various states of disrepair”.

A bus without seats meets passengers out on the tarmac and squeezes twice the legal amount of bodies in and rushes back to the Reception. The building was very nice really. We were met by our Guide Tanya and an Intourist Bus. Slim young girl who chain smokes …

At the Airport – customs turnstiles manned behind glass cubicles by young lads in military looking uniforms, peaked caps, green coloured, short back and sides! – unsmiling, completely unsmiling. / There were women about – cleaners – very drab, small, squat, shapeless, fat and not very well dressed, no stockings, flat shoes, raw kind of faces, and amazingly all looked dressed the same – all unsmiling. And then at the Hotel – one of the Porters is nice – he smiles, at least when I smiled at him he smiled back. 

Sunday May 15th. Moscow.

Did not sleep much because of the heat. I opened the window, and the roar of the traffic was deafening but better than the heat. Went with Guide and our Bus to tour Moscow. It is an unbelievable place, massive buildings, full of décor, statues, palaces, buildings with marble colonades. The shops look nothing like ours. They just have posters and very little goods in the windows – and some do not have big windows like ours. There are giant blocks of flats and there are always shops in the ground floor. The highways and boulevards are so wide – 12 or 14 lanes – all straight, lots of lovely bridges over the rivers.

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We went to the Kremlin to see the Changing of the Guard on Lenin’s Tomb. There is a high red wall with towers at the angles – beautiful architecture. Each tower has a special name – one is Trinity Tower, with an icon of the Trinity painted on it. There are lovely white and yellow buildings and palaces inside and five monasteries. There were hundreds of people – tourists with guides taking photographs. Guards – young lads, short back and sides, goosestepped out of a courtyard at 10 a.m. and made their way to Lenin’s Tomb while the three on duty goosestepped back the way. I was right beside them and they had a sort of unseeing look on their faces. I kind of felt sorry for them.

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I went inside St Basil’s but had no kopecs to go through the turnstyles. Then the bus took us all round Moscow – to the Lenin Hills to see the University, a palace. The Olympic Stadium, Bolshoi Ballet, Theatres, Museums – all of which we hope to visit. By the way, the Lenin Hills is not really hills. Then back to the Hotel for lunch.

And indeed, over the next few days the group DID visit all of those places, and more – The Pushkin Museum of Fine Art, The Palace of Congress, the Kremlin Cathedrals, the Convent of the New Maidens, The Tchaikovsky Conservatoire, the Tretyakov Museum and Art Gallery, each place seemingly more gorgeous than the last, with frescoes, gold ceilings, angels and cherubs, chandeliers, statues. They viewed beautiful works of art and marvelous furniture inlaid with gold and ivory, and attended Il Trovatore in Russian, a Symphony concert, a concert of excerpts from classical ballets.

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Everywhere she went, Ellen was able to indulge her inexhaustible appetite for more knowledge, more information, more culture. When they went to the Tretyakov Gallery she wrote Lovely, lovely place, chandeliers with statues, gorgeous floors, paintings by famous Russian Painters. I enjoyed it as I had read a lot about it.

And always with her unique – not to say subversive! – angle on everything. Here are her impressions of the Palace of Congresses where they went to the opera:  … an enormous place with marble columns and marble stairs and floors. Could use the stairs 20 abreast. Enjoyed it very much. Sat beside a smiling dark lady. She spoke to me and said she was Czeck. Seemed anxious I knew she was not Russian. You know, sign language is great – we became quite friends… It holds thousands and the seats are wired for microphones. I have been looking around my room for bugs and there is a wire and a switch under my bedside table that I can’t account for – it’s very exciting! Hey you, Jimmy!

112793225_a4d44c29db_b (2)Monday 16 May. Moscow. 

Went in bus to Kremlin to see the Cathedrals – out of this world – frescoes all over the walls, lovely painted ceilings, gold and icons on the east walls. Not used as Churches nowadays but I have never heard so much about Christian things, Angels, the Virgin Mary, God the Father, etc. I was pleased to hear these holy names on our guide’s lips, and she certainly knew her stuff. I put one of my miraculous medals in a drain inside the Kremlin and another outside the walls. There is the Convent of the New Maidens where the daughters and womenfolk of the aristocracy took the veil – just outside the Kremlin Wall. It is the oldest, most massive, most beautiful place I have ever seen – that is where I put the second medal. We got a talk on history and architecture of all the buildings – most interesting.miraculous-medal-doorplate-med3419 (2)I know! Miraculous medals in the Kremlin! It’s for the conversion of Russia, you see. Mum took five of these medals with her – tune in to the next episode to find out what she did with the other three!

