Sooner or later we all discover that the important moments in life are not the advertised ones, not the birthdays, the graduations, the weddings, not the great goals achieved. The real milestones are less prepossessing. They come to the door of memory unannounced, stray dogs that amble in, sniff around a bit and simply never leave. Our lives are measured by these.
Susan B. Anthony
A very good quote, except today it is a “milestone” I’m remembering because if my mother was still alive, she would be celebrating her 94th birthday. Annie Brown Courtney (later McInnes) was born on April 15, 1921, in Northern Ireland, on the border of County Antrim and County Down.
I think of you baking scones,
your floral apron streaked with flour.
Ingredients never measured,
just swirled together
by experienced hands,
used to work. And gifting love.
The soft splat of dough
the thump of rolling pin,
scrape of metal cutter,
the leftover scraps
patted to shape a tiny scone…
‘For you – this special one,’ you said.
This poem was first published February 2010. Included in the vignette, KitchenScraps: Mum’s Legendary Scones, part of a collection based on family recipes published by Women’s Memoirs, an online site in the USA devoted to women’s memoir writing.
It was also chosen to be included in A Lightness of Being, a poetry anthology by Poetica Christi Press, 2014.
In 2008, I wrote the following tribute to Mum when I was lucky enough to have her staying with me for a few days.
When I hold my mother’s hands in mine, they’re as soft as rose petals; the translucent skin, fragile. The sense of touch is the most important now Mum’s eyesight and hearing have failed and she loves cradling my hand between hers or places her hands in mine, to be held and stroked.
However, a bruise can appear with the minimum of pressure. When she stayed with me recently an ugly purple mark grew overnight, the result of a bump against the unfamiliar bedside table. At breakfast, the dark smudge merged with sun and aged spots, an ugly blot staining pale skin.
Mum’s delicate hands have shrunk like the rest of her body. Not surprising really because she has just celebrated her eighty-eighth birthday. Yet, sitting side by side on the couch, she grabs my hand with a grip reminiscent of my childhood when she guided me across the road, my fearless protector from rogue cars or lorries.
Nowadays, she wears gloves day and night. Poor circulation makes her hands permanently cold but as we sit in companionable silence on the couch, her love is like an electric current. I feel the strength of those once sturdy hands and reflect on how hard they have laboured, how gently they have nurtured, how faithfully they have worshipped.
Mum has always been petite and had to accept that once her six children reached adolescence we could all boast about being taller. She laughed off our bragging, reminding us that 4’ 11” was an easy height to beat. She’d repeat one of the many proverbs she liked, ‘good things come in small packages’ or ‘it’s not what a person looks like that makes them what they are, it’s the intent of their hearts and the good they’re willing to do for others that matters’.
On the back of her hands, I trace the dark blue veins resembling mountain ridges and think of the goodness in Mum’s heart; her long history of helping others epitomised by a William Penn verse that sat framed on the mantelpiece in our family home.
I shall pass this way but once;
therefore any good that I can do,
or any kindness that I can show,
to any fellow creature,
let me do it now.
Let me not defer or neglect it,
for I shall not pass this way again.
Mum’s watch slides around her child-sized wrist. Her wedding and eternity rings are too large now for thin fingers; they hang on a gold chain around a wrinkled neck. My fingers look like sausages beside Mum’s thin bones, but with recently diagnosed osteoarthritis, I suppose I’ll develop knobbly arthritic knuckles too. There is no escaping genetics – well not for me. I remember trying on the eternity ring Dad bought for Mum as a surprise, knowing if it fitted me, it would fit Mum’s finger.
I stroke Mum’s skin gently with my thumb, and ponder the changes wrought by a lifetime; recalling the days when her hands were capable and strong. Skilful hands that baked cupcakes, decorating them with a smear of homemade jam and a sprinkle of coconut because it was cheaper and quicker than icing — with six children plus friends, fairy cakes, scones or pancakes rarely had time to cool before being scoffed.
