Month: April 2015
Mom was born Kathleen (Kitty) Shaughnessy on January 12, 1928 in Corofin, County Galway, Ireland, a farming community seven miles outside of the town of Tuam. In the 1930s you either walked or you drove a horse and trap to travel into Tuam. Going into town and back was a day long journey. Kitty’s father, Martin, asked his sister, Colleen, who witnessed Kitty being born if she would register Kitty’s birth when she returned home to Tuam. Colleen forgot. When Martin found out he went to Tuam and made the registration himself. To avoid paying the fine for not registering a birth within the time limit Martin put Kitty’s date of birth down as February 10th. In a way Kitty had two birthdays but she always celebrated her birthday on January 12th. Kitty was the seventh of nine children. No matter how many times I say it I have to count on my fingers to name her brother and sisters. Starting with the oldest they are May, Delia, Nell, John, Josie, Nora, Kitty, Rita and Gertie.
Kitty’s mother Julia (Mammy they called her) was widowed for the second time when Kitty was six. Kitty didn’t understand what dead meant. She thought Daddy had gone away for a while and was coming back. Evening after evening she sat in the trap at the front of the house and looked down the road into the sunset to watch for him. She knew the direction he would come from walking up the road. Kitty thought the world of her Daddy and she wanted to be the first one to see him return. I don’t know how long she waited but each evening Kitty would watch the sun set. When darkness came she had to go inside. I suppose that’s why the house Mom lived in had to face west and why she never liked dusk. It was always a forlorn time for her.
Mammy never married again. She chose to raise her children and run the farm herself with the help of her first husband’s father, Grand, who lived with them. A fatherless family with a farm meant they would have to struggle to make ends meet. Mom‘s older sisters remember not having much. “But neither did anyone else,” they added. To Mom they lived in poverty. Living on a farm may have been a saving grace. There was always food. Grand worked a patch of land which grew most of their vegetables. They had hens for eggs and a cow for milk. Even with food within arm’s reach Mom remembered going to school hungry because there was nothing for breakfast.
They also had a skinny pig, a sow, that could run like a race horse and jump fences. Despite all their attempts to fatten her up they could count her ribs. Everyone hated the job of making sure that the pig didn’t get into the adjacent field and root up the neighbour’s crops.
Each year sows were taken to a nearby farm that kept a boar to have them serviced. The Shaughnessy sow didn’t wait. When the time came she jumped the sty and trotted down to see the boar herself. Mammy was sent a message to inform her that her sow had just been to see the boar. Even though she was skinny she produced a good litter every year which provided the family with much needed income. Mom tearfully told me stories of hardship growing up, but she laughed when she talked about their pig.
All children were required to attend national (grade) school in Corofin for basic education. It was funded by the government. One of the teachers, Miss O’Dell, lost two brothers in the Irish war of independence from Britain. She had an intense hatred of the British. She told her students, “Burn everything you get from England but their coal.” She looked at the soles of the children’s shoes to see if they were made in England. If they were, as was often the case, she would hit the student across the shoulder blades with a cane. Every day the children went to school in fear of what would happen to them.
As Mom was finishing national school her teacher, Miss Reilly, implored Mammy to send her to secondary (high) school in Tuam. She only needed help financially for the first year. After that Mom would earn her own way through winning scholarships. Miss Reilly thought her pupil was that smart. Mom wanted to go but Mammy didn’t see the value in anything more than a basic education for girls. Girls grew up to get married, have children and take care of the house. Secondary school was not funded and finding the money to send Mom to school in Tuam would be a hardship for a family struggling to get by. So Mom never went to secondary school.
In the 1930s Ireland was economically depressed having just fought a war of independence from Britain, then the Irish civil war and then the great depression hit. Young people were leaving Ireland to find a better life. Families were forced to go their separate ways. Mom’s oldest sister, May, joined a convent in Drogheda, north of Dublin. Delia and Nell went to France. John and Josie moved to England. Nora left for Athlone in central Ireland. Mom in her turn would leave home as well. Only Gertie stayed on the family farm.
