DEATH ISLAND

DEATH ISLAND

The island of Arran, which is a magic and beautiful island in the firth of Clyde, is becoming for me an island of death, as we have attended 7 funerals there. The cemetery is on a hillside opposite the lovely Holy Island and the scenario is so striking it resembles a film scene. I was on Arran last week accompanying John to a memorial service for his brother-in-law, Howard Driver.

The first of these 7 funerals I attended was of John’s mother, and as I stood in a wind swept storm, sheltering my two daughters, my stepdaughter and my small son under the outstretched wings of my black coat, watching the coffin being lowered into its last resting place by her second husband, son, son in law, nephew and older grandsons (all of whom were over 6 feet tall and sombre in their formal blacks,) I reflected that the lady has certainly not lacked handsome men to send her off into the afterlife.

This was at that time one of very few funerals I had attended in my life. My maternal grandfather had died when I was about 7 or 8. I had heard the telephone ring one night, and my mother weeping, and I had guessed what had happened. My father came to tell me, but he could not bring himself to utter the dread words, so as he fumbled for an appropriate phrase, beginning, I am sorry to tell you that your grandfather has… has passed away, and I thought, what does that mean, so I asked, is he dead? My father said Yes, and I understood that I would never see him again and knew that we were mortal. I recall that although I was sorry and would miss him, I did not weep. I was the only one of his grandchildren to attend the funeral (the others were in Canada and this was before the age of easy air travel.) As people gathered in my grandmother’s sitting-room, I heard her remark that I was his favourite grandchild and even at that tender age I knew that she ought not to have said this, and more than likely it was untrue: I was probably just the one he saw the most. The only other thing I remember about that occasion was that I was sent to a neighbour whom my grandmother and mother criticised for her meanness while the actual committal took place, and when the icecream-van came and she bought her own daughter an ice-cream cone, but not one for me, I saw what they meant.

Then decades passed and I was fortunate that apart from my grandparents, everyone I loved still walked the earth.

In your youth, you tend to go to funerals either of elderly relatives who seem to you in your ignorant folly so aged that you do not see in their death any pattern that your own life will follow, or of real tragedies, where youths have died of misadventure. As you get older, you begin to attend the funerals of your parents’ generation : but it is still a shocking moment when you stand in the church for a contemporary.

There are various points where your loss is brought home to you. Writing to the principal mourner trying to come to a just and insightful conclusion about the deceased; being truthful so that a credible portrait emerges of the departed but still gives comfort can be a delicate operation and you may come to realise that you did not know the deceased that well; or that you depended on her or him more than you understood. But whatever you feel, one thing you know for certain is that it’s too late now. If you haven’t resolved any disagreements, that opportunity is lost.

I am always distressed when I first glimpse the actual coffin. It is so small. How come the life and vitality of the deceased had been reduced to this insignificant container?

The music is generally unbearably poignant. When we scattered my mother’s ashes on the seashore on Lewis and Rory walked slowly along the waterline playing on his saxophone, When A Man Loves a Woman, by Percy Sledge – the first time Sarah his wife had ever heard him play, – I was moved. When we were in church on Arran at the funeral of John’s stepfather, we were standing among his children as the first hymn was played. They were distressed and unable to participate, so John beside me lifted up his voice and sang on their behalf and I realised for the first time what a good voice he has.

When you come to the final phrases; Our dear brother here departed; dust to dust and ashes to ashes; in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life; there is comfort in the age-old words although you wonder how many of the people standing there actually believe this. I myself feel that the mysteries of the afterlife have not been revealed to us, but I have hope and belief that I will see my relatives and friends in the afterlife, even if it is not in the form offered by christianity.

When someone whom I had found exceptionally difficult in life died, I felt a relief (though I was sorry for their sake that their life had been cut short). Someone who had loved the person said it was nice to feel they were now in heaven. I thought to myself, how could it be heaven if they were in it. I am bound to record that my view has changed and I can see that I need to learn to be more tolerant and forgiving, otherwise I myself will not pass through the pearly gates. How could I be fit for any kind of paradise if I were still carrying around my grievances from decades previous?

John’s family had organised Howard’s funeral extremely well. It was an occasion where everyone, whatever their history, was made warmly welcome. My safety and comfort had been carefully considered. I felt cherished and valued by the family, for which kindness I was thankful.

