For Auld Lang Syne

I wrote about Scotsman, Andy Murray, yesterday and then I went to do a Pilates class with the most enthusiastic, chatty Scotsman since William Wallace. Today I thought I would introduce to you some more of my husband’s Scottish family: meet Mac and Lily*.

*I have given them false names, as you probably wouldn’t believe the names by which we knew them. I thought about calling them Mac and Cheese. Nah.

I can’t tell you what a blessing it is to have married into a Scottish family. Mac was my late mother-in-law’s brother. He would have been about 87 now, and Lily would have been about 84. They both passed away in Scotland within the past eight years. They had no children of their own, and adored their nephews (my husband and his brother) as if they were their own. My husband is named after Mac.

Let me tell you what I know about Scottish names. My husband has three first names and is known by his third name. He likes his first name, and when he asked his parents why they didn’t call him by his first name, they said it was because they didn’t like it. Right. They had named him after his uncle, and clearly his parents hadn’t liked his first name either, because he was always known by his second name. We knew him by an entirely different nickname all together. And to add further confusion into the mix, the name my husband is known by is the same as his father’s. And his father was known by the first of his three names, even though he was given an entirely different name at birth (see Not Just Another Winter’s Tale).  And his brother is known by his second – of three – names. You’re confused?

So back to Mac and Lily: I first met Mac when he flew out to Zimbabwe for our wedding in 1984. He arrived unannounced and threw the entire family into frenzied excitement, leaving my garrulous mother-in-law speechless. He was a true Scotsman: he’d insult you then hug you, he’d laugh at you and with you, and tears and laughter gurgled in equal measure. Love of family, humour, generosity, love and kindness ever lurked behind his thinly brittle exterior. I loved him immediately.

I first met Lily when my husband and I travelled to the UK in 1986 and we stayed with Mac and Lily in their wee croft in Perthshire. Lily was about knee-high to a grasshopper and was teased mercilessly by Mac for being so wee. She was a hairdresser and her stories of colleagues and clients and running a salon in Zimbabwe (as she had done for a number of years) are stuff of my husband’s family legend.

Returning to Scotland, she worked at the old folks’ homes, doing the hair of the “old biddies”, as she called them. She never fussed too much about whether her work was good or not, as she chose to live by her belief that the difference between a good haircut and a bad haircut was about three weeks. Possibly longer for the old biddies. She was gentle, kind, quick to laugh, generous and loving: I loved her immediately too.

We saw them every couple of years after that; when they travelled to Zimbabwe and then South Africa for holidays, and when we visited the UK on holiday. Just as they had taken my husband and his brother as sons, they took our boys into their hearts as grandsons. Mac taught them stories and language that, shall we say, broadened their education.

Our boys were little when Mac and Lily first came to Cape Town. We’d told the boys how funny Uncle Mac was and they couldn’t wait to meet them. Our older son, who was about four at the time, laughed loudly and unconvincingly the first time Mac said something, and then looked at us and asked,

“When’s he going to be funny?”

I think he’d imagined a clown.

Our younger son, aged about two, sat on my husband’s lap and watched Mac with interest. After a while, my son grabbed his dad’s face between his hands, pulled his face towards him and, gesturing towards Mac, said,

“Him’s got a big nose. Hey, Daddy?”

One day my older son had a friend coming over to play, when Mac and Lily were with us in Cape Town a few years later. I heard my son say to his friend,

“My uncle and aunt will be there. I’m really sorry but my uncle swears a lot.”

His friend, ever the gracious trooper, said,

“Ooh, that’s okay. I think that will be rather fun.”

Mac was fun. He’d run and play soccer with the boys in the garden, until his smoke-ridden lungs would cause him to gasp and return to the sidelines. As he lit a cigarette, he’d say,

Bleep bleep! Those bleep bleep kids sure take the bleep bleep bleep out of you! I’m not as young as I bleeping-well used to be.”

He’d wrestle with the boys and then send them on their way. He’d watch them play sport and boast about them to his friends. He laughed at their jokes and regaled them with stories.

We had a wonderful time staying with them in Scotland in 2000. They took us all over their native Perthshire, showing us the beautiful countryside and introducing the four of us – with enormous familial pride – to everyone they met. They took us to the Highland Games in Pitlochry and Mac went to tell the organisers that “B’s son” was there (my mother-in-law grew up and went to school in Pitlochry). Family was everything to Mac and Lily, and we knew we meant the world to them.

Lily would cook wonderful meals for us all, and our best times were when we sat and chatted over coffee and chocolate biscuits in their lounge in the weak mid-morning sun. She and Mac were always interested in our lives and what we had to say, and asked us questions constantly.