When Mom was 16 she got a job as a chamber maid at a hotel in Tuam. She saved up the money for her fare to England and the tuition to attend the nursing school at Hillingdon Hospital in London. Mom lied about her education when she applied because completion of secondary school was required for entrance into the nursing program. Once she was at Hillingdon not having a secondary school diploma didn’t hold her back. Mom won the awards and scholarships Miss Reilly said she would. When she graduated Mom was a Registered Nurse and Midwife. She continued to work at Hillingdon.
During her training Mom was called back to Ireland. Her sister, Rita, had contracted tuberculosis which was running rampant through Ireland. Rita was close to death when Mom arrived. One evening Mom with her sisters and mother stood around Rita’s bed as she peered out at them. She brought one hand out from under the covers and feebly waved with her fingers. Rita could barely speak but the words, “Bye-bye,” were on her lips as she waved. Rita passed away shortly after that. Rita was buried in the family plot in the Corofin cemetery. Mom returned to England soon afterward. Rita’s death was hardest on Mom. She and Rita had been best friends growing up. Mom recounted to me many times how she and Rita played tea. Mom played the part of a poor woman who had left Ireland and come back from America to show off her wealth. She laughed as she told me that she milked the cow so they could have a proper tea.
Many years later Mom asked her sister, Gertie, if she had a picture of their Daddy. Gertie sent Mom a picture of the man she was sure was their father. Mom took one look at it and said, “That’s not Daddy.” The man in the picture didn’t match the image in her mind. The image of Daddy in her mind’s eye and the memories she had of him are all that Mom would ever have to remember her Daddy by.
“I know he was tall. He was strong and gentle,” Mom said, “and I know I loved him.” Her voice trembled as she wiped tears from her eyes.
Growing up without a father and in poverty haunted every aspect of Mom’s life. Foremost in her thoughts was the fear of being poor again. Right up to the end of her life, in her heart, Mom was a little girl waiting for her Daddy to come home.
Mom looked to be doing quite well during the first six months after Dad’s passing. We worked to close Tara and she sorted out Dad’s affairs. She had a positive outlook and appeared to be adjusting well to her new life. Catharine noticed it too.
Over the next three months Mom’s health declined. She lost her positive attitude. Mom became quiet and withdrawn and she got thinner and frail. Catharine said she was afraid to give Mom a hug in case she broke a bone. It seemed as if Mom had given up on life. I was doing more for her care.
Mom took me to dinner for my 40th birthday. The following week I found Mom dragging herself around the house. She literally didn’t have the energy to eat. I was concerned. Mom wouldn’t see a doctor but towards evening, due only to my insistence, she said she said she would try to see her doctor the next day. This relieved me somewhat. I helped Mom into bed at 11:00 PM. She didn’t want to read as she usually did. Instead she silently curled up resting her head on the pillow and sighed as she closed her eyes.
In the morning I looked in on Mom from her bedroom door before I left the house at 8:00 AM. She was sleeping. When I came home two hours later Mom was still in bed. As a rule Mom was up and about by 9:00 AM. It occurred to me that she said she hadn’t been sleeping well the last few nights.
“Okay,” I thought, “I’ll give Mom a bit longer then I’ll wake her up.” I went downstairs to work on my computer. An hour later I came back upstairs to find Mom still asleep.
“I’ll make Mom a cup of coffee and call her.”
At 11:20 AM, with coffee in hand I walked into her room and put it down on her bedside table. Mom was lying on her side facing away from me as I stood at her bedside with the window behind me. “Mom,” I called. She didn’t move. “Mom,” I called a bit louder. She still didn’t move. Then I reached out to nudge her shoulder. As soon as I touched her I knew. Immediately the logical Mr. Spock in me plainly said, “Mom’s dead,” but my heart wouldn’t accept this. “No, no, no. That can’t be. Keep trying to wake Mom up. She’ll wake up.”
In disbelief I ran around the bed bending down to look closely at Mom. Her eyes were closed. She lay motionless. It was too dark to see properly. I ran around the bed, yanked the drapes open and ran back. Making the room brighter didn’t change anything. Mom laid there in total stillness.
“Mom,” I said loudly as I watched her. No response. “Mom! … Mom!!” I called louder. Still no response. “Mom, don’t do this to me … Mom!!!” I was screaming at her now. Again and again I tried in vain. I felt as if somebody had kicked me in the stomach.