Funerals like these, where the family has put the needs of other mourners before their own, are humbling occasions but you come away feeling uplifted.

Go in peace, Howard.

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BUILDING IT YOURSELF

My brother and I sold our parents’ house recently.

This made me remember how my father, in his sixties, bought a plot of land in Huntly, Banffshire, and built a house on it. When I say ‘built a house’ I mean that exactly – he built it with his own hands, with a very little help from his son and his son-in-law. I believe he hired a plumber and an electrician. It was on this labour that the inheritance that we have received was based.

There was an old croft on the site – just a ‘bothy’ really – the kind of building that is made of stone and had originally held people on one side and cattle in another. It had a Victorian fire place but no roof, but my father repaired it and my parents lived in very basic accommodation there for several years. They acquired a caravan and slept in that. At first they had no electricity nor running water.

My father was a man who made life difficult for himself (and other people) but he had some fine qualities; one of which was that he was capable of tremendous endurance and another that he was extremely industrious. He was also surprisingly lucky, for it turned out that that not only did he have water on his land, he had the only water supply in the whole area which never failed, even in the driest summer. He could himself divine for water, though he hired a professional before he sunk the well; and he had a well dug nine rings deep which ‘temple of Neptune’ I used to visit ceremoniously every time I went there in a little procession through the long summer grasses; my father and me, the three children, and two cats.

My father would not have managed this gargantuan task without the support of my mother. She could make even the most unpromising space comfortable and she could cook and bake delicious food on the most primitive of cooking equipment. When her only cooking equipment was an open fire, my father used to drive to my house in the central belt, pick up equipment and supplies, and I would have baked fruit cakes and pies and things which my mother could not have managed and he would take these away with him.

Gradually they introduced services, so that eventually they had a very comfortable house with three bedrooms, bathroom, a farmhouse kitchen; the bothy became a barn and store, and they lived there for twenty ears. My children loved going there every summer; in my father’s fields they enjoyed a freedom and country life that they had little opportunity for else where.

The authorities were extremely helpful to my father. I think the magnitude of the task he was undertaking appealed to their sense of adventure. The buildings inspector called frequently and would advise how to go about things that would be required.

There were of course problems with neighbours. (My father invariably had problems with neighbours, who generally died or went bankrupt or at any event had to leave: I as a child used to feel a little sorry for the neighbours because they never realised until too late that what they were dealing was not what they had supposed.) When my parents applied for electricity, the obvious place was to put a telegraph pole on a corner of the neighbour’s land (well away from his house, where it did not spoil his view or cause any inconvenience.) The neighbour refused permission, and my parents were faced with an alternative which would have cost thousands more. An official came out from the Electricity Board; my father showed him the alternatives and explained how they needed the neighbour’s permission but this was refused. The official looked grim, and called upon the neighbour; my father telling him it was a waste of time. The official came back, and said that permission would be granted, and indeed the electricity was shortly afterwards installed. We later learned that he had threatened that the Board would take up the case; it would fight it right up to the Secretary of State for Scotland; that it would undoubtedly win, and it would pursue its costs vigorously and he could expect a bill of tens of thousands of pounds.

It was a lovely place, and my brother and I still benefit from my parents hard work and creative efforts.

FARO

 

We have recently returned from a short holiday with Elisabeth and Robert near Faro in S E Portugal.

The flights there (and back) were fine although my incipient claustrophobia, normally held in reasonable mode by the force of my intellect was galloping up and down the aisle making offensive gestures at passengers who were too near, talked too loud, drank too much or breathed too fast!

We were whisked by our escort through the crowds and arrived at the Baggage Carousel. John and our escort deposited me in my wheelchair in the Baggage Hall and went to claim the luggage. I then noticed a well dressed women in her 80s perhaps, who did everything with a dramatic flourish designed I felt to draw everyone’s attention. Then suddenly I recognised her as a former TV broadcaster on domestic and forces radio and tv (though initially I couldn’t remember her name.) She had a golf clubs carrier on her luggage cart which stuck out sideways and she banged this into my wheelchair. She then apologised to an embarrassingly excessive degree and wouldn’t stop. I felt like saying, You didn’t hurt me or cause any damage, you’ve apologised perfectly adequately, now for heaven’s sake, go away! I thought she was slightly drunk; but I realised afterwards that she had sensed that spark of recognition and was waiting for me to say, Weren’t you so and so? I have met quite a few famous people and have never acknowledged their celebrity in the smallest degree. If they want to tell you who they are that’s fine but it has to come from them. It must be awful to be so needful of recognition. (The lady was Judith Chalmers)

