Reconciliation

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Fort William, 1957

I have characterised my father, John, as someone who found it almost impossible to escape his past. Of course nothing is ever that simple and that’s not the most important thing about him. First and foremost for me being that he was my Dad. Whatever effect the loss of his mother and the subsequent years had on him, one thing it did not deprive him of was a great capacity to love.

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In Nellie, my Mum, John had found a soul mate who would give him the encouragement he sometimes needed to overcome the challenges of life. Nellie was in many ways an altogether tougher, more resilient character. I don’t think I realised as a child how much he depended on her. I just knew he loved me.

John must have been on shore leave when he took his family to Fort William in 1957. I don’t think he’d seen his father since his wedding four years earlier, although George had called in unexpectedly to our home in Govan one time when he was in Glasgow on business and John away at sea. He seemed rather shocked by the humble-ness of our abode, and Nellie felt shamed because she’d been caught unawares with no chance to tidy away the large number of drying nappies taking up every available space.

002 (8)George seems somewhat more relaxed in this picture of him with his two grand-daughters. I’d have been three and Ann just a year old at the time. George could look very dour in photographs so I’m guessing this almost-smile is as good as it’s going to get! He does appear rather pensive though, I wonder now what was on his mind as he posed for the camera, probably with John on the other side of the lense.

Whatever did or didn’t happen between them on that trip, all I know is that we never again visited Fort William as a family while George was alive, and I look in vain for a picture of John with his father later than the 1937 one of young George’s christening that I shared with you in my last post.

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What I do have, thanks to cousin Liz in South Africa (see ‘Tribe of Cousins’, 27 May), is a collection of letters from three of George’s sisters – Winnie, Ettie and Muriel – as they kept in touch with Winnie’s daughter Theresa, who’d gone to live in South Africa in 1948. Let’s turn the focus on Winnie, Liz’s grandmother and George’s third sister. We catch sight of her here in the garden at 50 High Street, together with her sister-in-law Beatrice and father Peter. The two shy little girls are her eldest daughters Lulie and Josephine, and Beatrice is holding baby John, so I reckon the date must be 1922. This is the same garden where we were having our pictures taken some 35 years later. I would have been too young to appreciate it then, but it gives me a shiver now to realise that I was literally treading in their footsteps.

Winifred Grace MacFarlane was born in 1886 and it’s said that her earliest memory was of being lifted up to watch a procession go by to mark Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee of 1887. When she was still a child, about 9 or 10, she hit her shin against the fender in the kitchen and bruised the bone. This became infected and developed into TB of the bone, causing long periods of isolation and hospitalisation. For a period she was the only child in Fort William’s Belford Hospital. She was sent for treatment to the Western Infirmary in Glasgow, and the account of that episode, I have to warn you, is nothing short of gruesome.

The surgeon, Sir John Fraser, wanted to amputate, but her father begged on bended knee that he try to save the leg. In those days more children died from the effects of chloroform than from operations, so Sir John carried out the necessary bone scraping without anaesthetic, Winnie being strapped to the table and with a nurse irrigating the wound direct from the tap. The final step was to graft in some rabbit bone, a very rare procedure. Not surprisingly Winnie later reported that no childbirth ever caused her more pain than that horrific, if life-saving, operation.

Winnie must have been made of stern stuff because she eventually recovered and resumed her education, trained as a teacher and taught in Roy Bridge for 6 years before marrying her long time sweetheart, Alasdair Chisholm, in 1916. The two set up home in a village named Nethybridge, where their first two children were born, and then moved to live in Inverness Castle when Alasdair, a policeman, was promoted to sergeant. There was always a sergeant at the castle because of the overnight cells there; the sergeant’s wife had to keep the prisoners (not out of her own pocket). Winnie used to send tea, bread and butter to the cells.  The Chisholms eventually moved to a police house where they brought up their family of six girls and one boy – Lulie, Josephine, Winifred (who died in childhood), Beatrice, Theresa, Chrissie and Peter. Winnie was widowed in 1957 and lived out her years in that self same house where she and Alasdair had been so happy.

Great Aunt Winnie

There is obviously a lot more to my Great Aunt Winnie than just this whistlestop tour of her life, but I hope this little sketch is enough to give you a sense of what she was like. Perhaps we can go back and fill in more of the detail another time. For now I want to throw the spotlight on the letters she sent to her daughter Theresa, who she remained close to over the years despite the many miles that separated them. In particular I’ve been reading a couple of letters from 1962 when her brother George died. I can do no better than to quote extensively from this account as it affords us such a wonderful contemporaneous impression of the impact this event had on her and her immediate family.

27th October 1962, p.m.