Eventually I knew I had to call someone. Taking a few paces toward the door I stopped and turned back to scream at Mom some more. My heart could not accept that Mom was really gone. I finally made it to the kitchen and stared at the phone on the wall.
“Who do I call?”
Then I remembered that Mom had called Corpus Christi rectory the night Dad died. So I picked up the phone and called the number I knew by heart having dialled it many times since I was a boy. Monica, the church secretary, answered. I told her Mom died during the night and that I had just found her.
“Your Mom!” she exclaimed. “Brian, I’m sorry … Are you alone?”
“Have you called the police?”
“No,” I answered.
“Brian, you have to call the police. I’ll call for you.”
“No,” I said, “I’ll call.”
“Alright then I’ll call someone to go and see you.” I thanked Monica and hung up.
“Kate,” I said to myself. I wanted Catharine to see Mom lying in bed as I had found her before I called the police. When I phoned I got her answering machine. I said, “Call me as soon as you can.” Not knowing how long it would be until she called back I decided to call the police.
“Police,” I wondered, “what’s the number?” I thought some more. Then it occurred to me, “Inside cover of the phone book. That’s it.” So I got the phone book out, placed it on the kitchen table and opened the front cover. In the top right corner was a big, bold 911. “That’s right, 911.” I calmly said to myself and I dialled. Never in my life had I been so stressed out that I couldn’t think.
The woman who answered asked where to direct my call. “… police,” I replied quietly.
She put me through and the lady there asked why I was calling. “My Mom, I think she’s dead.” I knew Mom was dead. I just couldn’t say she was.
“Where is your Mom?” she asked.
“Are you alone?”
There was a pause and then she said, “Okay, we’re on our way.”
Right after I hung up the phone rang. It was Catharine.
“Kate, come right now.” She came as fast as she could but the police, paramedics and firemen arrived first.
I led the police into Mom’s bedroom followed by the paramedics and firemen. They looked around the room and then at Mom. The paramedics started to lay Mom flat on her back. I turned away. I couldn’t watch. As I walked down the hall toward the kitchen followed by a policeman I asked, “She’s dead isn’t she?”
“Yes,” he replied.
Somehow I needed conformation of what I already knew.
As we got to the kitchen the door bell rang. It was Joe our long time family friend. Monica asked him to come and see me. As we sat at the kitchen table talking Catharine came in the door. She had seen the Emergency Response Vehicles parked out front as she approached the house. “What’s going on?” she asked frantically.
“Mom died last night,” I said.
She wanted to see Mom and we walked together to her bedroom. The paramedics had laid Mom flat on the floor across the foot of her bed and covered her with a sheet. Catharine pulled back the sheet. She gasped when she first saw Mom’s face in death. Then she looked at me and I told her how I had found Mom – the story I’d just told Joe and the police.
More neighbours started to come. Joe, who was still in the kitchen when Catharine and I got back, could see that I was far from alone now. He expressed his deepest sympathies and said he should go. I thanked him as we walked to the door. Joe and his wife Peggy happened to be leaving for a trip to Ireland that evening. At the door I asked Joe to say hello to Ireland for Mom. He smiled saying he would.
The other neighbours all expressed their condolences as well but there was really nothing they could do. They gradually left leaving Catharine and me with the police and paramedics to wait for the coroner. The only other visitors were Fr. Randall and Fr. Alan, the parish priests from Corpus Christi, to give Mom the last rights as Catharine and I watched.
It was apparent to the Coroner after seeing Mom that a blood clot had worked its way through her body finally lodging in her heart during the night. He estimated Mom died about 4:00 AM. I know for sure she was alive at 2:00 when I last looked in on her before I fell asleep. The police called the funeral home and they arrived 15 minutes later.
I had to see the undertakers carry Mom out the door and put her in the hearse. Catharine and I stood on the front lawn and watched as the hearse drove down the street and disappear from view. We walked back into the house. Catharine wanted me to go back with her and stay the night. “Thanks Kate,” I said, “I’m alright by myself.” I just wanted to stay put.