Later that day, they went to the Andrei Rubliov Museum, which was a particular favourite. I can do no better than to show you the actual diary page where Ellen has made a sketch of the layout.

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That last sentence reads I think that must be the highlight for me – I seem to like icons.

Tue 17 May. Moscow.

After lunch went to the Botanical Gardens with Alma and Margaret in a taxi. Huge place. Different to ours. Met lovely Russian woman at main gate who gave us tickets. When we thanked her she said “Don’t mention it”!! We were so surprised and told her where we came from. She knew of Scotland. She said her name was Eleana and said we have the same name. Then she put her hand on my shoulder and said “God bless you”. I gave her a hug. She was lovely: wonderful when you make contact. 

After supper we went to the Tchaikovsky Conservatory for a Symphony Concert by the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra. Lovely Building on three sides of square, trees in front. We could hear young musicians in the various buildings practicing. Enjoyed the concert, great orchestra, then hotel and pack for Kiev in the morning.

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to be continued…

 

Travels with my Parents – Dad, part 2

I’m not sure exactly when John returned home after his War service. He was discharged from the RAF in June of ’46 and I don’t think he went straight back to Fort William, but worked in Glasgow for a while. If you’ve been following this narrative, you’ll remember that the story goes that John and Nellie met at 50 High Street when he came home from the war, and fell in love more or less at first sight. I think this must have been 1948 or 49. But it does seem rather odd to me that I’ve not been able to find any pictures of them together, in what must have been their courting days. The only clue I have is this snap of John, inscribed on the back “To dearest Nellie. With all my love. – John. 7th Dec ’50”

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You can be sure I’ll keep digging! But, I’ve diverted myself, this is supposed to be the story of John’s further travels around the world and how he came to join the Merchant Navy.  It seems kind of obvious that John didn’t really have much of a clue as to what he was going to do with life as a civilian. He hadn’t been to college or university, in fact by all accounts his secondary education hadn’t been a great success, as he kept running away from school (he was sent away to be educated by the monks at Fort Augustus). He doesn’t seem to have ever shown any interest in becoming a chemist like his father or joining the family business, or maybe it was that George didn’t encourage him, who can tell? I do know that Dad used to complain that here he was, home from war and being treated like an errand boy. Not a happy situation.

Anyway, the one thing John WAS trained for was radio telegraphy, so, probably prompted by Nellie, he eventually went on a course to convert that RAF training into a “proper” qualification that he could use in civilian life. My understanding is that paying for a land-based certificate was just out of reach of their modest resources, so he went for the “pre-sea” one provided by the Ministry of Transport, which of course meant that he was all set for a life on the ocean wave. (You can click on these pictures if you want to read them better.)

John joined the Merchant Navy on the 28th of November 1952, and spent the next five years serving on ships throughout the world: the SS Lismora, Salveda, Pendeen, British Lancer, Olympic Mariner, Kaladan, Bhamo – names which conjure up a certain romantic image of the seafaring life. But in truth this is a life of charts and routines and regulations, of long periods at sea and short shore leaves… fortunately all brought to life for us in John’s photographs. Here’s the first page of his Merchant Navy album. As you can see, it hasn’t taken him long to acquire a distinctly nautical look!

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The Salveda was John’s second vessel and was a salvage steamer. Others were tankers or cargo ships, engaged in the post war boom in international trade. In some ways it was the final hurrah for these craft before they were superseded in the mid fifties by much larger container ships which would see the process of globalization begin in earnest.

These voyages took John all over the world, from Russia and the fjords of Norway in the north, west to Canada, south to Africa and Venezuela, and east to Burma, with many, many ports along the way. Here’s just a sample:

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Of course trips ashore punctuated much longer periods at sea, so naturally there are also pages and pages of photographs of shipboard life. I think I can remember my Dad teaching us this clapping song A sailor went to sea, sea, sea / To see what he could see, see, see / But all that he could see, see, see / Was the bottom of the deep blue sea, sea, sea. – which of course he know from experience!

