my mother was the youngest of six daughters. born on a farm in Retty, between Banff and Portsoy, to Peter Munro Stewart and Eliza Massey, my maternal grandparents. they worked land on the farm. when the seasons changed and all hands were required on deck, my grandmother would join in. life was simple, but bringing up 6 daughters and an adopted son was not always easy. food was plentiful, often sourced by gaff or gun.
my mother, now in her eighties, grows misty eyed when talking of her childhood. these are not cataracts, these are tears. bittersweet tears. tears of longing – perhaps longing for that lost youth and innocence. tears of joy – in the remembering of days gone by. tears of yearning – yearning for the company of those no longer with us. she talks about her childhood. one early childhood memory is in the forefront of her mind: a memory of running across the cornfield to meet father coming home from working the land. he would scoop her up in his arms and lift her up on his broad shoulders for a ‘cockitty-hooey’ or he would plonk her astride the enormous shoulders of one of his trusty Clydesdale horses. the ‘giant horses’ as my mother used to call them. she smiles as she speaks of the various farming cottages and houses she grew up in, as her father’s search for work made nomads of the Stewart family. since fighting for King and country in WW1, he was never out of work.
my grandfather loved to wander through the Scottish countryside, playing his bagpipes. my mother talks fondly of how she would often follow behind- skipping through the glen, or through a pine-scented forest, dancing to his wistful and often haunting music.
other early childhood memories flood her eyes as she remembers being stung by a bee. “my thumb was all swollen up like a lollipop” she reflects. she tells me of a home-made swing on a cherry tree and i envy that; and again, she speaks of the ‘giant horses’. my grandfather’s Clydesdale horses – their height, their heavy gait, the sound of their heavy hairy hooves and their gentle nature. again, i envy that.
she speaks of how her older sisters joined the Womens’ Air Force and headed off to assist the war effort. she tells me that she secretly admired them, envied them, of how they looked in their uniform.
at very tender age of 14, my mother left home to return to Retty Farm, to go work at the big farmhouse (where she and two of her sisters were born). she was returning home, in a sense. she was 14 – a mere child. she remembers her ‘boss’: the gentleman farmer and his plump English wife. how he requested 2 hard-boiled eggs every morning. they had two daughters, who were to be addressed by their titles. Miss Edith was a doctor and Miss Gail stayed at home. The daughters were in their thirties. they seemed old and stuffy to my young, ever-curious 14 year old mother.
at 15, my mother’s mental health took a down turn. it continued to deteriorate and at 16 she was admitted to Ladysbridge Mental Asylum where she was detained for 6 weeks and given electric shock therapy. this terrifiying treatment was administered twice “for her nerves”.
she remembers the jolt, with tears and fear in her eyes. the pain. the fear. such a frightening experience. my mother’s face pales, as she remembers this period in her life. “i remember lying in my bed, in the ward, hearing other patients wailing” she whispers. “i was terrified. but i seem to remember one of the nurses stroking my hand”. she was 16. no more than a child.
today, electric shock therapy is still administered to patients, but under anaesthetic. my mother had no anaesthetic. i cry as i think of her, a teenager, alone in a mental hospital and strapped to a bed; a piece of wood in her mouth to bite down on to prevent her biting off her own tongue as the electric current surged through her body – racking her momentarily senseless. having studied psychology myself, i am firmly opposed to this treatment. there is a divided camp of scholars with regards to whether or not this treatment is effective. to me, it is barbaric and futile. i think of my mother, a 16 year old woman-child, who would have benefitted more from talking and counselling. not this. “but that’s what they did back then, Kathryn…” she says, biting back tears.
at 17, she moved to Aberdeen, to (ironically) work for consulting psychiatrist Mr Bell- the psychiatrist who treated her at Ladysbridge. “he and his wife were affa snobby” she remembers. “i can still picture his stern, unsmiling face as i polished his shoes”.
living alone in the cold Granite City, during the WW2 at the age of 17, was a tumultuous time. Mr Bell and his family lived in a 3-storey townhouse on Rubislaw Terrace, Aberdeen. Old Mrs Bell, Dr Bell’s mother-in-law, lived with them on the top floor. She remembers her maid’s uniform. she recalls one memory of answering the door of their mansion to a nun who immediately remarked “what a lovely complexion!… that didn’t come out of a box!”… “my hair was cut in a pageboy… you know… curled under… i would only wear a little bitty lipstick” she says, smiling, as she reflects. she tells me of the pains of being homesick. on nights off she would just sit in her room and listen to her wireless, or she would sit and talk with the cook from Banchory. she remembers the cook asking “oh my Dear, how ever are you going to be able to work with those small hands!?”. i watch my mother – staring into middle distance, stroking her lip, shaking her head in disbelief at how quick the years have passed: “she was a fine wifie” my mother says softly. her voice tails off into a heavy silence.
