Not just another winter’s tale

He was born on the winter solstice in Edinburgh in 1926. He died on Christmas Day in 1992, on the warm tip of Africa. A lovely, gentle, talented, troubled, kind soul he was. He was my father-in-law and this is his story.

As life and breath poured into his infant body on that cold and wintry December night in Edinburgh, so life and breath drained from his mother’s. She breathed her last and died that day. Life and loss. His young father was stricken with an overwhelming grief that veiled his joy at this brand new life.

My father-in-law was adopted by a family whose name we now bear. They lived on the island of North Uist in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. This new family ran a hotel and my father-in-law spent his days living the life of a young, country lad: fishing and hunting and finding the best that the beautiful, bleak, cold island could offer. His days were underlined with sadness and a constant wondering about his father on the mainland. He knew who he was, he knew where he lived and he so longed to meet him.

As a young man he met and fell in love with a beautiful young woman from the mainland. They married and lived on the island, going over to the mainland for the birth of their first son. With the hope and promise of seeking their fortune in Africa, the three of them chose to join her brothers in Zimbabwe (southern Rhodesia as it was known then). He travelled ahead of his wife and son and, before he left, went to Edinburgh to meet his real father. He wondered nervously whether or not his father would welcome him. His fear of rejection turned him round again and off he went to begin a new life in Africa.

Son number two (my husband) was born in Zimbabwe, and the family enjoyed living in the warm, friendly heart of southern Africa. My father-in-law was a talented musician – a self-taught pianist and accordion player – and he played in a Scottish band. He would lose himself in his music, and played the piano with a gentleness of touch that kept me riveted. I often wondered where the music took him as I watched him play. When he died, I inherited his piano. Such a gift it was; such a gift.

He loved his sons and watched, with pride, as they grew into young men and created lives of their own. His daughters-in-law became part of his family, and he loved us with a gentle passion that I will never forget. His heart beamed as his grandchildren started to appear, and each of them loved their “Pops”, with his ready laughter and unconditional love and pride.

One day, when he was almost 60, he received a letter out of the blue. It opened with, “You don’t know me, but we’ve known about you all our lives…”

The writer of the letter told him his father – who was also her father – had been 23 years old when he was widowed. He had married again and had had some children, but she didn’t elaborate. She wrote of her father’s longing to meet him, but how, for fear of rejection, that had never happened. She told him his father had died in 1976. Oh the sorrow that both men had felt the same way, and their perceived fears had kept them from meeting each other.

The writer concluded her letter by saying she’d send him more detail of the family if he so wished. She added, however, that if the communication had made him uncomfortable, she would not continue and would, with respect, leave it at that.

He was amazed. My father-in-law wrote back immediately and asked to know more. He soon got a letter with details of his family tree. It turned out that at the time of his birth, and his mother’s death, he had an older sister. She was three years older than he was, and was raised in Edinburgh by a grandmother (we have yet to discover which grandmother this was). His father then remarried and had seven daughters and two sons. She shared some detail of the siblings, their names and where they lived.

The correspondence continued for a while. It wasn’t long before my father-in-law decided to travel back to Edinburgh to meet his new family. A brother travelled across from Canada to meet him. Most of the other siblings lived in or around Edinburgh. Great excitement, anticipation and a huge nervousness accompanied him on his journey.

He spent a number of days with his new-found family of half-siblings, and met his full sister too. This is the part that always gives me goose bumps: the siblings he met all said, without exception, that having him around was like having their dad back in the house. He had the same mannerisms as his father’s, he coughed like he did, he walked like he walked and he talked like he did. If that isn’t one for nature versus nurture, then I don’t know what is.

He returned to Zimbabwe with tales of his new-found family. A man of few words, he had plenty to say about his family and father and the joy of blood ties. It seemed to fill something of a hole in his heart.

