Motherhood, Love, & Purpose

mary anne and me December 2017.jpg

A Mother’s Day Reflection

mother and pie quote

I’m not sure what I expected from motherhood except that life would change – and that expectation has most definitely been met!

My daughters grew inside me and remain a part of me… I can’t imagine life without them but the person who taught me most about motherhood was my own mother – an amazing woman I will probably never stop writing about!

The older my children become, and as I age, the intensity of love for them deepens. I think of them every day, confirming the feelings and wisdom my own mother shared with me in the months before her death in 2009, aged eighty-nine.

She talked about her fears for my brother, George who was undergoing treatment for Leukaemia and said,

‘Loving and mothering is a lifetime responsibility – your children should never die before you. It’s not right.’

I have close friends who have lost adult children. They confirm the truth of Mum’s observation and I know each day for those friends getting up and coping with daily life is a struggle and testament to their resilience to ‘continue and carry on with life’ the way their loved ones would wish. The lead-up and actual celebration of days like today must be particularly difficult and my heart goes out to them.

‘She never quite leaves her children at home, even when she doesn’t take them along.’

Margaret Culkin Banning

When I decided to have a baby I was thirty-two and didn’t truly understand how profound becoming a parent would be personally or the effect on relationships with family, friends – and even strangers.

Born in the 1950s and part of Women’s Liberation in the late 60s and 70s, I was still expected to follow the ‘normal’ path of marrying and having children. It wasn’t my sole aim in life and I didn’t actively plan it but I went with the flow after meeting John and neither of us challenged the system, except I eschewed a white wedding and expensive reception and chose to marry in the garden of the house we bought together and party afterwards with many of the guests ‘bringing a plate’!

On reflection, I can say becoming a mother was the most exhaustive (and exhausting) change in my life – and continues to be – as long as my daughters and I remain intertwined.

I could write a lot about the picture of me in the early days of my daughter Anne’s homecoming – the congratulatory cards still visible, the dessert and glass of wine husband John prepared sitting untouched, me in an exhausted sleep all new mothers know well…

anne's birth 2

I salute my own mother for her guidance, values, and many examples of mothering. How she coped with six of us I will never know! I remember ringing her up and asking her once, after a particularly trying day with a baby plus toddler, ‘How are you still sane?

I know that the deep love and bond I had with her is one of the reasons a loving bond with my daughters came easily.

There are similarities and huge differences regarding how Mum and I parented but not in attitude and determination to be loving and loyal whenever needed. We were both extremely lucky to be with partners we loved (Mum had Dad and I had John).

Partners who wanted children and were supportive, partners unafraid to share the household chores and unglamorous aspects of parenting and in my case, I know, a partner who cherished me and never stopped showing it.

John had been married before and so to a certain extent ‘knew the ropes’ regarding parenting so I was lucky. Although being present at the birth of both our girls, a totally new experience for him just as having me, a feminist as a partner, also a new experience!

In this picture, we are pregnant and ecstatic.

joh and me when I was pregnant with Anne

Say, what is the spell, when her fledgelings are cheeping,
That lures the bird home to her nest?
Or wakes the tired mother whose infant is weeping,
To cuddle and croon it to rest?
For I’m sure it is nothing but Love!’

Lewis Carroll

Cheryl, now my ex-sister-in-law was a friend as well as part of the extended family in 1986. She produced the first of the next generation for our branch of the McInnes Clan in Australia in 1979 and the only ‘modern mum’ I’d observed firsthand.

She visited me in Jessie McPherson Hospital, Lonsdale Street, shortly after Anne’s birth. Into my ear, she whispered, ‘Welcome to the club.’

Her brown and my hazel eyes met as she squeezed my arm gently and with the still vivid memory of that miraculous moment when I held Anne to my breast for the first time, I knew exactly what she meant – becoming a mother, accepting the responsibility for another human being is transformational and understood by other mothers.

Vector Illustration of a happy multicultural group of cute swaddled babies

My first little ray of sunshine born after an emergency dash to Jessie Mac’s in Lonsdale Street at 3.00am, May 24, 1986.

John tailgated a taxi breaking the speed limit ( ‘they know the fastest route and where all the coppers and cameras are’ ). We hit no red lights and made the city in record time.

Three hours later Anne Courtney Neil arrived, three weeks earlier than expected but wide-eyed and ready to take on the world!

When I took Anne home from the hospital little did I know she had a hole in the heart – not discovered for almost twelve months, and then only by the extra diligence of a young doctor on work experience at the local clinic!

I still have cold sweats in the middle of the night when I think of the operation she had for ‘sticky-eye’ and a blocked tear duct when she was barely two months old, the eye specialist and the anaesthetist completely unaware of her heart condition.

There were the usual childhood accidents and illnesses too. The catastrophes that send mothers into a spin, fearful for the child’s wellbeing and welfare – Anne had no broken bones (Mary Jane delivered that excitement) but one day she bit hard and severed her tongue when she collided with a large wooden rocking horse.

I rushed to the local GP at the corner of Albert and McDonald Streets, in my slippers, wheeling five-year-old Anne in her sister’s pusher and carrying a protesting Mary Jane under my arm.

I’d stuffed a wet face-washer in Anne’s mouth to hold the tongue together and stem the bleeding (‘excellent response’ according to the doctor).

The trail of blood in the house and garden that greeted John when he rushed home after receiving a garbled message from his receptionist made him imagine a severed limb and he almost fainted. (The tongue does bleed profusely!)

However, he too praised my quick action racing to the surgery rather than ringing an ambulance or panicking. (That and delayed shock came later!)

Sometimes we amaze ourselves how we react and cope as parents.

pictures of mum and me me and mj

Mary Jane’s birth in 1989,  a more traumatic and dramatic story.

She arrived more than a week early and I barely got to Mordialloc Hospital in time for delivery sending the nursing staff into a flap. To this day she is known as ‘the baby born during the tea break’ arriving less than fifteen minutes after I walked through the front door.

John and Dr Ferguson arrived at the hospital just in time for delivery and I’m sure if there had been more traffic police on duty in those days, both would have been booked for speeding – perhaps even reckless driving.

Adding to the drama, Mary Jane breathed the meconium and amniotic fluid mixture into her lungs while in the womb and was born with the umbilical cord around her neck prompting a nurse to say, ‘Oh, she’s dead.’

The baby rushed to an incubator and the nurse reprimanded while everyone in the room paused for a moment taking stock of a miracle birth indeed! I went into shock and apparently kept asking John if I’d had a baby until they brought Mary Jane to me to be cuddled and fed!

 

Later, Mary Jane broke her arm in a ‘monkey bar’ accident at primary school but the seriousness of the fracture ignored by teachers who left her in Sick Bay while they tried to contact me or John and ‘ask what to do’ instead of taking her to a doctor or ringing an ambulance.

Our membership in the ambulance service and private health insurance on record and you can imagine the tongue lashing the administration of the school received from me.

Fortunately, a friend volunteering for reading duty noticed Mary Jane’s distress and demanded action; unfortunately, the delay and subsequent treatment at Sandringham public hospital during the upheaval of the Kennett years meant the arm was badly set and needed to be re-broken weeks later – this was done by a specialist at Como Hospital in Parkdale.

Sadly, Sandringham botched another operation when MJ was in her 20s, damaging her bowel when they discovered endometriosis during a routine operation to remove an ovarian cyst. Who says lightning doesn’t strike twice??

Often at night, I close my eyes and recall the horror of seeing my daughter with multiple tubes hanging from her young body. Flushed, in pain despite high doses of morphine, and unaware of the emergency operation, she murmured through an oxygen mask, ‘What happened?’