The cakes filled several tins; enough to feed a gang of children and their mothers in our Scottish neighbourhood when we made our annual trip to the seaside in Dad’s Bedford van. A day trip made each summer, to Pencil Monument at Largs from Davaar Road, Braeside where we lived in a close friendly community. Those tins filled again when we went on a Highland holiday, travelling with the Devlin Family in an old WW2 ambulance Dad and Willie Devlin converted.
Few women worked outside the home in the 1950s and many men in the new housing scheme worked shift work like Dad, especially shipyard workers. Dad was a railwayman, his mate Willie Devlin, a shipyard worker. Summer sojourns planned with precision. The day trip entailed Dad making two trips in the van to Largs, a popular seaside town a half hour journey along curving Inverkip Road. The bends offered thrills to those perched on makeshift seats in the back, but also spectacular views of pretty seaside towns like Inverkip and Skelmorlie.
The first trip had Willie in the front and children prepared to travel without their mother, in the back. At Pencil Point Park, the back doors of the van were thrown open and there was a mad rush for the sea, or to play on the helter-skelter. Some of us just ran around whooping like Red Indians in what we considered a grand spacious park.
‘What Home do the wains come from?’ asked the park keeper.
‘Ma hame, his hame and half a dozen other hames in oor street,’ said Willie with a laugh.
Dad grinned as the keeper stared at the range of sizes and ages and our uninhibited joy. Dad and Willie understood why the park keeper thought we were from an orphanage. One trip, six-year-old Ian McDonald in his excitement to be at the seaside, kept running, even when he reached the water. Willie fished him out and the poor boy had to spend the day in a spare pair of my knickers, which never bothered him until he was teased about the incident years later in Australia as a ten-year-old!
Willie, left in charge, Dad returned to Davaar Road to pick up the mums, toddlers, and babies –– and the all-important food: Spam, salmon, or corned beef sandwiches, pancakes, scones, fairy cakes and bananas freshly ripened in our airing cupboard. The fruit Dad had got in bunches off the boats– one of the few perks of being a railwayman when the banana boats came in from the West Indies.
There would have been jam sandwiches too, spread with the delicious bramble jelly made from the buckets of brambles we picked from the hillside. We loved blackberry picking – there is something very satisfying about searching through the tangle of thorns for the fattest, glossiest fruit. We often went with the Davaar Road Gang: the Dochertys (Anne Marie, Kathleen and Dennis), the McGrattans (Graham and Billie), Pamela Ritchie and Billy Fleming, the Moffats (Sandra and Margaret), the Devlins (Rose and May) and even Jean Jepson if she had louse-free hair and we were allowed to play with her.
Up over the hill, we’d go, or down to the farmer’s field, searching through hedgerows with our buckets and jam jars swinging from tiny hands. A good picking session a regular feature of autumn half-term holidays because berries thrive in the cooler Scottish summers, where long daylight hours help them to ripen with plenty of flavours. Brambles or blackberries grew profusely in the wild. The scratchy, thorny bushes never deterred us.
Later in Australia, Mum’s hands churned out griddle scones or pancakes at midnight, when as teenagers, we came home with friends, all with the munchies after a night of ten-pin bowling, ice-skating, or partying.
I have lost count of the number of times I sat mesmerised as those hands deftly mixed ingredients in a large bowl – a pinch of this, a handful of that, a swirl, a knead, a pat – to produce scones and apple tarts or pancakes and cupcakes that disappeared within moments and had us begging for more. Mum’s preparation and production of scones legendary, so much so that my daughter Anne, Mum’s namesake and first granddaughter dreams of videoing the process for posterity.
When told of this Mum shook her head in disbelief and laughed. ‘You know I couldn’t cook a boiled egg when I married your father in 1948.’ she said, ‘I was never taught to cook or allowed in the kitchen by old Maggie, my stepmother.’
‘How did you become so good at baking?’
‘Your dad taught me a lot. His mother had a heart condition most of his childhood and he had to help her. When she died at the beginning of the war he was in a reserved occupation and more or less took charge of running the house.’
