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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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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