The déjà vu of the multiple traumas she has suffered weighs heavily on my heart. I have often wished for a magic wand to reverse the hurts or give my daughters the happiness and pain-free world of fairytales.

mothers day 1990.jpeg
Mother’s Day 1990

Motherhood exposes your deepest fears and inadequacies but it also helps you gain courage and grow – as Sophocles said, ‘Children are the anchors that hold a mother to life.’

Whenever my girls have been ill, in pain, troubled or suffering, I’ve wanted a magic wand to remove their misfortune or possess the ability to swap places and take away their discomfort. Instead, reality over fantasy,  I’ve ‘gone into bat’ for them and fought school and government authorities, bullies, and anyone else who needed to be held accountable.

Like a lioness, I will fiercely fight to protect and defend. These skills and determination I learnt from own mother – she may have been barely five foot tall but her love and commitment to all six of her children taught me to be courageous and resilient regarding caring and coping as a parent.

‘A mother’s love for her child is like nothing else in the world. It knows no law, no pity, it dares all things and crushes down remorselessly all that stands in its path.’

Agatha Christie

Motherhood indeed the most emotional and enlightened transformation for me. Everything I’ve read, shared, learnt and absorbed about other women’s experiences reveals none of our journeys is exactly the same or can be predicted.

There are similarities, but it is a unique life-changing event filled with joys and sorrows, calm and turbulent seas, problems and solutions, holding tight and letting go, embarrassing moments and moments of pride and satisfaction.

‘The heart of a mother is a deep abyss at the bottom of which you will always find forgiveness.’

Honore de Balzac

Around the world, mothers worry about their inadequacies, feel overwhelmed and many like me who became a single parent because our partner died carry guilt about not coping or spending enough time as the ‘default’ parent.

(John died when Anne was sixteen and Mary Jane thirteen – I think most will agree parenting adolescents is tough with two concerned parents, with one, I can assure you, it is challenging and at times very lonely!)

Frustration, financial stress, fear of failure or making mistakes – subjects often discussed between friends, family and in some cases counsellors.

Nurturing has never stopped from their early childhood…

FB_IMG_1557655986840

From miraculous beginnings to challenging responsibilities, navigating hopes and dreams, disasters and near misses, parenting has been rewarding, scary, comical, confronting, but most of all fulfilling.

My life has had a purpose and I’ve experienced and continue to experience a wonderful mutual love.

I am so lucky my girls as young women still want to visit and ‘hang out’ with me, travel together, see movies, play board games, walk the dog, shop, discuss and debate, laugh and even party with me.

They are friends as well as daughters, and often the nurturing role has been reversed – especially when I had breast cancer and now as I age and have lost some confidence about decision-making for the future.

anne me and mary 2018.jpg

At the beginning of my writing career, at the launch of my first poetry book, I said children were the inspiration and reason I wrote and also the reason I didn’t write because motherhood is time-consuming.

Over the years, especially caring for John, I can substitute family instead of mothering but I wouldn’t really have life any other way. Loving and knowing John and our daughters have enriched me and made me the person I am today.

I hope I’ve helped add two more productive, caring citizens to the community. I’m grateful that feminism has wrought changes in society and many of the preconceptions about women and their destiny are no longer peddled – my girls have choices their grandmothers didn’t.

My Mum won a scholarship to college in Northern Ireland but her stepmother wouldn’t let her continue with study and ordered her out to work, then came WW2, the ATS and then nursing. Her stymied educational opportunities were what motivated Mum to encourage all six of her own children to study and seek suitable qualifications for what we wanted to be.

I was the first in my family to go to university and I only wish mum could have witnessed me returning to study at 57 years old and gaining a Masters degree in Writing and her two granddaughters earn Bachelor degrees.

season of our lives

Always my wish has been happiness and good health for both girls – to be whatever they want to be and find contentment and fulfilment in their choices.

We are so fortunate to live in Australia and have the privileges we do and I’m glad both daughters are aware they stand on the shoulders of those who have come before, that there are still hurdles to leap, and they will always strive to ‘go higher’ and seek equity for themselves and for so many others not as fortunate.

I am happy they will follow their mother as I followed my mother in fighting for social justice.

‘Youth fades; love droops, the leaves of friendship fall;
A mother’ s secret hope outlives them all.’

Oliver Wendall Holmes.

Happy Mother’s Day to all!

An Encounter Unexpected, Unexplained, Unforgettable

249393bafa486ff02bab50af9167325e

A video of a naked toddler running on the highway in America in the middle of the night is going viral on the Internet. The toddler’s run captured by the police car’s dash cam. That blurry image of a lost toddler triggers a buried memory from 1979 Darwin…

After an evening with friends, a workmate Ray offered to drive me back to the hostel where I was staying. Although a hot October night, the hovering storm clouds commonplace. Dark bruises hiding or foretelling sorrow?

My first week in the Top End of Australia marked with high humidity and tropical rainstorms. The start of the monsoon season—or as the locals proclaim, the suicide season. A time when temperaments become as mercurial as the weather. Anyone who can, escapes to more settled climes down south.

Work had sent me north. ‘Not the best time to be seconded from interstate, said Ray, ‘but if you survive you won’t want to leave. The Territory is full of surprises.’ He grinned. “I was sent up here for a week, five years ago.’

Along with intermittent traffic, Ray’s car sped citywards in racing mode. The clock on the dashboard glowed 11.50pm. The taste of wine consumed at dinner lingered on my tongue;  an alcoholic flush warmed neck and cheeks. I wound down the car window. Two delivery lorries roared past, the blast of air pushing my head back. Hair fluttered and skin cooled.

‘No speed limits here?’ I joked, hoping Ray would slow down, the car’s motion exacerbating a wave of rising nausea. Heat fatigue, alcohol, and a big helping of too–sweet Pavlova pressured my bloated stomach.

I don’t travel well in a car at the best of times having never held a driving licence, but in the moonlight, the six lane concrete highway became a huge swirling silver sea. Each bumpy ridge jolting like a cattle prod.

I jerked upright.’ Stop Ray! That was a child!’ The roaring wind distorted my voice.

‘What?’ Ray eased his foot from the accelerator, ‘Where?’

‘I’m sure that was a naked child by the side of the road. Stop so we can check.’

Silence.

Ray kept driving. Perhaps he thought I was drunk and hallucinating, or maybe it was just typical behaviour from someone whose mantra I suspected was don’t get involved.

I swivelled my head. In the distance, a little figure flitted across the road behind us—a toddler, perhaps three years old. Too young to be deliberately playing chicken with night traffic. ‘Please stop the car. Turn around NOW.’

Fair hair and pale skin glistened in the moonlight.

Miracle of miracles we were the only car on the highway at the time.

A subliminal flash of a bloodied lump of flesh splattered on the grill of a truck, or lying in the gravel as roadkill set me trembling. Ray obeyed the urgency of my voice and slowed almost to a crawl looking for a turnoff while muttering, ‘It really is none of our business.’

‘See, there he is,’ I pointed. ‘Hiding behind that pink frangipani. Stop and I’ll grab him.’

The child was slippery. Perspiration beaded his thin body. Grimy rivulets pooled around neck and groin. His face glowed red from the exertion of running across the highway who knows how many times. I managed to grab him before he launched himself off the kerb again. He giggled and wriggled as if being chased off the highway a regular past time.