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Again, there is that sense of the crew being in a kind of reality bubble, forming their own makeshift family unit during those months-long voyages. But, unlike the RAF years, this time, John DID have someone waiting for him at home – the faithful Nellie. I can’t look at these pictures and read John’s discharge book (listing all the voyages) without also thinking about what would have been happening back home while he was thousands of miles away, and it makes you realise what a very divided kind of existence this was.

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When John and Nellie married in Glasgow on 18 March 1953, John had been home from sea for 5 or 6 days, and departed to take up a new post a mere 4 days later. He spent the rest of the year on board the SS Pendeen with only a day or two between voyages, so Nellie travelled south and visited the ship at Surrey docks – this photo is dated 25 September ’53. I wonder if she had come to tell him that she was 5 months pregnant! They would have spent that Christmas together as there’s no voyage noted between 24 December and 7 January. At that time their home was a flat in Pollokshaws Road, near Queen’s Park in Glasgow and I think that at least until they were married Nellie was working as a housekeeper.

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John was probably in the Gulf of Aden in the Red Sea when I was born on 24 January 1954, so this picture dated 25 March probably marks the first time he would have met me, aged 2 months. It must have been a flying visit as his ship, the British Lancer, was due to set sail the next day. There was another short visit in June (more pictures of Queen’s Park!), but most of 1954 and half of ’55 was spent traversing the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. And then, when he had a 10-day break in March ’55, John bought the flat at 31 Rathlin Street, Govan which would become our family home for the next 7 or 8 years. John headed off on a long voyage to Venezuela at the end of March, so I’m thinking that it wasn’t until he came home in September that we would have moved to Govan. That September also saw us travelling to Ireland, no doubt so that Nellie could show off her handsome husband and baby daughter to her family.

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Then followed a rather longer period of domesticity, as John didn’t return to sea until the following July, which means that he would have been around for Nellie’s second pregnancy and the birth of my sister Ann on 23 June. After that he went back to sea and spent the rest of 1956 on several voyages to Africa: Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ghana. Whenever he came home John would bring exotic souvenirs – elaborately carved tables and boxes, an inlaid tray, an ebony carved head of an African man, toy camels made of leather. This picture shows Ann, nearly two, sitting on one of a pair of deckchairs he brought back from somewhere. Our flat in Rathlin Street was tiny, but there was always room for another artifact, becoming an integral part of our childhoods and which we shared between us when it came time to divide the contents of the family home almost 60 years later. These are my ornamental carved spears.

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Going back to our timeline, there was a family holiday in Fort William in June ’57, when Nellie must have been expecting again, though this time, John went back to sea until about 10 days before the birth of Mary on 28 November. With three children and a wife who was spending long periods essentially as a single parent, something had to give, and the next year, 1958, saw John’s final voyages, on the MV Bhamo. Looking more carefully at this page from our family album, I now realise that these pictures show John’s two eldest daughters making a farewell visit to his ship.

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John’s last voyage was to Burma, where he took these pictures of some pagodas in Rangoon. They didn’t made it into the album – I found them in an envelope marked “to be entered”. Maybe he just never had the heart…

I am unashamed to say that I’ve always regarded my Dad as something of a hero – I guess I’m not alone in that! Whenever I watch old war movies such as The Dambusters or The Guns of Navarone, there he is being played by Gregory Peck or David Niven or Richard Todd. I only have to hear the first few bars of 633 Squadron to conjure him up, clear as day. Yet I don’t even remember that period when he was away so much. I’ve been told that I used to refer to this tall, handsome person who drifted in and out of family life as “the man”.  What I do remember is a steadfast, dependable presence who would hold your little hand in his big one and make you feel safe.

John plainly loved his life at sea, as he did his days in the RAF. But in the end he loved his family more and as far as I am concerned the most heroic thing he ever did was to put it all behind him, come home and don the uniform of a bus driver. It wasn’t an easy choice, in fact in weak moments he would refer to the “sacrifice” he’d made.  Surely that’s what courage is. To be faced with perilous uncertainty and do it anyway.

 

 

Travels with my Parents – Dad, part 1

My parents, John and Nellie, both had periods in their lives when they travelled to the four corners of the world, though never together! The biggest journeys they made during their marriage were two trips to Ireland, to Mum’s home in County Mayo. I’ve already shared accounts of these trips, as well as the many car and camping excursions we took as a family, mainly to Dad’s old stomping grounds in the Highlands of Scotland. Here are some pictures of a cycling holiday he took with some mates in the late 1930’s when they were 17 or 18. This may possibly have been to mark the end of their school days.

