Friday, 22 January 2016

It's Never Twenty Years!

It’s never twenty years.

And yet, apparently, it is.

Its funny how time moves so quickly. After all, December 2015 gave us twelve years since Bob died, and some of the family asked how long it had been near the time, so I said “twelve years” and that was their response. “It’s never twelve years!” He seemed the most alive of all of us. Tempus fugit.

It’s also fair to be a pendant, and note that it’s actually been twenty-five years. That’s when I recall dad taking mum to the gates of St Helens in Shawlands. Of Bob himself – the most alive of all of us, you know – in his smart, dark blue jacket and black trousers. He was smiling, I remember, despite the fact it was his own personal loss. But I never counted that one, because I was far too young to remember my Uncle Tommy. And, if he was my grandfather’s brother, well, he must have been ancient to my four year olds brain! He was fifty-four, which doesn’t seem so ancient these days, but one can’t really call it my first family funeral, as I never attended it, and it was for a person I don’t recall.

That’s not the case for my great gran, though.

So few people get the chance to meet their great-grans, I know. Sarah has met my gran several times – they get on very well – and technically Aunt Marion. However, if Aunt Marion ever saw herself labelled a great “anything,” she’d kill me! She’s always been twenty-one; it’s the rest of us who keep aging around her. Fewer people get to know any great grandparent into the ages that they’ll remember them. So I should suppose being nine when she died does allow one a lifetime of memories about a generation gap few are blessed with.

She was a lovely old dear, who introduced me to The Simpsons.

She also introduced me to the concept of death, by not being immortal.

It was in January 1996 that my great gran died. Two decades ago. That feels strangely grown up. Memories that stretch back, clearly, two decades. It’s worrying enough that Jurassic Park came out in 1993, that my sister has born a quarter of a century ago, and that my earliest memories are approach three decades ago. It’s the time when reality suggests there’s no other way of looking at you: you are a bloody adult now, chap. Maybe it’s why people tend to take thirty and forty so badly! That loss of being able to pretend they’re still kids in the mind due to build up of evidence to the contrary!

One particular piece of evidence in our household is currently waving to me with the empty bottle of juice she’s just guzzled through. Tempus fugit, indeed!

I’m more struck by amazement and befuddlement at the concept of reaching thirty – in July – than fear. I still can’t help but feel these concepts of adulthood are put about to discredit us. What do you think, Sadie?

She thinks her dad is a big goof, basically.

Thirty is quite young anyhow. My great gran was ninety-six when she died! When she was born, Queen Victoria was on the throne. When she died, Tony Blair was on the cusp of being Prime Minister. She lived through two world wars (the first of which she lost her younger brother in), the fall and rise of the Soviet Union, and the transformation of TV from a concept invention spoken of in the newspapers, into something she could watch the Chart Show on!

She also lived through that rarest of events, a Hibs Scottish Cup win. Though, given she wasn’t even two at the time, it’s not as if she could tell us much about this mythical concept.

She worked at Templeton’s, in the book binding industry, and married in 1923, to Duncan Cameron. Duncan was born on the 29th July 1894, in the Gorbals, at Crookston Street, to John and Mary Cameron. There was an original detour in the family tree when I picked up the wrong birth certificate, and it looked like he’d been born in the old tenements in Abercromby Street, which made the fact that he’d been baptised across the river even more confusing. This was because I had taken my long deceased great-grandfather at his word when he claimed on his wedding certificate that he was 26 at the time of his wedding!

Still, the fact that the “right age” Duncan Cameron moved from Calton to the Gorbals to Calton again struck me as being rather dodgy genealogy. So I ordered his death certificate, once we had worked out when he had actually died. Relying on family testimony gave his date of death anytime from 1964 to the 1970s! [And if that isn’t a warning to any genealogists that you should back up any old family dates with the paperwork, I don’t know what is!] 

Finally, I cut down the number of possibly Duncan Cameron’s by the fact my Aunt Mary remembered him well, so I took the assumption that she would have had to have been at least two. This was cut considerably by gran’s assertion that Duncan was alive to see mum’s youngest sister, Mags, born. And Gran would know, you’d assume, given this is her dad we’re talking about!

Narrowing the search brought up two Duncan Cameron’s, both dead in 1969, in the same area of Glasgow. Curse these common names!

The only thing to do, in the summer of 2014, was to order both. One of them had to be our Duncan, surely.

The death certificates arrived in the post three weeks later.

The first was for, if I recall correctly, an Alan Duncan Cameron, who was born in Edinburgh! Clearly not the right guy.

The second, which was a photocopy of the original, was written in handwriting my memory instantly recognised, but which I couldn’t work out until I got to the bottom of the document and saw it signed “Robert Anthony Barton.” Or Bob, as everyone knows him. I showed the document to mum, preceding the showing of it with the words, “you might recognise the handwriting,” and on a moment’s glance at the top of it, without reading further, she smiled and said “Oh, that’s dads.”