One evening, we sat in their little lounge, next to the ever- glowing fire, as Mac relaxed into his favourite pastime: reminiscing. He told us of a Hogmanay party at their house a few years before, where Mac pretended he was a soldier. He put a bucket on his head, and with a broom as a rifle he marched back and forth through their small lounge. It wasn’t long before he smashed the light fitting with the broom and caused the party guests to collapse into hysterical laughter.

He then went further back, to recount tales of his inordinately naughty childhood. He told us of all he and his brother and friends got up to at school, including putting one teacher’s car up on to bricks and waiting to watch as the teacher tried to drive off at the end of the day. Mac and his mates lurked in the bushes, and as they watched the teacher they rolled over and laughed like drains.

He was constantly in trouble. That naughty streak glinted in his eyes through his whole life. Not even the unspoken-of horrors of his wartime service could quench that spirit.

His school-day nostalgia then reminded him of his favourite poet: Robbie Burns. He told us he had once recited Burns at a formal occasion. He ran upstairs to haul out his notes and proceeded to recite the elaborately un-understandable words of Burns to an audience of us. To our African ears, it sounded like,

“Heenel honnel, heenel honnel, heenel honnel, aft the glen.”

His sudden move into serious poetry was at odds with the evening’s levity. The absurdness of the poetry, the absurdness of this sudden turn of events and then, spotting their mother fixing to burst with laughter, caused my sons – and then all four of us – to explode into childish laughter till we cried. Mac was taken aback:

“What the bleeping-bleep you lot laughin’ at? This is Rabbie Burns! Don’t ye like him?”

We tried, we really tried to pull ourselves together but the words of Robbie Burns will forever be etched in our memories in the schoolboy style of Mac’s recital and our childish inability to stop giggling.

I miss Mac and Lily. All of our family does. And I understand why Mac loved to reminisce. It keeps the memories alive.

Sunshine signing off for today!

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.

She’s mad about the royals

I had heard about his mother’s 42nd cousin, twice removed, and we were set to meet her and her husband in their home on the west coast of Scotland. I had heard hints of “royalist” and “talkative” but nothing prepared me for the day we would spend in her company.

We arrived at her wee croft that nestled on the water, sapphire blue Scotland at its finest. We picked our way down the steps to the front door where we were welcomed by a warm, effusive and enthusiastic Scottish woman. I’ll call her Betty. She hugged us and told us she hated what we were wearing. Look, it was the 80s but not everyone loved the big, permed hair, flowery pants and pink, plastic shoes of that era. And my husband, mulleted and moustached, was dressed in his Miami Vice best.

We were invited indoors and soon saw that “royalist” was no exaggeration. “Talkative” took no convincing either. Her little home was beautiful from the outside but sadly tasteless inside. The brightly patterned, textured linoleum flooring screamed in competition with the striped and floral wallpaper, and every corner of the house was filled to bursting with recent royal memorabilia.

The walls were adorned with framed photographs of the royal family, her kitchen boasted tea towels bedecked with smiling monarchs, and a glass-fronted dresser groaned heavily under the weight of her prized possessions. Charles and Diana smiled from mugs, plates, cups, scarves, towels and pictures, while Elizabeth and Philip, along with the Queen Mum, greeted us from more. Betty giggled with excitement at her forthcoming trip down to London for the wedding procession of Andrew and Sarah (Fergie, as she was fondly known).

“Ma frend’s go’ us a seat on the route,” she told us. This, evidently, was access to an office or apartment that overlooked the road along which the royal wedding procession would travel.

Betty talked. Non-stop. For the entire day. When she was wondering what to say next, she would think on her feet and say, “Och, well, so there y’are, well, I don’t know, so, tell me.” That usually stretched sufficiently to bridge her to the next thought, and so she would continue. Sometimes she would just repeat “Och, well, so there y’are ….” until another thought popped into her head. And that way no-one else could get a word in edgeways either.

Mr Betty arrived home from work at 5pm. He walked in the door and, without saying a word or greeting anyone, went through to his bedroom, undid the top button of his work-shirt, removed his shoes and replaced them with slippers, and returned to the dining room table. He sat down and waited for his tea (evening meal). That’s what happens every day. She took him his tea, talking to us through the house as she did so. He said nothing. He never does, apparently.

Betty returned to the sitting room and perched herself on the arm of the sofa, where my husband’s long-suffering aunt with whom we’d travelled that day, was sitting. Betty sat next to her and began her segue-monologue. While she did so, she took out her handkerchief from the cuff of her cardigan and, with a hint of drama, shook it out in front of aunt’s face.

“D’ye like ma perfume? …. It’s a new one. …. It’s called Fergie.”

Och, well, so there y’are …. the colourful tartan of my married-into family. I just love it.

Sunshine signing off for today!

Men in skirts

Wednesday, and I’ve got tartan on my mind. I’m married to a Scotsman, you see. And every now and then I stop and think about things he says, and things I now say, and I realise a lot of these things are well forrin.

