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….



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.





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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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”.












Childhood in Govan


1654 map showing Mekle (“Big”) Govan, Litle Govan, and the small town of Glafgow.

Let me introduce you to Govan, a historic area of Glasgow on the south side of the River Clyde. According to medieval legend,  a monastery was founded here in the seventh century and during the Middle Ages, Govan was the site of a ferry which linked the area with Partick for seasonal cattle drovers. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, textile mills and coal mining were important; in the nineteenth century, shipbuilding emerged as Govan’s principal industry and brought prosperity. In 1864, Govan gained burgh status, and was the fifth-largest burgh in Scotland. It was incorporated into the City of Glasgow in 1912.

So what’s all this got to do with my family ramblings you may ask? Well, Govan is an important character in this blog because it became home to John and Ellen MacFarlane, John and Nellie, when they bought a room and kitchen here at 31 Rathlin Street in around 1956. It was to be our family home until 1963, when our parents sold the little flat to a certain R McCaig for the princely sum of £275. This was a private arrangement and my Dad would cross the river once a month to go and collect the instalments in cash. We even still have the receipts…

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The last time I was in Govan, quite a few years ago, I went to have a look at Rathlin Street and was not surprised to find that the old tenement had been demolished and the space occupied by a playpark. I found this picture from the 80’s on the web, obviously before the playpark was built. Our home would have been just where the empty space is.

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There are some rather smart looking modern flats on that site now (some of which seem to be selling at upwards of £100,000 nowadays!) and some nice little houses along the street where I used to walk to school, past what was still Fairfields Shipyard, on to McKechnie Street where there was a cinema on the corner and across Govan Road with the lollipop lady. St Anthony’s Primary was right there at the corner of Harmony Row; we were so near it would only take me about 5 minutes to walk to school, which I seem to remember I was trusted to do on my own from a fairly early age. If you were a wee bit late leaving the house and the school bell rang, all you had to do was run and you’d still be on time. I still have my two class photographs from that time, 1960 and 1962. I’m third from the left, age 6, in the middle row in the top one and third from the right, age 8, in the second row of the bottom one.

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I can remember a few names – Gemma Corr, Paul Mellon, Anthony, Susan, Gerard, Rita, Annemarie, Sarah… and Alec, I will always remember Alec. He’s in the back row of both photos, third from the left in the top one and second left in the other. One time in class the teacher was filling in some information for the register – mother’s and father’s names, date of birth and so on. He was going round the class and we were telling him our dates of birth. He got to Alec, who just looked blank. Teacher got a bit impatient and said “Come on boy, your date of birth – when is your birthday?” Poor Alec looked even blanker and said “What’s that? I don’t have one.” That was the first time in my life I realised that there were children in the world who didn’t get presents or blow out the candles on their birthday cake every year, as I did. Alec was one of the “rough” boys, usually in trouble for fighting, and normally someone to be avoided. But ever after that – and to this day – I had a little soft spot in my heart for him, and looked at him less disapprovingly.

Govan seems to be enjoying something of a revival of fortunes these days (hence the desirable flats), but in the 1950’s the tide of its history was at a low ebb. Govan had a reputation as a deprived area of Glasgow with high unemployment and poor housing, including the notorious “Wine Alley”, an estate which had been built in the 30’s. During the war the shipyards made the area a target for enemy bombers and there were frequent reconnaissance missions overhead, and long hours spent in Anderston shelters, for those who had them, for the inhabitants. Not as badly hit as Clydebank, a short distance further down the river, nonetheless Govan also suffered bombing raids, the worst of which completely destroyed a tenement building on Govan Road, killing 69 souls.

So this was the post-war Govan where John and Nellie, Mum and Dad, fetched up in the mid-1950’s, neither of them with any connection to or knowledge of the area or its social mores – they just bought a flat somewhere they could afford. I’m pretty sure in my Mum’s mind anyway she would have looked upon this as somewhere she was just passing through – as indeed it turned out to be. She never really saw herself as part of, or understood, the culture of this very Glaswegian lower working class area.

I don’t think Dad did either, especially as for the first few years he was away at sea for large chunks of time. He had been a radio officer in the Merchant Navy since 1952 and continued in that career right up until 1958, by which time there were three of us. I’m told that when I was little I used to call this person who would occasionally come and stay in our house “the man”.  I’m sure that must have been upsetting for someone who set such great store by the family.

It’s hard enough for any wife whose husband works away from home, but I am also very conscious that my Mum had no family in Glasgow, no network of friends. Our flat was modest to say the least. For example we had a curtained off “potty corner”, which potty had to be taken downstairs to the outside toilet on the landing below to be emptied. I remember mum bathing the babies in the big ceramic sink in the corner of the kitchen.

