My Scottish grandparents had a past – I knew that – but it was not one that I could readily imagine. It was as if they had been brought into the world solely to be Grandma and Grandad, and false teeth, glasses and greying hair had been their lot since the beginning. Even if the photograph box yielded up images of them as a young ‘courting couple’ in the 1920s or as thirty-something parents in the following decade, this was not the same people I knew . Something had happened along the way to separate them from their youth – an irreversible split that I dreaded experiencing myself and which I planned to do everything in my power to prevent. Often their memories were fleeting or muddled, or were of things about which they no longer spoke, as if they had become unmoored from the people they once were before they met and married and had my mother.
My McKay grandparents as a young engaged couple
Your mother should have been called Rachael my grandfather said, a reference to the seven years they waited before their only child came along, when they had all but given up hope of starting a family. The biblical allusion passed over my head. All I could think was that my mother wouldn’t be my mother if she was called Rachael instead of Catherine – or Cathy as everyone called her. Years later I found out that, like my grandmother and great-grandmother before her, she’d also been called Kate. It was there in the teasing nickname my grandfather had given her as a child whenever she spilled food or drink on the table or on herself (a trait I unfortunately share). For years I thought that ‘Slaister Kate’ (spelled slaistercait in my mind) was a proper Scot’s word until I found out that it was a combination of slaister (the Scots expression for making a mess) and my mother’s childhood name. Yet in that one expression was all the affection that my grandfather had for his beloved daughter.
My mother as a flower girl at her Aunt Mary’s wedding, 1946
In contrast to my English grandparents, it was my Scottish grandfather who was the soft, cuddly one and my grandmother who was the thin, nervy ‘nippy’ one. Yet my mother tells me that Grandma was so much more relaxed with her grandchildren than she was as a mother herself, even though my own mother was – to all accounts – a model child who was incapable of telling a lie or doing anything she knew to be wrong. Years later, my grandmother would tell me how my mother had been a Godsend, looking after her in her long years of widowhood and declining health: a situation which my grandmother stoically accepted in a way that almost made me think that old age was just another passing phase of life (rather than terminal) and nothing to get too concerned about. I had not realised at the time that she was most likely protecting me from things I would later discover for myself.
After a stroke in her seventies, my grandmother moved into a local sheltered housing scheme, where she was happily ensconced in a bright and compact ground floor flat overlooking the shared gardens. Once when I was visiting her at New Year and went to have a nap on her bed, I came across a slightly creepy-looking object in the drawer of her bedside table. It was a tiny, squashed doll she kept in an old matchbox, and was one of the few objects (along the with the boxes of photographs) that she’d brought with her to the new flat. I vaguely remembered playing with the little plastic figure as a child and finding it deliciously strange and spooky – as I did with many things in her old house, including the heavy mirrors which hung from chains high up on the walls, and whose foxing seemed to be hinting at secrets hidden in the glass.
Although the mirrors stayed put until the move in 1989, at some point the little doll disappeared (possibly to avoid being lost or broken by curious fingers) only to resurface when my grandmother was in her last decade. It was almost as if it were some sort of talisman, the symbolic embodiment of my mother who had done so much to ease her into the latter part of her life. This queer disjointed baby doll was not actually a plaything at all (as I had once supposed) but had been centre piece of my mother’s christening cake in 1938. For over sixty years my grandmother had kept it, and when the sealing wax, lavender bags and milk tokens which had clogged up the drawers in the old house for years were all gleefully disposed of by my mother, the little doll moved house too, protected by its outdated matchbox.
The Christening Doll from 1938
I cringe now to think of some of the things I initially asked my grandmother about aging and loss in those early years of her widowhood. Do you miss Grandad? Have you seen his ghost? What does a stroke feel like? Are you afraid of death? Will you come and haunt me when you die? Grandma answered as best she could – but always from the heart – and I realise now how lucky I was to have her in my life for so long because as I matured (up to a point – it’s an ongoing process with me!) our conversations changed, too.
After she left us, the baton was passed on to her youngest sister, Mary (my mother’s favourite aunty), who became like a surrogate grandmother to me for another decade and told us stories of her own youth. As Aunty Mary – or Manty as we called her – was not as prudish as my grandmother, we were often freer with her and discussed different topics. Having served in the woman’s forces in WW2, Manty was a whisky-drinking, chain-smoking kind of women who worked fulltime after the untimely death of her husband and was thus wise to the ways of the world: she could certainly cackle over a double-entendre or an ‘actress-bishop’ joke in a way that my grandmother never could.
