Memories of Auntie George

Auntie George was my maternal grandfather’s spinster aunt, his mother’s youngest sister. She had been christened Georgina, my grandfather always called her Georgie, but to the three generations of family that followed – my mum’s, mine, and my children’s – she was known affectionately as Auntie George.

My earliest memories of Auntie George were of her living with another aunt, her older widowed sister Eliza, in a small fisherman’s cottage in a little village here in the Scottish Highlands. We used to visit as a family, and I remember the tiny cottage mainly as neat and old fashioned and dark and smelling of moth-balls, quiet apart from the tick of the large clock on the sideboard. I remember, while the grown-ups had tea and cake, being allowed a glass of fizzy lemonade in pretty tumblers that were kept in the sideboard, and the bubbles going up my nose.

After her sister died, Auntie George moved out of the cottage and in with my maternal grandparents, where she lived until her health deteriorated to a point where my grandparents simply became too old themselves to care for her. Although she lived to a ripe old age sadly she necessarily ended her years in a local nursing home, dementia robbing her of her past and so all knowledge of who any of us were, turning a neat-framed meek and mild-mannered genteel old lady into someone unrecognisable, violent and vitriolic.

But while she was alive and well and living amongst us all, Auntie George was someone who was simply always there as I was growing up, an integral part of my extended family landscape. She happily joined in with family occasions big and small, formal and informal, but always quietly hovering in the background, remaining self-contained and small in that inoffensive and unobtrusive way she had.

Embarrassingly in all those years I don’t remember ever having had any deep and meaningful conversations with her about anything that mattered. And in spite of me having had a living great-great-aunt in my life until I was grown up and married with children, I’m ashamed to say I know so very little about her younger life other than the fact, always relayed in hushed reverent tones, that her young man had gone off to war – this would have been the First World War – and had never come back.

I grew up surrounded by family photographs, and even now my mum still has several old boxes of tiny black and white family snapshots she inherited after my grandmother died. A few years ago we were looking through them again and I found a photograph I hadn’t ever seen before, of a tall young woman standing in front of a fancy car parked in front of what looked like a Swiss chalet, with a clear snow-peaked mountain range on the horizon. From her style of dress and bobbed marcel-wave hair and cloche hat, it must have been taken in the 1920s.

Intrigued, I asked mum who it was, and she said it was Auntie George, taken when she was in service with a well-to-do family who travelled a lot, taking some of their staff with them wherever they went. I was amazed to see her standing so tall in her youth, because the elderly Georgie I knew had both a scoliosis and a kyphosis, twisting her spine forward and sideways, giving her a rather crumpled, apologetic stance. And I was stunned to realise she had travelled so extensively in the past, even if only in the employ of others. How could I have known her all those years and yet not have known that?

Thinking about that little photograph and the untold secrets of the life behind it, I look back today and I wonder – did Georgie enjoy her single life? I realise that like so many other young women of her generation she effectively lost the chance of marriage and children when her fiance was killed in the war, but had she got married as intended she would most definitely never have had the chance to see any more of the world beyond her kitchen sink. Did her long-term single status and a chance to earn her own living actually give her more freedom to be herself in the end? That’s something I’ll never know.

One thing I do know, she outlived everyone else in her generation and even her neice and nephews – my grandfather, his elder sister and his younger brother all died before her. When I knew her, admittedly in her later years, she certainly seemed contented enough with her lot. Not left on a shelf but included and embraced and always there in our family snapshots, smiling and a definite part of the proceedings even if on the periphery.

I’m really sorry I didn’t ever think to try to get to know her better as I was growing up, but nevertheless I’m very proud to have had her as my great-great-aunt. I still have a few little sentimental trinkets of hers that I’ve kept close all these years, including a glass hairpin jar with silver screwtop, a cut glass perfume bottle, and a beautiful hand-sewn linen handkerchief sachet, pictured above. Thank you, Auntie George, thinking of you! 🙂

Weekly Prompt: Family Photo

Coffee, Tea, or Milk of Magnesia?

I thought I was going to be totally stumped today by Linda’s Stream of Consciousness Saturday prompt of Coffee, Tea, or Me – flirty phrases are just not me, especially not embarrassingly dated stuff like that.

Then I read John Holton’s SOCS post mentioning about air stewardesses back in the day writing a book of that name and suddenly it all became clear. Yup, in the context of the sexist world of the original ‘trolley dollies’ (such a ghastly, demeaning name) I can see how that phrase might come about.