The next day Catharine and I went to finalize Mom’s funeral arrangements. Sunday we went to the funeral home to see Mom as she lay in her casket dressed in her fondest off white suit. Just like Dad Mom looked as if she was sleeping. Catharine and I sat quietly with our thoughts and watched Mom. Eventually we looked at each other and knew we had to leave. The following evening I went back to stay with Mom for an hour until they closed. I was trying to reconcile the disbelief in my heart.
Tuesday morning we gathered at the funeral home for the half hour visitation. I sat with Catharine through the service and only she and I rode in the hearse to Mom’s funeral mass. As we entered the full senior choir was singing. Fr. Carey spoke warmly of Mom and said prayers over her at St. Andrew’s cemetery. I carried Mom to her final rest.
As we left Mom’s graveside to go to a reception in the church hall a few darkened clouds drifted by. The breeze picked up slightly and the skies threatened to rain. Catharine was too lost in her thoughts to notice the weather. I looked up at this and thought, “Ah Mom, a stormy end to a stormy life.”
Only when the last tree has died and the last river poisoned and the last fish been caught will we realize we cannot eat money.
Native American Proverb
The Sunday after we buried Dad only Mom and I attended church just as we had done for the last two months. But this time was different. For a month before Dad went to St. Joe’s and while he was in the hospice unit he was unable come to mass but his presence was always with us. Only after Dad had been laid to rest did the fact that he would never be with us again become real in our minds.
As I sat beside Mom in church I thought of how our life roles change as the years go by. Mom and Dad had raised me from childhood, nursed me through the trials of my brain tumour and did all they could to get me established. Over the last few years I had assumed more of the responsibilities of running the house. I did more for my parents’ care such as cleaning, laundry, shopping and yard work. Now I drove Mom to appointments and ran errands just as Dad had done. Given the longevity of the women in Mom’s family I decided that taking care of Mom would be part of my life for some years to come.
On the radio that afternoon I heard a doctor speak about cancer patients nearing the end of life. He compared what he was talking about as like the tears of a dying man. This moved me deeply because in all my 39 years I had never once seen Dad openly cry until he knew he was on his death bed.
By 9:00 AM Monday I was back at work. Tara like an old friend was waiting for me. She had become my second home and the dream for my future. I was comforted to be surrounded by the lab I built and spent so much of my time and energy on. As I looked around I couldn’t help but notice how every part of Tara had been touched by Dad’s hand. I missed him. When the phone rang and a customer came through the door my thoughts turned to work.
Tara would continue much as she had started. I worked in the morning by myself. Mom came back with me after lunch to take care of the office while I did whatever needed doing. I also had the melancholy task of finishing off what Dad had been working on, collect his notes and clear his desk.
Two weeks after Dad’s funeral Mom listened to me apologize on the phone to a long time customer for an erroneous result. It was a mistake. My mind had not been fully on my work. When I put the phone down Mom looked up at me from her desk and said, “Brian, it’s time to close Tara.” I knew she was right. But Tara was my baby. I gave birth to her, nurtured her, worked hard to see her through thick and thin, and until then, I couldn’t bring myself to give up on her. I agreed with Mom. We were both drained. The lease was up at the end of December which gave us the three months we needed to cease operations. The timing seemed right. Once we decided to close Tara shutting her down became our goal albeit with regret.
Tara had an overhead for those last months. We needed to have as much work coming in as possible. For that reason I wasn’t advertising that we were shutting down until two weeks before our closing date of November 27th. Just as I anticipated, after I called and sent out letters to all our regular customers to say we were closing, the work coming into the lab dropped off sharply. Some of our long term customers stayed with us right until the end. A company sent us work once a week by courier, Freddy, who brought boxes of samples to test. On the morning of November 27th Freddy showed up. After I signed for the package I said, “Last one Freddy.”
He looked at me. “No,” he said in dismay. Freddy knew about our situation but he was genuinely disheartened when the final day arrived. It turned out to be the last work we received.
The work that came in the door took care of the lease. Once the testing was finished in early December I started to dismantle the lab. Tara’s debt, a bank loan, I paid off by selling the assets. I became the salesman I didn’t know was in me. What I couldn’t sell I gave away to get it off my hands.
