Uncomfortable Truths

I confess I haven’t really dwelt upon some of the unhappier episodes I’ve come across in my delving into the family archives over the past year and more. It’s not that I’m trying to hide anything, and I have certainly addressed sad subjects such as my grandmother Beatrice’s tragic early death, as well as topics like my ambivalence about my schooldays and my parents’ sense of shame about what they perceived as their position in society. My Mum’s insistence upon never mentioning that my Dad was a bus driver was not a comfortable thing for a teenager to take on board. However, I’ve found myself keen to see the deeper truths and to comprehend the reasons why things may have been the way they were.  Two things I have learned in my life are that 1) people don’t generally mean to cause you pain and that 2) we are ALL in need of forgiveness. So, as far as possible, I choose celebration over exposition, kindness over blame.

two birds perception

In my quest to get to the truth – or maybe just a truth – I am perfectly aware that my perception of even shared experiences is exactly that; MY perception. Whilst I might sometimes speculate, I never presume to know what anyone else might have felt. I’m also aware that even touching upon events in the past might trigger painful thoughts and memories in others that I’m not even aware of. I suppose it’s inevitable I won’t always get it right – it can only ever be my best guess as a fellow human being.

Except that I don’t always need to guess. I know perfectly well why I’ve sometimes avoided looking through my own shoeboxes of photographs from certain periods in my life, never mind anyone else’s. I’m sure that most people can look back on chapters in their lives when every single memory seems to be tinged with sorrow and pain and regret.

Old family photographs can take you like that too. Sometimes the people stare out at you with a haunted look in their eyes, captured in a moment of grief or unhappiness which touches your heart and makes you ache to reach out to them even long after they are dead and gone and can’t be hurt any more. This is one such picture (fortunately annotated at the back in case you’re wondering at how remarkably well informed I am, although some of the information also comes from my trawling through Ancestry.com records).

Peter and children, 1893

This is my Great Grandfather, Peter MacFarlane, with his seven children. The year is 1893 and the empty chair at the back is to signify the absence of Peter’s wife, Louisa, who died suddenly of cerebral meningitis in April of that year, aged 45. This might even have been the day of the funeral. It doesn’t take much insight to perceive the pain etched in all their faces, or to understand that this could have been a seminal moment determining the further course of their lives and personalities. In particular I look at the little curly haired chap in the front row, my Grandfather George, aged 6, for whom history tragically repeated itself in 1932 with the loss of his own wife, Beatrice, when his own littlest boy Donald, our Uncle Donald, was also 6.

These children would eventually become known to our family as my Dad’s Aunt Ettie (Ethel Sarah), Aunt Lulie (Mary Louisa) and Aunt Winnie (Winifred Grace), sitting at the back and Uncle Jack (Peter John) and Aunt Moolie (Muriel Davenport) to the front. The little child sitting on Lulie’s knee is Anice Jane, and she never grew up to be anyone’s aunt for she died only a couple of years later when she was just 3 years old. Uncle Jack, or Father Jack as he became a priest, died at the relatively young age of 47 in 1931, but the Aunties all lived into their 60’s and beyond.

My father was very attached to these Aunts of his, who would obviously have known him as he was growing up, and I think watched out for him and his brother and sister in the years after their mother died. Dad spoke of them with great fondness and we called in on them once or twice during the years when we would visit Fort William on our family holidays.

But although he would talk endlessly about his family, Dad didn’t, as far as I can remember, show us his family photographs or ever really explain who all the people were that populated his anecdotes. My sister Mary observed that in those days parents never really did explain things to their children the way modern parents do. questions-1922477_1920-300x300We were just expected to be good and do as we were told. Asking questions was considered to be “cheeky”. We were good, but perhaps rather ill informed, as Mary says: As a child I remember being constantly surprised and bewildered because things were always sprung on me. 

I probably tuned out of the reminiscences, the way children do, but I’m pretty sure I’d have remembered the pictures. It’s pointless to regret it now, but I do wish I had paid better attention when I was young, and asked more questions – in fact the questions I am currently asking all these decades later! Perhaps then Dad might have felt able to share the images with us, if he hadn’t just buried them so deep that he actually forgot the existence of the dusty old cardboard suitcase full of sepia memories.

Neither was my Mum, with her great inner drive to always be forging ahead in life, someone who you would turn to to fill in the gaps in our knowledge of family history. If she became more expansive in her latter days, it wasn’t about Dad’s past which was all tied up with the loss of his mother and subsequent poor relationship with his father George.

