Tribe of Cousins

I’ve read that cousins are often your first friends outside the immediate family. That was certainly true for my own children in the 1980’s and the friendships have lasted to this day, despite their parents insisting on lining them up for a photo every time the two families got together! Nowadays we’d have to include various assorted partners and 10 offspring as well, if I’ve got my sums right.

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Of course part of the reason why cousin gatherings are so much fun is that it’s usually some sort of family celebration that brings us together. Even just a visit becomes a special event because it’s a chance to whoop it up with additional members of the tribe.

 

My own experience as a child was somewhat unlike my children’s – I suppose for us it was a different, less mobile era, so we didn’t really have much to do with our cousins as we were growing up in the fifties and sixties. These pictures are from the one trip we made to Ireland as a family in 1969 (see my post from last August, The End of an Era). And then it wasn’t until years later, after my Dad died, that I would occasionally encounter these cousins if I happened to be in Glasgow when, all grown up, they came over to visit my Mum.

 

Contact with cousins on my Dad’s side of the family was equally rare. The following photo is the only one I have of us mingling with those cousins on a visit to my Uncle Donald’s house in, I believe, 1962 (going by the absence of the youngest members of our respective families). And I rather think the occasion was probably to do with the funeral of my grandfather George, that being the year he died. Auntie Mary would have been calling in at Glasgow on her way up to Fort William from her home in London. Or possibly she and her brothers, John and Donald, were making a visit to him on his deathbed. This may have been something of a reconciliation with his three oldest children, but I’ll write about that another time.

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At the back is my Auntie Mary with her baby daughter Mary and our cousin Muriel. In front of them is myself and cousin Donald. Then at the front, left to right, my sister Mary Veronica, cousin Frank, cousin Mary Theresa, sisters Grace and Ann, and little cousin Michael.

The only thing I can remember about visiting Uncle Donald’s house – and it may or may not have been this occasion – is of not being 100% sure that he was only joking when he produced a large pair of scissors and threatened to perform surgery on my cousin Frankie’s bleeding finger. Of course the scissors were just to cut a plaster, but just for a split second, I actually entertained the thought that he really would cut the finger off!

Over the years, weddings, christenings, and especially funerals have provided random opportunities to come across these rather elusive relatives. And the encounters would always leave me wishing that they were in my life to a greater extent rather than just someone you knew had a place in your family tree. Because, no matter how little contact you have, your cousins are never strangers. As cousin Catriona once said “we know where the bodies are buried”. There’s an instant understanding, a sharing of common history, a fellow feeling that needs no further explanation.

All of this has been very much brought home to me since my Mum passed away a couple of years ago and I started rambling on about my family in this blog as well as renewing old acquaintances, or uncovering new ones. I’ve already mentioned Steve Bentley in this context, and I’ve also had contact with John Hynes (the sole boy in the haystack picture above), who now lives in England and was absent when I caught up with my Irish cousins (all the others on the haystack!) and some of their children and grandchildren when I visited County Mayo last spring.

More recently there has been communication with two MacFarlane relatives who both live in South Africa, but have maintained contact with their Highland roots over the decades and who illustrate perfectly what I’ve come to think of as the cousin effect.

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Cousin Liz (or second cousin Elizabeth van der Mey if you want her Sunday title) is South African born and bred and and she first contacted me though the blog, writing:

Where do I fit in? My mother Theresa wrote the wee note to your Grandmother Beatrice that appears in May or June last year.

(From “Clutter or Treasure”, April 2017).

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I am ‘Aunt Winnie’ Chisholm (MacFarlane)’ s granddaughter (ran into trouble with punctuation there!) I feel like I’ve known you all my life which may seem weird to you but my mother pined so for ‘home’ after coming to South Africa in 1948 and constantly regaled us with family lore…

While you were writing your blog, here on the other side of the globe I was scanning my mother’s letters. She died in 1996, the kist full of letters was only discovered some years later when my father moved out of the house. For almost 20 years I kept them in black rubbish bags but about a year ago the time was right and I started to sort and scan them. Not finished yet but a few more months should do it. What a journey it has been!

… I’d love to share what I can remember of my mother’s reminiscences with you – just a memory here a memory there that helps to flesh out those long ago days. I am a 1952 vintage and a Granny of 6, married to a Dutchman and have spent most of my life in SA but my Scottish roots are dear to me. My mother and Mary Hanley were dearest friends.

I’m sure you can imagine how excited I felt at receiving this warm, generous message totally out of the blue. It hasn’t taken long for the two of us to become Facebook friends, and I am very much looking forward to delving into Liz’s material and, as she says, using it to flesh out those long ago days.

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Next, I’d like to introduce you to Robert MacFarlane, or rather to his shattered shoulder blade, the result of a skydiving accident. I have skydived for the last 21 years and this was a bad landing. I know how and why, will not bore you with the details. This doughty gentleman is of a similar vintage to Liz and myself so I have to admit that this news was the last thing I was expecting! Recovery is now well under way thank goodness, but even when he was temporarily reduced to typing with one finger, Robert has already sent me a wealth of pictures and information from his extensive archive. I have been a very active family historian for the last 42 years as well as Lochaber historian, a passion rather than a passing interest.

It is ever so slightly daunting as a mere beginner, to meet someone with this kind of research pedigree! Over the past 42 years, Robert has traced the MacFarlane family history, and can show our family tree going back through the MacDonald line all the way to Robert the Bruce (1274-1329) the second King of Scotland.

