Memories Enriched By Love

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I can’t believe it is seven years since Mum passed away, and as usual, on anniversaries of a loved one’s death or other special occasion, thoughts drift to the past.

I love my Life Stories & Legacies class at Godfrey Street, Bentleigh because each week I can conjure a memory and reflection as well as record family stories and history: growing up, studying, working, having my own children, and all the incidents, major and minor events,  coincidences,  and occurrences that weave to make the rich tapestry of our life.

This morning, my older sister sent me a message to say ‘thinking of us all today’ and as messages flew back and forth, we shared memories of Mum and her legacy – so different for each of her six children and fourteen grandchildren.

No matter how old you are there can be something special about a mother’s love – here’s a memory I had one day on the train going to work.

Shelter From The Storm
Mairi Neil

Bruised clouds sweep the sky
a gloomy ominous pall.
I remember your voice
a thunderplump is on its way.’

Nearing sixty,
I wish to be six again
to feel comforting arms
gather me close.

Cushioned against your chest
my anxious heart
working overtime
Pit pat, pit pat, pit pat

Until attuned to your
gentle breathing, and steady
ba boom, ba boom,
ba boom.

To relax, as your hands
usually burdened with chores
keep me safe
in rhythmic caress.

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Last year, in class we talked about childhood games and memories of the parks and places where we’d play. Children haven’t really changed but childhood has and oldies like me notice the change – the way we parented and the way new generations parent.

We were certainly left to our own devices for more hours in a much less structured day!

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Parks and Places to Play

My first nine years were spent in Greenock, Scotland. I can’t remember much of the first three years living at number 2 George Square, a tenement, in the centre of town, but the move further out to Braeside and starting school at Ravenscraig Primary, provides plenty of material and memories.

Despite the rustic name (brae means hill in Scots), there were no parks as such for us to play in. We spent a lot of time in back gardens (‘back greens’ as they were called) and playing games in the street. Traffic minimal in the 50s and early 60s with Dad being one of the few in the street to own a vehicle. He had a motorbike at first, then bought a Bradford van. We played on pavement and road rarely disturbed by cars. In those days it would be rare not to see children playing in the street.

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Yours truly with ‘the big girls’ wearing mums’ shoes

Our games were rowdy affairs: hopscotch (called ‘beds’), skipping with lengths of rope salvaged from washing lines, football (soccer), rounders – often with homemade bats, and the exhausting body-bruising but fun British Bulldog and Relievers (an equally physical game).

We also roamed the hill opposite and the farmer’s fields at the bottom of the road. The housing scheme stretched on a steep hill. Our house at number 35 Davaar Road in the middle of the street’s curve. Davaar Road the topmost homes in the scheme. Across the road from us, behind the last row of grey Corporation houses, the hill climbed high to view or walk to Gourock and the River Clyde on the other side.

This brae devoid of tall trees, but spread with scrub, granite boulders, and heather. Enough natural flora to keep us entertained with games influenced by episodes of popular shows broadcast by the fledgling television industry: The Lone Ranger, The Cisco Kid, Robin Hood and his Merry Men (my favourite, Maid Marion), and whatever wonderful land Walt Disney invited us into when we wished upon a star on Sunday evenings.

Up the hill, I learned how to make daisy chains and to check who liked butter by waving buttercups under their chin and was shocked when a neighbour’s six-year-old asked if I wanted to see his ‘willie’. I shared Saturday night baths with three brothers, so couldn’t see the point!

A memorable part of the long summer holidays we spent collecting twigs, branches and anything that would burn in preparation for bonfire night in November. We never forgot Guy Fawkes or the rhyme, ‘Remember, remember, the fifth of November, gunpowder, treason, and plot!’

The hills also experienced children roaming in hordes, buckets and jam jars in hand, seeking blackberries when in season. The taste of Mum’s delicious bramble jam a great incentive to risk getting scratched and clothes torn picking the hard-to-reach ones, which always seemed the fattest and juiciest.

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At the bottom of the street spread the farmer’s fields, where we weren’t supposed to go. His bull known to be a danger to life and limb. Of course, we incorporated a deliberate dare in some of our games.

There must be a guardian angel for stupid children.

The other reason the fields were off-limits was because the Tinkers (or Gypsies but now correctly referred to as Travellers) used to camp there.  Mum and Dad didn’t practise overt bigotry or prejudice against Travellers like some people. Mum, in fact, helped them whenever she could: letting them do mending and other odd jobs, and buying some of the goods they hawked (like wooden clothes pegs).

She often repeated a story of the ‘Gypsy Woman’ who knocked on the door when she was a little girl in Belfast. Her mother bought clothes pegs but also gave extra money and food. In return, for the kindness, the woman offered to tell her fortune but being a devout Christian Grandmother declined. Instead, the old  woman took Mum’s hand and prophesied that she would travel across the sea, not once but twice, and the last journey would be far away across a large ocean. Mum would also bear seven children.