But it was World War II, perhaps only two or three years later, that first took John rather further afield. His time as a radio officer in the RAF saw him in Italy and Africa, and then later, service in the Merchant Navy meant voyages to all points of the compass. As ever, the faithful box brownie recorded these travels and we have two meticulously organised leather bound albums to tell the tale. The first one, the wartime one, begins with this spectacular shot of a high tension lightning strike over the city of Queenstown in Cape Province, South Africa. It must surely have been an event like this that inspired the poem John wrote that I featured in a previous blog (“A Poem from Wartime”, 16 Mar 2017).

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Leafing through John’s albums gives me a compelling impression of the young man who would become my Dad. I find it interesting to realise that he did in fact spend most of his life in uniform – his 20’s in the RAF, his 30’s in the Merchant Navy and the remainder of his life in the service of the Corporation of Glasgow Transport Department. I can’t help feeling that perhaps something in John responded to the structure these institutions gave him, helped him cope with the eternal feeling of loss that never quite left him after his mother died when he was 11.

Whatever the truth of the matter, the John who emerges from the pages of his wartime African adventures is a very handsome young man in his early twenties, at ease with himself and his companions. The album is an intriguing mix of snaps of him and his buddies; of the various camps where they stayed; of the places – and people – where they were stationed. It’s almost as if, just for those few years, they were living in a slightly surreal bubble, clearly engaged in the all-engulfing reality of war, and yet also taking advantage of every second of free time to explore the sights and sounds of the surrounding towns, villages and countryside. As they say nowadays, living life to the full. In these pages the story really tells itself…

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Next time, we’ll have a look at my Dad’s sea voyages, but for now, I’ll leave you with some more images from his days serving in Africa (the captions are – mostly – Dad’s). For me these are beguiling glimpses of John as he was just before he came back home at the end of the war and met Nellie. And both their lives changed forever.

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Should Auld Acquaintance be Forgot?

Every year I used to try and send a Christmas card to everyone I had ever known; all those auld acquaintances I had shared a certain period of my life with – school / university / playgroups / drama company / various periods of angst or struggle or marriage / far flung relatives / work colleagues / fellow volunteers … And even when I’d moved on to pastures new and the next phase of life, there was always that annual greetings card, that attempt to keep the spark alive, to somehow try and keep up with the comings and goings of increasingly divergent lives.

I do have a few friendships whose thread has persisted – you know who you are! But mainly of course it’s the family ties that survive the ebbing and flowing of the years – the ties that bind, so to speak. For the rest, I gave up trying to keep up with the Christmas cards quite a few years ago – there comes a point when it really is time to let go, mainly of the person you used to be, and thus liberate yourself. Anyway, we’ve got the internet now haven’t we? A different way of communicating.

Funny thing is, writing this blog – ostensibly all about the past, the history of my family – is NOT about clinging to that past. It’s much more about looking at it as clearly and honestly as possible and figuring out what I feel about it now, understanding how it has made me who I am today and embracing that person. Not in a way of harking back to the past, but of celebrating it as part of the fabric of the present, the here and now.

In a similar spirit, I don’t write New Year resolutions any more – I’ve finally realised that I’m really only setting myself up for failure by the end of January! Much better to start afresh EVERY day of the year, to move forward without regret and without beating oneself up for one’s many faults and failings. I try to say to myself – if you COULD have done it better you WOULD have, but you did the best you could at the time. I’m with President Obama when he said that rather than make resolutions it’s better each day to do a little better than the day before. That’ll do me!

However, one can’t escape a bit of the spirit of out with the old, in with the new. I’ve been clearing out my kitchen cupboards in preparation for the New Year, something, you’d think, that you do regularly anyway. Well! I was somewhat shocked to discover quite a few packets of dry goods (flour, pulses, etc) that were not just years but actually DECADES out of date! The worst offender was a jar of gravy powder from the year 2000! I mean, I’ve moved house at least three times since then! But I know that’s probably part of the problem – when you’ve had as many moves as I’ve had over the years, sometimes you’re just boxing up an old life and carting it somewhere else without having the chance to really consider what your new life in a new place is going to be. And what it should consist of, possessions-wise. Especially if it’s the wind of circumstance that has forced the relocation. I always felt when I moved house that I was leaving a little bit of myself behind and would feel rather lost in the new place until I’d found ways of settling in and reclaiming those lost bits so that they could be expressed, albeit in a different way. Or perhaps just letting them fade away into the past.