Robert was meeting us which was a great help and we made the 20 minute journey through the backhills behind Faro Airport which is so near to the sea that I was convinced we were going to land on the beach. At the last minute you scramble up onto the airport and then the pilot frantically brakes with all his strength and you just manage to slide to a screeching halt at your docking station!

The farmhouse was found at the end of a very steep and very narrow track which later caused John some grief with his hi re car which was brand new but in the end there was no problem.

It was beautifully situated. We could see no habitation from our various terraces; just trees and in the distance, the sea. The house was spacious enough though to be comfortable, though shall we say of very different ‘taste’ to ourselves. Our children had kindly given up their bedroom for us which was on the ground floor and easily accessible by wheelchair. The bathroom next door was a large room with corner bath which the boys would swim in when having their bath.

We had been to Portugal three times before, once with all our children plus Alexandra, once on our own and once with Anne and Barbara, but this was our first time in East Portugal. We preferred it. It was not so horribly over developed or infested with golf courses; the towns were attractive and shops were for local people. There is a sandbar across the coast at this point, so there are lagoons rich in bird-life behind it. We saw a large black diver of some description which covered huge distances in his dive. We saw a little group of flamingos fly overhead, an elegant pattern with their long legs and necks, about 20 of them, and Elisabeth the previous week had seen them descend like a pink cloud. We had screech owls round the house. We also saw our first swallows at the house, beautiful with pink throats and long forked tails. In March there were no insects bothering us (though they have hideous black flying creatures as large as egg-cups) but the presence of insect screens and mosquito nets everywhere would suggest that they are sometimes present.

Less appealing were the guard dogs at nearby properties, one of which gave Rob an opportunistic bite on his calf, still nasty and vicious looking when we were there a week later. Everyone local including the medics treated this injury with great disdain – it’s just a little nip – and they regard the Brits as being afraid of dogs and paranoid about La Rage, as the French call rabies. Rob seemed to be healthy enough however.

There were only a few trees that I recognised. There were hills covered in olives of course; and oranges with fruit and flowers; a few lemons; cork oaks; yucca and cacti; trees that were black and appeared to consist largely of thorns. The other flora I did not recognise.

We stayed mostly close to home. The children would rest in the afternoon which meant that everybody got a little relaxing time. (There was quite a large pool). There were nearby towns and villages where we would go for groceries or vegetables and have a coffee and a delicious cake. One day we had lunch in a busy establishment which appeared to be the village canteen, where you dine with others at a refectory type table and where you had the dish of the day and the food was very good rather like what you would get in the kitchen of a friend’s mother (who knew how to cook.) At the other end of the spectrum we had lunch at an elegant restaurant literally at the foot of our road, where everything was as it should be and lovely and the food was delicious. Elisabeth and Robert walked out one evening to have dinner there leaving us in charge, and came walking back beneath the stars (taking detours to avoid rabid dogs!) We went to a modern shopping centre in Faro which was what you would expect. We went to a fish market held in a beautiful market hall and with a biggish market around it; to one of the lagoon resorts where William tried out his new bike, and we went to the town of Loule, very pleasant and authentic the way inland towns in coastal places often are.

The Portuguese are easy to get along with and very kind to children. It amazes me that Portugal, a very small country backed on two sides by the muscular Spain, managed to survive as a nation at all. Although it is Roman Catholic, its churches do not occupy dominating positions in townships, and after the service on Palm Sunday when the congregation walked amongst us, I noticed there was no ostentatious display of clothes.

We thought we might, in future years, take our caravan to the South of Portugal in March, thereby extending the caravanning seasons.

We enjoyed the holiday, and the time spent with Elisabeth and Rob and their children. Not forgetting Milo of course.

(The photographs, courtesy of John M Armstrong, show William and Robert cutting William’s birthday cake (2) while Milo waits to ‘help’; one of the local small towns, and William trying out his new balance bike.)