she then snaps from her day-dream and tells me about her friend, Evelyn Wilson, and how they went ice-skating one night a week. until the ice-rink was bombed. “i remember going home on leave and never returning… i was miserable. and i promised to myself, if i ever had daughters of my own that they would never grow up to be skivvies… or servants to the rich and pompous.”
she tells me all about her family moving to Baldavie and how she would board ‘Johnny’s green bus’ to work in Macduff every day. “i kept house for Mr Yorston, a dentist… i had to call Mr and Mrs Yorston ‘Sir’ and ‘Madam’.”
she tells me of her harsh discovery of boys. how cossetted and naive she was, on reflection. and how, at 19, she fell pregnant.
on December 8th, she gave birth to a beautiful little boy and called him James. she stayed at home, with my grandparents, bringing up the little boy. there was so much love in the Stewart household and among friends and extended family. there was no shame, no predjudice against this young unmarried girl with a baby. thankfully because people could be cruel.
“my best friend,Betty, was tall, thin and angular – almost boyish in her walk and the way she held herself. she was a bit of a tomboy, but she loved to dance…” she remembers, fondly.
i ask my mother to tell me all about those dancehall days. “oh it wasna onything fancy…! we would put on our bonnie frocks and a bit o’ lipstick and together we would go to the local dance hall.”
the local dances were held in a village hall in Whitehills. a band played ceilidh music. people would gather, sipping soda or bottled beer, and listen to the music.
“everyone just stood about,waiting to be asked to dance…” she said. i watch as she skips across the living room floor, in the waltz of a memory.
she speaks in earnest about those dancehall days and the boys. one boy in particular. a boy called Ernest. “Ernest was a boy that used to go to the dances. he was a sweet naive boy who would meet me at the garages… i was naive too…” she laughs. “i thought that that was the thing to do… to have a boyfriend.” she laughs some more. her eyes twinkle and her nose crinkles as she told me of one particular night. “we held hands and walked in the countryside… we went for iced tea… he tried to kiss me but it was disgusting!” she can barely tell me the rest of the story for laughing. i get caught up in the story and demand she tells me more. but she is helpless with laughter. “ooooh Kathryn!” she howls. “he hidna ony bottom teeth!”. my mother refused to see him again.
at 20, she fell in love with a tall, fair-haired boy called ‘Sonny’. he was the cousin of her best friend, Betty.
one night, much later, at the village hall dance, mother (wearing her “bonniest frock” and who had just won a hand-picked local beauty contest) was asked to dance by Sonny. “i remember the song playing… “I’ll be your sweetheart, if you will be mine. All of the time, I’ll be your valentine… bluebells are blooming keep them and be true… when i’m a man, my plan, will be to marry you” and we danced… i coulda danced a’ night with Sonny. he wis so good-lookin’!” she says, fondly, as tears build in her eyes. and mine. i feel for her. he was the love her young life.
however they never did marry, but my mother found herself pregnant with Sonny’s child. at the age of 22 she gave birth to Alison. my sister. sadly, Sonny did not want to know. my mother remembers, vehemently as though it were yesterday, of how he drove past her – as she stood at the side of the road in the rain, with a little toddler and a baby in a pram. he drove past in a sports car, and a blond dame in the passenger seat. my mother’s heart was broken. again.
a year later, my mother found a new job. she would get the bus up and down to Gamrie/Gardenstoun to work for Mr & Mrs McDonald, who owned a chip shop. They were good people. their daughter, Catheline, was a beautiful young girl. my mother quickly became really good friends with Catheline, despite the age difference. their youngest son, William, was to be someone who would impact on my mother’s life. but he was mysterious, and my mother was shy. he would play guitar. he smoked cigarettes and kept the packet tucked up on the folds of his rolled up shirt sleeves. he looked like Jimmy Dean. he was a taxi driver. my shy mother would watch him walk up the street, peeking at him through the window. he was “oh-so good-looking”. my mother fell for him.
they fell in love and decided to marry.
on May 12th, they married at Gardenstoun Church. my mother wore a pale, pale blue dress, little white pumps on her feet (“slight wedges” she adds) and a sweet little veil. “i remember my bouquet was a massive spread of lillies”. Catheline was my mother’s bridesmaid. she was 14.