Just as Catharine had helped Dad and I put Tara together she came to help me take Tara apart. We cleared the shelves and took them down. As the equipment was sold, we dismantled the benches.
By December 31, 1998, the last day of Tara Scientific Laboratories, all that was left of Tara were the walls, a desk with the phone sitting on it and the overturned cardboard box we used for a chair.
Mom came back with me after lunch for one final look around. I gave the desk to the business down the hall. We stood in the lab area where we thought of all the things that had taken place in it. We walked into the empty office, looked at the walls and then at each other. There was nothing left to do. I unplugged the phone, tucked it under my arm and followed Mom out the door. I turned and looked in at the office for a few seconds before reaching around the jamb to turn the lights off. I closed the door and we walked away. There was sadness in both of us but more a sense of relief. I could finally do what I had worked so hard for when Tara was operating which was to gear down.
Tara Scientific Laboratories was an experience I will never forget. I built my lab as Tara shaped me. I charted Tara’s course as she led me along a path of personal enrichment through my interactions with all the people I met and worked with. Tara challenged me to grow professionally to become a successful businessman, entrepreneur, manager and employer. Tara was my life.
Happiness cannot be traveled to, owned, earned, or worn. It is the spiritual experience of living every minute with love, grace and gratitude.
When Dad was 14 he got a job at The Northampton Electric Light and Power Company in nearby Northampton. He fixed fridges and stoves, well pumps, installed wiring in houses that had never had electricity until then and wired up runway lights at Northolt Aerodrome so the allied bombers could land at night. World War II was raging in Europe at the time. Northampton, not being of industrial importance, was unscathed by German bombing raids. Dad remembered seeing from where he lived 20 miles away in Lower Harlestone the night glow of the manufacturing centre of Coventry burning from German bombs.
Dad could wire up anything. When I was growing up if any wiring needed doing around the house such as installing a light or electrical switch Dad would take care of it. I helped and he showed me a few basic things such as how to properly connect two wires. But on the whole Dad was left to do it. As a kid I accepted that this was Dad’s job. As an adult, and especially after Dad died, I wish I had learned more from him when I had the chance.
I listened as he told me about the people he met on his travels around the district to do various jobs. Roger, the butler of one of the houses Dad wired up sat him down at the pantry table when he had finished and said, “Here, have these.” Dad looked at the plate of different kinds of chocolates in front him that was unavailable to most people during the war.
“Where did you get these?” Dad asked.
The butler replied, “This is too good for those people,” referring to the Lord and Lady of the manner.
An elderly man in Northampton, Mr. Thomson, called regularly to have something fixed. He often asked specifically for Peter Spare. Dad showed up to fix the stove or whatever Mr. Thomson needed doing. Usually there was nothing wrong with it. He just wanted someone to talk to and he liked talking to Dad. All the jobs were timed so they knew at the shop about how long it would take him to return. Dad said, “I have to go they’re expecting me.”
“Oh, tell them the kitchen light and the fridge needed fixing as well,” Mr. Thomson was lonely. He had the money to pay for the all the work and having Dad’s company was well worth the expense.
One afternoon Dad arrived at what should have been another routine job. A Mrs. Jenkins had a problem with her space heater. He knocked on the door. No reply. So he opened the door a little and called in. Dad listened and heard a faint, ”Help! Help!”
Dad went in to discover Mrs. Jenkins elderly mother in bed with the bed clothes on fire. The space heater had shorted out and set the fire. Mrs. Jenkins mother was bed ridden and couldn’t get out. Dad pulled the burning bed clothes off and threw them outside before the flames got to her. Mrs. Jenkins had just gone to the barn when Dad arrived and would not have been back in time to help her mother. Needless to say both women were very grateful.
When he wasn’t telling me about his days in Lower Harlestone Dad talked about his time in the Royal Air Force and his posting to India. Dad volunteered for the RAF when he was 17 rather than be drafted into the army at 18. His Uncle Ted was an engineer in the RAF stationed in Dayton, Ohio, developing the jet engine with the US Air Force. Ted was Dad’s idol and the reason Dad wanted to be an engineer. But that would have to wait until after the war. Dad wanted to work with radar – the new technology of the day. The RAF wasn’t hiring for that position but they needed people in the medical lab. So Dad changed his plan. It turned out to be his life’s career.