A truck growled as it thundered past. Fear coiled in my stomach as I clung to the squirming mass of flesh. ‘What’s your name, son?’ More giggles and grunts. I sniffed at a profusion of purple wisteria dangling over a fence. Sweet relief from the boy’s stale sweat.

‘What’s your name, and where do you live? Where’s mummy and daddy?’ He struggled like a terrified cat.

I stared into the blackness, gradually houses rose from the shadows of shrubbery. Ray, a bemused onlooker to our wrestling match. ‘Let’s go for a walk down some streets and perhaps he’ll point out his home,’ he said.

Once, we were far enough away from the highway, I let Little Eel slide to the ground but still gripped his hand, cajoling him along the street, ‘Is this where you live? Point to mummy and daddy’s house.’

The boy’s reluctance to walk calmly and the lack of light and life from any of the houses exasperating. ‘We need to take him to a police station,’ said Ray, ‘let’s go back to the car.’

I hid my disappointment and picked up the squirming toddler. ‘I’m sure he’s escaped from one of these houses and his parents will be frantic when they discover he’s gone.’

The scorcher of a day produced a warm claustrophobic evening. I had hoped to find an open door or swinging gate to investigate. Most people would have left windows and doors ajar, allowing the night air to circulate, relying on fly screens to keep the mosquitoes and flying cockroaches out. A flywire door easy for this sturdy little chap to negotiate. Tall for his age, babyhood only evident when you were close; he seemed old beyond his years.

When we reached Ray’s car, I spied a service station over the highway–the bright lights probably the attraction for Little Eel.

‘Ray, let’s go over to the servo. They may recognise this little boy. We can ring the police, if there’s no joy.’

We stood beneath the streetlight. Ray stared closely at little Eel as if seeing him for the first time. His nose twitched at the toddler’s pong. He shook his head and grimaced at the glistening bundle with muck embedded in every crevice. Little Eel’s palms left marks on my blouse, and the soles of his feet, caked in grime accumulated over time and not just from today’s roaming, streaked my skirt. Ray’s brown eyes flickered towards the interior of his car, fluffy, sheepskin seat covers glowed white.

‘The servo it is,’ he said, ‘let’s go,’ and with a lull in the traffic, started to walk across the highway.

Little Eel looked even more neglected in the glare of neon lights with sweaty hair plastered and encrusted to his scalp. The man on duty at the service station tutted in disgust.

‘I don’t know the little fella’s name, but his parents come in here all the time when they run out of smokes. Don’t know where they live, except wherever it is they’ll be stoned out of their minds. The kid’s feral, brings himself up.’

‘I thought he lived close, ‘ I said. ‘We found him running across the highway. Lucky he’s not been hit.’

The attendant rolled his eyes, a flush of anger staining his face. His gritted teeth stretched thin lips into a murderous scowl.

Bored with our chatter Little Eel struggled to get down, ’keem, keem…,’ he whined, hands flailing. Surprised to hear words instead of the persistent irritating giggle, I nearly dropped him.

His whiney words clicked. ‘He wants ice-cream.’

A paroxysm of excitement shook his little body as the boy slid to the tiled floor. Although a relief to aching arms, I held firmly to his hand.

‘Can you ring the police for us.’ Ray asked the attendant, and glancing at me, ‘I’ll buy the ice-cream.’ The man gave Little Eel an icy-pole before ringing the police. I smiled as Ray redeemed himself.

‘They’ll be 10-15 minutes coming from town.’

Ray and the service station attendant commiserated about the levels of drug use and abuse in a growing Darwin flooded by people seeking work in the uranium mines or returning after the devastation of Cyclone Tracy. Christmas Day 1974 burned into the psyche of Territorians with thousands still struggling to come to terms with its aftermath.

I basked in the coolness of air-conditioned comfort and limited Little Eel’s exploration of the crowded shelves of the service station, and the sticky trail of dripped vanilla icy pole.

The toddler polished off the treat quicker than a parched lizard. Fifteen minutes stretched interminably. We all sighed with relief when the police jeep arrived and a male and female officer alighted to record our details, and a description of Little Eel’s capers. They knew him and his address, pronouncing the same opinion of his parents and home life as the servo attendant.

Ray hovered at the door like a runner on blocks as I relinquished Little Eel. I blamed hormones for the tears burning the back of my eyes as  the tiny hand left mine.

I watched the police officers wrap him in a towel provided by the attendant and pass him like a parcel from one officer to the other into the patrol car. The female officer adjusted the seatbelt firmly around the toddler’s frame with a, ‘Keep your sticky hands off the buckle!’

My last sight of Little Eel, a grinning face and grimy fingers wiping a farewell of sorts across the car window.

‘He’ll be all right,’ said Ray, ‘kids are resilient.’

‘So speaks a middle-aged bachelor,’ I snapped.

Ray shrugged as he unlocked the car doors. ‘My sister Sally is a widow with six children, I help out with money, babysit, and have the kids for holidays to give her a break.’

The night air chilled. I wished for a large hole to appear so I could slide into it as easily as Little Eel slipped away from me. A concoction of fragrant frangipani and enticing erysimum wafting in the breeze couldn’t remove the toddler’s smell from my clothes. I sunk into the car seat, surrendering to weariness and sorrow.

The journey home completed in embarrassed silence as evidence of the building boom flashed past. Damaged houses derelict since the cyclone, sat alongside empty blocks and new houses, rows of rotten teeth, cavities and shiny new fillings.

I didn’t have a solution or a magic wand to ensure Little Eel’s future. I prayed Ray was right and the authorities would protect the boy, but perhaps not…

Unknown.png

That night I decided not to accept the transfer to Darwin. It was a strange frontier town compared to Melbourne, the climate too hot and the encounter with Little Eel left me unsettled and sad.

Unknown-1.jpeg

Outside a liminal glow spreads from an almost full moon and I wonder what happened to the child caught in the police video? How many Little Eels have suffered over the last thirty-seven years? Continue to suffer? How many more will suffer in the future?

If I had stayed in Darwin, could I have made a difference to the lives of families like Little Eel’s? What am I doing now to make a difference?

Pastor Peter Marshall said, ‘Small deeds done are better than great deeds planned.’

Some decisions are questionable and some questions unanswerable. There is no going back, but we can learn from experience.

Unknown-3.jpeg

 

 

Creatively Writing Life Experiences

10418168_891265247559133_7772529688516245159_n

You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.

Maya  Angelou  1928-2014

The advantages of attending a writing class, or group, or having a writing buddy, are the support and encouragement received, plus the motivation and discipline to write.

You may be a writer who never suffers from writer’s block, but many writers procrastinate and find excuses to do anything, but write. (I’m enjoying the fourth cuppa of the day and have completed a heap of tasks, which could have been ignored, just to avoid putting pen to paper for this post!)

Mind you I have been writing all weekend – compiling and editing a class anthology, including my own contributions; also preparing the final lesson for the eight week course coming to an end. However, I have other partly finished poems and stories needing attention, which have  fallen victim to my writer’s avoidance syndrome!

DSC_4766-1

The part I love about lesson planning for my diverse classes is coming up with new triggers and prompts, researching ideas to be innovative, and then hearing the different interpretations writers share, after splurging or writing stream of consciousness for 10-15 minutes, or in some classes half an hour.

10382724_336499536510354_8474893454558012419_n

Words, ideas, concepts, sounds, smells, experiences, memories, music, books, films, songs, people, places, sights, anniversaries… so many simple and complex triggers to produce meaningful, entertaining, memorable and often astounding poems and prose.

10730913_600500680054869_8830373869691908146_n

Today, my oldest daughter turned 29. Childbirth and first time motherhood life-changing for me and I didn’t need much prompting to write about the experience, events, or my feelings.