We had the right person, and do you know, Granda Bob’s 1969 handwriting was immaculate. I say this because, bloody hell, the penmanship of some document writers in the past was bloody abysmal.

The death certificate gave the date of birth, and the parents, so we knew the 1896 certificate was for the wrong guy. The date of birth allowed me to swiftly track down the real certificate, which gives us Duncan’s real parents, and should, one day, let us know which branch of the family Bonnie Prince Charlie betrayed. Worryingly it’ll no doubt wind up being the direct descendants of one David Cameron. Mind you, on that hand, I can ask for a peerage. Snigger.

This was a bit of a diversion from my great gran, I know but I thought the detective work involved in solving the family tree might be of interest to some.

Duncan Cameron was an errand boy for Keir Hardie, and a lifelong devout socialist, and he met my great-gran at some point between the First World War and the 1920’s. They were married in Kelvin in April 1923, and my gran’s older sister was born in 1923. There was a family feud, which meant the Camerons wound up not in the picture soon after. Out of respect for the dead and the living, I’ve not looked any further into that one yet... One signatory to the wedding certificate, however, was her younger sister, Margaret Cassidy.

I met Great Aunt Margaret too. She was absolutely terrifying. She was nearly ninety then, and full of blood and thunder and nagging. Very scary.

And so my great-gran and Duncan wound up with four kids. Anne, Mae, Margaret (or The Great Teddy Stealer as some might still recall her), and my gran.

Now, my great gran had a massive hobby, something she adored, and which she tried to pass onto her grandkids with limited success. She managed to pass it on to her great-grandson, though it only really developed after her death.

Yes, she was a massive fan of bloody pro-wrestling!

Not only that, but she could often be found, the only voice in a full auditorium cheering for the dreaded heel Mick McManus. She thought he was badly treated by the crowds and deserved someone to root for him, and besides, he was far more entertaining than the bland Jackie Pallo was.

You could claim that my great-gran invented the concept of being a smart mark before David Meltzer had even been born, or before the invention of the internet to create the Internet Wrestling Crowd. [Think Doctor Who fans or One DIrectioners, but possibly more terrifying and merciless...]

I found out recently that Bob used to take Duncan to see the wrestling at the Kelvin Hall, as they were both fans.

“Didn’t he take your mum?” I asked gran, innocently.

“Oh no” she laughed. “He was far too feared to do that!”

The Great Duncan died, as mentioned above, in 1969. He’d suffered from a long period of ill health, and was seventy-five.

When Dad met my great-gran, he was expecting a bossy matriarch, based on tales. What he met instead, as he says, was a sweet old lady who was really quite deaf.

She was deafer by the time I knew her. She was still a friendly old woman. I remember, on the occurrence of her 90th birthday party, I went over to her, leant forward to speak into her ear, and loudly said, “Are you going to live to be 100?” She took one look at me and nodded, as if to say “Of course!”

She was still living in her wee flat in Anniesland at that point, and in truth, she was still living in that wee flat until 1996. Complete with her small TV of the old transistor sort – it was still in colour, mind you – in the corner of the room, and the entrance to the house being through a kitchen door that opened into a communal garden. With her old style glasses, blue dresses and curled white hair, she always gave off a regal demeanour to me. She might have been the Queen’s mum, for all toddler me knew. She was gran’s mum! [My gran is 79 this year, has memories going back to the start of World War Two...]

She could also use her deafness for comic effect.

“One of my first memories is of going to visit her, when I was only two or three years old. Aunt Theresa and Uncle Mark were taking me to see her from their allotment, and it was a very untraditional Glasgow winter for the late 80s. Snow had fallen very heavily, and we were surrounded on all sides by massive mounds of the stuff, swamping cars and streets, and in many areas I had to hold onto Theresa’s arm for dear life as the snow was nearly higher than me! Eventually we got to the Great Cameron’s house.
“ Sorry we’re late” said Theresa. “It’s very snowy outside.”
My great-gran signalled she couldn’t hear.
“It’s at least four feet deep out there,” said Mark, louder.
Great-gran mentioned tea and Theresa went to make some. The topic was over, until we got up to leave, at which point The Great Cameron said:
“You’d best wrap up warm. It’s been snowing heavily.”
The mischievous look that followed told all!”

We’d be frequent visitors to her little flat. Memory and Google Street View tells me there was a flight of stairs by a front door – which none of us used – but I don’t recall ever going up those stairs to the next level of the house. There was a bedroom by that door, a small loo underneath the stairs, the bigger living room, and then the door into the standing room only kitchen. The house was built like a zigzag if you like. Great-gran could frequently be found in her big armchair, which faced away from the TV towards the window. She might have a crossword, or patterns, or sometimes be lost in thought, watching the clouds pass by. Her most common companion was Duncan.