Donald has just phoned from Ft. Wm. to say that Uncle George died at 10.00 p.m. Mary with the baby arrived this morning with Donald and he recognised them and spoke a little. Donald and John both visited him several times when he was in St Raphael’s (in Edinburgh) and Chris also visited him. Before he left the nursing home he asked the surgeon if he’d ever be well again and asked for a frank account of what the operation was. The surgeon said he was sorry that he was unable to do all he’d hoped to do “and after this your work will be advisory only”. George thanked him and added “So now it is a question of time.” From then on he was most resigned and hoped he wouldn’t last too long for the sake of his dear ones. Lulie brought Aunt Ettie up a week today (this is now the Feast of Christ the King) and I went to Ft William by bus after hearing early Mass in St Mary’s. We all returned here that evening after calling in to see Clemmy at Corpach. Lulie and Aunt Ettie had called at Spean Bridge on the way up and found the sons so nice…

Uncle George was very pleased to see us and spoke a lot about the past and about having put his affairs in order – “I’ve done my best for the 9 of them.” We went up again on Friday as he was very much weaker and he was again so pleased to see us. “You see what’s happening Winnie – you’ll know from the pattern of Alister’s illness” he said. I knew too well but it was a great consolation to know he was so resigned to death. He received H. Communion up to the end. John was up on Friday too – he had a long talk with his Father who spoke of Aunt Beatrice and referred to the 26th and 28th being the anniversaries of Uncle Jack and John’s Mother. Now we have 26th, 27th and 28th October as sad dates – may they rest in peace.

Aunt Ettie (Sister Mary Evangeline) is sleeping in the Convent but with us all day. We phoned Beatrice last night – Mary had contacted her before leaving and was afraid she’d be too late to see her Father alive. Thank God she arrived in time. Jessie has been wonderful – the whole family except Peter … is with her and they are really very good. When asked if he’d like Peter to be sent for Uncle George said no “I’ll be sure of his prayers where he is.” Peter was told of the state of affairs before he returned to College. He is an exceptionally nice lad. (Peter was away at seminary, training to be a priest)

Between everything I can’t get down to writing at present. Mass was offered in both our churches this a.m. for George’s soul and very many in Lochaber and elsewhere would hear of the death today. Lulie is writing to Jo just now. Peter and Ishbel were with us for a few nights last week. Had hired a car and we left them to close the house on Friday as we got off to go to Ft. Wm. Lots of love to all, Mama x

The next letter is dated 12 November. Winnie had been laid low with a virus after all the comings and goings surrounding George’s death, but she was sufficiently recovered after a few days rest to write:

… He knew what was wrong with him and prayed that he wouldn’t linger long “to be a trouble to others”. He spoke to me about our mother remarking that “she died in this room” and he said a lot about his first wife Beatrice, remarking “things might be different now with the knowledge of TB”. What a lovely woman she was and what a companion. He appreciated Jessie but the first love remained. Naturally she thinks of her own indulged family – all nice and some of them very good-looking – but there is no place now for the first family.

We were very taken with John whom I hadn’t seen since he married. He had a long interview with his Father who threw his arms round him in a burst of affection. “What I needed,” said John. “I understood and appreciated him more than I knew all my life.” Donald, always full of affection was very cut up at the end but he made good and his father was proud of him. Mary reached Ft. Wm. in time to have a few words also. She looked wretched and so thin.

Lulie took Aunt Ettie and me up to the Requiem. Aunt Ettie stayed with us overnight. We breakfasted before 5 a.m. in order to fast before 8 a.m. Mass. A very large number came to the Mass – Keppochs, Spean Bridge boys, dozens of elderly people from the Braes, Corpach, etc. It was most edifying to see so many approaching the altar. Sandy and Peter were altar servers and John, Donald, Sandy and Peter carried the coffin to the hearse when we returned at midday for the funeral. Young George walked behind the coffin. It looked as if the whole town came to church – the illness was so short that there was quite a wave of sorrow in the district …

So there we are. It’s clear from Winnie’s account that George, on his deathbed, was finally able to reveal those deeply felt emotions that he had kept buried all those years, and be reconciled with the children who had hungered for his love all the while. It seems that as death approached, those years melted away until his heart was laid bare in his final word, “Beatrice”.

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A Stepmother

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Janet Frances (Jessie) Macpherson married George Archibald MacFarlane on the 25th September 1935 in St Mary’s Church Fort William – the first wedding to take place in the recently opened new church. By this time George (46) had been a widower for nearly three years and Jessie, at 33, may very well have been aware that marrying George would save her from being left behind on the shelf as, one by one, she watched her own brothers and sisters make their way down the aisle.