I laughed. ‘I’ve never seen Dad bake scones or cakes.’
‘Oh, he didn’t teach me how to do that but gave me the confidence to experiment. I learned from the Women’s Weekly and The People’s Friend – and I remembered watching my Cousin Minnie and Aunt Martha out on the farm.’
Mum’s eyes stared into the distance, the fingers fussing with buttons on her cardigan suddenly still… and she was back on the farm…
When grandmother died in 1927, Mum became motherless at six years old. Her grief-stricken father had a pawnbroking business to manage, plus a three-year-old son, Tom. Grandmother’s family offered to take the children to their farm near Boardmills eighteen miles from Belfast. Mum lost her mother and the same day became separated from her father apart from a visit on Sundays when he could make the trip from Belfast.
Six-year-old hands were soon feeding hens and collecting eggs in a wicker basket, patting the smooth flesh of horses released from yoke and plough, filling a trough with a warm meal for the pigs, and learning to form letters in a tiny country school.
Yet the five years spent on the farm until her father remarried and took her back to live in Belfast were the best years of a childhood shattered by grief. It was on the farm her hands became nurturing hands.
From the first week of her arrival at the farm, she helped look after her dead mother’s sister, Annie, whom she was called after. Annie was grandmother’s older sister and suffered from a debilitating muscular disease that sounds similar to motor neurone disease or multiple sclerosis. The symptoms were such that Annie lay in bed 26 years, unable to do anything unaided while her muscles gradually seized. When she heard of her younger sister’s death, it was the last time she was able to communicate by words. She murmured through twisted lips, ‘Poor John, poor weans.’ After that, she communicated by eye signals – one blink for yes, two blinks for no.
Mum recalled a day when Annie made the most horrible gurgling sounds trying to speak, her eyes blinking furiously, as she stared in terror at the open window. Paler than usual her skin gleamed from perspiration. Mum thought an intruder had entered the room or Aunt Annie had seen ‘the shadow of death’ that the Reverend Grim talked about in church all the time. After examining the open window, she turned again to the moaning patient and let out a blood-curdling scream.
Those adults within earshot ran up the stairs two at a time. A giant wasp hovered above bedridden Annie, attracted no doubt by the vase of fresh flowers on the bedside table. The thought of its sting had Mum in a lather of fear too because she was allergic to insect venom.
Over the years, Mum helped care for Annie by massaging her hands with oil and placing cotton wool between her fingers and in her claw hands to prevent sores and calluses and keep the skin supple. Sarah, a woman from the village came daily to attend to Annie’s toilet needs and to feed her. Sarah cleaned Annie’s room, did her laundry and helped with general housework. She would read the Bible and any newspaper or pamphlet that came into the house, to the poor woman lying trapped in a twisted body in the farmhouse bedroom.
Hands that tended an ailing Aunt from a very young age were called upon at teenage to nurse her father, who died in 1939, a few weeks after the declaration of World War Two and a few months after Mum’s eighteenth birthday.
Mum often talked about returning to Belfast at eleven years of age, when her father remarried. Unconsciously fingering her own wedding ring she said, ‘Daddy died in my arms while I recited the 23rd Psalm, his favourite psalm…’
I squeeze her arm, take both of her hands in mine and think of the many times these hands have been clasped in prayer and how Mum’s faith sustained her through life’s hurdles.
After the war, she nursed patients in the epileptic colony of the Orphan Homes of Scotland (Quarrier’s Homes) while training to be a nurse. Later, married with her own family Mum’s hands were kept busy with the relentless tasks of mothering six children – later still caring for twelve grandchildren – even sacrificing retirement freedom to care for two grandsons after my brother’s marriage ended.
Hands immersed in water, hands red raw from hard work and winter cold, hands stained from bramble jelly, hands dry from bleach, hands massaged with barrier cream – nurturing hands, labouring hands. Hands rarely raised in anger, but often dabbing at tears, cuddling and seeking to comfort, and clasped in prayer.