There’s a story my mother used to tell about a little girl crying by the railing. This was back when she could tell stories – that would be several years ago because she is now deeply beset by late-stage Alzheimer’s and her vocal capabilities left about 15 months ago. Mind you, her rational mind was pretty much lost a few years earlier than that, so even if she could communicate it’s doubtful she’d have much to communicate now.
But when she was telling stories, in later years she sometimes told of a little girl crying by the back railing of a steam ship making the passage from South Africa to England. She said she saw that girl on that ship several times and would go over and comfort her. This would be the good and decent thing to do. What feeling person wouldn’t be struck by the sight of a small child, alone at the back of a ship, in obvious distress, and not want to console her?
But as you think a bit more about this scene, questions come to mind. There’s something amiss about it. This is a small child on a ship – where are her parents? Okay, maybe she snuck away and got lost and her parents are frantically searching for her. But, my mother said she saw her several times on that voyage. Were her parents so inattentive that she could be lost repeatedly? And why did it need my mother, who was only a small child herself at the time, to comfort her?
For, my mother was on that ship back in 1931 heading from South Africa to a new life in England. She was accompanied only by her father, a Church of England minister. Her mother remained behind in South Africa, in the last months of her second pregnancy. It was never quite clear from mother’s stories why they couldn’t join them on the voyage. Despite my mother always telling interesting tidbits of her early life, we never seemed to get much more than a small slice of the bigger picture. The impression I had, from what I was able to glean from her, was that he had to head back to London to start up his new job quickly; to get established before the rest of the family left their own established lives, and began anew in England. My mother’s mother was born in South Africa and had many relatives there. It was her home. It would make sense to stay with family until conditions were right to resettle. Millions of immigrant family stories mirror that pattern. But to leave while she is expecting another baby very soon? Odd.
But getting back to the story analysis, even this part of the story doesn’t make much sense. See, if he had to rush back to England to get his new job and home established before the rest of the family could join them, then why was one of the two young daughters – my mother – accompanying him? And of course, as I knew, the other two never did join them. Or at least, not for long. After a short stay in England, my grandmother returned to South Africa with her youngest daughter, my mother’s sister; where she lived most of the rest of her life.
My mother loved and respected her father. At least, that’s all one can tell from her stories about him. He was a great man, according to what I heard. And if there was any fault to be found in the family break-down it would doubtless lie on the other side. I suppose this is the way these things often go – the resident child is infected with the parent’s malice for the other parent. But yes, she would imply, he was a great man. He led boy scouts groups on great camping adventures. He wrote and produced musical comedies and pantomimes to be performed by the young folks in his congregation. He was loved and respected by all.
It’s only recently that my brothers and I have started to hear other stories about my grandfather – stories mostly from the other side. Stories that put him in a much less flattering light. Stories of an authoritarian figure who expected my mother, when barely a teenager, to act like the church rectory matron hosting church lady’s teas at 14, and playing house-mom hosting war-time boarders finding refuge from the London bombing. Stories of having to attend morning services at her father’s otherwise empty church before going to school – because every service must have a congregation, even if it’s only one person. Of him refusing to meet his youngest daughter, once full-grown, who came to England for nurse training; and of putting up obstacles to my grandmother’s later attempts to see her lost daughter when she too came to England. And much worse. But these stories are only coming to light now that my mother is lost to Alzheimer’s and can’t confirm or refute them. So how much credibility should one place on them?
Well, the story about the church services came recently from my still mentally spry father, so that one has credibility. Yet, he is reluctant to say much more. What is it with that generation, that they are so reluctant to say anything bad about family members, even if long dead? Even if my mother still had her wits, I doubt she would acknowledge anything negative about her father.
Still, whatever the truth in all these stories, the weight of evidence seems to suggest that my grandfather was not the upstanding, admirable man-of-God that he would like the world to see. My mother made copies and framed for us a lively caricature of him drawn by a loyal congregant many years ago. The cartoon shows a jovial, friendly, welcoming minister in his rector’s cloak. I’ve recently taken it down and put it away.
As an adult, my mother showed signs of the repressed English stereotype. Pull up your socks, put on a brave face, and above all be courteous and respectful. Never say a bad word about anyone. Keep it all bottled up inside – well, until it bursts out in a fit of pique. The pleasant demeanour broken by occasional moodiness and terse comments spit out in anger before being bottled up again in silence. Behaviour formed in that church rectory in Exeter so many years ago.
Still for the most part, she was a pleasant person. Most people seem to remember her as kind and sweet. While life as wife to my father, and mother to us five crazy kids, may not have been easy at times, it was a vast improvement over the lonely life with her father, I believe. And later on, it did offer the opportunity to express her artistic abilities, through both painting and music.
One disappointment is that she never could get over the infected attitude towards her mother and sister that perhaps her father instilled in her. I do recall my aunt’s great disappointment that my parents did not travel to visit them in South Africa until the year after my grandmother’s death. And even a later reunion in Britain, well into their retirements, was spoiled by a hostility that hung in the air above my mother and her sister, sparked largely by my aunt’s refusal to visit the grave of her father in Exeter, but hanging over the remaining two weeks of that vacation like a dark cloud. And I have to admit the poison emanated primarily from my mother.
But it has to have been tough to grow up an only child to an authoritarian, larger-than-life father who took you away from your mother. To be under schooled and pushed into adult roles too soon, and required to encapsulate a restrictive code of behaviour, in a world of restricted adults. That upbringing can’t help but negatively impact the psychology of a person.
For I am sure that little 5 year-old girl in my mother’s brain-addled story was not a stranger comforted by my mother. It was my mother. Standing at the stern railing of a great steamship, taking her further and further away from her mother, and in great need of being picked up and comforted.