My parents had five children of whom I was the youngest living. Mary was born after me but she died weeks later. My sister is the eldest. She was born in Durban, South Africa and was followed by my two brothers born two years apart in Johannesburg South Africa, and in Bulawayo, Rhodesia respectively. Later I came along also born in Bulawayo. My parents began parenting late in life.
Dad was born in a town called Tavoy, near Rangoon in Burma , of an Irish socialite mother who had an affair with my grandfather, a married man with a wife and family back in England. They did eventually get married and have more children, but they didn’t start off that way.
Mum was born in Scotland in a place called Bears Den. It was a separate town when she was born but it is now merged with the sprawl of greater Glasgow. When she was young Mum’s family moved to Edinburg and that is where she grew up. She studied to be a nurse and became a midwife but when the Second World War broke out and she, like everyone in Britain, did her bit.
A lot of Mum and Dad’s life history is lost to us now, which is a great shame because there are so many questions I want to ask. Mum died from breast cancer in Cape Town, South Africa and Dad died a year later. It was a strange death as he seemed to give up, apparently not wanting to live anymore after recovering in hospital from injuries sustained from a mugging. It seemed he just turned his face to the wall and moved on. My brother reminded me recently that he was buried twice, but that’s another story.
I like to think he and my Mum would reunite in death, as neither ever remarried after they were divorced. Maybe they couldn’t live together but I am convinced they loved each other. In the end, the facts of their respective stories went with them.
All I can do is draw on my memory of the stories they told us, but isn’t that what we humans do anyway. There are few colourful garments adorning bureaucratic facts stored in government files. Even though I can’t guarantee the accuracy of my memory at least you will get a flavour and feel for the kind of parents and upbringing that formed my character.
My sister was named for an aunt who died an early traumatic death. We suspect of some kind of illegal backstreet abortion, but again we may be romanticising this event. It was one of the many family skeletons hidden from prying children’s eyes.
Anyway she died and died horribly and my Mother mourned her. Mum’s other sister brought up twins and lived to old age as did her brothers. Mum had two brothers one of whom married and remained in Scotland. The older brother remained unmarried and spent his life in the rubber plantations of Indonesia. We suspect he had an Indonesian mistress who gave him a child but we have not managed to verify this. We only think it might be true because after his death, his younger brother found a letter from a young Indonesian man who called my Uncle, Papa.
Mum told me many tales of her family who were wealthy, privileged and very conservative. Her mother was a well-known singer, but because of their position in society she only sang for charity. To take money for performing in those days was not socially acceptable-at least not for my Grandmother.
Mum was an articulate woman with, in her view, very little in the way of a discernible accent except for pronunciation of her Rs, which rolled with the broadest brogue. It was always a cause of great hilarity and we would plague her to say words like iron.
For the first years of Mum’s life she was fortunate. They lived in a very grand house somewhere near Edinburgh I understand. She told stories of playing in a vast basement, scooting around with her siblings on scooters when the weather was inclement. Her glorious childhood came to an abrupt end in her early teens when her father committed suicide.
He lost his fortune in the mid to late 1920s. From what I understand it was something to do with Railway stock in America but I can’t be sure. He left his wife and children penniless and they lived off the charity of relatives all the while pretending that nothing had changed. My grandmother must have been a very proud woman for despite their changed financial status she did not use her fame singing to earn money. Instead, while living on the charity of her family she kept up the pretence of remaining wealth.
Grandmother shut down most of the rooms in the house because she could no longer afford the servants to maintain them and swore her own family to secrecy. Rooms like the parlour, only used by visitors were kept open. Shopping at cheaper stores was clandestine with shopping bags turned inward to hide down-market department store names.
Mum only had two dresses. One was Sunday best and the other was a school uniform. One Sunday while waiting to go to church she sat on the sofa reading. As a young teenager alone she was not concerned with sitting primly as was expected. Instead she sat knees apart her skirt stretched drum-tight and hooked over her knees.
Her younger brother bounced into the room and threw himself onto her lap. The shrieking rip of worn out material giving way was an orchestra of catastrophe. It would never do for Mum to attend church in her school uniform and yet now she had nothing else.
Her mother decided they would leave her at home claiming she was ill with a minor head cold. Mum was to remain ill with a minor head cold until Grandmother was able to unpick and cut down one of her own dresses, remodelling it into a suitable dress for Mum to wear.
Although Mum believed her father committed suicide, we heard they never found Grandfather’s body and there was only a note saying that by the time they read his note he would be gone down under. My sister and I loved to speculate that perhaps he ran away to Australia.
Regardless of the truth, Mum lived for the rest of her life believing he committed suicide. It affected her deeply for it was immediately after that event she suffered her first migraine, which plagued her almost weekly for the rest of her life.
I know we could request his death certificate to confirm his death but I haven’t done it. In any case I like the idea of him running away to begin a new life in Australia better than I like the idea of suicide. It’s such a drastic and final action and so sad.
My Mum’s hypothesis was that her migraines resulted from the trauma of her Father’s death. But perhaps the headaches coincided with puberty and hormones were the cause. My Mum was full of hypothesis about cause and effect in life but I wonder if science would agree.
The story of her transition to puberty was to me almost beyond belief. The way she told it was that her day began with a summons to the parlour where her mother sat to play the piano. Such a summons was apparently nerve racking for this particular room was out of bounds to the children.
The parlour was the exclusive domain of her mother and grown up guests. Children only entered on momentous occasions such as the death of grandfather. Within the parlour sat the grand piano, which her mother played quite well. She would practice at this piano every day and was not to be disturbed.
On the day of the summons my Mum walked down the corridor to the parlour nerves strung tight wondering what calamity was about to befall. Perhaps she had committed some transgression for which she was to be punished.
Her mother sat at the piano caressing the keys. My mother knocked and opened the door on her mother’s command. Then closing the door behind her she walked across the room, her shoes placed toe first as she was taught a lady should walk.
Such a walk affects a silent glide across the room with little more than the imperceptible sigh of leather soles. When she reached the piano she stood waiting to one side holding her breath until her mother took notice of her presence.
Her focus on the piano keys Grandmother said, ‘Margery you are growing up now. One day you will begin to bleed. When that happens ask your sister what to do. She will show you.’
Dismissed my mother turned and left the way she had entered, silently.
I can hardly imagine such obedience or such ability to withhold blurting out the questions that must have been screaming in her mind. Instead she thought about it quietly and came up with a new hypothesis.
For years she believed that her family suffered from a strange affliction peculiar only to them, and one that was too shameful to discuss. It was another family secret. It was not until my mother became a nurse that she found out that this monthly cycle was common to all women.