Friday, May 31, 2013

The Remains of May

I believe that our ancient and innermost will desires metamorphoses, kaleidoscopic transformations of ever-shifting beauty. Such, I found today.

As a child in England, the end of May in our village was celebrated with a yearly ritual; an old-fashioned fete which involved simple delights such as old-fashioned games, picnic fare, music and a May Pole Dance. The high point of the event was always the May Pole Dance.

I remember it as a shining moment of ease and freedom as children danced, and then slowly, tentatively, the adults joined them. The ribbon bedecked pole became a symbol of shared communal joy.

There is always a continued need for rites of renewal, ceremonies of innocence and awareness, for celebrations of the spirit. I think we owe it to our children and grandchildren to create a space around them that recognises this truth.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Poor Little Lamb

Fifty-one years ago today, I was a bridesmaid at my uncle's wedding. I was five years old, and thrilled, nervous and somewhat baffled (what exactly was a wedding?).

The wedding took place at the imposing Roman Catholic Westminster Cathedral in London (not to be confused with Westminster Abbey). The first time I saw this commanding 1895 Neo-Byzantine structure, I was awed by its magnificence. Inside, the holy scent and hush filled my bones with what can only be described as reverence. I felt a communion with a mystery I didn’t understand, but nevertheless absorbed as a benediction of something sacred. No one had to tell me to be quiet as we practised for the ceremony. The desire to be so, breathed itself to me, without communication.

I was to walk down the aisle side-by-side with the bride’s young niece, Amelia, who was seven years old, and thus, in my eyes, a world of knowledge, older. We were to be attended from behind by my cousin, Christopher, a few months older than me, and at the time, my best friend. Both he and the groom were to wear traditional Scotch kilts and accessories, as a salute to our Scottish ancestry and last name.   

The afternoon of the wedding found the three of us sitting importantly in a row of velvet chairs in the lobby of a London hotel, waiting for the big, black car which was to take us to the cathedral. Dressed in a long cream silk dress with a gold sash, be-ribboned satin shoes, a wreath of yellow and white roses in my hair, a small gold silk drawstring bag looped around my wrist, I felt like a princess. My nervous excitement built.

Earlier there had been tears when Amelia realized that her brand new white silk panties with lace trim, bought especially for the occasion, had been inadvertently left at home. That crisis dealt with, a small new one occurred when Christopher was scolded for playing with his sporran, and then smacked for fiddling with the tartan kilt flashes designed to keep the socks up, which he claimed were itchy.  Now a storm threatened. I literally felt unable to move, paralytic with fear. Tears flowed down my cheeks. Threats and bribes in equal measure, nothing could cajole me.

Then, suddenly a gorgeous vision in white appeared on her knees before me; the bride, my soon-to-be, Auntie Prue. “Poor little lamb”, she said. She kissed my tear-soaked face between her hands, and then wiped them away with her very own hanky. I can still remember clearly the perfume scent rising from that fine white linen, the lace of her veil brushing against my dress, the softness of her hands and voice. The gentleness of that "poor little lamb", a term I had never heard before, stuck me and I was infinitely comforted. The awful feeling clutching my insides started to abate. Clinging to her hand, I allowed myself to be escorted outside.

Nothing more untoward happened and the wedding and reception proceeded in all its traditional pomp and circumstance. I mostly remember it as a whirl of gold and white; the church bathed in candlelight, whispery white silk, golden strains of music, starched white snowy tablecloths, fragments of crisp white royal icing melting in my mouth.

Half a century later, grace and kindness still defines my Auntie Prue.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Smoothing the Way

Theme Thursday - Smooth

I can't think about the word smooth, without reflecting on the action of smoothing; soothing, gentling, quieting. For me, there is one person who epitomizes that action in my life, and that is my mother.

Nearly eighty, my mother has a dainty, special way of doing things. She sprinkles lavender on the sheets as she makes the beds, smoothing them over and over until not a wrinkle mars the pristine snowy whiteness. She always sets the table with her own gracious knack for beauty whether it be for a splendid Christmas dinner or a simple snack. She takes scissors and a basket and goes outside to gather flowers; snipping each gently in a glorious mix of domestic and wild. She squeezes lemon oil onto an a piece of old cloth and rubs down the furniture until it gleams. She pegs as much of her laundry as she can to the clothesline. She is small, dwarfed by the mountains and the summer sky, her hands lovely and meditative as she expertly applies each garment to the line. Her fingers move fluidly, like music.