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The surviving six of us with Mum 1961

 

You cross The Irish Sea to get to Scotland, so all of us knew the first part of the prediction was right! (It wasn’t until much later that we found out Mum gave birth to seven children and my older sister’s identical twin died soon after birth. Of course, the largest ocean was the journey to Australia by ship when we migrated.)

Mum also believed you don’t go ‘looking for trouble,’ stranger danger not indoctrinated like modern times and we were not made overly fearful, but we were warned to be careful and obey the limitations placed on us, ‘no visiting the Tinker’s camp.’

Again, rules we chose to ignore!

Unfortunately, as a consequence, for years a vivid nightmare recurred, of being terrified and running in fear of my life, yet unable to ask for comfort because I played in the forbidden fields.

Sometimes we live to regret not obeying rules!

I must have been seven years old and had wandered away from the usual gang of playmates, including my older brothers and sister. Always inquisitive, I decided to explore the fields at the bottom of the road. I discovered the remnants of an army camp – underground bunkers abandoned at the end of WW2 and no doubt used by the Travellers. Perhaps I’d heard the more adventurous boys talk about it – I can’t really remember. I do remember spending most of my childhood playing with my two older brothers and their friends because we were all so close in age – only 13 months separated me from George and 17 months separated him from Iain.

In the campsite, there were the usual discarded items: an old army boot, rusted tins, broken furniture, and piles of accumulated recent rubbish, including the ubiquitous empty whisky and beer bottles. Exciting finds for a curious child.

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An abandoned camp similar to the one I remember

 

I never heard or noticed a movement from a bundle of dirty, grey blankets.

Without warning, an unkempt man reeking of alcohol made a grab for me. I ran for my life and didn’t stop until I was home, safe behind the gate. Davaar Road was steep but my little legs pounded the pavement without a pause.

The drunk maybe didn’t mean any harm, my presence probably surprised him as much as he startled me. I vaguely remember him murmuring about a match. Perhaps he woke up craving a cigarette – the two addictions of nicotine and alcohol often go together. All I remember is knicker-wetting terror; the sound of panting breath and thudding heart in my ears.

The proverbial wild horses would not pull me into the farmer’s fields! I didn’t care if I was accused of being a scaredy-cat because I was after that encounter. The smell and fear of the abandoned army camp forever part of my nightmares.

A more pleasant memory is playing near the secret lake. We’d walk along the Aileymill Road, a country trail linking the new housing scheme with isolated cottages on the way to Inverkip and Skelmorlie, tiny seaside towns further down the coast.

The hedgerows home to Willow Tits and Warblers singing their delightful ditties, the Golden Ringed dragonfly patrolling and the final goodbyes of the Swallows and Cuckoos before they left for Africa.

Cotton Grass swayed in the breeze and the heather’s vibrant colours bright amongst scented summer foliage not found in our home gardens with their neat rows of dahlias and roses. The hedges camouflage for lizards and beetles darting at our feet and the hilarious attempts of the boys to capture them.

We fished for tadpoles, and hunted frogs and toads, in our secret lake. Logs and stones upturned along damp paths. Bumblebees buzzing and Blue Bottles humming and maybe a hare or deer spotted, fleeing our noisy play. Sojourns to the secret lake a highlight of the long summer holidays as we ventured further afield than allowed.

I revisited Braeside in the 70s and like everything else seen through adult eyes, the secret lake had shrunk. More a puddle really, just as the farmer’s fields seemed a small tract of land with plenty of cowpats, but not a bull in sight!

However, the hillside and view to Gourock was still a scenic wonderland and looking across the sparkling River Clyde revived memories of delightful Sunday School picnics at Kilcreggan and trips ‘doon the water’ to Millport and Dunoon. Children’s laughter still echoed and with a deep breath and strong imagination I could smell Mum’s blackberry jam.

Royalty for the Day

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I’ve mentioned before how Dad often recited Rabbie Burns, believing the poems reflected life. At eight years old, I learned the meaning of:

The best-laid schemes of mice and men Gang aft agley And leave us nought but grief and pain, For promised joy

When you are the fourth of six children, special moments with either parent can be few, and in 1961, with Dad working over 40 hours a week as an engine driver, his shiftwork, including weekends, made individual attention, rare indeed. However, I remember spending a whole day with Dad – although we were not entirely alone, but shared the experience with a feisty donkey called Hamish. I consider the day a highlight of my Scottish childhood. images-11 One evening, Dad said, ‘The Sunday School pageant on Palm Sunday is going to have a real donkey.’ Dad was superintendent of St. Ninian’s Sunday School, a Church of Scotland parish accommodating the growing population of Braeside, in post-war Greenock. At the elders’ meeting to discuss ways of engaging non-churchgoing families, someone jokingly suggested that a real donkey on Palm Sunday would draw the crowds. His imagination fired by this casual remark, Dad discussed it with a workmate, Archie Barber who agreed to contact a  friend with a farm on the outskirts of Skelmorlie,  9 kilometres away.