But to be honest the thing that struck me most about John’s post is the 1970s ad he’s included at the bottom for Milk of Magnesia – because oooh, there’s something I can post about, family medicine cabinet staples from my childhood! I suppose it’s a kind of Stream of Consciousness post once removed – related to Linda’s topic, but indirectly, through reading John’s post.

I so clearly remember the blue bottle of Milk of Magnesia, we were usually given a spoon of that white milky liquid for the solid kind of bellyache caused by constipation – I can even remember the odd taste of it. It was joined in its choice of eye-catching blue glass bottle by a little jar of Vicks Vaporub – its powerfully strong menthol heating sensation when rubbed on your chest and back was used to relieve congestion due to a cold.

My dad used to be bothered with indigestion a lot so there was always a tin of Andrew’s Liver Salts to be had – a spoon of that dissolved in water would fizz up into salty bubbles to be drunk down straight away, usually followed immediately by a huge belch, to settle any stomach discomfort. And I remember dad also carried little white square Rennies tablets in his pocket at all times for his heartburn.

Another duo of products that spring to mind is a tub of Vaseline petroleum jelly and a tin – a proper round tin, not a tube – of thick, pink Germolene antiseptic ointment. Now there’s a smell to stick in your nostrils. In my mind’s eye I link the strong smell of Germolene to the memory of fabric sticking plaster strips, because scrapes and grazes were cleaned with the sting of diluted Dettol, Germolene antiseptic ointment was applied, then a plaster cut to size was stuck over the top and you were sent on your way.

The painkiller I remember most from childhood is Disprin, a dissolvable asprin. If there was such a thing as ibuprofen available way back in the 1960s and 1970s they definitely didn’t make it as far as our medicine cabinet. These were the main generic products I remember, but I was ill a lot as a child so had my prescribed medicines to take too – Phenergan Syrup for my allergies tasted absolutely vile… yuk!

OK, that memory has put me off now, so I’ll just stop there while the going’s still good 🙂

Cherry Coloured Twist

Sometimes my brain comes up with the strangest memories when prompted by just one word, however different the context. Fandango’s One Word prompt today is ‘twist’ and straight away a voice in my head muttered ‘cherry coloured twist’ and there I am, back in early childhood being read Beatrix Potter’s ‘The Tailor of Gloucester’ by my mum.

We read all of Beatrix Potter’s little hardback books over and over again – I think they’re probably still there somewhere at my mum and dad’s house, actually – but my two favourites were always ‘The Tailor of Gloucester’ and ‘The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies’. I think I liked the illustrations as much as the stories, they were so beautifully done.

Ten of my Favourite Feelings

Fandango has offered us the chance to post a list of ten of our favourite feelings. The more I think about which favourites I might choose, the more I realise there are tons to choose from across my lifetime, some big, some small – so here goes with the first ten that spring to mind!

1 The amazement of realising I was pregnant for the first time – I was 18, and the knowledge of what was happening inside my body felt exciting and scary in equal measure. But I knew in that moment that one way or another my life would change forever, which of course it did.

2 The ocean of maternal love for each newborn baby I felt flooding my system immediately after childbirth – however knackered and sore I felt physically, for me that remains one of the most powerful feelings in the world. It may well have something to do with a chemical rush of hormones created due to the unavoidable internal imbalance as a newly-made part of your body you’ve been carefully growing and nurturing for nine months is violently expelled in one fell swoop to create a brand new person, but it’s an intensity of feeling I’ve certainly never forgotten ❤

3 The strangely unstoppable feeling of pressure release as warm milk flows unbidden from your body whenever your baby cries, or even when you’re lying soaking in a bath, and obviously as your baby suckles so rhythmically. Regrettably for me long-term breast-feeding was not a success with any of my three children, but I try to comfort myself with the knowledge that at least I tried with each one before I failed.

4 The additional layer of maternal love I felt for each precious grandchild when they were born – seriously, two people who once grew inside of me have grown their own babies from nascent egg-sacs initially created inside of them as they grew inside of me – mind blown!

5 The feeling of achievement I felt on gaining my First Class Honours Bachelor of Arts Degree at the ripe old age of 40 – I’d got married young, pretty much straight out of school, so only returned to my studies in later life once my children had grown up.

6 The thrill of looking out onto a spectacular rumbling thunderstorm with its torrential rain, the electric awe of watching lightning crack and flash across the sky while staying safe and dry and warm indoors.

7 The soothing hypnotic feeling of watching and hearing the soft swoosh of waves wash onto the shore in nature’s own tidal rhyming scheme, accompanied by the salty smell of the bracing sea air filling my lungs.