However, as always with writing about motherhood,parenting, or similar experiences, there can be widely different connotations, interpretations and perspectives. Writers can always find a new angle, or reflect on an old piece  of writing and wonder how it can be improved, or even rewritten. (Most of us are perfectionists and I for one find it difficult to ‘let go’ and declare a piece finished!)

Here is a poem I wrote while I was struggling as a new mother, a reflective piece written recently and some creative non-fiction from years ago that won the Wellspring Women Writers’ Award:

Fruits of Labour
Mairi Neil

The seed was planted
in love, warmth and joy.
And grew.
A strawberry, an orange
a watermelon…
I ached to hold the fruit –
to have the fruit taste me.

Suckling at the breast,
being nurtured,
vulnerable.
Then almost too quickly,
the helplessness…
became a powerful force –
the controller of me.
Peeling me each day,

strip by strip,
by strip.
Sometimes I am a strawberry,
scraped lightly…
then an orange torn apart –
in big thick slices.

My juice is squeezed,
drop by drop,
by drop.
The growing seed must
be nourished…
Peeling, squeezing, nibbling –
unaware of the bruises.

Anne Courtney Neil – newborn 24/5/1986anne's birth 3

Crossing Borders
Mairi Neil

The most definitive life-changing event I’ve experienced was becoming a mother. The miracle of birth, a cliche often written about in poems, romanticised or demonised in novels, and in memoir or personal essays, upheld as a must for every woman, or an experience to be avoided or fraught with peril!

My sister-in-law Cheryl, came to visit me in Jessie Mac’s a few hours after Anne was born on May 24th 1986. Cheryl produced, two boys, the first grandchildren for my parents, and whispered to me, ‘welcome to the club.’ I knew what she meant. I felt different.

The exhaustion of labour and the pain of the unexpected episiotomy overshadowed by the elation of holding a delightful, warm bundle of humanity in my arms. A gorgeous baby girl, with blonde fluff as hair and the same brilliant Paul Newman blue eyes as her proud father.

Awestruck, I wondered, how had I managed this? My amazement and shock heightened by Anne arriving three weeks early. Her premature birth meant I had only a vest and one nightie for her. My Mother’s Irish superstition insisted it was bad luck to have too many ‘baby things’ before the actual birth, and I had only finished working full-time a couple of weeks before and refurbishing secondhand nursery furniture took precedence over shopping!

Thank goodness friends and family arrived with baby bundles, many handmade, especially by my talented older sister, Cate who made nightdresses and knitted bootees, hats and jackets, plus a lovely white crocheted baby shawl.
Perhaps it was the shock of the premature birth, or my unpreparedness, but when I brought Anne home to Mordialloc, it was almost a month before I could say, ‘Mummy’s here,’ in response to her cries. Instead I said, ‘Mairi’s here’, ‘Mairi will change your nappy’, ‘Mairi will feed you now’. Life as a mother seemed surreal, the responsibility scary.

Only husband John, knew how uncertain I felt, the fear that I’d wake from this dream to find the wonderful miracle a mirage. Only John understood my lack of confidence – could I measure up to the expectations of my parents and others?

Married before, John had grown-up children. I appreciated his calmness and confidence. As an older dad with years of experience, he was more relaxed than me, despite so much of Anne’s birth and babyhood being a first time experience for him too. He hadn’t been at the birth of his other three children, but had been with me for Anne’s. He didn’t share much of his first wife’s pregnancies either because of being in the Royal Navy. Attitudinal change wrought by Women’s Liberation and feminism hadn’t filtered through either when he and Valerie were together.
My two sisters had spent their lives cooing over babies, wanting motherhood, assuming it was a natural progression once married. I never did. To me, motherhood was a choice not an inevitability or necessity. However, Anne was very much planned and loved. I even went on a special diet, to clean all toxins from my system, in an effort to ensure the best outcome possible for conception, pregnancy and childbirth.

I’m sure, the irony of me producing the first grandchild – and a female one at that – before either of my sisters was not lost on those who knew me. The sojourn into the nuclear family stakes at 33 years old made me a late starter – not for the McInneses though because my parents married in their late twenties (Dad, 27 and Mum, 28). The popularity of the contraceptive pill, meant women had reproductive choices they never had before and I wasn’t alone in delaying motherhood.

Sadly, my older sister, Cate would never experience childbirth as the day I found out I was pregnant she was told she’d need a hysterectomy after IVF had failed and her painful and intrusive endometriosis had spread.

Learning of her physical and emotional pain and the crushing of her motherhood dream, made me hesitate to share my joy. How could I be excited and chatter about the future to her? I’ll always be grateful for the magnanimous way she not only accepted my news, but was genuinely thrilled and happy for me.

Cate was one of the first to visit me in hospital and cuddle Anne, her future goddaughter and was as excited about my second daughter, Mary Jane, three years later. My sister married a widower with two young children, fulfilling her wish to be a mother and is now a doting grandmother – a border I’ve still to cross!

anne's birth

Cradle Thoughts
Mairi Neil

The rain splatters against the lounge-room window; soon a steady beat. Tears seep from the corners of my eyes to become a relentless flow. Powerless, I’m trapped by a tiny being, barely a month old.

My milk is faltering and daughter, Anne protests — a squeal of anger and frustration. Advice rattles in my head… relax, let the milk flow. The more I try, the less I succeed. Anne’s pale skin turns scarlet. She increases her efforts to suck. The pain in my nipple excruciating; I remember a stupid joke from high school, about crippled nipples. Tears almost give way to a giggle. Mum used to struggle between laughter and tears at times of crises – perhaps hysteria is genetic.

The rain eases to a gentle pitter-patter; I picture the nappies suspended from the clothes hoist, waterlogged. A resigned sigh escapes and my milk gushes. Anne’s sucking gentle; rhythmic. Dried tears lie hot on my taut cheeks, below eyes that feel puffy and gritty. I reach for a tissue to remove the huge teardrop suspended on the tip of my nose.

I was a supervisor at the office, BC (before children), coping with calamities, thriving under pressure, meeting deadlines. Now washing soaked by a sudden downpour of rain reduces me to tears. I hope that somewhere in the cupboard there is a packet of politically incorrect disposables put aside for a rainy day!

The telephone’s shrill interruption makes Anne jump — and me curse. It always seems to ring the minute I sit down to feed. Again I’ve forgotten to bring the contraption nearby yet I bought the extension lead to ensure minimum disruption to breastfeeding routine. ‘Mind like a sieve’ must have been coined for new mothers. With Anne attached to my left breast like a leech, I shuffle towards the telephone fastened to the kitchen wall.

‘Hello … We’re fine, Mum. I’m feeding at the moment. Can I ring you back? … You sound upset… If it’s important tell me now … Oh, God! Is there someone else? … Why has Cheryl left? … How’s Iain taking it? … What about the boys?’

Anne presses on my arm. I feel like I’m holding a house brick. She whimpers as I struggle to manipulate the telephone and hold her one-handed. The distraction interrupts the milk supply; tiny nails knead, hard gums bite.

‘Yes, please ring back later … no wait… I’ll ring you back, because I don’t know how long I’ll be…. Of course, I’m upset, but I need to know… We’re a family, we care for each other. … I love you too… ’

I sink into the armchair, stunned, disoriented. My loud curse not just because I’d forgotten to bring the telephone within reach again. Battleship grey clouds loom large floating past the window, darkening the room, matching my mood.