Just to clarify – my husband was born in Africa. His parents and elder brother, who was a toddler at the time, left Scotland to seek their fortune in warmer, African climes and my husband was born there a few years later. My parents-in-law lived in Africa for the rest of their lives – around 40 years – and they both had broad Scottish accents till they passed away. Something that I find so sweet is that my husband and his brother both had broad Scottish accents until they started school – until the pressure to sound like everyone else overwhelmed their little minds and they learnt to blend in just fine!

We travelled to Scotland as a family when our boys were ten and twelve. We stayed with wonderful relatives and were also on a mission to meet some long-lost, newly-discovered relatives, but that’s a story for another day. It was so interesting to see how at home my sons felt in the land of their father and his people, and how intrigued they were with their Scottish heritage. By the time we left, they both wanted kilts in the family tartan and, if we’d had an arm and a leg to spare, we would have indulged them.

My husband has since inherited two kilts, and these are worn with much pride at any suitable occasion: my elder son wore one to his Matric (school leaving) dance, and both sons wore kilts to their cousin’s wedding in Cape Town last month. The five boy cousins together in family tartan kilts looked just fabulous and, of course, made the faraway (in miles) mother in me weep at the sight. My younger son is dreadlocked, and made a wonderful McRasta. Gorgeous boys.

Some years ago, my husband wore his kilt to a very posh, advertising awards ball in Zimbabwe. He went to the bathroom early on in the evening and the bathroom attendant (I told you it was a posh place) said to my husband as he exited, “Oh! I thought you were in the wrong bathroom.”

So here’s some Scottish forrin:

  1. Gibbles – this means stuff, or things. For example, my husband’s bedside table is full of gibbles.
  2. Bairns – we have two of them. They are big bairns now. Children.
  3. Bo’heed – my parents in law used to chuckle if they called anyone a bo’heed (usually their grandchildren) – it is used affectionately, to mean big head. “I canna’ see the TV, will you move yer bo’heed?”
  4. A Scottish friend at work said once, pointing at the desk of the absent manager, “Where’s his nibs?” This made me laugh out loud, as I’ve heard it so often from my family … It is used slightly mockingly to refer, in their absence, to someone of self-importance, usually someone in authority.
  5. My new blogging buddy, Wendy, is about ages with ma’sel’. This means she is about the same age as I am.
  6. Dreich – this means cold, damp and miserable, and refers to the weather. We’ve had real dreich days in London this week – autumn has shown its tawny face.
  7. If you’re talking nonsense, a Scotsman will say you’re talking blethers.
  8. If you’re mean to me, I’ll greet. And it’s not a pretty sight. Greet means to cry.
  9. My mother-in-law used to leave things in the kitchen sink to steep (soak).
  10. If you’re called a tattybogle that’s not a compliment – it means you look a sight, like a scarecrow!
  11. One of my husband’s and my favourite pastimes is to bogle in shops – that means to look and browse.
  12. My father-in-law had some choice sayings, but they are not fit for the blog! But if he thought someone was not very attractive, he would call her coors but hamely. This is liked being damned with faint praise – coarse but homely. Ugly, but could be worse.
  13. Had yer weesht – this means be quiet, shush.

A dear, late uncle of my husband’s used to say the best thing to come out of England was the road to Scotland! We took that road at Easter, to travel up to Pitlochry in central Scotland (Perthshire) for the weekend. We checked to see what was happening there over the weekend and were so excited to see that the Red Hot Chilli Pipers were playing at the Pitlochry Festival Theatre!We booked tickets and went to see this fabulous Scottish phenomenon that played to a packed auditorium.

They call themselves a “bagrock” band, or “jock ‘n roll” and they play music – as their forthcoming new album says – for the kilted generation! They are fronted by three bagpipers, with two guitarists, two snare drummers (including a world champion snare drummer), a keyboard player, a drummer and occasionally some brass. Of course they all wore kilts, and they looked pretty darn fit! They played songs like Smoke on the Water, We Will Rock You, Hey Jude (they called it Hair Jood) and Clocks mixed with a bunch of traditional Scottish numbers. They sure made it a brilliant evening’s entertainment and, being Scottish, all the banter in between songs was really funny. I read that earlier this month, they played at BB King’s 42nd Street Blues Club in Manhattan. Go figure!

One of the opening acts was a Scottish duo of fiddler and guitarist who played a variety of choons, fabulously. The fiddler introduced each number including one that the guitarist had written, inspired by a trip to Egypt. It was called The First Time Ever I Saw Your Fez.

I’ll dedicate some future blogs to writing more about our trips up to Scotland and the beautiful country it is, filled with wonderful, warm and kind people. A country where humour is woven into the national DNA, and laughter is their battle-cry and for me, that’s my kind of people. My husband’s ain folk.

Sunshine signing off for today.