One thing I always used to take with me on these moves was a current knitting project.  I think I knitted from about 5 years old and I’ve always loved the process of making things by hand, stitch by stitch, though I have to confess that I eventually fell out of the habit and haven’t made anything for years. However, I still feel very inspired by beautiful patterns and designs which are posted on Facebook and I save them even though I never actually undertake the projects. Why do I do that? Maybe I’m just not ready to give up the idea of myself as a knitter.  It was a deeply ingrained part of me for at least half of my life if not more, and even though it’s years since I knitted or crocheted anything, maybe 2018 might be the year when I start up again. So I want to keep that little light of inspiration alive, just for the time being.

We go into reflective mode as the New Year approaches, don’t we? Radio and television bombard us with retrospective musings on the year just gone by and speculation on the year ahead. It’s a fun game, and very entertaining. So I’m not averse to a bit of light-hearted retrospection myself while I prepare to celebrate Hogmanay and “the bells” with, this year, daughter Sarah visiting from New York.

It’s time to tak’ a cup o kindness and look back fondly on the friends of yesteryear. Friends who are no longer a part of my everyday concerns, or even still with us in this life, but who retain a place in my heart and who, I suspect, if I could meet them tomorrow, would slip as easily into those familiar moulds as if it had been only moments since we last met rather than more years than I care to remember. So, Gemma, Marie, Iris, Gloria, Colette, Mary, Barbara, Shuggie, Robert, John, Marian, Stevie, Sue, Kathy, Harry, Mrs Duffy, John, Cathy, Frances, Bob, Gerry, Father Ken, Brother Jim, Pat, Betty, Pam, Beryl, Dot, Nancy, and so many more – I salute you, and I wish for 2018 to bring you and yours only unbounded peace and joy.

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Christmas Blues and the Ghosts of Christmas Past.

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Actually, this title is a bit misleading as there is NO NEED for Christmas to get you down – all you have to do is avoid the crowds, the shops and the demands for the latest must-have toy or gadget! Were Christmases less commercial in my childhood? Perhaps they were, or maybe we were just a bit poorer in the fifties. I suppose we all have a tendency to look back and imagine things were better and simpler “then”. Maybe it’s just that WE were simpler. I remember that when my own children were very little we didn’t put up the Christmas tree until after they’d gone to bed on Christmas Eve and they’d wake up in the morning to find that Christmas had magically arrived and Santa had been.

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At this time of the year, there’s always a strong element of nostalgia intermingled in the celebrations, isn’t there? We recall how things used to be, and those who are no longer with us. So there is often just a hint of sadness in the mix, which makes it all the more precious I suppose. I’ve been looking back through my – somewhat random – collection of family photos and memorabilia in order to connect with those far off ghosts of the past and to get an inkling of the origins of my family Christmas.

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1931 – I’ve written before about my grandmother – and namesake – Beatrice, who died of TB in 1932. She spent the Christmas of 1931, which of course turned out to be her last, in a sanitorium far from home. We have letters from that time to “Dear Mamma”, which give a flavour of Christmas at home without Mamma for John, Mary and Donald (my Dad, Auntie Mary and Uncle Donald), aged 10, 9 and 6. In John’s letter dated 25 December, he hopes that Mamma “likes the Gramophone that dada took up to you”. I like to imagine Beatrice and her fellow inmates and staff gathered round said gramophone to enjoy the hits of the day – Stardust, Minnie the Moocher and this one, Goodnight Sweetheart by Al Bowlly, which was also a hit that year for several other crooners including a certain promising young baritone named Bing Crosby.

Perhaps you’d like to listen as you read the childrens’ letters. First Mary.

And John. I notice that he says they didn’t decorate the room other than putting up holly and mistletoe. Probably that was Mamma’s job…

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1945 – Here we have a menu from wartime. I think that the No. 120 Maintenance Unit might have been in North Africa at the time, somewhere in the desert. No doubt my Dad and his mates enjoyed their traditional Christmas dinner with all the trimmings – a taste of home and another big turkey.