Even her most ordinary actions reflect the smooth, fastidious beauty of her soul; the whiteness of her linen, the garland of parsley with which she wreathes the pink slices of ham, her perfectly scripted lists of tasks to be completed, the single rose placed at each person’s place-setting, her hands tenderly cleaning the collection of crystal snowflakes hanging from the mantelpiece. She exudes a living prayer; a purity and sweetness about her things, her person, her life. She is one of those who can hear the singing of the seas in a shell.

The above photograph, which I have always loved, was taken on her 19th birthday. Her gown was a rich, smooth olive green satin. She exudes loveliness from every pore of her body. Her creamy, flawless skin had the texture of silk. My mother still carries herself with the same regal elegance, and her skin is just as luminous. Her eyes, still beautiful, are more sentient now. They contain the joy of her almost eighty years of living, but her pain and grief also. She has at times dwelled in Gethsemane, a place of passion, where the agony of love and death come together.

All my life, her soft hands have smoothed my journey. They have tended my bumps and bruises, soothed the tears from my face, stroked my hair, cooked and baked my favourite foods, written notes of love and encouragement, sewed me dresses, turned the pages of the many stories and poems she read to me, tenderly rocked my babies and grandbabies.  My mother has reassured me when I have been anxious and fearful, cried with me during times of sadness, laughed with me during times of joy. She has loved me during my worst moments, and during my finest. Without her smoothing presence, the pathway would have been unbearable at times. Through the medium of her human love, it is she who first taught me the power of God's love.

I know that each moment I have left with her is infinitely precious. My fear of losing her rises up and chokes me. I ache with unbearable sorrow at just the thought of it. It is my fervent desire, hope and prayer to caress, ease and smooth the last years of her life's sojourn, just as she has always smoothed the way for me.

Saturday, May 11, 2013


During the packing and unpacking process, I have been spending a lot of time looking at old photo albums and boxes filled with pictures. Some contain the ghost faces of people whose name I will never know. The known and unknown alike, speak to me. Their blood flows beneath my skin in a transmission from the past. Not just my blood, but in the bone memories of stories which have remarkably somehow led up to this very moment.

When I find an unknown among the treasures of the past, I always wonder about the life its image holds and the connection to the person who kept it. I want to know their story, to speak their name, to seek out their place in history.

Amongst my twin great-aunts’ old pictures, sent to me after they died three weeks apart last summer at the age of ninety-five, is the above photo of an infant dressed in a lovely white scalloped-edged gown. The back of it contains only the words, “Our darling Freddie”. No date. No location. No last name. Just little Freddie in his baby beauty, obviously much loved and cared for. If you look carefully at the top of his little head, it even appears that an attempt was made to part his sparse hair straight down the middle in the male fashion of the time. I’m guessing it was taken somewhere around the end of the nineteenth or the very beginning of the twentieth century. There is no Frederick, Fred or Freddie in my maternal family ancestry that anyone can recall.

I can see a wee spark of future mischief in little Freddie’s eyes, a glimmer of humour in his expression. Where did he play, I wonder? Who did he grow up to become? I hope he did grow up and is not one of the countless little ones slumbering in an old graveyard somewhere.

We all have favourite photographs of our children. I would like to share a couple of mine here now in memory of the unknown Freddie who may or may not be related to me, and as a tribute to childhood everywhere.

My oldest son Nicholas, who will be thirty-four in August, was the kind of little boy whose pockets contained fragments of his love for the outdoors ... small rocks, shells, little pieces of wood, a bird's feather ... collected by his own hands, scoured for uniqueness, pocketed for remembrance. Many times during dinner, he'd eat with his small treasures laid out in a ring around the edge of his placemat. Their possession gave him a wonderful sense of satisfaction. Always a keen observer of natural life, there came a day at aged six when he showed his twenty-two month old brother, Joshua, how to blow a dandelion clock. I was fortunate to capture that shining moment on camera.

My other favourite photo is of my daughter Sarah-Beth, now aged twenty-seven. She was nine years old and we were on holiday on Vancouver Island at the time. I saw her standing facing the ocean as the waves surged and kissed the shore below. She had both arms raised and a feather clasped in one hand and was using it like a baton conducting an orchestra. I captured her in that blissful moment; a little girl poised in beauty composing her own symphony of the sea.

All these photographs speak of those things which form our roots and sense of belonging. I want to nurture the connections, find the stories, and weave them into that place in my soul which honours kinship.

(This is a Sepia Saturday post.)