Not long after that, he became ill with emphysema and struggled with ill-health for the rest of his life. He and my mother-in-law moved to Cape Town soon after we did, and enjoyed their retirement in the city nestling beneath the beauty of Table Mountain. Our boys have vague memories of their Pops, as they were both very small when he died. My older son, who was three when Pops died, told me Pops had gone to heaven and had been given a brand new body. I loved that thought.

So there it was that we celebrated Christmas in the warm sunshine of a Cape Town day in 1992. And as we celebrated the birth of the Saviour who breathed his first on that day so many many years ago, my father-in-law took his last, painful breath and we mourned. Joy and grief. So much joy and grief.

Sunshine signing off for today.

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56 thoughts on “Not just another winter’s tale

  1. Sunshine, what a gorgeous and bitter-sweet post. So beautifully written. I’ve got to be honest, you made me spill tears all over my hot cocoa with this one.

    First, I’m so sorry for your loss. It’s clear how well-loved and important your father-in-law was and still is to you. To lose someone so dear is hard any time of year, but perhaps even more so inside the joy of the holiday season. My mother lost my grandfather on Christmas Eve 30 years ago, and all these years later, she still mourns for him through Christmas mass.

    As an adopted kid myself, I understand your father-in-law’s curiosity about the family in his bloodline. Even if you’re raised happily and well loved by your new family, there’s still a part of you that has to confront the idea of not being wanted–for whatever reason–by the people who were supposed to love you most. I think that point-of-view urges us treasure what we have, and it makes relationships just that much more important. But that initial rejection is still part of the fabric of who you are, no matter how diligently you try to shake it off. What a blessing your father-in-law found the courage to meet his siblings–I’m sure that gave him some of the peace he was looking for.

    1. Oh, Maura – thank you and sorry for the tears. I must confess to crying all over my keyboard as I wrote this, and then again when I read your comment.
      Thank you for what you shared of your own thoughts and insights; your openness and candour always inspire me. I didn’t know that you were adopted, but what I do know is how much you adore your mom and dad. That shines like a beacon in your writing and it warms my heart xx

  2. What a touching post–a bitter-sweet memorial! I am very moved, very moved Thank you so much for sharing this! And Merry Christmas to you, your husband, and sons–peace and blessings to you this Holiday Season–
    Kathy

  3. What a wonderful story, Sunshine! It sounds like your “Pops” was well-loved by all…I’m glad he had a chance to meet some of his birth family!

    Wishing you a wonderful holiday in London!

    Hugs,
    Wendy

  4. I love how you weave your stories Sunshine. Binding past and present together in such a unique way. Your father in law sounds very special. I’m happy for him that he had the chance to meet some of his extended family and hear more of his father. I can tell that you feel blessed to have been part of his life and his life part of yours. Jeanne

  5. Such an amazing story! Loosing a loved one around Christmas is always hard. I lost my grandmother (also Scottish) on the 23rd of Dec. Mr Beadz lost his Dad on Christmas Eve.

      1. 😦 wish it was cold here. It’s supposed to cool down radically on Christmas day. Hope so otherwise the aircon will be on freeze with a roaring fire and socks. Lotsa love to you both from us xx

  6. Well told, Sunshine, you’ve given the man dignity without getting over sentimental. A wonderful story.
    I shall take a wee dram on Pops, and the rest of you, this Christmas.

  7. tears and smiling…what a lovely tribute to a gentle, loving man…
    thank you for sharing…
    I was going to say that I wish I had known him…
    but I feel like I do.
    blessings
    jane

  8. That was stunning! I am sure everyon ehas their own memories flowing as they read through your post. I thought of my grand parents, and then i thought of how absolutely awesome it must be to join our saviour. Finally. I am ready and excited for when He is ready and excited!!! In teh mean time, let’s find our purpose.
    Have a beautiful Christmas!!!
    xx
    http://husbands4hire.wordpress.com

  9. How you brought this story to life…thanks for sharing. I will think of you, and Pops, and the extended family he was blessed to have known. I also got shivers reading about the walk, the talk, and the mannerisms. Imagine how much peace and love that brought to the siblings knowing their father lived on in his son.