BLUE EYED BOY

BLUE EYED BOY

I have just realised that in our family we have a pitiful shortage of blue eyes.

I read once that blue eyes were considered historically to be the most beautiful, desirable and therefore valuable. As a brown eyed woman, I didn’t care much for this opinion and thought, Snort, what do they know of it?

So, my father had a magnificent head of hair, golden blonde and naturally wavy, and it eventually faded into a silvery blonde which he retained into extreme old age. He was always tanned, and he had eyes of an unusual colour somewhere between grey, green and turquoise which varied according to what he wore. He was an extremely handsome man, but so far as I observed, he was not vain or particularly concerned about his appearance. My mother was brown haired (darker than mine) and brown eyed, as was my brother.

My husband John, the father of my children, said in Iceland when introducing himself to the group we travelled with that he had always regarded himself as a Viking, and the two Icelanders with the group looked at him and nodded their agreement. He is tall, with light brown hair now white, and with grey eyes.

Of my three children, none are brown eyed. Joanna has my father’s colouring and her eyes are an indeterminate colour between grey, green and turquoise. I used to say her eyes were the colour of Achnahard Bay and she told her husband of this family legend but when they visited the bay it was a deep sapphire colour, and she had to say to him, It’s never been that colour before!

Elisabeth’s eyes are grey with hints of green. And Rory’s are the Viking grey of his father.

At school they did an exercise in percentages where they divided the class into groups of eye colour and our children were always left until the end before it could be decided where they would be placed.

Now we can consider the grandchildren. Alexandra’s eyes are a grey-blue; Erin’s are brown, and Dana’s are a golden, greenish brown. Their father has brown eyes,

Rory’s children have grey-blue eyes like their father, Julia’s having more blue in them than Ewan’s. (Their mother has grey eyes.)

Elisabeth and Robert’s eldest son has an abundance of curly blonde hair, of a very pale colour and a pair of melting chocolate brown eyes which are very large. (His father is brown eyed.)

And now we can consider our latest arrival. He has pale skin after the Irish fashion. His hair, eyebrows and eyelashes are a pale gold colour. But it is such a surprise to us when James opens his eyes in his pale face with its golden halo, for they are a clear and definite brilliant blue. They seem to gather the light into them. They shine like beautiful stones in the bottom of a clear stream. And they are wonderfully expressive. He can beseech you so successfully with these blue eyes that one could almost believe he didn’t need to learn to talk. I think he has inherited these from his other grandmother, Robert’s mother, who herself has very beautiful blue eyes.

James will be a blue eyed boy.

ALEXANDRA

SONY DSC

(The photograph, courtesy of John, shows Alexandra in Switzerland at the wedding of Rory and Sarah, 2011.)

My grand-daughter, Alexandra, is 17 years old today. I don’t quite know how she managed to sneak past me to this mature age for it seems just like yesterday that she was born.

I would not really regard myself as a strongly maternal woman, and because grandchildren came to me early in life, I did not have to yearn for them but was thrust unready into the role. I now have seven grandchildren, four girls and three boys; but there is no doubt you have a special relationship with your first grandchild.

Alexandra being the first born occupies the same position in the family hierarchy that I did.

She referred to John and me as ‘the Grandmas’ and to herself and her two younger siblings as ‘me and the sisters’. (Her English is better now of course.)

Alexandra is tall and slim, beautiful after the Irish fashion with dark hair and eyes the colour of the Atlantic. She has a natural edgy stylishness. She has many talents. She can draw very well. She has a good voice and it was a pleasure to listen to Carolyn Hulatt give her an impromptu lesson on singing during the rehearsal for Elisabeth’s wedding. She is musical and plays the French horn for one of the Glasgow orchestras and also the double bass. She is clever.

Alexandra is insightful and shrewd. She has word skill and can be wounding: she generally knows where the weaknesses lie. But she is not wantonly cruel and can be very kind.

She spent a lot of time with us in her childhood. The first time she went abroad she stayed at the Antwerp Hilton and was sensible enough even as a toddler to befriend the doorman and came and went with great self possession. She and Joanna came to Northern France with us and to Portugal. She came away with us in our caravan in the UK on numerous occasions. Once when she was staying with us we had a flood, and we escaped with Anne Hall to the welcoming hospitality of the house of Barbara, Anne’s mother in Somerset. We had a lovely visit, but the pressure of being the only child clearly got to Alexandra for she complained to me, “There’s too many grandmas and not enough children.”