Anne suckles, content, winding down; her sea blue eyes now tightly closed. I stare at the fine golden fluff on her head, her soft creamy skin. From above the nose with eyes shut, her high forehead makes her look so like Iain’s eldest son. It wasn’t so long ago when I held him the day he was born. The tragic news takes on a deeper significance; inexplicable fear gnaws at my stomach.

Cheryl’s whispered, ‘Welcome to the club,’ at the hospital after Anne was born, still a vivid memory. Her acknowledgement that I’d entered the exclusive ‘Motherhood’ made me feel special and proud. I’d matured as a woman – belonged to the world my mother and others, trail-blazed. They could pass on accumulated knowledge and expertise. We looked at each other through new eyes, relating in a different way.

My sister-in-law produced the first grandchildren – two boys. She became my confidante; a reassuring voice during pregnancy, her experience more recent than Mum’s; saved me money by passing on baby paraphernalia and advice.

Where is she now? I relive the bewilderment in Mum’s voice, ‘Cheryl has left Iain and the boys. She said that she should never have got married; the children were a big mistake. She feels trapped, depressed; needs time to find herself.’

I think about my feelings, as unbidden, tears trail down my face.

How will Iain cope returning home to Mum and Dad with a toddler and soon to be preppie in tow? And what of Mum? At sixty-three years of age, Nana is going to be a full-time mother again. Papa will sacrifice his retirement chauffeuring children to kindergarten and school.

The rain drizzles; tears dribble down my face. This time, I cry for my nephews, for my brother, Iain, for my sister-in-law, Cheryl, and for my parents, especially Mum.

In a deep sleep, Anne’s mouth gapes. Her cherubic face presses lightly against my emptied breast; soft baby breath drying the moist nipple freed from tugging gums.

My eyes scan the room. I could walk away from this house. Renovated, with love and hard work, it represents unremitting toil now. Floors to vacuum and wash, benches to scrub, layers of dust to clean, relentless tasks, only noticed when not done.

I stare at my wedding photograph atop the display cabinet. I could even walk away from John, although he is understanding and loving, the only man I ever saw a future with and my best friend. Tears squeeze from my hazel eyes as I realise passion and deep companionship has been replaced by a daily struggle to keep on top of essential chores, and to get through the night with minimum disruption. Anne rarely sleeps, breast feeding on demand exhausting, life one traumatic day after another.

When John rings each evening from work to say, ‘the cavalry is on its way’ in a jocular voice, the words are appropriate. Oh, how I look forward, to handing Anne over – to be amused and bathed by her Dad, before she demands feeding. No one told me how to cope with a baby that slept in twenty-minute snatches during the day, lengthened to two-hourly dozes at night.

‘What did we do with our time before you arrived?’ John often asks Anne, while cuddling her lovingly. ‘Important weekend chores were cleaning the car and my shoes, ready for work on Monday – and ironing clothes,’ he confides to her wide-eyed smile. Adding, ‘tasks that don’t always get done now.’ Anne gurgles or giggles in reply. I flinch with guilt.

The struggle of changing nappies and trying to stay awake to nurse during the night lonely and exhausting. I often worry that Anne will fall out of bed if I fall into a deep sleep, or perhaps she’ll get hurt snuggled between us. John loves waking up nestled close to Anne’s tiny warm body, unaware that the sleeping arrangement is unplanned. The effort of returning Anne to her bassinette pointless when she wakes so frequently.

John sleeps soundly, blissfully ignorant of the battles in the middle of the night — and, like a martyr, I let him sleep while resenting his ability to sleep untroubled. His demanding job not a regular nine-to-five office routine. The two hours driving to and from work dangerous if he lacks sleep and I’d never forgive myself if he had an accident.

Last night, Anne screamed with colic pain, a depressingly regular occurrence. The breast failed to comfort and I fought an urge to hurl her through the window, or throw her to the ground. I craved silence, and sleep.

I stared at John comfortably snoring in bed and wanted to punch him hard. To make him share my suffering, to punish him the way Anne was punishing me. I shook him awake more roughly than usual, yet he jumped out of bed and took Anne without protest. Fleeing the bedroom, I sat at the kitchen table with head in hands weeping deep uncontrollable sobs. I cried from utter exhaustion. I cried because I couldn’t prevent Anne’s pain. I cried for lost patience, for having feelings of resentment and violence, for being inadequate, for lost sexual feelings. I cried because no-one had told me this was motherhood.

Anne’s screaming stopped. John came through to the kitchen with his tousled hair and boxer shorts, looking like a teenager woken late for school. Accepting my outburst as normal, he said, ‘Come on love, she’s sound asleep – come back to bed.’ He gently massaged my neck and shoulders. ‘Remember the infant welfare sister and all those books we read say that you must sleep when the baby sleeps.’

The words sounded so rational, yet sleep was impossible. I sat sniffling at the table. Without further discussion, John made me a cup of tea and returned to bed. When I finally collapsed beside him, fatigue overwhelming, I knew that in a few minutes the alarm would announce another day and I was filled with dread.

* * * * *

From the window, I see sparrows dancing and splashing in a puddle, their carefree flapping the antithesis of the exhaustion and worry taking hold of me. Oh, how I understand why torturers favour sleep deprivation.

‘What stops my soul being destroyed is your vulnerability and times like this,’ I whisper to Anne, placing a kiss gently on her soft down-covered head. ‘You are so beautiful asleep, so innocent, so cuddly, – I don’t ever want to leave you.’

I think of how she murmurs with delight at the sound of my voice, and John’s. Tiny hands playing with my face, searching for my breast, grasping proffered fingers. A fragile defenceless human being, who will selfishly suck my life-blood because of her in-built survival mechanism, yet my body explodes with emotion when she’s near. She triggers an all-encompassing feeling like no other; is part of me in a way that John can never be. She grew from me, and is forever attached, our future intertwined. The controller of me.

I stare unseeing, wondering why Cheryl has rejected the boys now. How long has she been struggling with her feelings? Will she, as Mum believes, change her mind? I shiver. What about me? I think of Mum’s workload – constantly nurturing, answering the relentless demands of six children. Was she daunted, did she want to run away? ‘I’ve never met anyone that rivalled your mother in caring for children.’ My father’s boast implies that somehow everyone else falls short in the parenting stakes. Did Cheryl feel that pressure?

How do you explain that parenting has changed without offending your own parents? Anne is the centre of attention for everyone in our circle of friends and extended family. John regularly telephones to say he loves me, but now begins with, ‘How’s my little princess?’ Is it normal to feel neglected and sometimes resent your own child?

Strangers offer advice; friends and family visit more often to see the baby. Did Cheryl feel resentful, or smothered? I place Anne in her pram before rescuing the washing. I’ll ring Mum later after talking with John. It’s important he knows the thoughts this news has triggered.

An image from childhood surfaces — Mum muttering while baking scones. Six-year-old me interrupts thinking she’s making conversation. I’m ignored and realise that at that moment I have become invisible. Mum is talking to herself.

During my childhood, mum often muttered to herself while doing some mundane task. It was her way of coping with stress. Perhaps, she too felt overwhelmed, found the drudgery; relentless work and incessant demands of children too challenging. Did she have other techniques for coping? What adjustments did she make to her dreams and desires? Did she feel her identity disappeared? I want answers to these questions rather than what type of formula she fed me, or when I was toilet trained.

Am I normal and will the person who is me survive motherhood?

I want to talk with Cheryl in case my journey follows a similar path. Perhaps we can help each other to enjoy mothering. I want parenting to be a positive experience for John and me and for Cheryl and Iain.