after their marriage, they lived with his parents initially. his mother and my mother got on really well. “your Granny had a wonderful sense of humour and fun” she tells me, smiling an impish grin. “i remember one time, when we were spring cleaning, she threw their feather bed down to bottom of stairs, to take outside to air… i decided to leap down fae the top o’ the stairs onto it… of course, i bumped her head on way – nearly knocking myself oot!” she giggles, like a teenager. “well! your Granny laughed ‘n’ laughed!” she tells me. “we laughed til we were sair wi’ laughin’…. your Granny says, and i aye mind this… “Cathie, supposin’ you’d near killed yersel – i’d hiv still laught!” she said, tears rolling down her cheeks.”
my Granny was, indeed, a fun and loving person. i don’t remember much of her, as she died when i was 4. i do remember attending her funeral, sitting next to my father on a hard wooden pew and watching a tear roll down his cheek. my mother remembers me saying “my granny went to heaven in a box!”. oh my. i guess i was always meant to be a source of comfort to my grieving parents.
a year of marriage and my mother fell pregant. William was born on December 12th. he was the first born to my father. my parents stayed with the inlaws for a little while, and then moved.
my father got a job on a farm. it was a difficult time. the pay was not good. they could not initially afford to take both children with them. Alison was left with my maternal grandparents, whom she loved dearly. James came with my mum and dad and baby William to their new home. Alison remained at my maternal grandparents care. my mother was torn. choosing which child you can afford to nurture and rear is not a decision that a parent wants to ever consider, let alone have to make. but her hands were tied. money was tight.
my father worked hard, and saved. eventually my mum and dad and the children moved to Couper Angus area, where my father took a job in a farm. the money was better, and it finally meant that Alison could come to live with the rest of the family. “oh i missed her so much, Kathryn… you hiv nae idea!” she said, crying, as she told me of many a night when she would cry herself to sleep, the pain of missing her daughter gnawing at her. “the pain was just too much and i sent for Alison to come bide wi’ us”. Alison eventually came to live with them. but she would cry in the night – missing her grandparents. however, she soon grew to love her new home and being back with her brothers. my father adopted James and Alison. he loved them both dearly and made no difference between these two children and his own flesh and blood, WIlliam.
a couple of years later, my mother fell pregnant again. she was aged 31 when she gave birth to my brother Stewart on August 13th. my mother remembers the midwife saying “oh my! what a bonnie wee boy… and what long toes he has!”.
i ask my mother what life was like, for children growing up in the countryside, in hardship. she says “och.. i remember them playing outside – in the countryside, on bikes, making swings… i remember one time Stewart coming back home after playing near the churchyard saying “the minister was playing ‘Venus in Blue Jeans’ on church organ…” she smiles fondly, with misty eyes as she remembers those days. those happy days. at the age of 15, James left to join the RAF and headed down to England for his training. the family missed him dearly. but it was a new chapter in his life, an exciting time for him. he would be traveling the world to exotic places that his brothers and sister only saw in encyclopedia.
it was a post-war Scotland. she often worked the land with my father… hoeing turnips, picking berries. she then, in her unending love for children, took to fostering children. “one day Stewart asked me “mommy – why do all our babies have to go away?”… he was 7 years old. after that we stopped fostering.”
a few years on, my brother James was stationed in Germany. he was 21. my sister, Alison, was working in Montrose as a dental mechanic. William was 17 and had just started a new job as an apprentice carpenter. Stewart was 10 years old. my mother’s news broke. she was pregnant.
she was in her forties. my eldest brother said “still in shock, Mum… i’m still looking for my eyebrows in my hair!”.
“everyone hoped it would be a little girl. we all put names in a hat and would pull them out. immediately each name was rejected… Kirsty, Flora, Michelle, Caroline…”
William always referred to my mother’s bump as ‘Little Kathy’ – he would affectionately pat my mother’s bump and say ‘how’s Little Kathy today?’ with so much love and anticipation in his heart…
one day my mother and father would go into town to buy a pram for me. my mother quizzed my brother, William, “maybe you don’t want to come?”
“don’t be silly” he said. “i’m proud of you, Mam”
they bought the pram. a beautiful dark blue carriage-sprung Silver Cross pram. it was expensive.
William bought a silver baby bangle, with the words ‘Little Kathy’ engraved in it… he had saved up hard for this gift. a gift for the new baby – he was so sure it was to be a baby girl….
he seemed to know he was going to get a baby sister… devastatingly, he did not live to meet me.
