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….



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.

Nellie Pendeen

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.


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.



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.

Silver wedding

John and Ellen (Mum and Dad) reached their Silver Wedding anniversary on the 18th of March 1978. Here they are 25 years earlier on their wedding day, flanked by Dad’s sister Mary and his brother Donald. (See also my blog entry from 10 March).

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We six sisters spent months plotting and planning a big celebration for them, centering around a Mass where they would renew their marriage vows, but oh, so much more than that! I can’t really remember too much about it all these years later, but Dad was so moved by the whole thing that he wrote it all down on the day on some little scraps of paper, so this – more or less – is the story of their Silver Wedding in his own words…

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to theatre

THE DAY BEFORE – FRIDAY 17th MARCH – Ellen and I did as much as we could to the house in the way of cleaning and polishing. We were under strict instructions not to do anything else. In the morning we were given an envelope containing 2 tickets for the Theatre Royal and some money to have a meal in the “Ubiquitous Chip” where a table had been booked for 5.30 pm. We duly arrived at the appointed time, in the Cresta which was parked nearby. We had a really first class meal consisting of soup for me and tomato juice for Ellen, then the both of us had smoked mackerel followed by sirloin steak, mushrooms, carrots and potatoes. Ellen had a glass of sherry and I had a glass of beer. By this time we both felt properly full up so we forgoed the pudding we had planned and had a cup of coffee instead.

A word about the Ubiquitous Chip – until the “Chip” arrived in Byres Road in 1971, fine dining would only have been available in Glasgow in “posh” restaurants with snooty waiters and menus written in French. Now we had a new phenomenon – a restaurant where you were served by friendly student-type waiters, not serving chips despite the name, but offering fine Scottish cuisine using fresh local produce. I remember being taken as a student by a friend, Shuggie, who was desperate for us to try one of the exotic delicacies he had discovered there – fried onion rings!  Anyway, back to Dad…

After our most enjoyable meal we drove in the Cresta to the Theatre Royal and managed to park quite near to the main entrance. (I’m starting to notice how often the family car – always referred to by name – appears in this narrative, like an extra character.) We saw “The Sunshine Boys” – a comedy with Johnny Beattie and Roy Boutcher which we both thoroughly enjoyed. The theatre came out about 9.30 pm and as we were under instructions not to return home too early we went for a leisurely run in the Cresta (see!) to Drymen, returning via Balloch and Clydebank. 

Touchingly, I found the tickets and programme from that show carefully preserved along with Dad’s wee notes and the order of service.

No doubt the somewhat obvious ploy of getting Mum and Dad out of the house enabled the six of us to get on with preparations for what was to happen on the day itself. I’m afraid that page 3 of Dad’s account is missing, so we’re going to have to jump to page 4 where we will pick things up from the morning of the 18th.

… I had previously tricked her into giving me her engagement ring which I switched for an eternity ring (my present to her) and slipped that on her finger, much to her surprise when she realised what it was. Up until mid-morning today we really had very little idea what the girls were up to but now Beatrice arrived and revealed some of what had been up to now very closely guarded plans indeed. We were to be at my sister-in-law’s (Mary Jordanhill) house at 12 noon and remain there during the afternoon and then to be at Turnbull Hall shortly before 4 pm. 

When we arrived at Mary’s house we had a great surprise when we saw my sister Mary and her daughter Mary were in the house, having arrived from London the day before. This was one of many delightful surprises we were to experience during the rest of the day. Mary gave us a gorgeous lunch and we were really getting into the swing of things now.


You may notice the absence of our Uncle Donald from these proceeding. Unfortunately Donald and Mary’s marriage had ended a few years before, and Donald was living elsewhere with a new wife and young family.

Shortly before 4 pm we set off for Turnbull Hall and parked the car outside Beatrice’s flat. Ellen and I waited outside until called for. We were met at the back door of the chapel by Father Ken Nugent who led us up the aisle to two seats and kneelers just beside the foot of the altar. The mass was a very beautiful personal one, with our names mentioned as often as possible. Several parts of this beautiful mass were very memorable – Lulie read the Reading (she said it was the first time she ever did that), the girls read one bidding prayer each and they were so beautiful I am putting them down here…  (unfortunately,  Dad didn’t get around to doing that, or the page has been lost)

When it came to the part of the Mass where we wish the peace of God on each other Fr Nugent came down and greeted us first then we each took one side of the chapel and greeted individually the whole of the Congregation who, as it happened, turned out to be our guests. I was absolutely delighted and not a little surprised when I began to realise that everyone there was to be a guest of ours. Receiving Holy Communion under both species was unforgettable and what made it even better was that all the girls received Communion under both kinds as well. The hymns were especially well chosen and all well sung all accompanied by Frances on the little organ. If there had been nothing else that day I think that the joy of this Mass and the great pleasure at seeing so many of our friends would have filled my cup of happiness to overflowing.