When Dad was signing up the officer taking down the personal information asked the Irishman in the line in front of him, “Name?” then, “Occupation?”
The Irishman and his friends had been smuggling goods across the Irish Sea. When they realized that the authorities were catching up with them they decided to enlist.
“Smuggler,” the Irishman replied.
“A what? I can’t put that down,” said the astonished officer.
The Irishman turned to his friend further back in the line, “Seamus, I’m a smuggler, right?” Seamus confirmed this. The Irishman looked at the officer who thought for a moment and then wrote transportation.
The new recruits were sent to Yorkshire in the north of England for three months of basic training and to life in the RAF. All kinds of people from every walk of life were thrown together to work as a team. Some of the men in the unit couldn’t take it and broke down. Dad’s non-judgmental nature allowed him to accept people as they were and to make the best of whatever situation he was in. It enabled him to both endure and prosper by seeing the good side of whatever he did, wherever he was, or whomever he was with. Throughout his life Dad could see the humanity in people that made them who they were and accept them for it. He would find people who were interesting for what they knew. But moreover he liked people because of their character that made them different in some way. It’s what I learned to like about people too.
Dad and the other recruits were each issued a riffle and taught how to use it. Then they were ordered to board a Lancaster bomber for the long flight to Karachi which was in India at that time. The men sat on hammocks strung over the bomb bay doors that didn’t quite close. Their hammocks were strung low enough that when they sat on them the men could put their feet on the bomb bay doors and watch the land or sea go by through the crack. They all hoped nobody opened the doors. In Karachi they helped to run the RAF #10 base hospital.
The war in Europe was coming to an end so the hospital’s main function was to treat British casualties who fought the Japanese in Burma along with receiving British POWs held by the Japanese. Dad squeamishly talked about the huge jungle sores he saw on the casualties and the emaciated state of the POWs. The jungle sores and other injuries were treated and the POWs were fattened up before they were allowed to return to Britain. They also provided medical treatment for the local people.
The RAF brass regularly ordered the British lab staff out on a route march. A sign was posted on the bulletin board giving them notice: ROUTE MARCH WEDNESDAY 0900 HOURS. Dad’s commanding officer, who was a physician, called to head office, “Look, we don’t have time for this. We’re trying to run a hospital.”
A note to state that the march was cancelled was later attached to the bottom of the sign. The RAF brass didn’t catch on. They kept ordering route marches and Dad’s CO would be on the phone to get them cancelled.
After four years in Karachi Dad was sent back to Britain. He always spoke warmly of the Indian people and his time there. Although Dad never went back to Karachi a part of him never left.
Dad returned to Lower Harlestone and to the job he had before he left. He now wanted to become a Clinical Chemist and work in a hospital. The regular program in London at the University of London was full. So Dad worked full time during the day and took evening courses in Northampton set by the University of London for four years to earn his degree.
After a full day’s work Dad often came home to find that he had been volunteered, usually by his mother, to repair the stove or a light for a neighbour. Everyone helped each other in a small village. He had to squeeze it in between supper, going to class and/or studying. By the time he graduated Dad was tired of being Mr. Fix-it. Uncle Ted told Dad that he couldn’t stay where he was if he wanted to get ahead in life. Dad decided then that he would leave the UK.
In 1952, when Dad received his degree, he took a job as assistant Clinical Chemist at Hillingdon Hospital in Uxbridge in Northwest London. Before he left to go to London his father, Pop, advised Dad, “Son, if you need a helping hand you’ll find one at the end of your arm.”
Dad never forgot it and it influenced many decisions he made throughout his life. He would do things by his own device rather than seek help – an ideal that also influenced me.
One Saturday morning close to a year before he died Dad reminisced about his boyhood years in Lower Harlestone. He looked straight at me with an expression of sudden realization on his face and said, “You and I would have been good friends.” I have no doubt we would have.