No, not her husband, long gone. But she did have a massive teddy bear, called The Great Duncan, which sat on its own armchair. It’s now in the possession of Mums, after some heartfelt pleading by some young children after great-gran’s death. I can’t think who those young children were...

And into her nineties, suggestions that immortality was a myth began to occur. She spent a few stays in hospital, and, despite Mgr Hanrahan of Holy Cross offering to rent a minibus to take her to her great grandson’s first communion, her health wasn’t up to the trip. So instead she sent me a statue of St Patricks (I was always fond of him, he got rid of the snakes, you know!) which remains at mums, despite my lapsed faith, it holds sentimental value due to its links with the older generation I once knew.

[Funny story about Mgr Hanrahan, incidentally: he was the head priest at mum’s church until the late Tony Banciewiz replaced him. Very, very tall man, in his 70s, highly strict but with a sense of humour, which could get you unaware at times. Very friendly with younger kids, but even then, he had a sense of “do not cross the boss” about him. In fact, the most telling thing in retrospect was how he had terminal cancer for all the time I knew him, and yet he never let on about it. Anyhow, one night, in the pissing rain, he travelled across Govanhill in his trench coat and hat, torch leading the way, waving to passersby he recognised as he travelled to act, he assumed, as councillor to a parishioner in need. He arrived at the house, and it having few furniture, was sat on a small piece of furniture covered in cloth. The family engaged in small talk, when there was a knock at the door and who should appear but the TV detectors! There weren’t any TVs in this small flat, they said, as the TV people waved at Mgr Hanrahan and left again. Soon after, the family revealed that the priest had been sitting on a working TV covered by the cloth!]

The Great Cameron, as she was swiftly becoming known, was starting show signs of frailty. Her hearing was getting worse, she would doze off unexpectedly, and she clearly wasn’t in the health she’d been even at ninety. Yet, there was her younger sister Great Aunt Margaret McLay (nee Cassidy), herself widowed in the 1960s, often there to moan about nearly everything and nag her older sister. They reminded me of Tom and Jerry, actually.

And then, one morning in December 1995, Great Aunt Margaret died. I believe she died in her sleep, while visiting her family on the coast. Despite her age – ninety-two – no one really expected that. She’d been too full of fire and anger.

Despite a sixty plus year feud over inheritance, and the fact that they had spent all the time I knew them arguing, not to mention the time everyone else knew them, my great-gran took this loss very badly. Even if you fight to the death with your younger sister, she still is your sister at the end of the day. For the one remaining constant in a life to disappear like that, can be a hard thing to overcome.
The last time I saw The Great Cameron, she looked really old. She’d never properly shown her age before. Adult me would have known her time was nearly up. Child me didn’t understand the concept of death, on a family level. Sure, The Great Duncan and dad’s mum and Bob’s parents were long gone, but all that happened before I was born. The concept that events happened before one wasn’t the centre of the universe is difficult for a young child to understand, I can see that as the older fogey now watching Sarah take to it all.

And so, The Great Cameron died six weeks after her younger sister. The New Year, 1996 brought with it a massive stroke, and she lay in hospital for a week, lingering on. The damage had been too intensive for recovery, if he had lived; she would have lost her independence she had gamely held onto for ninety-six years. I think the knowledge of losing that independence would have killed her faster than any stroke, but I’m not sure she ever knew about it. She just hung on, in a deep sleep, for a week, as if to say to the Reaper himself: “I may be ninety-six, frail and dying, but you’re still facing a fight here, young man.”

Her funeral mass was given by my cousin Harry (it’s never eighteen years!), attended by all of us, including Bob (thirteen!), Gran’s sister Margaret (four!) and her husband John (nine!). There were many tears shed by all, a loud denunciation by my four-year-old sister after Harry attributed the wrong nickname for great-gran to her, and a packed church full of older faces I didn’t recognise. And there was Bob, in his smart dark blue jacket and black trousers.

That was twenty years ago, and I remember it well, even with the passing of time. I still remember wanting to watch Batman rather than attend a funeral, which Dad agreed with, as he had to rush off from consoling his son to be a pallbearer, and so Aunt Mary took his place. I still remember the more repeat trips to see gran, to check if she was alright, and how she was getting fed up clearly of the attention (as she did a bit when Bob died too), though Bob himself was delighted to get so many visits from his grandkids! Especially when they brought along some Brio to play with!

And most of all, I still remember her. Sitting in her wee chair, looking out the window, looking like the Queen Mum. Watching the Chart Show with me, and me spotting that small grin on the corner of her mouth as Do The Bartman appeared on the screen, and my mum and gran showed their parental disgust at such things. Of pretending not to notice snow, and burning turkey dinners, and being the link to wrestling, and statues of St Patrick, and a million other little things.

It’s never twenty years. Not when you can traverse the time difference with memories, in the blink of an eye.