It brings tears to my eyes to read just how much this Mass meant to my Dad (and I know to Mum too). They were both devout Catholics all their lives, so it was only fitting that this should be the central focus of their Silver Wedding celebrations. At the time Peter and I lived in a wee basement flat in Turnbull Hall (the Catholic Student Chaplaincy) and Father Ken was our friend as well as our priest, so he was very happy to help us to put together this very special and personal ceremony just for them, including, though Dad doesn’t mention it, them renewing their wedding vows, which they did in a very solemn and heartfelt way.

And of course, that wasn’t the end of the day. I well remember Mum and Dad’s faces as they moved down the church and started to realise just how many people had come from far and wide to celebrate with them, which they did, well into the night, back at “Number 8”.  The next page of Dad’s account is missing, but I’m sure you can imagine the party for yourself – presents galore (silver tray, tea service, carriage clock, etc, etc). Toasts and tears; expressions of astonishment that people had come so far, that no-one had given away the secret; how wonderful it was that John and Nellie had reached this magnificent milestone… And not a single camera between them it seems! The only picture I can show you is this one of Mum and Dad looking tired but happy.

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We don’t have the last page of Dad’s account, but what HAS survived is this list he made of all the people who came. Friends and family from Glasgow, the two Mary’s up from London, even a sizeable contingent down from Fort William. I can’t now remember if the absence of anyone from Mum’s family in Ireland was because we neglected to invite them, or if they were unable to come. I’d like to think the latter. I also have an idea that there were messages, or possibly telegrams, read out from some absent friends, but I don’t have any documentary proof of that, so maybe it’s just wishful thinking on my part.


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As it turned out, John and Ellen had only three more years together before Dad passed away and Mum began her long widowhood before finally being reunited with her “poor dear John” so many decades later.

It gladdens my heart to know that they so enjoyed their lovely day together, and that it was a true reflection of the love and loyalty they had always shown each other over the years. I’m by no means saying they were perfect and I know that my parents were a product of their times, but I also feel they had a very unique take on life. Perhaps it was because they came to Glasgow as outsiders and had to start from scratch to make a life for themselves here. They were never interested in possessions except in as much as it would enable them to do things with and for their family – a home to live in, a car for freedom, a tent where we could make our own holidays, a gramophone to play music. They had to battle against sometimes being made to feel inferior, they often struggled to make ends meet, but somehow they survived and thrived and no matter how hard things were they seemed never to lose sight of why they were together and to enjoy together the simple things in life they both loved.

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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!



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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More from the Family Album

Today’s post is really just a few more pages from the family album, as we only managed to get to 1957 the last time (“The Man with the Box Brownie”). Mary makes her first appearance on this page in a photo dated April 1958 (Dad used to take advantage of the odd ray of sunshine to take snaps of us in the house.)

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And then in Sept ’58 here’s Mary waving to her fans from the family pram.

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And here she coming up for two years old in August ’59. Although, I’m questioning whether this is in fact August. Grace was born in June of that year, so where is she? I think Mum could be pregnant in that lower picture (she’s wearing a pair of her earrings, can you see?) In which case this would be earlier in the summer…

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And here’s Grace finally on the next page! Ann has her arm in a sling – she broke it when she fell off the bed! We used to get in trouble for bouncing on our parents’ bed, but it was one of our favourite games.


As you can see, we had the odd outing to Inchinnan, where a friend of Mum and Dad’s had a caravan, and down the coast – I think on the train/ferry – to places like Helensburgh and Dunoon. And as well as the Elder Park, they also seemed to like taking us to Bellahouston Park. I have to smile at that second page to see my Dad all formally dressed in his suit and tie just for a trip to the park – different times!



The next page heralds the appearance in 1962 of yet another character that was to become an integral part of our family – the Vauxhall Victor which would serve as our family car for many years to come.  I’m quite surprised to find “Victor” making its appearance quite so early in the story, while we were still living in Rathlin Street, but the evidence is clear.


And of course that wee Vauxhall Victor gave our family freedom. Whenever they could, Mum and Dad would bundle us up in the car and head off up Great Western Road, destination all points north. I can never travel along that road to this day – you can see the mountains in the distance – without getting that feeling of excitement and anticipation that comes as I read the destination boards – Dumbarton, Helensburgh, Loch Lomond, Crianlarich, The Trossachs…. And I am reminded of some words from John’s letter to his mother in 1931 (as written): “The May holiday was very wet and we stayed in ecept in the afternoon we went in the bus for a hurl to Corpach and back.” He was a great one for a wee hurl was our Dad!