Let me describe how it seemed to me as a child of about 12 visiting Fort William (this would be several years after George passed away in 1962). 50 High Street, the address of both the family business MacFarlane and Son, Chemist and the family house above, had almost mythical proportions in my mind – this was the place where John had been brought up; where Nellie had been nanny to something called the “second family” (I didn’t really understand what that meant); where my mother and father had met and fallen in love. (I must have paid some attention!) I had vague memories of visiting there as a much younger child and had an impression of an attic room with wooden floors. Though I have to confess that I may very well have confused it in my mind with the Alm Uncle’s house in my beloved Heidi books, who knows?

What I remember of the visit in question was of us knocking on the street door beside the shop, waiting a long time for someone to answer and eventually trooping up a dark narrow flight of stairs at the top of which we were shown into the ‘parlour’ where a somewhat stout older woman with an unsmiling face presided over afternoon tea, with various other younger people popping in and out for the purpose, it seemed, of inspecting us.  If my Dad ever had a notion of showing us around his childhood home it was quickly dispelled in that frosty atmosphere. I don’t remember whether anyone talked to me, I was too busy feeling uncomfortable and just living for the moment when we could get out of there and breath again. I later understood that the stout woman was Jessie and that she wasn’t Dad’s mother. Of course I eventually worked out that she was George’s second wife and the mother of the mysterious “second family” though it seemed to be something we shouldn’t ask questions about, so I didn’t, though I did manage to become less ignorant as the years went by, mostly by keeping my eyes and ears open and my mouth shut!

It is only now, all those decades later, that I have started to try to properly untangle these and the various other characters who tumble about my brain all interacting with each other like extras in some crazy film. Aunt Clemmie, Morag Arisaig, Archie Speanbridge, Uncle Laurence, Granny Bentley, Ishbel, Sarah, George’s Elizabeth, Sandy’s Pat, Auntie Maureen, Uncle Donald… you get the picture! Of course the keys to bringing some sort of order to the chaos have been there all along had I but known it. Whether it be in memories residing in my own brain or those of my sisters and cousins; old cases of fading photographs; letters kept in black bags for 20 years; a family tree born of 32 years of meticulous research. These are just some of the sources I’ve already mentioned in the pages of this blog.

Another realisation is that, while it’s true about the material being there all along, just waiting to be discovered, it’s probably also true that it’s only the fact that both John and Nellie are no longer with us that has given me the freedom to dig deeper and explore the facts that lay behind what I always knew was a great tragedy in my father’s life, and the feelings of loss he always felt regarding Fort William and his childhood. Sometimes what you’re looking for is confirmation of a childhood impression – it’s so easy for children to get the wrong end of the stick. I have hesitated before now to tell the tale of our visit to ‘Fifty’. It is an uncomfortable tale to tell and one doesn’t want to cause hurt to people who’s idea of what was going on may be entirely different from yours. But I believe it is a true impression – anyone I have ever talked to about it confirms that. I even have some words written by Aunt Winnie, George’s sister, in a letter to her daughter Theresa following his death in 1962:

…there is no place now for the first family…

And so it proved. I do think there are things that happen in our lives that you can never really get over. Such as the death of a parent, or a child, or a grandchild, or a marriage, or our idea of ourselves as someone who will unfailingly keep our promises and be able to always protect our loved ones from harm. Or the notion that we can take anything life throws at us and then come back for more….

I’m lucky, I have always eventually been able to come back for more, albeit sadder and wiser, as the saying goes. I can look back at my old photographs and know that the person staring out at me with that haunted look in her eyes isn’t really me any more. That somehow I did learn to live with what seemed to be unbearable pain or a truth so uncomfortable as to make you want to take to your bed and stay there forever.

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It must be a rare person who sails through life without ever feeling that they want to give up. The rest of us just muddle through the best we can, our ancestors being no exception. Some admirable souls share their struggles for all to see in the hope that others can take strength from knowing they are not alone. I think most of us choose to fight our life battles in private.

But whether we shout it from the rooftops, or share our struggles in a more intimate way, we are all more or less battle scarred. I believe that our job is not to avoid the challenges of life, but to embrace them, learn from them, give our children the gift of resilience, teach them kindness to others and never to be afraid to ask for help. If you want my own homespun philosophy, it’s this – whenever I reach the end of my tether I tie a knot in it and hang on, remembering the words of the great Scarlett O’Hara, heroine of the best film ever, Gone With The Wind:

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The Mystery of Granny Bentley, and a Seaside Holiday

four generations

The mystery began with this photograph, found among the collection of loose photographs we fell heir to when my mother Nellie died in 2015. There are no names, just the caption “Four Generations.”

