A new year starts and we look to the future but there is something about an old year ending that makes me think back to past years. Not just about the year just ended, but back many years, to childhood and the many memories made there.
A few days ago I received a calendar from an English relative, the scenes were from areas around my old hometown, I looked at each one and spent an hour or two in my past.
As a child, growing up with my grandma, her home was at the edge of town, just a five minute walk from green fields, hills and country walks. Although it was just grandma and myself, Sundays were family days. Gran had six children and four of them lived locally, just a few minutes walk from gran’s home, and Sundays were a day to do the “walk”.
It seemed to be an unwritten agreement that everyone assemble for the Sunday afternoon walk. The main meal would be over, dishes cleared and washed and the relatives would arrive. All four of them were married, with children, so when we got together it was quite a tribe.
Although grandma was only in her early sixties I always thought she was an old lady as the uncles and aunts treated her that way. She walked fine but, for some reason couldn’t walk very far unless she had a reassuring arm to lean on. Her answer to this problem was to use the handle of the latest baby carriage in the family to hold. In this way she could walk for miles. Each of the uncles and aunts had several children so there was always a pram to lean on. This mode of transport was also where blankets, food and various other necessities were carried, so was a really useful item. Somewhere in the assorted heap would be a young child!
About an hour’s walk brought us to “The Rivington Barn”. This was a Norman era barn built of huge beams and a roofline that went almost down to the ground. Over the years this structure had been turned into a tea room and to this place went crowds of locals every weekend.
During the walk, the uncles would usually get ahead of the rest of us and arrive first. They picked out a spot on the grass that would be our designated area for the afternoon. Blankets would be spread and a chair rented for grandma, who never sat on the ground. The adults would sit in a big circle and the kids would be playing ball, tag, hide and seek or a similar occupation in the true English tradition of ‘Children should be seen and not heard’.
As the oldest grandchild present, I would soon tire of silly games and preferred to sit with the adults. This would be permitted if I kept quiet and, by staying out of their minds, I would glean information that was meant to be only shared with the adults. Much of this went over my head but it was interesting to learn all the gossip of the small town. One of my uncles had broken with tradition and married someone the family didn’t really approve of. For several years the rest of them discussed her in low voices, a sure sign of a problem.
They referred to her as the Arsy. I didn’t know what this meant but the word arse was very bad and not used in front of children, so I knew there must be some terrible secret regarding the newcomer. The Arcy was referred to in the same hushed voice as “bloody Germans”, this being only eight or nine years after the war and Germans all still referred to in the kids’ Saturday afternoon movies as ‘baddies’!
It was several years before it became clear that an Arcy was an R.C., a Roman catholic! As I went to school with several catholic kids, I was surprised that she was thought of as different from anyone else. The only difference made for the catholic kids, at school, was they were excused from morning assembly as soon as the general announcements were made and before the prayer and morning hymn were began.
Aunt Nellie did not usually accompany us on the family walk, which was due to the fact that she always had a baby to take care of. She had six children in quick succession so was usually bogged down at home while my uncle took the oldest of his children on the family walk. She probably enjoyed this afternoon of bliss, where the rest of her brood were off her hands. As I got older I visited the family more often as I was invited to birthday parties etc., but mom or gran never went. I never did understand the resentment of the adults in the family but they were not very welcoming towards her and she seldom accepted invitations.
My gran never showed any signs of racism and her mantra was “if they are good enough for God, they are good enough for me”, this liberalism didn’t seem to spread to those who approached God through a different path, very strange!
After an hour or two of chatting it would be time for tea. The uncles would be dispatched to the tea room and come back with a huge jug, sometimes two, of hot tea. They would also have enough cups for the group and separate milk and sugar. The adults would share the tea while the kids drank water, pieces of cake or home made scones would be dispensed and all the family would fall silent.
A couple of hours later and Grandma and I would catch the bus home. This bus only ran every two hours so we were at the stop in good time. The rest of the family walked home. The country road was filled with families, similarly occupied, as there were very few cars at that time, it was safe enough for the children to run ahead and be fairly unsupervised.
Gran and I would arrive home an hour before the walkers during which time, we prepared the meal for the family. Usually cold ham was the star of the table, accompanied by salad and buttered bread. Dessert was nearly always home canned fruit with Carnation evaporated milk, sometimes a jelly would be added. Home made cake or pie would also be on hand.
Family tea time was an assortment of weird and wonderful seating arrangements, anything from the arm of the sofa to a small stool that had been made at school by one of the uncles. The huge teapot held enough to refresh everyone and, once it was drained, it was time for everyone to pack up their families and go home.
Such a shame that this gathering of the clan is not done much these days unless it is at a funeral, or some other special event. Grandma’s home was always the gathering place and she was always regarded as the matriarch of the family. How lucky she was to have most of her family within walking distance. It was an honour to be brought up by such a special lady and those are times that I will treasure forever.