And then, the following year, comes the move from Govan to Hillhead. Look back at the post entitled “Sisters, Sisters” if you want to be reminded of the difference that made to the family, and how “Number 8” became our family home for the next fifty years. Here we all are at the beginning of that era enjoying the sun in our very own newly acquired back garden. Jane was born in the January of that year, just before we moved house – unfortunately she was maybe taking a nap during this photoshoot.


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I think it must be rather frustrating for my sisters that there are far fewer baby pictures of them than of me. My first couple of years are well documented – as new parents do – whereas they have to make do with the odd shot here and there, and in fact Jane has pointed out that there are NO baby pictures of  her at all. Which is very unfortunate, but perhaps not altogether surprising considering how quickly Eleanor followed on her heels a mere 15 months later in April ’64. Not to mention in that same time period the acquisition of a car, a house, a mortgage, a new neighbourhood, new school for older siblings. Our parent probably barely had time to stop and eat, never mind take photographs! However, they did manage to take this one of baby Eleanor with Mum in the Botanic Gardens, our new local park. After this though, there aren’t so many snaps of us all in the park, as Victor would take us to more exciting destinations where, sure enough, Dad would get out the Box Brownie and line us all up for the family photograph. (Click on each photo to see the captions).

Well, we’ve made it to 1969! It’s kind of funny when you look through old photographs – you know it’s you, but it also seems like somebody else that you struggle to remember. I kind of love the way I look in these photographs, so competent and confident, and sure of my place in the family and in the world. It’s good to be reminded of that, and to appreciate the wonderful close relationships that sustained you growing up – things can get so much more complicated as life unfolds.

The Man with the Box Brownie

It was a great disappointment to me that I failed to find a single photograph of my mother on my trip to County Mayo in April. However, once she had left Ireland to seek her destiny, she did then have the good fortune to fall in love with and marry a man with a box brownie camera – my Dad! So, happily for us, our family history was recorded from its earliest days – in fact I should say meticulously recorded, for Dad would carefully enter all the snaps, with captions, in a big leather bound album with black pages separated by tissue paper. This album became an essential part of our childhood and survives more or less intact to this day, give or take a few gaps where sisters have “appropriated” various pictures of particular significance to themselves. Here’s the first page:

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John and Nellie started out their married life in digs near Queen’s Park, so naturally this was where I was proudly paraded in 1954. I’m afraid there are more pictures of me than anyone else!

This lovely old book tracks our family’s development, not to mention each new arrival as she came along, and especially in the early pages, provides evidence of events none of us can now really remember. This was how I knew that Mum and Dad visited Ireland with me in September 1955, the year after her father died. These are among my favourite images of my mother, seeing Nellie through John’s eyes in the early years of their marriage. (You can click on the individual pictures if you want to have a closer look.)

Unfortunately Dad seems to have been so enamoured with his own little family that he forgot to take any snaps of my grandmother, Maggie Hynes, who would still have been alive then, or any other members of the Hynes family that he was meeting for the first time. Maybe they were too shy…

He’s done slightly better in these pictures of a holiday in Fort William in June 1957, when my sister Ann was just one year old and I was three and a half. This time he has also captured Grandpa (George) and Auntie Catherine, the youngest of George and Jessie’s six children, my Dad’s half siblings. Catherine must have been around 10 in these photos and I do have a memory of her pushing me on the swing and patiently spending hours playing with me in the garden – I absolutely adored her! I think we must have stayed in the house at 50 High Street, or The Barn (an adjoining annex), and by the look of it we had a lovely time. But as far as I know that was the first and last time Dad took his family to stay in what had been his childhood home.

Another selection from the family album shows an occasion when Ann and I were taken to visit Dad’s ship, the MV Bhamo when it was laid up at Princes Dock in August of 1958. I’ve also included a picture of Dad taken during the course of a voyage, and one of his radio room – a whole other life that had nothing to do with us! Again, I have no memory of this visit…

Dad was always very interested in gadgets and how things worked – the radio officer had been a boy who recounted such exploits as building a bogey and writing with invisible ink in the letters he wrote to his mother during the time she spent in the TB Sanatorium before her death in 1932. This letter is from 1931, when he was coming up for 10…

Don’t you just love that his trousers were “past mending”? I wonder what scrapes he’d got into to get them into that condition. John never lost the boyish playfulness and enthusiasm that’s displayed in this letter. If any of us ever collected stamps (I did for one!) or made a model or showed the slightest interest in morse code or how a valve radio or a car engine worked, he’d be there, explaining, showing, joining in. He tried, I’m not sure how successfully, to teach us to play bridge and he loved corny jokes. He once brought something home for Mum and patiently bided his time until she gave the answer she was in the habit of giving when asked if she wanted a cup of tea, “Just half a cup”. Whereupon he whipped out his prize – HALF a cup! Mum didn’t have much of a sense of humour for that kind of joke, but we all thought it was hilarious!