Aunt Mary (far left) with my Mother (as a baby) and Grandmother (far right) c1940
Now I realise that Grandma and Grandad were perhaps better suited than it would seem as my grandfather came from a religious Glaswegian family who were all good church-attending protestants and eschewed drink and any form of swearing. The only alcohol I remember touching my grandparents’ lips was the odd sherry or egg liqueur on special occasions and even the word ‘liar’ was deemed to be an unsuitable expression for young ladies; and so, just like politicians in parliament, we had to come up with more palatable ways to hint at this character defect. Unfortunately, my father had inherited a colourful list of swearwords from his own WW1 veteran father – many of which sound outdated today and conjure up images of Pathé newsreels of blitzed London. Thus it was with a certain dismay that my grandparents heard me hunting for ‘my bloody shoes’ at two years old! (How my father managed to keep the f-word from us for the first twelve years of my life, I’ll never know. He certainly made up for it in the years that followed).
Do I look like a child who would swear?
Perhaps that was one reason why my father never accompanied us on visits to our Scottish grandparents. He drove us from coast to coast, came in for a cup of tea, paced around the flat, then headed back west again. Sometimes he came to pick us up at the end of our stay and the process was reversed. Other times we went back by various complicated ways of public transport via Glasgow which always made my mother extremely stressed and prone to telling us and anyone who’d listen that she hated making the trip. If we did go back by rail from Haymarket in Edinburgh, rather than take the bus (Beeching had axed the local branch line into town several years earlier), then Grandad would stand in the garden in Carrick Knowe waving his outsize handkerchief at the Glasgow train as it thundered past the bottom of the garden through the tall stands of purple lupins, which a neighbour had planted at the side of the tracks
Sometimes other people in the carriage would wave back to Grandad either thinking that they knew him or that he was simply a lonely pensioner with an addled mind, trying to get the attention of passing trains. Often I’d miss seeing him: we flew by so fast and all the houses looked the same from the back. Just sometimes the train would slow down as it neared the signal box and we tried to catch a glimpse of Grandma at the kitchenette window, where she would most likely be rolling dough or making mince in the silver contraption bolted onto the fold-up Formica table, her fingers as red and shiny and cold as a scullery maid, like mine always are.
My grandparents in their garden beside the railway signal box c1961
Grandma used those bony hands to scrub and clean the house and the outside stairs and to tickle us until we thought we could no longer breath and my mother had to intervene. She always had a dark side to her ‘fun’, although it was not intentional, and my mother recalls her using this to cajole her into good behaviour. Born with a vivid imagination, my mother grew up believing that orange trees would grow from pips in her stomach and people would come along to pick them, or that she’d be dumped at the door of the children’s home if she did not behave (sometimes my grandmother would even pretend that was why they were taking the bus into town). Luckily, the next generation were spared all this, yet there were other horrors which lurked unchecked.
For some reason, my grandmother – who like me had a fear of hospitals – often watched a daytime medical television programme that involved a lot of blood and gore. That and Crown Court, and later televised snooker, appealed to her in a way none of us quite understood. And so, as a young child, I inadvertently witnessed a live hospital birth (thankfully only in black and white) which gave me an absolute fear of childbirth. When I asked Grandma why the woman was screaming so much, I was told in no uncertain terms why. She made it clear that not only had she been very ill herself after giving birth, but my own mother had nearly died in hospital with me and was forced to endure 48 hours of agony before an emergency caesarean was performed (considered a last resort in those days). I’m not quite sure how much that contributed to my decision not to go through the process myself, but for years after I was haunted by the images of that film and the things my grandmother told me.
Like most couples, my grandparents had their daily and weekly rituals. Tea and biscuits round the fire before bedtime; Grandad doing his football pools on Saturday afternoons when Grandma and Mum came back from shopping in town, complaining about their feet killing them; ‘mince and tatties’ on Fridays – and always with dessert and custard. When we were very young, Grandad read us nightly stories from my mother’s big red fairy tale book or made up tales about two naughty little girls who only years later I discovered actually existed (they were his great-nieces). He had a range of Grandad-jokes that were brought out with the digestive biscuits, often involving cultural references that passed us by – his Harry Lauder impression was one of these. However, the thing that drove us most crazy was his sayings. A place for everything and everything in its place, and You’re going to the right place for tired girls were particularly subject to our groans. I sometimes wonder how he could have been related to my mother, who has never followed those maxims herself.
And so it was that I found myself discussing this topic with my mother a few days ago. What have we inherited from our ancestors and what did they in turn inherit from those who went before them? Grandad loved making up stories (which is why he ditched that fairy tale book), as well as looking after his plants (I remember him showing me how snapdragons got their name), and unbeknownst to me was fascinated by Japan. So is it more than a coincidence that storytelling and gardening are two of my passions and that I used to live and work in Japan? And is my mother’s work as a textile artist due to the fact that my grandmother was a qualified seamstress who was able to do the most beautiful detailed work, skills which she also imparted to the next generations?
My Mother with one of her creations
Yet my mother also loves history and storytelling – although gardening is just ‘outdoor housework’ to her! So next month I will be publishing a potted history of the life of my maternal great-grandmother, which my mother researched and wrote after I’d returned from London in the mid-eighties, full of my discoveries as a genealogist working for a firm of heir hunters (see The Incidental Genealogist is Born).
I look forward to sharing it with you!
The Incidental Genealogist, November 2021