I stop in the hallway and glance sideways at the mirror. Are my lips moving?

anne's birth 2

Your Mother Is Always With You

Your mother is always with you…

She’s the whisper of the leaves
as you walk down the street.

She’s the smell of bleach in
your freshly laundered socks.

She’s the cool hand on your
brow when you’re not well.

Your mother lives inside
your laughter. She’s crystallized
in every tear drop…

She’s the place you came from,
your first home.. She’s the map you
follow with every step that you take.

She’s your first love and your first heart
break….and nothing on earth can separate you.

Not time, Not space…
Not even death….
will ever separate you
from your mother….

You carry her inside of you….

Sherry Martin

Thank you Mum – Gratitude For Every Day Not just Mother’s Day!

“I will love the light for it shows me the way, yet I will endure the darkness because it shows me the stars.”

Og Mandino

Mothers-Love_0001-300x300

Today I honour my mother, Annie Courtney McInnes (15.4.1921 – 23.10. 2009). She brought seven children into the world and six of us survived to adulthood. At one stage there were four under five years – mothering must have been relentless and exhausting.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Thank you, Mum, for helping me when I became a mother – the most definitive life-changing event in my life! For guiding and supporting me and not looking through rose-coloured glasses. For acknowledging parenting is a tough gig, whether you have two children or six. Thank you too, for not lecturing me and telling me how ‘it’ should be done.

mother's day poem

Mum – thank you for being one extraordinary wonderful woman!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Dear Mum
Mairi Neil

When twilight shadows trees
And evening hush descends
The busyness of the day departs
I still my mind; let silence mend.

Thoughts of living abound
You were a safe harbour for me
I sailed chartered and unchartered waters
You calmed an oft stormy sea.

You launched my dreams
And supported me with love
When I set sail to meet life’s challenges
You were always a guiding dove.

Although I was one of a fleet
Time a commodity in short supply
I never felt unloved or neglected
Your largesse constant as the sky.

You taught me how to cope
When buffeted by gales
Never to abandon ship
Just strengthen ropes and sails.

I carried cargo, travelled far
But always navigated home
You taught me to love and be loved
And the sea of life is there to roam.

I’ve shed barnacles, refurbished decks
Still nurture a manifest to complete
But miss those loving arms and words
Ache to drop anchor at your feet.

Each day before lights out
‘neath twinkling stars and velvet sky
I reflect on a mother’s love
Feel blessed. Legacies do not die.

Unknown

Mum’s Wisdom (a pantoum)
Mairi Neil

Least said soonest mended
A mantra for good relationships
Wisdom from Mum I respected
Especially when ill-feeling grips

A mantra for good relationships
Helps the journey that is life
Especially when ill-feeling grips
And friendship turns to strife

We all face hard choices in life
Dignity needed when mending rifts
No one wants unsettling strife
Or the fear allegiances may shift

Maintaining dignity, mending rifts
Valuing all the views rendered
Shattering of relationships swift
So least said soonest mended.

Valuing each view rendered
Mum’s mantra for good relations
Wisdom I always respected
And a lesson for warring nations!

images-2

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.

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

The House Where I Was Born

Mairi Neil

I sing of a river I’m happy beside
The song that I sing is a song of the Clyde
Of all Scottish rivers it’s dearest to me
It flows from Leadhills all the way to the sea

It borders the orchards of Lanark so fair
Meanders through meadows with sheep grazing there
But from Glasgow to Greenock, in towns on each side
The hammers ding-dong is the song of the Clyde

Oh the River Clyde, the wonderful Clyde
The name of it thrills me and fills me with pride
And I’m satisfied whate’er may betide
The sweetest of songs is the song of the Clyde