To start with, I do know that the two seated on the right are my Grandma Beatrice with my dad John on her lap – you’ll maybe recognise them from previous posts. I reckon this is probably the spring of 1922 when John would be 7 or 8 months old (born 30 August 1921).  The older lady standing beside Beatrice is her mother Alberta Bentley – you can see the strong family resemblance between them. I thought that the granny in the bonnet was likely to be Sarah Thompson, Alberta’s mother, but I didn’t actually know it, and I wasn’t even sure whether she was still alive in 1922 – she was born in 1841, and would thus have been 81 in this picture – not impossible.

Further intriguing clues are contained in some pictures of a family holiday, marked Blackpool July 1927, which I found pasted into a ragged little scrap book. They show Beatrice and the three children, John, Mary and Donald, enjoying a family holiday by the sea. Their father George doesn’t appear in any of these photographs, so either he’s shy and always behind the camera, or he might have had to stay at home in Fort William and keep the business going. Here are the children having fun on the beach.

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John, age 6
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Mary, age 4
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Wee Donald, 2 and a bit, looking cool in his shades

So far so good. But we also have some pictures featuring our elderly lady, who, if it IS Sarah, would by this time be a rather magnificent 86 years old.

blackpool #16
Here she is with Beatrice and the three children
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And now Alberta has joined the group as well

Here’s a better view of the house, with… who?

blackpool #14

Again, I have been unclear as to the identity of this gentleman. I thought it was probably one of Beatrice’s brothers, but had no other evidence to give me a positive identification.

Enter Steve Bentley, stage left! As I mentioned in my last post, I have recently made contact with this third cousin on the Bentley side, and he too had photographs which included the lady we rapidly started calling the mystery granny, as he was no nearer to a definite identification than I was. However, he was able to confidently identify Laurence Bentley for me, which meant that for the first time I was able to put a name to the chap having fun with the children – it’s their Uncle Laurence.

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John looks as if he’s wondering when it’s going to be his turn to be tickled.
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I think I’ve got the strings tangled
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Here, let me help you old chap

You might be wondering why I am so hesitant to identify this “mystery granny” as Sarah Thompson, it does seem kind of obvious. Well, part of the reason is that I’ve heard from a couple of sources that after Beatrice died in 1932, George and the children used to get visits in Fort William from “Granny Bentley”. She even carried on visiting long after George had married his second wife, Jessie MacPherson. The story goes that she was so moved by the warmth of her reception that she converted to Catholicism! This is supposed to be a photograph of her attending the baptism of George and Jessie’s oldest child, George. You’ll recognise a somewhat older Mary and Donald on either side of her.

mary and donald and ...

BUT George was’t born until 1936. If it’s the same person, that would take this “Granny Bentley” to the grand old age of 95, which is really pushing it a bit. Besides, wouldn’t she be Granny Thompson? It’s Alberta that would be Granny Bentley. The final thing that makes me think that this line of enquiry might be a red herring is the following picture that I know is of George’s christening (it says so on the back). Notice that Mary and Donald are wearing entirely different clothes.

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But on the theory that the best mysteries should be scattered with red herrings and cliffhangers, I’m going to leave this question up in the air for the moment, and turn the focus back to Blackpool and the family holiday.

I wondered what might bring Beatrice and the children to Blackpool at this time. Why Blackpool, and why were so many members of her family there too? It could be that they’d taken a house for a big family get-together, perhaps in advance of Laurence’s wedding which was due to take place in the September (I don’t think Beatrice was able to attend her brother’s wedding). Or this could be someone’s home. The Bentley family had settled in Market Harborough after Alberta’s husband Frank had died in 1904, but I know that she eventually ended her days in Blackpool.

And Beatrice… I suspect that whether she knew it or not, by this time she was already in the grip of the dreadful disease (TB) which would eventually end her life. Cousin Steve showed me a letter written by George after Beatrice had passed away in which he mentions that the first time Beatrice left home to be admitted to hospital was five years to the day prior to her funeral. Five years! If that’s true, then by the end of this year, the year of their Blackpool holiday, Beatrice would have started the long slow decline towards her demise.

Which makes these photographs all the more poignant and precious to me. I’d like to end this post by sharing some more of them with you.

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End of an Era

As the 1960’s ended and the 70’s began, our family was heading towards the end of an era. By 1974 I had got married and had my first child, and over the next decade or so my sisters, one by one, would also leave home and start to make their various ways in the world. All of these transitions brought their own challenges of course. Suffice to say that in some ways Mum and Dad, and perhaps especially Dad, didn’t always find it easy to adjust to the ever changing family configurations as their six daughters ventured out into the big wide world.