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Fortunately for me, Robert seems just as interested in the minutiae of domestic relationships – or as we call it, gossip – as in the broad sweep of history. I look forward to sharing some of these tasty titbits in this blog.

A final cousinly thought. I know that my dad, John, had been close to his Spean Bridge cousins. I heard that he would take the bus from Fort William to Spean Bridge, let himself in to the house and the first anyone knew he was there would be when they heard music coming from the piano in the front room. And now I discover that there’s still a link with those far-off days. Robert has told me that his Aunt Margaret – now 88 and also living in South Africa – well remembers when she was a little girl hearing John playing the piano in their house. This would be in the 1930’s, in the years after his mother Beatrice had died (1932) and his father George had married his second wife Jessie (1935). I rather think that my dad found solace in going to play the piano in Spean Bridge, I certainly hope so.

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The caption is “Banavie 1931”. On the right is my Auntie Mary with my dad John to her left. The little chap at the front is my Uncle Donald. And I THINK that at least one or two of the other children are cousins from… Spean Bridge? Inverness? Perhaps YOU know!

 

 

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The Company of 12

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Reflecting on the notion of belonging for my last post brought to mind various groups I’ve belonged to over the years. Some of my fondest memories come from the 1980’s when I was a member of the Company of 12, an amateur drama group near London.

Amateur drama – playgroup for adults! Well maybe, but don’t let the legions of amateur thesbians hear you! In truth, it could be said that the only difference between the professional and non-professional theatres is the small matter of getting paid – there are plenty of amateur companies who put on productions to a professional standard in “real” theatres. Paid or not, everyone does it for love – of drama, of performance, of the sheer madness of dressing up and pretending to be someone else to entertain an audience. What’s not to love?

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Of course I’m not saying that the Company of 12 – or other Am Dram groups up and down the land – was brim full of budding Judy Dench’s or Ian McKellans just waiting to be discovered and whisked away to the West End or Hollywood. But we did take it very seriously and made the best we could of the talent we had, such as it was! We worked very hard and had lots of fun along the way. Here’s me rehearsing my drinking-a-cup-of-tea technique.

One of the things our group used to do was to get up a show and take it “on tour” to local old folks homes, where the residents would like nothing better than joining in with selections of songs from the musicals and hits from the forties and fifties that were all the rage when they were young – we knew our audience! One time, we took the guise of a group of market traders, each telling their story in turn, with accompanying medley of songs. Here’s me, second left, in my persona as “Second Hand Rose”.

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The lady in the middle is Dot, still a stalwart of her local drama group to this day. They have just put on a production of “Agatha Crusty and the Health Spa Murders”, where I have no doubt she played a leading role. Dot does occasional work as an extra, and sometimes pops up unexpectedly when you’re innocently watching, say, an instalment of Call the Midwife. Suddenly you’ve clocked Dot in a crowd scene, and you spend the rest of the episode carefully scanning all the faces just in case she appears again, whilst of course completely losing the plot of the drama.

I used to be just as interested in the production side of things as in performing and was never happier than when I was rummaging through boxes of fabric, feathers and foam looking for inspiration for the latest wacky prop or costume. I was very proud of the giant pizza we made for “Mr Macaroni and the Exploding Pizza Pie”, not to mention a haunted wardrobe which featured in one of our Christmas Pantos (large cardboard box with small boy inside spookily moving a candlestick from side to side).

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For some reason the plot of Mr Macaroni involved a band of fierce Chinese Pirates. See if you can spot me!

But, prop-wise, the absolute piece de resistance was the larger-than-life-size pie we made for Sing a Song of Sixpence – an utter triumph of engineering constructed from cardboard, chicken wire and papier mache, topped off with a beautiful varnished crust and big enough to slice open and allow the 24 blackbirds (members of the dancing school) to emerge and flutter around the stage. I WISH I still had a picture of that pie, but all I have is this snap of myself and my friend Pam in the early stages of construction. This is the have-we-bitten-off-more-than-we-can-chew moment.

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It was Pam who originally got me involved in the Company of 12. I first got to know her as Auntie Pam, who ran the local playgroup where I took Sarah, my youngest. One night she took me along to a rehearsal and I was hooked immedately!
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Here’s Pam as the Queen, resplendent in regal red wig and surrounded by her courtiers, not to mention two of the blackbirds who seem to have excaped from the pie.
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And here are the villagers (you can tell we’re villagers because of the shawls!) One of the good things about panto is that it’s a chance for the whole family to get involved – the three youngsters here are my Maggie, Sarah and Daniel. I’m sure Ben was roped in too – maybe he was busy trying to get out of the wardrobe when this picture was taken..

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Apart from the pie episode, I think my finest hour drama-wise, was when I landed the role of Madame Souffle in the Company’s production of Share and Share Alike, a “proper” play with music. My French accent (yes, French accent!) was probably excruciating, and my voice thin, but it was a proper part with a solo and I loved it. As I did when I had a chance to write and direct some of the travelling shows. There was always a point in my productions where some bright spark would pipe up “I know! Let’s put on a show in the old barn! (school hall / library / dining room)” and thereby bring all the warring factions together to solve whatever was the crisis of the day, in true dramatic spirit.

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These days you’ll find me, the most enthusiastic member of the audience, attending performances my grandchildren are involved in. And I’m not the only person to believe that life without Drama in it just wouldn’t be worth living…