George’s three children, John (my Dad), Mary and Donald, were not exactly overjoyed at the new development in the family saga. You only have to look at this wedding photograph to see the misery on the faces of Mary and Donald, and for all I know John might have refused to even be in the picture.

George & Jessie

There are a couple of stories I’ve heard which illustrate the somewhat inept way that George introduced the subject to the three of them. One is that when he announced to the children that this was Miss Macpherson and she would be their new mother, John dashed from the room yelling “I will never call her Mother”. Another version is that Donald’s reaction was to innocently ask “But where will Miss Macpherson sleep?” It was not an auspicious start. And although Mary and Donald, being younger, followed the instruction to call Jessie ‘Ma’, John never did.

There is no hiding the fact that Jessie never really became a mother figure in these children’s eyes. To be fair, it wouldn’t have been easy for anyone trying to step into the shoes of a mother who was so universally loved and admired. But still…

However, Jessie did, I think, become a good wife to George, in fact it could be that she saved him when he was at his lowest ebb. The death of Beatrice had been extremely traumatic; she was far from home and had passed away in a haze of morphia – George had received a letter from the hospital telling him not to visit as she was not conscious. And then the next he knew he received a rather curt phone call asking why ‘arrangements’ had not been made. The death notification had been sent to Loch Slaoidh  (“Sloy”), Fort William and had sat at the pier waiting for the boat of that name to arrive instead of being delivered to the house at 50 High Street, which was never again known as Loch Slaoidh.

George was inconsolable and by all accounts did not cope well either with his own grief or that of his children. There were times when they appeared rather unkempt and neglected and there was a succession of somewhat unsatisfactory home helps and maids whose culinary skills seemed not to extend beyond copious amounts of watery mince. George’s sisters did their best to help, but they were occupied with their own young families or busy jobs and could only do so much. I heard that George made several proposals of marriage to various Fort William ladies before Jessie accepted him.

On paper George and Jessie were a good match, coming as they did from two prominent and public spirited Fort William families. George had taken over MacFarlanes the Chemist after the death of his father in 1925 and A & J Macpherson’s was a highly successful coaching business which had pioneered bus services and tours in and around Fort William as well as running the Parade Garage and bringing in Lochaber’s first petrol pump in 1922. Jessie was the third of Alexander and Margaret Macpherson’s nine children. This is a picture of the family in 1914, the two youngest yet to be born. (Jessie aged perhaps 12 or 13, is seated front right).

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The family eventually went to live in a fine villa known as Avondale which had previously been owned by a cousin of the explorer David Livingstone, but when the above picture was taken, they were still living in a house built above the stables which were part of the original business and remembered in later life by Jessie’s young sister Lily (seated here on her mother’s knee) ‘It was a very small house, tiny in fact and in retrospect I cannot imagine how my mother managed, but I have no memory of any discord there, it was a happy home.

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The move to Avondale finally happened once Alexander came home from war service in 1918 – it’s the big house on the hill you can see to the right of this photograph, and actually overlooks their former home where you can see the bus garage. Not too far away is the High Street, where the MacFarlanes lived. Jessie and George’s first wife Beatrice would certainly have known each other; Fort William wasn’t that big a place and anyway they moved in the same social circle. I believe Jessie and Beatrice attended sewing classes together, or it could be that Beatrice, who was very artistic, actually took the classes – the record is not clear. Ironically, sewing and embroidery became one of her therapies when she was away from her family for extended periods in the TB Sanitorium.

Pictured below are the Avondale Macphersons more or less as Beatrice would have known them in the 1920’s. Jessie is the one to the right in the back row of the girls’ photograph. Beside her is sister Sally who you may recognise as her bridesmaid in the wedding photo.

An interesting aside – Jessie’s oldest brother, Donald, seen here seated beside his father, also married a MacFarlane, the daughter of one of George’s Spean Bridge cousins, Georgina. My cousin Catriona tells me that her mother Maureen met Donald one year when she was on holiday in Spean Bridge (up from home in London). According to Catriona, they were married six months later and lived happily ever after.  I have very fond memories of Auntie Maureen and Uncle Donald who were unfailingly kind to us.

George and Jessie settled down to married life and by Christmas, George was writing to his brother in law, Donald Bentley, thanking him for the serviette rings (presumably a wedding present) and reporting that ‘things are more comfortable for us all at home now and I am relieved of a great deal of anxiety’. Here’s the letter – George’s handwriting is quite hard to decipher, so you can either get your magnifying glass out, or read the extract below.