For us older children the big tin bath would be got out – taking up practically the whole kitchen – kettles boiled for hot water and the weekly bath undertaken with much arguing about whose turn it was to get in first and who would have to make do with someone else’s used water – or maybe we would all get in together (“she’s got more room than me!”). It’s no wonder it was only once a week, it was such a palaver boiling up all those kettles, and there was usually a lot of spillage while the damn thing was being emptied with pots and basins and other receptacles.  Once my Dad had left the sea and became a landlubber (or maybe when he was on leave) it was much easier – he could just lift the whole thing up and empty it down the sink.


Times were tough for John and Nellie, they had to endure long separations and money was tight. Dad didn’t always appreciate that although he always left carefully calculated amounts of housekeeping money for Mum, this was too inflexible to allow for price fluctuations or emergency purchases and would sometimes leave her short.  Many lessons had to be learnt, probably painfully, as their family grew and developed. Eventually the life at sea could no longer be sustained, John found a good job as a bus driver with Glasgow Corporation and came home for good. In later years he would very occasionally talk about the sacrifices he made for his family, as he had loved his life as the onboard “Sparks”, but it didn’t take much to remind him how much he loved Mum and us. If there was a choice to be made there was no contest, even if it did take rather a few years to make it! I think it took all that time for John and Nellie to finally accept that much though he tried, Dad wasn’t going to be able to continue his radio career on land; there just weren’t any opportunities in those austere days.

But, you know, my memories of Govan are not of deprivation. I’m not one of those children in the school photographs whose wee faces stare out at you with poverty and hardship written all over them. I’m one of the ones who is well fed, well dressed, clean and shiny. Maybe Mum wasn’t always as patient as you might have wished (this is the pot calling the kettle black!) and Dad had a tendency to keep harking back to the past, but they made a home for us where we were safe and warm, where we could rely on being fed and clothed, have your hair done up in a ribbon (“ouch, that hurts!”), toys to play with, books to read, be made a fuss of on your birthday, be taken for walks in the park, be bought comics. It was everything you needed and seemed abundant. Or perhaps I just had very low expectations!  I’ll probably come back to this topic another time…

I realised when I was writing this that I have never thought of myself as coming from Govan. When asked, I say “Glasgow” or “Hillhead”, which is indeed where I feel my roots are. Thinking about it now, there ARE some deep Govan roots in there too – you just have to dig a bit deeper to find them, and I find myself happy to do so. Here are some of the things I can remember when I try:

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Jumping on the ferry was an adventure, though I feared I would fall in!
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All the back greens were like this, with the mothers watching their children from the kitchen window. The lucky ones would get a wrapped “piece” and jam thrown down to them.
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We loved going out to play in the back green – never got as dirty as this though
I remember the river of men who would flow out of Fairfields Shipyard when hometime came around
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This vehicle would take workers and goods up and down Govan Road. It’s going past the Co-op department store where I once bought a cardigan I fell in love with in the window. I saved up all my Saturday sixpences for weeks for it.
There were 4 or 5 cinemas in Govan in those days. The Lyceum was the one I passed every day on my way to school. I think I was taken there to see “The Parent Trap” with Hayley Mills.
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The coal man would hoist your bag of coal on his back and bring it up the close stairs to be emptied into your coal bunker in the hallway. Mum would scramble to lay newspapers on the floor to keep it clean.
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I would watch the rag and bone man give out balloons in exchange for old clothes (no, we were never allowed to do that!)
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This is the Pearce Institute, a legacy of Victorian days. I think I performed in a choir here once, wearing a white dress with a blue sash
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This is the Elder Park, scene of many perambulations.
tram govan cross
Trams ran in Glasgow until about 1963. I remember sitting on a hard wooden seat and asking for a “three ha’penny half”
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St Anthony’s School. You went in through the gap between the two buildings.
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I remember my first Communion and Confirmation in St Anthony’s Church. The Parish Priest was Father Molumby and he would visit his parishioners at home. I was always a bit afraid of his big black cane.
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Everyone turned out for the Govan Fair every year. I can remember seeing the Fair Queen go by on her decorated float, and being given a pear ice lolly.

I wonder if I subliminally imbibed that feeling of not quite belonging from my parents – I would never have described them as coming from Govan, or even Glasgow. I would say that Mum was Irish, and Dad came from Fort William. They settled in a place that was essentially foreign to both of them and in many ways had to invent our family mythology from scratch. Which perhaps meant that although we were IN Govan, we weren’t OF it.