Instead Dad and I enjoyed a close friendship as father and son. Dad called me Pal. I was his pal and he was certainly mine. My heart ached when I realized I would never hear him call me Pal again.
The next morning, Saturday, when Dad and I would have had our chat, I sat at the kitchen table and looked at Dad’s empty chair. I imagined him sitting across the kitchen table from me just as he and I had done for as long as I can remember. From topic to topic we expressed our opinions. We were mostly alike in how we saw things, but we appreciated each other’s points of view when they differed. We sailed the seas of each other’s thoughts knowing we would never be judged or refuted. Everything was interesting to us. Because our minds were very broad we discussed all sorts of things – be they world events, past or present, the projects we were working on, people we met or just to be there to listen with a sympathetic ear. Dad and I had a natural curiosity about people and places and had an insatiable appetite for learning new things.
Dad’s views were staunchly conservative – a stand-on-your-own-two-feet and a cash-on-the-barrel stance. Although I shared Dad’s conservative nature I was more liberal in how I saw things. My reality was that we all need support at some point in our lives.
Our Saturday morning chats were times for us to find respite from an often crazy world. We found solace in sharing our thoughts even if it was just for an hour. For the last few years of his life Dad‘s mind narrowed in scope. I found this disheartening but our comradery more than made up for it.
Dad often recounted his days as a boy and young man. I loved to listen to these stories no matter how many times I heard them. As Dad reminisced he roamed the streets of the village where he grew up and I was there with him.
Dad was born Peter Dennitts Spare on October 27, 1926, in Lower Harlestone, England. It was a village of centuries old sandstone tenant houses owned by the Earl Spencer, Princess Diana’s family. Young Edward John (Johnnie) Spencer, the future 8th Earl Spencer, Diana’s father, was a few years older than Dad. Dad got to know him as well as someone from the village could get to know one of the Spencers. Johnnie liked to escape from Althorp, the Spencer family manor, to go have a pint with the boys at The Fox and Hound (now The Dusty Fox), the local pub. It wouldn’t be long before his father sent the chauffeur to bring him back. Dad’s sister, Jean, who was considered prim and proper enough by the Spencer family, was invited to Althorp from time to time to have tea with the young Anne Spencer who later was Diana’s aunt.
Lower Harlestone was a community where everybody knew everyone and all about each other’s business. All the adults looked out for each other’s children. The house Dad grew up in was next to the blacksmith’s forge. Dad told me many times about blowing the bellows of the furnace while Mr. Smith, the blacksmith, heated a metal rod in the flames to shape it or helping Mr. Smith shoe a horse. Dad told me about the time when he and his friends found some small tires, a wooden box and other parts in the village dump to make a go cart. Then they rode it down the shallow sloping road past the blacksmith’s forge. When Mr. Smith saw them he called out, “You young devils, you’ll break your necks!” He put brakes and a proper steering mechanism on it before he let the boys use it again. Of course Dad and his friends knew Mr. Smith would do this and that’s why they rode it past his forge.
One time they found an old motorcycle in the dump. They cleaned it up, put some kerosene in the tank and got it running. Another time they found a mold for making lead musket balls lying on the edge of the garbage pit. They scrounged up some lead and melted it down to cast musket balls for their sling shots to shoot rats. Dad said he couldn’t hit a moving rat but his friends got pretty good at it. Lead was much easier to come by in those days since it was used for plumbing and to shingle roofs.
The village was laid out in a large square with the houses facing inward. Behind them stretched farmland and pastures. The kids spent summer days romping through the fields. They seldom went hungry. If they wanted something to eat they pulled up a carrot. Often they went scrumping in the vicarage apple orchard. The vicar said they could eat the fallen apples. If there weren’t any apples lying on the ground they gave the trees a good shake.
In the 1800s Dad’s family was silversmiths and quite well off. A couple of alcoholics in the family drank the business and had drained the wealth by the time Dad was born. Luckily living in a village where everyone looked out for each other they seldom wanted for anything. Crime was unheard of. No one locked their door – even if the door happened to have a lock on it. Parents only worried about their kids when they weren’t home for supper.