This is not the actual one, which mysteriously disappeared! But you get the idea…

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The piano playing too carried on into later life. The familiar sound of him playing away on our upright piano would let us know he was home. Here’s how Mary remembers it, “He’d play Chopin and Debussy, and had a gift for arranging the popular songs of of his youth into his own lovely versions, like Stormy Weather and Stardust. He was a romantic person and bought Mum a pair of earrings every week, which she kept in a chocolate box.”  Ah yes, Mum’s earrings, I wonder what happened to them, I used to love being allowed to look through them and try them on. Dad’s piano playing reminded me of Russ Conway, a popular performer who used to appear on the Billy Cotton Band Show on a Saturday night. We would all squeeze up on the family sofa to watch. Dad often arrived home halfway through TV shows, depending on his shift pattern, and would be shushed by us when he wanted to know what was going on, ungrateful children that we were!

In many ways, the boy who wrote the letters points to the man he would become. The man who collected, in blue binders, the entire set of “Knowledge, the new colour magazine which grows into an encyclopaedia”; the man who spent endless painstaking hours constructing a model bungalow (long gone) entirely out of spent matches, setting the walls in place according to his detailed plans. You only have to look at these notebook pages (preserved for 60-odd years from when he was studying for his radio certification) to see how neat and meticulous he could be.

He was also meticulous in the way he kept control of the family finances, assigning the cash from his pay packet to the bills and the household expenses, from the largest to the smallest amounts, including our weekly dinner money. He would count this out on a Sunday night and wrap it up in little brown paper parcels complete with our names and amounts, ready for us to pick up on a Monday morning. Beatrice 4/11d, Ann 4/4d, Mary 3/9d. I think those are the right amounts though I can’t remember what Grace had to pay. I think he’d probably given up doing it (had he?) by the time Jane and Eleanor started school. I don’t know about my sisters, but there was no way I was going to hand over this pre-packaged payment intact as intended – I would unwrap mine (always sellotaped) and hand over the cash to the teacher in the normal way, just like everyone else!!

With hindsight, I suppose I’d have to say that Dad was just a tad obsessive-compulsive in his manner of fulfilling his responsibilities, as he saw them, as head of the household! But you know, I also see someone with a rather inflexible personality who struggled to accept and deal with some very hard blows that life had dealt him. I’ve said before that he never really got over the death of his Mother when he was only 12. And it’s perfectly obvious even from his boyhood letters that his expectations were somewhat different from the way his life turned out.

As a mother and grandmother I know that you have to learn how to be a parent, instinct will only take you so far, the rest has to be learned as you go along. The way I see it, Dad coped by doing what he always did – by faithfully carrying out what he saw as his duty and staying true to his beliefs and principles. Among the possessions he left behind are some items that say it all – his wedding ring, his wartime service medals, his rosary beads, awards from the Road Operators Safety Council for 5, then 10, then 15 years of safe driving. And this one, a tiny wee drawing done by his mother, our long lost granny, Beatrice.


I think what I’m trying to say is that, with Nellie by his side, John grew into the role of father, became less uptight and more accepting. That whatever his faults and failings, they were tempered by his sense of fun and romantic soul. And that he always loved Mum and his six daughters with all his heart –  you only have to look at our family pictures to know that the photographer was in love with his subject. I find it very striking that when I look through albums Dad made of his time in the RAF and then at sea, there are lots of photos taken of the places he’d been to. Whereas the family album contains pages and pages of just us, with hardly a view in sight. In fact I’ve only scraped the surface of those family pictures, so we’ll need to come back to them another time.

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In the meantime, with Father’s Day coming up on Sunday, I’m going to leave you with my last loving memory of my Dad. It was 1981, he had come home from hospital – come home in fact to die – and his bed had been set up in our light and airy lounge at the front of the house in Kersland Street. We knew it wouldn’t be long and I had come up from London to say my goodbyes – my own four little ones were very young so it couldn’t be a long visit. I was sitting by the bed just quietly chatting with him before I was due to depart when he crooked his finger for me to come closer. As I leaned towards him he tapped his chest three times with his forefinger and said “Number one daughter”.