8 The sated satisfaction of enjoying good food, then feeling replete and relaxed afterwards.

9 The natural intimacy of sharing human touch in all its everyday forms, from handshakes through hugs to sex as appropriate.

10 The fundamental feeling of comfort and well-being found in snuggling down safe and warm in your own bed at night, especially with freshly-laundered sheets… sheer bliss! 🙂

Landmarks on a Childhood Journey

When I was young, we lived in the countryside about 10 miles outside of Inverness, and both sets of grandparents lived within a mile of each other about 10 miles or so outside of Aberdeen, giving a road distance of just over 100 miles between our family and my grandparents. We spent much of our holidays visiting said grandparents, driving there and back in our family car, along the A96 main road between Inverness and Aberdeen.

In those days the main road was neither a straight nor simple smooth line travelling directly from A to B. Instead it was more of a jerky, disjointed join-the-dots journey linking one town to the next always necessitating driving into whatever town, pootling slowly through the main streets then out the other side before speeding on to the next leg of the trip. Unless of course we then got stuck crawling along behind a lorry, or a tractor, or a caravan on the frequently treacherous unovertakable sections of the one-size-fits-all road, which inevitably happened more often than not. One way or another it was never a straightforward steady-speed run through for any of us.

One benefit for us as kids, though, was that this piecemeal place-to-place passage created a bit of interest on the way. Whereas our parents obviously knew the road well and could easily recite the order of the towns and villages we drove through, for my younger brother and I we liked to look out for the specific landmarks we passed and the fond names we gave them. I remember ‘Witches Hat’ being a cone-shaped stone building high on top of a hill – it always sat starkly in the distance, visibly silhoutted on the horizon, and I have absolutely no idea what it was originally, or even of it’s still there to be seen today.

And ‘Pickled Egg’ was a lay-by just outside Keith, about half-way through our journey, where we regularly stopped to eat fish and chips out of paper. Oh, that fish and chip shop in the square in the centre of Keith made such lovely fat fluffy chips, and the memory of the smell of those hot and steaming salt-and-vinegar-soaked paper pakages makes me salivate today even thinking about it. The particular name of ‘Pickled Egg’ came from one trip where my little brother had slept through our usual food stop, only waking up after we’d all eaten and dad was starting up the car engine ready to continue on our way.

Mum unwrapped my brother’s chips for him to eat on the move, but he had been promised a pickled egg with his chips and this was nowhere to be found – and so the tears began. Dad realised he’d probably bundled it up inside the rest of our used paper wrappings without thinking, and had dumped it in the waste bin in the lay-by. So dad promptly reversed back, stopped the car again and walked back over to the waste bin, fishing out our screwed-up chip papers and retrieving my brother’s well-wrapped, none-the-worse-for-wear pickled egg!

Off the top of my head I can’t immediately think of any more landmarks for now, although I know we certainly had plenty of visual milestones along the way to guide us. I haven’t made this journey for many years, but even the last time I drove between Inverness and Aberdeen I found it sadly overly sanitised. With the ‘old’ road substantially unkinked and upgraded to create large swathes of high-speed dual carriageway and with so many familiar towns now by-passed, effectively erased from sight for today’s traveller, the narrow road I remember winding almost nonchalantly through the Scottish countryside had already altered beyond all recognition.

Nowadays it is undoubtedly a shorter, quicker trip, and probably far safer for all concerned but the road trip also feels far less of an exciting adventure than it was in my childhood. And although when I started to write this post I thought it would be easy to recall those visual landmarks of a childhood journey I completed so many times, I find I’m remembering the smells far more readily. The well-worn dark red leather car seats that gave off a particular perfume all of their own when warmed by sweaty little bodies sitting on them, petrol fumes that permeated the back seat, and the aforementioned steamy aroma of mouthwateringly tempting hot food…

Yeah, it’s probably the memory of the fish and chips that did it… 🙂

Fandango’s One Word Challenge: Landmark

Revisiting the Past

Choosing to revisit the past – invoking half-forgotten memories of an unhappy time in my life, long long ago – feels a bit odd, but yesterday it was a choice I made anyway. Part defiance at myself for not usually going there, and part cautious curiosity at testing the waters to see how it feels now, looking back at an old disjointed story from a new perspective.

It all came about quite innocently, quite naturally, as part of an everyday conversation with my husband, who had been chatting earlier with a colleaugue at work. They had been discussing their respective commutes to work – we live an easy 10-minute walk from the supermarket where my husband works. But apparently his colleague has a long daily drive from the back of beyond, and when my husband told me the name I said – oh, I know where that is, I used to live there!