from the top of Lyle Hill memorial to Free French
You can just see the River Clyde from the bedroom window of Number Two George Square, Greenock and in 1953, the year I was born, the clamouring of the riveters’ pistols in the shipyards competed with the noisy steam trains leaving nearby Greenock West Station.
1:1 2 george square
Like most of the buildings in the Square, Number 2 dated back to the 1800s. The three storey, plus attic and basement ashlar building stained with the grime of industry from several shipbuilding yards and sugarhouses, rope works, and a network of engineering businesses.
George Square Baptist church
The George Square Baptist Church nestled alongside Number 2. This simple Renaissance building of squared rubble with Ionic pilasters, erected in 1888, one of several churches adorning the Square and the only one that does not have bells.
However, the bell ringers of the four other churches ensure the Sabbath is not a restful day for the residents of George Square and shift workers like my father often cursed when the various churches announced the different starting times of their services with clanging bells. Clappers chimed an invasive cacophony as they bounced off hundredweights of metal.
The close stairs, Catriona and Iain
The close stairs, Catriona and Iain
The entrance to Number 2 called a ‘close’. Six stone steps lead to a narrow passageway that stretches to the back of the building where more steps allow access to the flats on the upper floors. At the far end of the close, stairs go down to the pocket-handkerchief back garden, referred to as the ‘drying green’ or ‘back green’. The shared laundry with a copper stove is here, and the rubbish bins.
The coal cellars for the ground floor flats – Number I and Number 2 – are beside the laundry. My father being a keen amateur photographer converted part of the coal cellar into a dark room-cum-workshop.
1950s coalman
Number 2 is the cream of the flats, having a basement kitchen and its own back door. Upstairs on street level, there are two large rooms: the parlour and a bedroom. The entrance has a patch of dull red floral linoleum, scuffed by many feet and in need of replacing in 1953. The bathroom next to the bedroom has a bath, hand basin, and toilet. The indoor toilet a luxury not shared by many of Greenock’s population, who still live in overcrowded housing stock not yet repaired, or rebuilt after the devastating bombing raids of World War 2.
p367812
The bathroom’s black and white tiled patterned floor a linoleum, but this hardy floor covering has been replaced in the bedroom and parlour by painted wooden floorboards and floral carpet squares.
Although the apartment is large by the standards of the day, it is cramped living for my McInnes family – especially on the night of August 12th when Mum goes into labour with me. The household consists of my parents, Annie (32) and George (31), their children: Catriona (4), Iain (2 and 7months), George (13 months), and Papa ( Dad’s father, John 78) and Dad’s unmarried sister, Mary (40).
img147
There are two set-in beds, a peculiarly Scottish invention to provide extra sleeping quarters in rooms other than bedrooms. Built into the wall and hidden by dark red crushed velveteen curtains, a set-in bed in the parlour hides above the stairs leading down to the kitchen. Mary sleeps in this bed when she is off duty from the William Quarrier’s Orphan Homes of Scotland where she is Matron of the Epileptic Colony.
The hole in the wall bed, Papa, Catriona and Iain
The hole in the wall bed, Papa, Catriona and Iain
Downstairs in the kitchen is another set-in bed where Papa sleeps. These set-in beds are unhealthy and cold and have been blamed for the spread of contagious diseases like scarlet fever, measles, tuberculosis and other ailments prolific in days gone by, but less of a problem since the discovery of penicillin’s ability to kill infectious bacteria in 1939. In the bedroom, my parents’ double bed hugs a wall opposite a green settee that folds out to a double bed for Catriona and Iain to share. Beside a large cot where George sleeps, a Pedigree coach-built pram sits ready for my arrival.
img069
Two large wardrobes and a chest of drawers line one wall in the bedroom to accommodate everyone’s clothes. Space at a premium but the parlour always kept tidy to entertain visitors, especially since passersby can easily peek in through the large bay window at street level. The net curtains don’t block out curious eyes and even on cool days the open window lets in fresh air, one of my mother’s obsessions, probably from her days growing up on a farm in Northern Ireland, or perhaps her years as a nurse trained in Florence Nightingale’s methods.
img142
Most houses of this era have poor ventilation, the narrow claustrophobic close dismal and designed to capture smells. Few rooms have windows to the outside. Cooking smells linger, along with the smoke from the coal fires in every room.
The winters are long and cold in Scotland. Greenock has the highest rainfall of any town in Great Britain and comedians joke those born in Greenock have webbed feet. Most days washing has to be dried inside, or at least ‘aired’ before being folded away.
Unknown-1
The air inside damp as washing hangs from the pulley suspended from the kitchen ceiling or dangles scattered on the backs of chairs, even – tempting fate – draped over the fireguards. Clothes suspended from the ceiling invariably smell of the meals cooked and eaten. Families learn to avoid washing on Fridays if their religion demands eating fish!
 images
The kitchen is the heart of Number 2. A large black cooking range providing warmth, as well as a pot of permanently hot tea. Mum is Irish and in Scottish colloquialism, a ‘tea Jennie’, someone who drinks tea by the barrel. A gas stovetop sits in the scullery, the small open room near the back door containing a sink, workbench and serviceable walk-in pantry. Meals are prepared in the scullery.
Two comfy armchairs sit either side of the cooking range, close enough for stretched legs and feet to rest on the range and be nicely toasted on a chilly day or night. The square wooden table host at mealtimes with Mum’s limited repertoire because rationing still exists in 1953.
img746
Food on the menu, some more frequently than others, includes: porridge, vegetable broth, lentil soup, mince and tatties, slice, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, lamb cutlets, Irish stew, champ (mashed potatoes with chopped spring onions), parsnip and carrot mash, turnips, bacon and fried eggs, black pudding and fried bread, rice pudding and tinned mandarins, semolina and prunes, and bread and butter pudding.
Ration book 1953
However, when Dad collects his pay on Friday night, ice-cream can be purchased as a treat, from the Tally van, that prowls the streets playing ‘Greensleeves’. Italian immigrants introduced ice-cream to the British as a street food and created the thriving takeaway culture that still survives in cities such as Greenock.
Brought to Britain as cheap labour and sent north to Scotland with a barrow they sold their ice-cream by crying, ‘Gelati, ecco un poco!’ which probably led to ice-cream vendors being called ‘hokey pokey men’ and the ice cream referred to as ‘hokey pokey’. Regardless of their name or nationality, every vendor was called Tony –short I expect for Antonio, and when you asked for an ice cream cone it was a ‘poke’.
mr-whippy
My family is fortunate because Papa and Dad work an allotment on railway land and grow vegetables, plus raise prize-winning bantam hens that provide eggs to share with childless Steve and Rita Armour, neighbours and valued friends, living at Number 1.
dad on engine
Dad, a locomotive engine driver stationed at Ladyburn Depot, works shifts two miles away near the James Watt Dock. Most days and nights he walks back and forwards to work because his shifts rarely coincide with public transport timetables. He exchanged hours with a workmate so he can be at home to look after Papa and the children while the midwife and Aunt Mary attend to Mum.
800px-Greenock_West_station_61106
It is a Wednesday evening, the day unusually warm, reflecting the Indian summer Scotland is experiencing in 1953. However, the evening air chills, fires must be lit and Catriona and Iain have an altercation over the empty coal scuttle. At that moment, fifteen minutes to nine o’clock Mum switches off the vacuum cleaner leans on the mantelpiece and declares ‘it’s time’. The labour pains had niggled all day making Mum restless, hence the vacuuming despite Dad’s pleas for her to rest.
img082
The spurt of activity has hurried me along, but she barely gets upstairs to the bedroom before I enter the world at 9.05pm, child number four and the second daughter. Arriving without fanfare I almost deliver myself, according to Mum.
Just as well, because Catriona throws the coal scuttle and it clips Iain on the cheek splitting his skin. Dealing with the drama of Iain’s bleeding face nurse Mary misses the birth. She is further delayed to massage Catriona’s hurt feelings after the bad-tempered attack drew a scolding from Papa – a rare event for Catriona, his ‘princess’, and the only granddaughter (until my arrival) in the rapidly increasing McInnes Clan.
img061
The cry, ‘it’s a girl’ restores joy to the household. Dad and Mum have produced another female offspring, the only couple to do so in their respective families. Mary takes a photograph of me being cuddled by Dad as he sits beside the flickering fire in the parlour. Wrapped in the well-worn christening shawl, a McInnes family heirloom, I’m oblivious to the tap of high heels and leather boots filtering in from the street as couples rush to catch the late movie at the BBC Cinema, two streets away.
the-master-of-ballantrae-movie-poster-1953-1020250173
Within the house, Gaelic music wafts up the stairs from the radiogram in the kitchen as Papa celebrates with a wee dram of the finest malt whisky, saved for such an occasion. He sings in his native tongue as Dad’s older brother Alex arrives to check I have the right number of fingers and toes before settling by the fire to smoke one of the cigars he has brought for Dad. He joins his father and brother in ‘a wee dram to wet the baby’s head’.
Exhausted, Mum lies back in bed on pillows bolstered by cushions, aware that any rest period she can claim now will be of necessity very short!
Dad begins to sing The Green Oak Tree to me:

Chorus:

I’ll sing about a wee toon that stands doon by the Clyde,
It’s the toon whaur I was born and it fills my heart with pride
My mother often telt me as she crooned me on her knee,
That Greenock took its name from the Green Oak Tree.
So here’s tae the Green Oak that stood upon the square,
And here’s tae its roots that are still slumbering there,
And here’s tae its townsfolk wherever they may be,
For I’m proud that I’m a branch of the Green Oak Tree.
images
May Greenock, like the Green Oak Tree,
still flourish ‘neath the sun.
Her trade and commerce still increase
for a thousand years to come
And may each son o’ Greenock,
as he battles through life’s storm
Be honest, true and ne’er disgrace
the town where I was born.
Now Greenock’s no’ a bonny place,
I’ve heard some folks complain,
That when you go to Greenock
you’ll get nothing there but rain
But let them say whate’er they may,
with them I’ll no agree,
For aye the name o’ Greenock toon
will aye be dear tae me.

Friday 13th – Lucky For Me that Memories are Made of Love

“The most important things are the hardest to say. They are the things you get ashamed of, because words diminish them — words shrink things that seemed limitless when they were in your head to no more than living size when they’re brought out. But it’s more than that, isn’t it? The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to steal away. And you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you’ve said at all, or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried while you were saying it. That’s the worst, I think. When the secret stays locked within not for want of a teller but for want of an understanding ear.”

Stephen King, Different Seasons

Friday 13th, unlucky for some, but today, March 13, it is my Dad’s birthday. If he’d lived he would be 93 and would be expecting a Tattslotto ticket in at least one of his birthday cards because 13 was his lucky number.

835c24139526098d39b260742e416f8b

Dad had 13 letters in his name – George Taylor McInnes. He was born on the 13th March 1922; the thirteenth child in his family. I grew up with those statistics being recited regularly, but knew from my Irish Mother that the rest of us would not be so lucky with the number!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

In fact, one Christmas Day, when Mum realised there would be 13 around the table, we had to telephone friends until eventually my young sister, Rita, found someone able to come at short notice, otherwise Mum would have sat in the kitchen eating her meal alone. Rita’s friend Louise saved the day and enjoyed two Christmas dinners.