10 weeks before i was born, a tragedy ripped my family apart – leaving a gaping hole in their lives. one that would leave the family torn apart by fate. a fate so cruel.
my brother, William, was to pass away – only 10 weeks before i was born. a cerebral haemonrrage… a brain injury so severe, with no known cure at this time. no remedy – no life.
my mother recalls the night before: “he was playing his guitar, singing “Massachusetts” by the Bee Gees… i recalls him walking down the hallway towards the living room, his eyes full of fire and his voice full of passion and song… singing that song… his eyes made direct contact with mine… ” she reflects… her heart breaking. “he was singing that song… looking right at me… i shall never forget that moment… it was the last time i saw him “alive” and so full of life and so happy….. and to this day, i cannot bear to hear that song”
i take a deep breath. i know the next chapter in my mother’s life is not going to be an easy one for her to relay, or for me to hear. but, hear it, i must.
“i remember the day William died… he was 18 years old.” she begins, talking slowly and softly.
“i was sitting, having lunch with your Dad and i remember seeing a car draw up outside… “oh it’s William’s boss! i wonder what he wants” i thought… i can still see him. his boss helping him out the car… “i wonder what he’s doing home….” i thought. i can still see him. William, his hands clutching his head… he looked so unwell. so pale… i remember too thinking about how i had just asked him this morning “what would you like for lunch?”
“just an apple…” he replied, smiling. “he had the most beautiful smile.”
“i remember his boss saying “the Dr is coming out to him….”
“i remember we helped him to his bed. he looked so pale, Kathryn. he was holding his head in his hands… my heart was sore.” she says, her voice dimishing to a near whisper. and i can tell she is having problems speaking now, i can almost see the lump in her throat and, sweet Jesus, i can almost feel it. the moment seems so real. like i am watching a film.
“we helped him to bed. the Dr came almost immediately.”
“have you taken anything, Willliam?” the Doctor asked.
“yeah… two anadins…” he said, breathless.
“okay William” the Doctor said.
my mother then told me that Stewart, our brother (aged 10) went back to school, Inverkeillor Primary School.
my mother’s eyes brim with tears as she tells me how my Dad had taken William to hospital, with a travelling rug over him as an ambulance would have taken longer.
my mother, at this time in a state of blind panic, had cycled to the nearest shop and had told the shop owner that William was not well and that he’d been taken into hospital…
a few hours later, my father returned from hospital. the news was not good.
my father told my mother that William was not going to get any better…
oh my goodness. as i listened to my mother’s voice quake when she said those last eight words…”William was not going to get any better…” i felt a pain… in my chest. a crushing weight upon my chest. i could not see to continue to transcribing her remembrances. tears splashed down on my notepad. i could not contain the pain and i burst into floods of tears. but i begged my mother to continue. i wanted to hear her story. i wanted to know more about my unknown brother and his death – as this was to impact upon my life with such intensity and constance. i needed to know. i needed to try to feel a certain empathy. i needed my mother to expose the rawness of a mother’s grief to me. i needed to know about my father’s pain. and the depths of this pain. a parent should not have to bury a child. i needed to know. i wanted to experience it; how they felt… my parents, my siblings… as i was yet unborn. i needed to know why much of my childhood was spent visiting a grave. and so my mother continued, both of us sobbing, in tears.
my mother then went to hospital, with my father, to see William.
“there were wires coming in and out of his body… his lifeless body… he looked so pale. he was on a life-support machine… the machine bleeped… each breath.” my mother said she was scared to touch him incase she made him more ill…. “i looked at him. he was deathly pale, lifeless, still… ” i closed my eyes and envisaged a mother sat by her child… scared to touch him – for fear she would move wires and make him more ill…. i cannot imagine the pain.
my mother recalls that moment: “i remember looking at him… those wires… but he seemed calm… “i think he’s looking better. eh? “i said to the nurse… my eyes full of hope, beseeching some kind of miracle… the nurse had tears in her eyes “yes… maybe..”she said. clearly placating me….”
“the next thing i remember was the Doctor saying to me “there is nothing more we can do…”
i remember falling to my knees and begging with the Doctor “but you’re a Doctor.. you must make him better…” i remember sobbing so hard, and feeling sick… this could not be happening. this must be a dream…..” my mother tells me, as i hold her hand.
“you have a new baby to think about” the Doctor said…. i remember his eyes full of tears and the hem of his white coat was frayed… ”
“i was given a bed to lie on.. i was in shock… afraid of losing my baby… i remember lying there… with the big baby bump, crying sorely…. i remember begging of the Doctor…”but you are a Doctor… you have to help him get better….” i said, sobbing. i had never experienced such pain. i kept hoping “oh this is a dream. this must be a dream. i am going to wake up soon and everything will be alright…” but it wasn’t a dream, Kathryn.”