So I opened my laptop and looked it up the area on Google maps, showed my husband just how far his colleague comes to work evey day. And then on impulse I chose street view, clicked onto the actual farm cottage I used to live in, the house we lived in when my youngest daughter was born 35 years ago, and there it was. It felt odd to see it after all this time, but not upsetting.

I was going to write – there it was, just as I remembered it – but the point is I don’t really remember it that much. I had an unhappy first marriage to the father of my three children, and a lot of my memories from that time are buried in a kind of fog of fuzzy forgetfulness. I don’t talk about them not because they are secret, but because I just don’t go there, out of habit.

But yesterday I chose to open that difficult door inside my mind, and it was OK. So using Google maps I showed my husband all the houses I had lived in during that difficult period of my life, four homes in seven years with three young children and a very old-fashioned traditional-style marriage that, in retrospect, had clearly been doomed to failure from the start.

I found I easily pointed out which rooms lay behind each window, exactly where each door opened into, explained which things looked different in each building all those years ago. Memories came back, and surprisingly I handled them without pain, without feeling the need to protect myself from that past any more. What I feel most now is a lingering sadness about it all, and that feels about right…

Stream of Consciousness Saturday: ‘Ch’

Weekly Prompt: Story

A Fomenting Feast of Frustration and Futility

‘The one charm of the past is that it is the past’

Oscar Wilde

Recently I’ve been looking through my old journal-style diaries from the past 20 years, and to be completely honest apart from the occasional important memory of note I’m absolutely mortified at the repetitive patterns of self-absorbed thoughts and feelings skimming the surface that seem to have carried me through life thus far.

Shockingly there is little textual content of any real consequence to remark on, or to recall with even a modicum of pride. Instead I’m like a broken record regurgitating a continuous litany of woes, producing page after page of lamenting in longhand, a multiplicity of myopic miseries droning on and on ad infinitum.

It’s embarrassing to read back over such singular insularity. I mean, I know they’re all my diaries, written exclusively for my eyes only, but even so… I always remember them as being my precious personal space for writing unhindered and unregulated whatever matter of vital importance was on my mind at that moment. Words to guard well for posterity, or so I thought.

So where are all those wise pronouncements and reflective insights I was expecting to see? More to the point where has all this constant wittering on about vacuous bullshit come from? Was I really always so momentously preoccupied with my hairstyle, my clothes, my weight above all else? Was I always so unhappy in my work, wherever I happened to be working at any given time?

I can’t help but cringe at the reality of reading back over such revealing records. It seems that overall on the whole my daily life was neither as good nor as bad as I remember it. And there is a recurring irrelevance to the regular topics I seemed to find so important to focus on time and time again, leaving my everyday normality registering nothing of note on any scale of social significance.

Distressingly it seems in retrospect I’m not actually the kind of deep-and-meaningful person I thought I was at my core, and have in fact in essentials proved myself to be just as shallow and narcissistic as much of the rest of humanity… how depressing! However I suppose there is no point in shedding tears of dismay over the disappointing internal world my historical diaries have divulged.

So the time has come for me to move on from all these embarrassing old wordy memories once and for all. I finally need to lay my past to rest and look ahead to the unwritten future, unencumbered by the rotting entrails of emotional baggage that follow me around like a fomenting feast of frustration and futility, eating away at me. Because ultimately what’s done is done, and thankfully the one charm of the past is that it is the past… 🙂

One-Liner Wednesday

Ecce Romani

For this week’s Stream of Consciousness Saturday post Linda has given us the word ‘cave’ – and if memory serves me right, in Latin-speaking ancient Rome, cave (pronounced cah-vay) meant ‘beware’ – like in caveat emptor – buyer beware! And salve (sal-vay) meant the equivalent of ‘hello’.

I studied really basic Latin at school, an extra class I took for one year only. The text-book series we read was called ‘Ecce Romani’ (which pretty much meant ‘Look, Romans!’) and over time we followed a reasonably well-to-do Roman family through everyday life way back when, effectively increasing our vocabulary along with their dubious exploits as we all went along.