But I’m jumping ahead of myself. Before all this re-configuring began, there were still a few years when we would all pile in to Victor the car and head off on various trips, which Dad would continue to document in that old leather album.  In 1969, we crossed the Irish Sea, and for the first time met our Irish cousins. For my Mum, it would have been 14 years since she had last visited her homeland. That first picture, of my mum and Phil her sister in law, has always made me smile as they pose in the garden complete with handbags!

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What do I remember of that visit? Very little I’m afraid. I see from the pictures that we visited Galway Cathedral and were taken by our Uncle Pat for rides in the hay wagon. My memories coincide with how my sister Mary describes it: “The family visited Mum’s home in Davros where she displayed her bike-riding skill to the astonishment of us all. On our journey home through Belfast we encountered a crowd throwing a pipe bomb and stones. We cowered in the car as Dad drove us to safety (the wrong way) up a one-way street. As we left on the ferry we spotted large graffiti letters painted on the jetty behind us saying “Paisley for Pope!” which we found very funny – I suppose because it seemed to insult both sides in equal measure – and it became a saying in our family for years afterwards.”  Trust us to choose practically the first night of the Irish troubles to finally make it over the sea to Ireland!

It was maybe a year after the Irish adventure that Mum and Dad acquired a great big tent, big enough to sleep all of us, and we became a family who took camping holidays instead of just going away for day trips. I think Glen Orchy was chosen for our first proper camping expedition, a spot beside a stream, which was our one and only concession to modern facilities. I remember my sister Ann and I being allowed to walk maybe a couple of miles up the road to the Bridge of Orchy, where there was a hotel and a shop. I’ve got a feeling we did no more than hastily buy some chewing gum before we headed back again for fear we wouldn’t get back to our camp before it started raining – I know, intrepid or what?. And we probably ended up with blisters as our footwear of choice was wellies!

After that we discovered North Ballachulish where there was an actual campsite owned by a very nice couple called Dykes. Although when I say campsite it was more a bit of extra land attached to their cottage, an informal – and relatively inexpensive – arrangement which suited us so well we went back a few years in a row. This was an ideal location for us, a mere 15 miles south of Fort William and thus within easy reach of places – and relatives – from Dad’s childhood, and indeed the place where Nellie had been the family nanny and the story of their romance began. (See post from 10 March “A Glasgow Wedding”). Both of them loved the Highlands, and passed that love on to us.

We would make visits to various of Dad’s Highland relatives and “John’s girls” would be duly lined up and coo-ed over.  One time we went on what must have been quite a major expedition to Dundee where we visited my Dad’s Aunt Ettie, Sister Mary Evangeline – she belonged to the Convent of Mercy there. The nuns seemed delighted to have us as visitors and the younger ones ran around the garden playing tag with our “wee ones”, Jane and Eleanor. I remember the nuns’ parlour with its characteristic smell of furniture polish, and all of us standing in a row entertaining said holy Sisters with our rendition of “Eidelweiss”. The nuns, being nuns, were very kind and clapped enthusiastically – or maybe they really did enjoy it. Another time we reached even further north and visited Ettie’s sister, Aunt Winnie, in Inverness.

In truth we rarely had much appreciation of who all these relatives were – I think in those days adults were not much in the habit of explaining things or introducing themselves to children, and it’s only as I look back now that I can understand just who those various aunties, uncles and assorted cousins were. In fact part of the purpose of this blog is to try and make some sense of it all.

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As you can see, at some point Dad had upgraded from the box brownie and discovered glorious technicolour! I was also lucky enough to acquire a camera of my own (a wee Kodak Instamatic as a reward for doing well in my Highers). One of the first pictures I took was this one of Mary, who had obviously just received her box brownie training! Now I come to think of it, I have very fond memories of my Dad showing us how things worked. He would take your hand in his and position your fingers in the right place, explaining all the time – Don’t shake the camera.. Make sure you stand with your back to the sun.. Press in the button gently.. He’d also tell you a whole load of stuff that you didn’t want to know – shutter speed, exposure times and so on. But, there’s something about those big gentle hands that is a deep abiding memory for me. My mum used to tell me that when I was a very little girl I’d push my hand into his and say “Hold oo wee handie”

So, to finish, here we all are, still at school, still having our pictures taken in the back green, still relatively unaware of the changes that would inexorably come upon us, and indeed upon the world. Embrace it or resist it, nothing ever stays the same for ever…

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