I don’t keep in touch with my grandchildren weekly (though they’re welcome to talk to me whenever they like) but when we are together I look forward to Alexandra coming to see me when we fall easily into conversation as though we had left off the previous day. What she has to say is always thought provoking and interesting. I like talking to her.

Walk in the light, Alexandra, and may your birthdays be joyful and many.

SO?

SO?

I’ve noticed an increase in the number of persons prefacing an answer to a question with the word, ‘So’. It seems to me to be entirely superfluous. I wondered if it is used to give a few more seconds to put together a reply. Yet people were using it who were not under any pressure to make a response.

I find you can frequently use a word quite easily and happily, yet when challenged as to its exact meaning you are stumped. So it is with ‘so’. Applying to the dictionary just confuses matters rather than clarifying them.

So what? So we start many of our sentences with So. Does this change the meaning so much​? Maybe our blogger is just a nit-picky so-and-so. If people feel the need to employ So constantly, so be it.

So I’ll leave you now. So nice, talking with you. So long.

The Arrival of James Kenneth Sullivan

I am delighted to announce the arrival of our 7th grandchild, James Kenneth Sullivan, second son of Elisabeth and Robert about 7pm on 3 December 2017. He weighed 10 lb l0 oz. Our daughter managed to deliver the baby herself, but required some assistance via forceps and James’ face was marked a little, but this is rapidly fading.

I was considering how, despite the vast improvement in pre-natal care and good advice for the parents, and however favourable the odds, every pregnant woman knows that as she waits on the final approach to the birth, she stands in danger of death.

I also realise that every woman’s experience of childbirth is quite different, not only do her own births turn out to be completely different from each other, but her experiences are not the same as anyone else’s. I resented people describing my births as ‘easy’. There is no such thing as an ‘easy’ birth, but I now realise that at 8 hours. 4 hours and 2 hours respectively, I was certainly fortunate. In fact the 2 hour birth was the most difficult because everything happens too quickly and you do not have time to catch your breath and prepare yourself mentally for the next stage. I therefore was secretly rather dismissive of people who required medical intervention or pain relief – though of course I never said so. One of my babies weighed 9 lbs 12 oz and I am not a big woman.

Yet in the case of my daughter, her first child weighed 9 lbs plus and took 20 hours to be delivered and at the end of it she looked so awful that I was shocked and alarmed. Mother and baby recovered though, so all was well.

This time she agreed to be induced when a week overdue, and also had an epidural. She was in labour for 48 hours, the first half of which was not painful or uncomfortable. For the second day she had an epidural and found the experience to be much less stressful. For this second tme she was able to endure the 48 hours and participate fully in the birth process, and mother and baby were able to return home the next day, both doing very well.

I should perhaps point out that I was not denied pain relief. I was offered epidurals but declined; I was hooked up to gas and air but it made me feel drunk, so I stopped breathing it in. In each birth there came a point where, having ‘ridden out’ the contractions – visualising each one as a wave and rising as if on the water and waiting while it ebbed away – the pain was so intense I found myself thinking, ‘I can’t stand much more of this.’ Each time for the ‘three times’ this feeling heralded the end of the period of the contractions, and I passed smoothly on to the final pushing stage, which is exhausting but not intrinsically painful. Had I been facing a further 40 hours of labour at this point, I too would have called for an epidural, gas and air, whatever. I found the breathing which we’d practised so diligently at the weekly Classes for New Mothers to be completely useless.

There is no virtue whatsoever in suffering unnecessary pain. Besides, who is to judge what ochers are actually experiencing when in pain. You want to take as much painkiller as you need; and as little as you can manage with. You don’t want to be so exhausted and shattered that you can’t participate in and enjoy the first moments of caring for your baby.

Here’s to pain-reduced births and and healthy mothers and babies!

I look forward to getting to know James. William, his elder brother is a delightful child, and it was a pleasure to look after him while his parents were at the hospital. He went into ‘host’ mode and tried to look after us!

The photographs, courtesy of John M Armstrong, are of the brothers Sullivan, and of James and his quilt!