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.

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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!

BELIEVING IN MIRACLES

BELIEVING IN MIRACLES

We’ve been to Elisabeth’s. All her tests for blood sugar have been OK but one was not conclusive, so on this doubtful evidence her file recorded her as being diabetic, and someone rang up and harassed her at length about her diet; said she had to come in and have an emergency C section or at the very least be induced because in addition to having (they alleged) gestational diabetes, the due date was today (ie Saturday 19 November.) They insisted, it being a large baby, that her dates were a fortnight wrong. Also the baby was breech and they don’t seem to have the skill to organise breeches births. She was less combative than I would have been, though she got a bit upset and anxious. You’re always the best person to know the dates; her last baby was a large baby; his male relatives are all over 6 foot tall and she and his paternal grandmother are also 5’10”. (Everyone in this family is tall except for me!) Anyway, the baby turned round of his own accord; she doesn’t have diabetes; she’s not going to be induced or c sectioned unless there’s overpowering medical evidence why she should. I would guess the baby would be born within 7 – 10 days but not in the next day or two.

I remember [when I was expecting Rory] for the first time during the years when I was pregnant, they offered genetic counselling. Among the questions they asked was one on haemophilia which had been in our family (my mother’s people all married their cousins.) The doctor who discussed matters with me was one I had never seen before (of middle Eastern origin: basically of the-womens-they-know-nothing school.) Looking at his notes and not at me, he announced that they had been unable to determine whether or not I was a carrier, and they required samples of blood from all my relatives, and that they had decided that they would test for the sex of the baby and abort all male children as a precautionary measure. Fortunately my anger overcame any anxieties I might have had. Completely ignoring him, I said to the nurse that I would get dressed now and I would speak with her after that. I sailed past him as though he were a piece of furniture. As I was dressing I could hear her getting on to him about his terrible bedside manner. When I came out he began a somewhat grudging apology which I completely ignored. I spoke pleasantly to the nurse and thanked her for the advice they had given me; I said that I did not wish to pursue genetic counselling any further; I would not be supplying the blood of my relatives; I would not have a test for the sex of my baby, nor would I be having any abortion. Hopefully I would see her next week. She agreed to all of this and I swept out like a grand duchess. My male child was perfectly alright. I never saw that doctor again – I hope they sacked him.

It’s a difficult balancing act in relation to the hospital. You do need their assistance (and in every case once we got to the birthing point, the nurses and entire team were superb. ) Joanna’s team were from Oregon and knew their stuff; Elisabeth’s team were from Ireland and coped well; but the team for Rory were local girls. John said to them, Do you think you can deliver a son, and a Scot​​; is that possible? Everything is possible said the midwife but we can only help out what has been put there already. But all went well. I held the baby in my arms and knew as I looked into his eyes, dark and filmy as a kitten’s that he would be absolutely fine. John took him and said to him ‘Welcome to the world, son.’

Then, I rose with John’s help and disappeared into the bathroom; washed; brushed my hair and my teeth and was just settling down with my son in my arms when the nursing staff came rushing back, terribly anxious because they had abandoned us on our own and not been there had anything happened. Since they were dealing with a lady whose reactions to her various experiences were punctuated by screams and curses of a horrible variety (she clearly was not the middle class lady she posed as) we felt they were quite justified and had enjoyed the half hour to ourselves. They made us tea and toast which tasted to us like nectar and ambrosia.

On that day when my final child was born, I went back to the ward with my lovely baby upon my knee, covered I felt, both of us, in mystery, glory and triumph. I knew that I would not walk this path again. The baby had only opened his eyes once and had taken a long and careful look at me. He did not know that if I had been a meek and obedient to authority kind of woman, he would not be making his way back to the ward and from there home as rapidly as I could arrange it.

But every birth is a triumph in its own right and a miracle too.

Angels and ministers of state attend Elisabeth!