During the week Dad attended the small two room village school. The four to eight year old children were taught in one room and the nine to fourteens in the other. The lavatories were outside enclosed by five-foot-high walls but no roof. The urinal in the boy’s washroom was a long, gently sloping, shallow trough on the floor with a small stream of water running down it. The boys stood at the trough and instead of peeing into it they had competitions to see who could pee the highest much to the dismay of Mrs. Miller who lived next door. She had an ongoing complaint to Mr. Derbyshire, the head master of the school, about the spouts of urine arching over the wall onto her rose bushes. Dad laughed, “Little boys can pee a long way.”
Dad’s favourite teacher, Mr. Guest, had a gentle way about him. He instilled within Dad a love for learning. Mr. Guest could demonstrate practical applications for everything that he taught his students in class. He took his students for field trips around the village to show them things such as how to estimate the height of a house or tree using trigonometry. For memory training he got them to memorize and recite poetry in class. Years later Dad could still recite many of the poems. Wearing a broad smile he recited “Leisure” by the Welsh poet, William Henry Davies because the sixth line, “Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass,” made his best friend, Ron, laugh uncontrollably.
Dad said Mr. Guest could make anything interesting. He would have classes after school for the brighter students who wanted to learn more. He believed in teaching his pupils as much as they were able to learn and Dad willingly learned everything Mr. Guest could teach him.
Dad and his sister, Jean, visited their Grandmother on Saturday mornings to help her bake. Their Grandmother gave them each a lump of cookie dough to shape. She took the well-worked dough shapes blackened by active young hands that needed washing and put them in the oven to bake with the other cookies. Then she sent the two children off to play. Amazingly their cookies came out of the oven baked all clean and well-shaped like the others. Another reason Dad and Jean liked going to their Grandmother’s house was because she was completely deaf. They could make all the noise they liked and it didn’t bother her.
On Sundays Dad assisted with the church services as an altar server, singing in the choir, pumping the bellows of the church organ or, Dad’s favourite job, chiming the bells in the church tower. From Dad’s description of St. Andrew’s you would think it was a big church and to Dad as a young boy it was. When I saw it years later it was a small village church built in the 1400s made from the same sandstone from the same nearby quarry as the houses. In the churchyard cemetery I found headstones dating as far back as the 1600s.
Uncle Arthur and his wife Lillian were two of Dad’s favourite relatives. I know very little about Uncle Arthur except that he was a man of his convictions and faith. One evening he went out in the rain to help neighbours fix a wheel on their cart. He caught pneumonia and died. Arthur’s wishes were that half his ashes be scattered over the moors and the other half among the firs. The first part of Arthur’s final request was carried out. But Aunt Lil couldn’t bear to part with the remaining half of his ashes. Uncle Arthur in his urn, or rather half of Uncle Arthur, went back home with Aunt Lil and took up residence on the mantelpiece of the fireplace in her bedroom.
Aunt Lil sailed to America annually for some years after her husband died but, in a sense, never alone. Arthur in his urn travelled with her. When she got back home Arthur went back in his spot above the fireplace. When Aunt Lil died Dad took Uncle Arthur’s urn from the mantelpiece. His remaining half was interred along with Aunt Lil’s ashes in the family plot in St. Andrew’s churchyard in Lower Harlestone.
Dad told me about Dr. Churchouse who was a portly old country doctor with a low, gravelly voice who thought highly of himself. He visited Lower Harlestone once a week and ate his midday meal at Dad’s house. “And boy could he eat!” Dad said. His round figure was testament to his healthy appetite. The doctor’s remedy for everything was to prescribe a laxative. Each winter Dad got the flu which gave him an upset stomach and diarrhea for two weeks. When Dr. Churchouse came by on his weekly visits he would inquire about young Peter. Hearing of Peter’s ailment the doctor gruffly pronounced, despite the diarrhea, “Give him California Syrup of Figs.”
Dad hated this and put up a valiant fight by clamping his mouth shut. His father held him still and pinched his nose so he would have to open his mouth to breathe. When he did in went a spoonful of the mixture his mother had waiting for him. Dad promptly ran outside to throw up. This happened regularly but to Dad’s parents the doctor’s order was beyond question.
California Syrup of Figs: A fruit laxative containing Senna leaf and fig extracts in syrup.