The older boys had football practice, Catriona a commitment with Girl Guides, and Alistair and Rita were too young, so I volunteered to accompany Dad to the farm.

‘You’ll have to wear old clothes,’ Mum said, ‘there won’t be a saddle and the cuddy’s hair will  smell and be greasy.’

Normally, an outing called for Sunday best, and I’d wear the pretty dress sent from Aunt Chrissie in Australia, however, reading mum’s mind, Dad said, ‘We’ll look like a couple of tinkers, but we’ll have fun.’

Saturday came and Dad and I caught a double-decker bus and sat upstairs.  I got to sit by the window. We played I Spy, then counted different colours or types of cars. No competing voices, just the two of us; Dad’s newspaper remaining unopened on his lap.

After what seemed like hours of winding road and stops and starts, we reached Skelmorlie. The farm had a large buttercup meadow. Dad grinned as I held a flower under his chin. Pale flesh glowed. ‘You like butter.’ He tickled me, ‘I love butter.’

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A row of silver birch trees framed the whitewashed farmhouse. The stocky farmer stood beside a tethered donkey. Dad muttered, ‘What a bedraggled animal – thank goodness your mum insisted on old clothes.’

The donkey looked more like a shaggy Highland cow; its mouse-grey, grimy coat in need of a wash. Its short, whiskbroom tail rigid; its huge ears twitching. ‘Meet Hamish,’ the farmer said, ‘I’m afraid, he’s become a bit wild.’

Hamish tugged, kicked his back legs in the air, pushed his ears flat towards the back of his head and brayed. I moved closer to Dad, comforted by the squeeze of his calloused hand. The farmer said, ‘Come away inside and have a cuppa while he gets used to the harness again.’

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A woodburner stove radiated warmth; the kitchen table decorated with plates of freshly baked delights. My mouth watered at the griddle scones, soda bread and apple tart. The farmer’s wife offered me a plate of scones smothered in jam and cream whispering, ‘The one on the end is the biggest.’

Dad accepted a cup of tea and a seat on the comfy black leather sofa, nestled against a limestone wall decorated with black and white photographs. The adults chatted about the weather and Dad passed on news from Archie.

I went to the doorway and watched an uncomfortable Hamish try to wriggle free from the post.  He returned my stare with large white-ringed eyes; the only sound the rasping call of a corncrake hiding in nearby nettles.

I offered Hamish the remains of my scone. He nuzzled my hand with his pink mottled nose, ‘Hee haw!’

I jumped; sure, that Mum heard the bray all those miles away. ‘I’ll get you more food,’ and with that promise I skipped back to the kitchen.

Dad and the farmer were immersed in conversation about the new United States Navy base and Polaris nuclear fleet sited at the nearby Holy Loch. Dad campaigned for Nuclear Disarmament and never missed an opportunity to alert people to the dangers of nuclear bases. We wouldn’t be leaving for some time so I grabbed another scone and pocketed plain biscuits.

‘Your coat is magic, Hamish,’ I confided while explaining his part in the Easter play. I  traced the dark cross on his back with my fingers. Dad had told me about the legend that donkeys had unmarked hides before Christ’s entry into Jerusalem.  People believed the hairs from the crosses on the donkey’s back cured some ailments such as whooping-cough and toothache.

I was wondering if the legend and miracle cures were true when Dad’s voice interrupted my thoughts. ‘Now Hamish is calm we better make a start – it’s a long walk home.’

The farmer lifted me onto the donkey’s back. Hamish was four feet high. It felt like I was on stilts. This was so exciting!  I grinned until my face hurt, especially when the farmer’s wife gave Dad the biggest bag of jelly babies I’d ever seen. ‘Take these and use them wisely. Hamish will be no trouble.’

A few sweets coaxed Hamish from the security of the fields. I clung to his dirty coat. ‘Donkeys love to take dust baths,’ Dad said. ‘They choose a spot in their pasture to dig out and bathe themselves daily.’ I looked at several crumbling cowpats. ‘We won’t think too much about what was in the dirt,’ Dad said with a wink, ‘but he’ll need a good scrub before church tomorrow.’

He chuckled and as an afterthought said, ‘ and so will you!’

Hamish stopped. Donkeys hate water under their feet and always avoid puddles. Dad reverted to jelly baby bribery. Hamish plodded on. When he stopped, a jelly baby, or two, or three, encouraged him. I spoke my thoughts aloud, ‘ I don’t think donkeys are stupid!’ Dad smiled and gave me a jelly baby.

