Some of the happiest times I remember from childhood were the extended meal times. The evenings, when we sat around the table, ignoring the dishes in the sink, as we listened to Dad and Mum share stories about Papa, Dad’s father. A character with a larger than life personality who lived with us when I was born although I only remember the repeated stories.
I never really ‘knew’ my grandparents – Mum’s mother died in 1927, her father died 1939 and Dad’s mother died 1940.
Papa lived with us until he died in 1956 aged 81 years. I was three years old. My sister, Catriona who was six years old at the time, appears to be the only one of us with clear memories of him.
I have to rely on the scraps of stories I can recall (oh, how I wish I’d taken notes at the time) from those nights when Dad entertained us with the escapades of ‘the old man’ and Mum repeated Papa’s reminisces when she cared for him after his strokes.
The modern generation with their mobile phones, capable of instant photos and videos, may take the time to create vivid ‘living’ archives or will they delete or forget to backup the important family history?
Perhaps they’ll find themselves in decades time wishing like me, that their memory was better?
Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.
I feel privileged to be teaching Life Stories & Legacies at Godfrey Street and my other creative writing classes because I get to write in class too. I can dig deep into memory or imagination and it’s amazing what stories are triggered by the prompts.
In the last term this year, when we returned from the September holidays, I fashioned a lesson around “WATER” because we’d had an inordinate amount of rain and the media was full of stories about floods – a great setting for drama as well as life stories.
Below is a fraction of the brainstorming we came up with:
Floods have been in the news – have you ever experienced a flood? Know anyone who has?
Write about the experience or put your characters into a flood.
Or consider the following, and write the memory the words or phrase evokes, in an anecdote, essay, story or poem:
- a bubble bath,
- a puddle – did you own gumboots?
- a storm-blown lake,
- a calm green sea,
- a child’s wading pool
- an overflowing sink
- a broken washing machine
- a leaky tap
- a spilt or empty dog’s bowl
- a basin for soaking aching feet
- bathing a baby/child for the first time
- bathing an aged parent
- bathing someone with a high temperature
It is always a surprise and a delight what memories are triggered and what the writers produce once the pen starts moving.
From this prompt, I remembered a story Dad had told about Papa. I hope I’ve done it justice.
A Soothing Sunday Soaking
Papa’s feet always ached and he often pondered the culprit.
Was it the years encased in protective hobnail boots as he shovelled tonnes of coal into the cavernous, hungry mouths of steam trains?
Five – nine tonnes a day when he was a fireman – no wonder there was never a scrap of fat on his bones!
When he qualified as a locomotive driver, he rarely sat on the metal block that passed as a stool. Instead, he’d stand, head tilted out of the window to see round the treacherous tracks of the Highlands, or the myriad junctions, including cluttered Glasgow Central.
One misread signal and people’s lives put at risk – 300 tonnes of engine and carriages pack one helluva punch! No wonder, Papa kept on his toes; the hours of standing no help to his feet.
Maybe it was just that – always being on his feet. Rain, hail, sleet, or snow… whatever the weather he trudged to work.
A five-mile walk there and five miles walk back from the railway yards. Trains, the main form of public transport in Scotland and they didn’t drive themselves. The rostered crew taking out the first train on their own transport-wise.
Twelve-hour shifts common and often Papa was away for several days if trains took goods and people north.
Unsociable shifts rendered bus timetables inconvenient, and in the era when not many working class men could afford a car, ‘Shanks’ pony’ (own feet or legs) the only reliable transport!
For part of his working life, Papa had a bicycle, if the weather suited, but once his sons started high school and apprenticeships, the family bicycle a precious commodity. He took his turn like everyone else but sometimes shifts, or the weather, didn’t go according to plan.
When he wasn’t working for Caledonian and later British Rail, part of his leisure time used to turn over soil, plant vegetables, and weed his allotment. The fruits of his labour supplemented the diet of his household of nine, or more.
Highland-born, my grandparents ensured ‘extras’ always had food and board. Relatives or friends visiting or looking for work in the city, highlanders down on their luck and needing help. Papa and Granny’s generosity and traditional hospitality well-known in Greenock.
Needless to say, Papa’s feet rarely still or rested, and even when he shed his work boots for slippers, the feet still encased. Scottish weather not conducive to bare feet freedom in or out of the house.
However, there was one luxury for his aching feet and Sunday was the day he indulged!
His religious beliefs respected the Sabbath and made it a work free day. He let others chase the penalty rates, and he traded Sunday for a day of rest so he could attend his Gaelic church, ‘the Wee Free’.
On Sunday afternoons, before the evening walk, and after the traditional roast dinner, he’d remove his socks and shoes, roll up his trousers, slip off his braces, remove cufflinks and studs, and turn up his shirt sleeves. Tie and waistcoat already abandoned.
He’d collect the Gaelic newspapers sent from his native Skye, and donning his reading glasses, relax into the most comfortable armchair in the parlour.
The ritual sacrosanct! No one in the household needed a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign.
In a basin of warm water with a generous amount of Epsom Salts added, Papa soaked his feet and relaxed. The minerals penetrated deep into his bones, and a rare, euphoric smile grew while he puffed on his pipe and leafed through newspaper stories to catch up with life on his beloved Isle of Skye.
This was how the Wee Free minister found him one Sunday afternoon when he called in unexpectedly and Papa refused to remove his feet from the basin, or get ‘dressed’!
The incident shattered domestic bliss for a week as Granny railed at her embarrassing husband.
Why did he refuse to dress properly for the Reverend?
How will she show her face to the neighbours when the story gets out – and it surely will! Tenements offered little privacy.
Did someone doing God’s work need to see misshapen toes and ugly feet? Not to mention braces hanging loose, shirt tails, no jacket or tie…
What was Papa thinking?
To treat the minister as if he was a nobody…
Now Papa helped found the National Union of Railwaymen, he admired Scottish socialist and the first Labour Member of Parliament, Keir Hardy. He disregarded class and hierarchies.
President of An Comunn Gàidhealach, the Highland Society of Greenock (member of the radical Federation of Celtic Societies) he fought on behalf of the dispossessed and dislocated highlanders and islanders. He didn’t care ‘one iota’ what the minister thought.
The bathing of aching feet, in his own home, non-negotiable.
The Reverend might learn to be more courteous next time and wait to be invited.
Papa remained ‘on his feet’ and worked until 72 years of age, driving ammunition and supply trains for the war effort. His robust health a rarity for a working man in the 1940s.
His larger than life personality left a legacy of many stories of his idiosyncrasies for future generations –this is but one!
All families have stories and memories, reminding us that behind the glass photo frames or plastic pages of an album the people once lived, laughed, worked and played – knowing their lives, we might better understand our own.