Irish Mum had other superstitions to avoid disaster:

  • never put an umbrella up in the house,
  • don’t put new shoes on the table,
  • if you spill salt, throw a pinch over your left shoulder,
  • an itchy palm means you will come into money,
  • an itchy, hot ear means someone is speaking about you and if you think of a number and apply it to the alphabet that’s the initials of the person,
  • if you break a mirror expect seven years bad luck!

Other beliefs were crossing the palm of any baby you meet with silver (Mum had a store of 50 cent pieces for just such an occasion), inserting a coin if you give a purse or handbag as a present, and exchanging a coin if you ever receive a present of a knife or anything else that has a sharp edge – this even applies to brooches. And of course the well-known ‘must haves’ for a bride ‘something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue.’

Dad was not superstitious, but indulged Mum, discretion being the better part of valour! He died in 2005 and I think of him every day and know that he loved me and my brothers and sisters unconditionally. He had his flaws, but was a good father and how I wish I could pick up the phone tomorrow and wish him a  happy birthday!

I gather together the dreams, fantasies, experiences that preoccupied me as a girl, that stay with me and appear and reappear in different shapes and forms in all my work. Without telling everything that happened, they document all that remains most vivid.

Bell Hooks

A Pause in Time

A blast of night air penetrates the cocooned warmth of the bed. I shiver and pull at the dishevelled blankets, then roll over to seek comfort from my older sister, Catriona, who sleeps undisturbed in the three-quarter sized bed we share. Long black ringlets cover her face except for a gleaming white pebble chin atop snugly tucked blankets.

I sneak another peek at the window. The yellowy-green chrysanthemums on the curtains still bear a lingering resemblance to the leering gargoyles of the nightmare that woke me up. Shadows cast by the dying moonlight and the glowing street lamp, create menacing monsters of the bedroom furniture.

Fear fuels my urgent whisper, ‘Treena, Treena please wake up,’ but the ramrod figure doesn’t respond. Despite the thudding of my heart, a murmur of familiar voices drifts through the partly open bedroom door and without hesitation, I scramble out of bed, dash for the doorway and slip through the narrow opening.

A short scurry to the staircase and my hand finds the comfort of the polished bannister. A filtered strip of moonlight from the landing window beams torch-like on the carpeted stairway. I descend on tiptoe, avoiding the stairs that creak, until the smell of cooking and promised warmth seeping from the kitchen, spurs a race to the bottom.

The icy coldness of the waxed linoleum of the lobby floor ends my flight and has me gasping in shock. If only slippers could magically appear. Hand-me-down floppiness unsuitable for silent speed, but so necessary as another Scottish winter day begins.

Breathlessly quivering, I gently twist the kitchen doorknob and push, squinting at the harsh incandescence of the naked light bulb, suspended from the whitewashed ceiling. Mum materialises beside the stove, stirring porridge in a large aluminium pot. Dad sits nearby, his folded arms resting on the grey Formica table; his newly scrubbed face ghostlike above soot-stained railway overalls. He senses my presence and stops mid-sentence, turning toward the cold breeze I’ve let in from the hall.

Our eyes meet. Smiles a mirror match. ‘Come into the warmth little…

Interrupting another sentence, I catapult into outstretched arms; burrow deep within his loving hug. Snug, safe, relaxed – not a monster in sight. Coal dust mingled with the distinctive smell of Lifebuoy soap, teases my nostrils. Rough stubble and wiry moustache scratched soft six-year-old skin.

With a knowing smile and without comment, Mum ladles porridge onto another plate. I bask in the joy of this attention; dip my spoon into Dad’s cup of Carnation Milk…

All too soon, the ceiling light vibrates as slamming doors, running feet and the flushing of the toilet, announce my three brothers are awake. Uneven thuds and bumps herald the usual morning competition as the boys race downstairs. A prolonged wail from baby Rita sends Mum hurrying up to collect the toddler.  Catriona still sleeps soundly.

Dad whispers, ‘here come the rest of the clan,’ and reluctantly places me on a nearby chair. Mum returns and so begins the breakfast melee that so enthralled Catriona’s friend when she visited. ‘Breakfast at your house is like a party,’ Wendy declared wide-eyed and envious.

I suppose it seemed like that to outsiders when the eight of us crowded around the table to eat porridge, toast and marmalade, or if it was the weekend, slice (Scottish sausage), egg and tattie (potato) scones. Unlike my parents’ Victorian upbringing when children were to ‘be seen and not heard,’ our mealtimes mostly noisy and cheerful affairs whether breakfast or supper. My parents’ mantra ‘don’t speak with your mouth full’ often ignored.

Although Irish, my mother cooked porridge the traditional Scottish way – soaking the steel-cut oats in water overnight and boiling in the morning, stirring with a wooden spoon to avoid lumps, and clockwise to prevent bad luck! The only additive, a sprinkling of salt.

I remember the shock of discovering on the migrant ship to Australia in November 1962 that others put sugar on their porridge! On P & O’s SS Orion other choices were tastier, the ‘snap crackle and pop’ of Kellog’s Rice Crispies and the crunch of Cornflakes. Liberally spread with cold milk and sugar, breakfast cereal became an enticing alternative when we arrived to live in a scorching Australian summer. However, toast spread with Robertson’s Golden Shred Marmalade or Mum’s homemade bramble (blackberry) jam consumed a loaf of bread regardless of the continent! The Portuguese gave English the word

Liberally spread with cold milk and sugar, breakfast cereal became an enticing alternative when we arrived to live in a scorching Australian summer. However, toast spread with Robertson’s Golden Shred Marmalade or Mum’s homemade bramble (blackberry) jam consumed a loaf of bread regardless of the continent!

The Portuguese gave English the word marmelada and shiploads of the fruit-based jelly. The first imports considered a digestive or dessert and eaten at supper. By the 18th century, tea and toast with marmalade became the standard Scottish breakfast with Scottish manufacturers favouring bitter Seville oranges and creating their own recipes. I can remember Mum searching the supermarket shelves in Australia to buy the imported tangy Scottish marmalade she loved. Some of us, however, acquired a taste for the Aussie staple of yeast laden Vegemite with breakfast toast. Nutritionists insist breakfast is the most important meal of the day and I can still hear my mother’s voice admonishing us not to leave the house ‘on an empty stomach’.

She regaled us with the tale of my Scottish papa who in the ‘Hungry 30s’ had only a spoonful of jam to ‘break his fast’. My parents struggled financially most of their working lives but I never experienced real hunger, a testimony to their hard work, good household management, and Mum’s eye for a bargain ‘eking out’ meat, and seasonal fruit and vegetables bought on special. Childhood meals consisted of plain food, with breakfast the plainest meal of all, only varied at weekends or holidays if our much-frazzled mother had the time and energy.

Dad, always diligent, tried to do his best for the family – at one stage as a new migrant, working three jobs to ensure our quality of life. The pressure to always provide for our big family must have been difficult, but he never shirked the responsibility. A shift worker for most of his working life, his body clock had to adjust and adapt to mealtimes and sleep patterns that affected his health – no doubt there were times when he went to work exhausted yet he contributed to church and community life, was active politically and in the trade union movement. When he worked for British Rail in Scotland, he’d walk 5 miles in the snow to get to Ladyburn Depot to drive the first train out, and a similar walk home when he finished on the last shift.

All his life Dad showed a work ethic not many people can rival, but more importantly he was my mentor in so many ways. Full of wisdom, patience and encouragement, he also had a keen sense of humour and sharp wit. Some of the best memories I have are of family mealtime discussions and riotous practical jokes and laughter. I count myself very lucky indeed!

img672         scans896