He pointed out marsh violets peeping from beneath a granite boulder. I studied the face almost parallel to mine. Black moustache, thick and neatly groomed, long, patrician  nose all ‘McInnes’s inherited. I sniffed his jet-black hair, Brylcreemed beneath traditional tweed cap. His olive skin, not yet summer brown, revealed the legacy of the survivors of the wrecked Spanish Armada who settled in the Highlands in the sixteenth century. Well that was the story Dad liked to tell.

Suddenly, he burst into song, his magnificent tenor voice encouraging me to join in:

Ev’ry road thro’ life is a long, long road, Fill’d with joys and sorrows too, As you journey on how your heart will yearn For the things most dear to you. With wealth and love ’tis so, But onward we must go. Keep right on to the end of the road, Keep right on to the end, Tho’ the way be long, let your heart be strong, Keep right on round the bend.

High hedgerows of white flowering blackthorn and bramble bushes with clusters of tiny blackberries hid houses from view. Dad’s tackity boots a rhythmic echo as metal tips scraped tarmacadam. Hamish increased his pace to our rousing rendition of the Uist Tramping Song:

Come along, come along, Let us foot it out together, Come along, come along, be it fair or stormy weather, With the hills of home before us and the purple of the heather, Let us sing in happy chorus, come along, come along.

The hillside bloomed, a rainbow of shy snowdrops, proud dandelions, wild hyacinths and delicate daisies. As I swayed on Hamish’s broad back, I was an Arabian princess seeking the lost city of Petra; Lady Guinevere meeting King Arthur, Mary Queen of Scots fleeing Scotland … and when Hamish allowed himself a gentle trot – Annie Oakley heading to join Buffalo Bill in the Wild West. All the tales I’d read at school or in the set of  Arthur Mee Children’s Encyclopaedia at home, swirled through my head and fired my imagination.

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Hamish fancied the buds and reddish-purple twigs of the birch tree. Dad gently tapped my shoulder. My hazel eyes followed his outstretched arm. A baby deer munched on a similar feast nearby. Bambi!  What a thrill to be able to boast about this adventurous day when I went to school.

Six kilometres from home, we reached Inverkip village. Although a Saturday afternoon and many shops were already shut, the village was a popular tourist destination for picnics. Dad tightened his grip, rubbed his whiskers into my neck. ‘Watch out; there’s witches here.’

I giggled, spied a bumblebee dancing above a clump of bluebells. ‘No there’s not.’

‘Oh, yes there is,’ Dad said, his brown eyes serious as he gave me a history lesson. ‘In the 1600s many young women were accused of witchcraft and imprisoned or killed. It wasn’t a good time at all.’ I shuddered and must have paled because Dad immediately changed the mood.

‘Not last night but the night before,’ he recited, ‘three wee witches came to my door. One with a hatchet, one with a drum and one with a pancake stuck to her … bum!’ I roared with laughter. Dad had paused for affect and said the ‘b’ word instead of thumb.

A car backfired. Hamish jumped as a truck drove past, then  froze. The jelly babies disappeared at a faster rate. We were stationary for so long passersby thought Dad a gypsy, selling donkey rides. He gave several children short rides, but refused the shiny coins offered. Grateful parents bought me ice cream, Smarties and Humbugs, and replenished the supply of jelly babies when we revealed Hamish’s addiction.

At last the churchyard appeared in view. In fading daylight, I pretended to be Jesus riding into Jerusalem.  Tethered to a railing, Hamish protested with long mournful brays. He didn’t like being contained in the small unfamiliar space.

The adventure left my legs and bottom aching, but I hid my discomfort.  At dinner that evening, the family listened enthralled as Dad, an amazing raconteur, wittily recounted our day.

Next morning, all the children arrived early to see Hamish. I felt a celebrity too as Dad washed and brushed Hamish for a dress rehearsal. However, Hamish refused to walk up the makeshift ramp into the church despite dangled carrots and a jelly baby trail. Bribery, begging, even scolding, all failed.

The church filled with a congregation eager to see the Easter play. Parents hurriedly cleaned dishevelled children and the pageant proceeded without its star. The play was a success even if Hamish didn’t play his part. Or perhaps he did. Donkeys have a reputation for being obstinate and Hamish was certainly that!

Dad murmured into my ear, ‘The best- laid schemes of mice and men gang aft agley,’ and shrugged.

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I wrote this story as a response to ‘special moments with dad’, a common memoir writing prompt. There were other occasions, but this one has always loomed large in my memory.

Have you got a special moment, or moments, you can write about?

Copyright Note:

  • Sir Harry Lauder wrote Keep Right On To The End Of The Road shortly after his son was killed in action in World War I. The Uist Tramping Song is a Celtic folk song we learned at school from a regular BBC program played over the classroom radio. The Rabbie Burns quote from the poem To a Mouse on turning her up in her Nest with the Plough