If they’d had a gramophone in the Mess, they could have listened to Bing Crosby dreaming of a White Christmas or the Vaughn Monroe orchestra with Let it Snow.

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1959 – These are Christmas cards sent to us individually by our Great Aunt Ettie, who was a nun in Dundee and went by the name of Sister Mary Evangelist. There were four of us girls by this time and the family still lived in Govan. Christmas hit that year? Little Drummer Boy by the Beverley Sisters.

I don’t know what, if any, were the childhood Christmas traditions followed by my Mum’s family in Ireland – if you remember, I’ve not been able to track down any photographs of the young Nellie – though I’m certain it would have involved a ceilidh or two and plenty of poteen. So maybe the excitement of us unpacking our knobbly stockings at the end of our beds came from our Dad’s bank of memories (though I never got an actual onion in my stocking!), as did the paperchain decorations which were always carefully folded up and put away, ready for the next year. Another thing that would be brought out was a small candle holder where the heat from the candles made four little cherubs spin round and a bell ring. I loved it so much that years later I bought one of my own and enjoyed the annual ritual of unwrapping it from its tissue paper and setting it up year after year until it literally fell apart. cherub candles

We like to imagine that we are following well established traditions when we celebrate Christmas with our own familiar family rituals. But of course these traditions are constantly shifting because our families are always growing or shrinking, as does the whole notion of what is the “norm”. The very idea of a celebration of the winter solstice goes back to Neolithic times, and people still gather at Stonehenge to this day to mark both the shortest and longest days of the year. These are customs that stretch back into the mists of history, creating a convenient festival ready made for the church to eventually come along and weave in the idea of the baby Jesus. Did you know that Jesus may not even have been born in December? But if it’s a myth, it’s a wonderful myth, and whether we are rejoicing in the incarnation of God on earth, or simply the love of family and friends, its a fitting way for us to mark the deep midwinter and the far off hope of the spring to come.

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When I was young – even when my family were young – there was not such a vast over-abundance of stuff in the shops or the possibility of choosing from a seemingly endless array of consumer goods from every corner of the world. I remember, some time in the 1960’s, finding out that some of my friends put out not a stocking, but a pillowcase for Santa to fill. Of course part of me envied this, with my knobbly stocking plus one modest present, but mostly, my frugal wee soul felt appalled at this display of overindulgence. I suppose that even as a child I felt a sort of loyalty and defensiveness towards my parents: towards John and Nellie who worked so hard for their family and, I felt, deserved our appreciation and gratitude. I’ve probably never really got over this nervousness of excess in any form.

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But the best Christmas memories aren’t about the presents, are they? In fact I can hardly recall what presents I’ve received or given over the years. I do remember the childrens’ nativity plays; the home made crib (pictured at the top of this page); the toddlers who played with the box rather than the toy inside; the trips out to see the Christmas lights; Christmas carols at Midnight Mass; the year when Santa’s little elves left beautifully wrapped tiny gifts for me and Peter; or the one where the children dressed up as the characters from The Snowman (including the Christmas tree!) and performed the entire story with music and actions….

And of course there were the Christmases when we ventured away from home in order to enjoy a family get-together. This picture is from 1989 when we all managed to gather at Jane’s flat in Glasgow and capture this image of Mum – Granny Ellen – surrounded by ALL of her existing grandchildren (only Magnus, now 21, is missing from the group as he wouldn’t be born for another 7 years).

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In latter years while Mum was still with us, me and my sisters used to congregate at some point at “Number 8” with our families where we would cram into the front room to have a grand exchange of presents (I’d learned by this time how to actually enjoy this cornucopia of goodies). Mum would have made her usual marvellous pot of soup and would preside over the proceedings, smiling benignly at everyone from her cosy armchair. As I say, I don’t really remember the gifts, but I do remember the fun, chaos and warmth of those special times.

Nowadays, as a granny myself, I rejoice in being able to share Christmas with my lovely children and grandchildren. I’ve found plenty of ways of keeping things simple and meaningful, despite the commercial “bah humbug” that assails us from every direction, and I’m happy to say that as far as this family is concerned, the magic is alive and well and safe in the hands of the next generation. And to all my readers, I can do no better than sign off with these words of Dickens’ Tiny Tim: “A merry Christmas to us all, God bless us every one”

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This year, Maggie and Jamie took the boys all the way to Lapland to visit Santa in person.