… I would like if you could see the children before they are much older. John is about as tall as I am. Mary goes to school in Inverness and your namesake is an energetic wee fellow who keeps us all on the go. If you can arrange it with your wife we would be delighted to have you as my wife has put a spare bedroom in order. I hope you will make plans to come up as any time would suit us and I am sure you would enjoy a holiday in the Highlands …

I don’t know if Donald and Polly ever did make it to Fort William to visit George and Jessie, as Granny Bentley and her other son Laurence did – Catriona remembers those visits clearly. The thing I do notice is George’s palpable relief that his household had regained some kind of normality. Whether George’s children thought the same is another matter. I get the impression they were expected to accept the new situation and not refer to the past.

With Jessie by his side, George seems to have felt able to start taking an active part in society again. In 1936 moves were being made to revitalise the annual Ben Nevis Race; the original trophy had disappeared, so George presented a replica called the G. MacFarlane trophy. Both George and Jessie were devout Catholics and made generous donations to the church, including a statue of St Margaret to the Church of that name in Roy Bridge, and the Stations of the Cross at St Mary’s. George found a bag of sovereigns in the box room at home and quietly put them in the plate each Sunday without telling anyone. (Although someone must have known about it for us to hear the story now…!)

It wasn’t long before the marriage was blessed with children, no doubt giving everyone a fresh focus, the way young children do. Poor Jessie had rather difficult pregnancies and spent at least some of them bedridden in a nursing home, which must have brought back unhappy memories for George. George Jnr was born in 1937, his brother Sandy a year later. Here we have a picture of George’s christening. If John was as tall as his father in 1935, by 1937 it was clear he was going to tower over him! I can’t help noticing how like his mother John appears in this photograph, no doubt another reminder of the past for his father.

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Below is a picture from 1941 of George’s four sons, and one of Mary with Sandy.

By 1942 John was in South Africa, having joined the RAF (see “Travels with my Parents – John, Part 1”). It occurs to me now that by the time he returned home after the war, John would have found the family augmented by the arrival of four more young siblings for George and Sandy – Margaret, Peter, Louisa and Catherine. I suppose Mary and Donald would have helped out at home with their younger half brothers and sisters, although Donald seems to have joined the Army just as soon as he was old enough and was the first of the three to marry in 1950, or maybe ’51, leaving Mary as the sole remaining representative of the ‘first family’.

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The war years were also busy for George who, as well as presiding over his growing family, was also active in civic life, culminating in him becoming Lord Provost of Fort William in 1950, thus following in his father’s footsteps. In a neat turn of events, George would present the 1951 G. MacFarlane Ben Nevis Cup as Provost, the race having resumed after a five year gap due to the war. The recipient on this occasion was one Brian Kearney, later to become the husband of the aforementioned cousin Catriona! This was just the first of Brian’s three victories in the Ben race and marked the first time the race had been run in under two hours. He clipped another 4 minutes off his time in 1954 and that record (one hour, 47 minutes and 4 seconds) stood for over 60 years.

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The year George became Provost, 1950, was a Holy Year of the Catholic Church, and George and Jessie wished to make the pilgrimage to Rome. So, looking for a nanny to care for the children, Jessie put an advertisement in the Irish Independent – I think a previous nursemaid had proved unsuitable.  And the rest, as they say, is history, when a certain Nellie Hynes (my Mum) answered the ad!

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Nellie got on well with everyone and enjoyed her new life in Fort William – a place she’d originally had to look up on the map! Her six charges retained great affection for her in the years to come, some of them exchanging Christmas cards, letters and even the odd visit to Glasgow. Although contacts naturally fade away over time, I don’t think they ever forgot the Irish nanny who, for a short time, was part of their childhood, taking them to school and teaching them words in French.

But Nellie’s future lay with the ‘first family’. As we know, John came home from the war and captured her heart. By the time they married in 1953, all three of George’s eldest three children had left home to pursue their fortunes away from Fort William and the traumas of childhood which they – or at least my Dad – never quite shook off.

It feels to me that the only way that George could thrive was to essentially brush the past under the carpet and keep it there, and who am I to blame him for that? I’m glad he was able to somehow find a way of surviving the loss of his first love. And I can also understand if Jessie would always put her own family first. But the legacy of the past casts a long shadow. As the eldest daughter of the eldest son, I suppose I inherited something of my father’s sense of injustice and that feeling of perpetually trying to regain something that was lost. But, I am not frozen in the past in the same way as my dear Dad was. I have had the opportunity in my life, as he perhaps never had in his, to reflect and heal and really understand the importance of letting go of the things you don’t have the power to change.

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Me and my Daddy, 1954. Remembered on this Father’s Day of 2018.

 

 

 

 

Uncomfortable Truths

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

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

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

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

Peter and children, 1893

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…there is no place now for the first family…

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

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

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

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

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Tribe of Cousins

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The Company of 12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The Mystery of Granny Bentley, and a Seaside Holiday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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….

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