    Happiness and blessings to you and yours this Christmas.

    1. Thank you so much, and thanks for reading. I know, that always amazed me, just how like his father he was and they’d never even seen each other.
      Happiness and blessings to you all too, workingtechmom xx

  10. Wow. What a touching, wonderfully written story. You made me feel as if I was there to witness the whole thing, as well.
    Yes, despite the parties and the merry making that go with the season, we can’t help but be reminded, too, of our dearly departed. It can be melancholic, but I think if we hold on to the good memories and the great times that we spent with them, then it won’t be that bad. Sometimes — no, most of the time — we just have to hang on to the joys and let go of the sadness.
    Merry Christmas to you and your family, Sunshine. May you always be abundantly blessed.
    SGM

  11. You write beautifully and managed to give me goosebumps, and feel compassion for someone I’ve never even met. Quite a feat, that! Read your comment on mynakedbokkie’s blog and felt compelled to say hi to a fellow South African in London! I lived there for 12 years from 1982 to 1994, and since then have been in Cape Town. Merry Xmas to you and your loved ones.

    1. Thank you so much, lusciousvegetarian, and welcome to my blog! What a lovely thing to say.
      So as a fellow Saffa who’s lived here, you’ll no doubt relate fully to our experience of living in London! Cape Town is our home, so please send it much love from us.
      Merry Christmas to you and yours in that most beautiful of cities.

  12. Sunshine, what a wonderful moving post. You made this man- a Scot, I note with interest- live for us too. The fact, especially, that he felt as he did about daughters in law…that’s exceptional. When we lose loved ones at Christmas it is always a bittersweet reminder of them, this time of year

  13. You are an incredibly blessed girl to have such a lovely family. I can feel the love and warmth every time you write about them. This was another beautiful story Sunshine! A Very Merry Christmas to you and yours and Pops 🙂

  14. Sunshine, this post gave me chills. How beautifully you’ve recalled this special man’s life, his wisdom, and the gift he was to his family! It was lovely reading about Pops, and you’re so right — often, sadness and joy blend together in our lives, but thankfully, it won’t be that way forever! Have a blessed Christmas 2010.

  15. How touching, your tribute to a remarkable man. Must make Christmas all the more poignant for you. Yet how wonderful that you have these stories of him to tell and to share with your children. Thank you for an amazing post! My best to you in the new year!

  16. I’ve been reading your back posts today after deciding to check out your blog. I’ll share two parts of my life with you, hoping you may find something of value. My birthday is also 22 December – mere coincidence, but there it is. And my second part is more of an encouragement. Find out all you can about your family. I never pushed the issue while I was still in the Chicago (Illinois) area with my parents, never knew my grandparents, and only met my father’s sister a few times (when I was very young) before her death. Now I am in financial exile in rural SE Ohio, my mother is gone, and my father won’t talk about my grandparents, as both grandfathers were alcoholics who abandoned their wives at some point. If I stand any chance of finding out about my ancestors, it will most likely be after my father dies, which is sad enough in itself. Sadder still is the idea I will never know about them, not even enough to research them on the Internet. So I encourage you to learn all you can, before it’s too late.
    But don’t grieve for me. I found a substitute – I have become a campaigner to remember lesser-known militaries and battles of World War 2. (I am even an honourary member of one of your adopted homes’ most famous units – the Coldstream Guards.) If you ever need any military history information, please feel free to Email me – I owe you for the privilege of venting here. Thank you for your time and trouble. 🙂

    1. Hi John, thanks for coming by and thanks for sharing some of your story and encouraging us to find out more about my husband’s family. You’re so right – look what happened with him and his own biological father? Thanks also for the invitation to find out any military history info – I’ll bear that in mind. What an interesting campaign you are on, and so important.
      Glad you felt free to vent here – you are welcome!

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