Limited stuff I remember (or perhaps mis-remember) from my beginners Latin class circa mid-1970s (Book 1: Meeting the Family) includes the following useless phrases:

Claudia et Cornelia amicae sunt (Claudia and Cornelia are friends)

Marcus et Sextus in horto ludunt (Marcus and Sextus are playing in the garden)

Canes in fossam olfaciunt (the dogs are sniffing in the ditches)

Oh, and I remember our teacher used to get irritated at us for constantly translating servus as servant, when it should have been ‘slave’…

Yup, told ya, totally useless! 🙂

Fortitude

I don’t really think of myself as someone with fortitude, showing courage in adversity, and yet…

Having so much time on my hands just now, I’m doing something I’ve been thinking about for ages, since long before we moved from London to Inverness at the end of last summer. I’m reading through my old diaries, life journals from the last 20 years. They were still stored neatly in the cardboard box I’ve kept them in forever, because when we were packing to move I couldn’t decide whether or not to keep them for posterity, so they simply came with me as they were.

And here I am, re-reading my thoughts and feelings from two decades ago going forwards, and looking back to the words my younger self wrote so long ago I’m truly surprised at how well I’ve coped with some really stressful situations in my life, considering the particular circumstances I was faced with. I’m always so quick to criticise my past actions, focusing so detrimentally on those things I got wrong, or could have done better. And yet…

I’ve survived. I’m still here. I still have my family. I have two full-to-bursting A4 lever arch files plus 18 individual A4 wire-bound lined notebooks stuffed with words that mattered enough to me at the time to write them down and keep them safe. Reflective words, rambling words, ranting words – happy words, sad words, good words, bad words. So I’m taking my time in looking back, letting the memories awaken, letting them sink in, and then letting them go again with thanks.

Yes I’ve definitely made mistakes, and have definitely made some bad calls over the years, but I’ve also coped far better with other difficult situations than I could ever have imagined. Even the really bad stuff. I’ve achieved a lot more than I remembered, succeeded in the stuff of life way more than I’ve failed. So perhaps I do have more fortitude than I’d thought, perhaps I’m far more resilient than I ever give myself credit for?

On 1st September 2000, I wrote about a quote I’d seen written somewhere a few days previously that had resonated deeply with me – ‘Life is a journey, travel it well’. And although in the intervening years I’d inevitably forgotten all about it, I find it’s an idea that still resonates with me today so have recreated it with the little magnetic letters my grandchildren like playing with whenever they come to visit.

It’s been such a long time since I saw them, and it no doubt will be a while yet before lockdown is lifted and we can all see each other again. So I suppose right now we are all displaying fortitude in truly difficult circumstances, all finding our own way through this pandemic as best we can. Hopefully in the future I can look back on this painful time and think, yes, overall I feel I’ve travelled my life well… 🙂

Fandango’s One Word Challenge: Fortitude

April A-Z: F is for Farraline Park Bus Station

For as long as I can remember, the functional rather than pretty bus station in Inverness has been called Farraline Park, although confusingly the street address for the bus station is actually Margaret Street. The white concrete building to the left is (and always was in my memory) the Rose Street multi-storey car-park, and the old stone building along the back was first built as a school (known as Bell’s Institution) in 1841, with the original school playground area out front now laid out as several bus station stances.

I’d never really thought about it before, but I had absolutely no idea what the name ‘Farraline Park’ actually refers to – so I’ve been searching online and found an old map from 1874 showing the old school building itself and its grounds clearly marked as ‘Farraline Park Institution’ so I guess that’s my answer… I’d normally go to check it out at the local library but as with everything else, the library is closed for the time being and Google is being surprisingly elusive on the subject…

Actually, just before I left school in 1981 I remember the public library being housed in that building for a while before it moved to its current location. And I understand that before housing the library, it was used as a temporary Police Headquarters in the late 1960s and through the 1970s while new premises were being built. No idea of its current use, if any. Hmmm… Definitely some local history to be looked up at a later date though.

And I remember directly below the multi-storey car park (incorprated into the stark grey concrete facade at ground level) was located the old registry office, where at the time all births, marriages and deaths were recorded, including my own children’s births, and also that of my eldest grandson – although by the time my other grandchildren came along, thankfully the registry office had moved to its current, much more pleasant situation along by the river. Not exactly the most romantic place for a civil wedding ceremony, underneath a multi-story car-park and next to the bus station! 🙂

For this year’s A-Z I’m going to take you on a photographic tour of My Inverness, Past and Present. I grew up in the local area, I went to school here and brought up my three children here, but I moved away to London for 18 years before returning home for good at the end of last summer.

P.S. My initial plan for my A-Z posts has necessarily been curtailed somewhat due to the current coronavirus pandemic, but we’ll get through the alphabet one way or another, however creative my use of subjects may have to be – so thank you for visiting Inverness with me, and I hope you enjoy our trip!