“i remember Dad took me home. your Daddy was in tears. inconsolable. the pain was so deep – tragic. it was terrible… i remember thinking “this cannot be happening….”
“i had a baby on the way. i was not permitted to stay at the hospital. your Daddy had to return to the hospital to give permission to turn off the machine…”
my father returned from the hospital, a deathly shade of pale… clearly pained. his heart was broken… he was devastated. he had just turned off the power. he had just switched off the life-support for his first born. his first son. dead. he felt hollow. no words could describe how much pain he felt…the whole family was aching…
my mother told me that Stewart, now 11, was crying. sobbing. a sound so sore that words cannot convey. he shared a room with William. they were the best of friends, as well as brothers; William had taught my brother Stewart how to swim, how to play guitar… now he would never see his brother again. “i remember him looking at me, with the biggest, bluest eyes – full of tears, full of longing and love… his wee facey was pale… i remember sleeping with him that night… but your poor father…. jesus, i wish i could have done more for him…”
“oh my William” … i remember going into the bathroom. locking myself in there. and whispering to myself “oh William… it’s not true… it can’t be true….”
“i remember holding Stewart close that night… i remember telling everyone and my own mother saying “it should have been me…” “it should’ve been me….” my own mother and father were devastated. as were my whole family….”
“Alison came home from work that day. i remember telling her. her eyes…. i will never forget. there are no words to describe… William and Alison, not only brother and sister… but good friends…. she was sobbing so hard, i felt sick listening to his sister’s cries…. her heart was breaking”
“James was stationed in Germany. we telegraphed him. he would be coming home. his family needed him. he was, only, 21.”
he was only 21 – and his heart was broken.
my mother’s sister, Chrissy, came over immediately. she, like the rest of my family, were devastated. words cannot fully describe the pain and emptiness left… the frustrations from the lack of skill of the doctors and the irrevocable feeling of helplessness.
the next day, my brother, Stewart was sat -throwing a ball against the wall…. my aunt Chrissy (my mother’s closest sister) saw my brother in his solititude, and said “what are you doing, dearie…?”
“i don’t know….” my brother, Stewart, said… he had not only lost his brotehr, he had lost his best friend also…. he was 11 and was now sobbing, inconsolably.
a gaping hole had been left in our family in less than 23 hours.
“your father and James attended William’s funeral. i wasn’t allowed to go…. to be honest, i’d have thrown myself into his grave if i’d gone…”
“the first time i visited his grave, i was beside myself with grief. my body ached, my heart was heavy and sore and i could not stop crying. i cried for days”
the intensity of this part of her story left me feeling bereft. bereft for the brother i never knew. bereft for the friend i never knew. and partly bereft for the childhood days i missed, by going to visit a grave. i now know why we visited the grave with such frequency. i now know why my mother is the way she is, over-protective.
“you shouldn’t have to bury your children…” my mother says, breaking the silence.
“you look like him, you know…” she says.
by this time, my family had moved to Fife. my father had taken a job at Eastwoods – a chicken farm. the money was good and it felt right.
every Sunday, my father would take my mother out for a run in the car… out to the countryside where she could reconnect with nature.
i was born 13th April.
my mother cried so sore when i was born. the midwife said “oh my goodess… what beautiful baby girl!!” my mother cried… her body racking in the pain of both loss and rejoice.
“were you not wanting a girl?” the midwife asked, on seeing my mother’s tears….
“oh god yes…. ”
my mother told the midwife of her loss and pain…
“oh maybe he’ll have seen her first..” the midwife said, hugging my mother.
“i took comfort in those words…” she said.
“now… i’m going to make us a coffee… ” she said, bravely, as she rises to her feet and totters through to the kitchen.
i take a deep breath. the deepest.
writing this has not been easy. talking to my mother about all this has not been easy… talking to my mother about William and his death in such depth has not been easy. it has been the hardest thing.
“even now. the hardest thing is the pain. it still gnaws at my heart, Kathryn…. i talk to his photograph and stroke his hair – longingly… and i often kiss his cheek and hold his photograph to my heart… i still do that. i still yearn for him, like it was yesterday… but you…” she says, turning to me
“you played a big part in helping to heal with all our broken hearts…. you are an angel.”
(c) Kat McDonald 2014
for my brothers and my sister. i love you all…
for William. my lost brother. i never had the chance to know you, sadly, but i know you walk with me…
for my mother. you are the bravest woman i know. i love you with all that i am.