I always dreamed of having long hair rolled and twisted into an elegant Edwardian chignon, like my white-haired great-grandmother, Florence. But I was the wild girl who piloted the skiff across the choppy waves, cold spray biting my face. I had no patience for hairstyling and so my mother sliced off my braids for a tidier fit under my cap.
I loved Flo’s house and the aromas of fresh sweet buns, rosewater and lavender hankies, beeswax furniture polish, and fresh cut flowers. I loved her soft, papery hands with their loose rows of gold, studded with tiny, glistening diamonds. Still, I don’t recall them as well as I know my daughter’s lovely silken hands, or my mother’s, so like my own. Mine are artist’s hands, I’ve been told. Small, spotted, gnarly and veined. Last year my little granddaughter innocently asked, “Nana, has anyone ever made fun of your hands?” I laughed out loud. “No Charlie.” At least not until now….
Memory presents a slideshow of single frames, strewn randomly across the floorboards of my lifetime: The worn path behind my childhood home, roots of the towering cedars protruding much like the veins in my hands do now; The Taureg woman bathing under the outdoor tap, and her irked glare at my unwitting intrusion; The gruesome desiccated paws at the fetish market in Bamako, and the poor sad Mallard caged there, as foreign to the place as I was; My new baby daughter’s watery gaze, her tiny mouth opening and closing like a little fish; My brother and I on the dock – me in my puffy orange lifejacket, so proud of Sandy and the ‘prize’ bass he’d just caught.
From my Mom and Florence, I inherited the urge to explore, although I didn’t find out until after she’d gone, just how adventurous a life Flo had had (Mom’s is another story). Born in 1872, within earshot of the Bow Bells in London, England, Flo started life in a crowded, foul-smelling slum (picture a scene from a Dickens novel). At 6, she was taken from her desperately poor, widowed mother and sent to a Christian ‘sheltering’ home, there to be trained for a life of service. At the age of 8, she was shipped to Canada with her little brother, Joe, from whom she was separated soon after arriving. Florence and Joe were Home Children. I can only imagine the trauma of separation and loss they must have endured.
In my imagination, I picture my brother displaying his fish as I stand proudly beside him. Then, I imagine a wave snatching him, screaming, and the black hole of longing; the numbness of not-one-word-spoken; a hole patched over by time, but never quite repaired; the horror of never knowing if I passed him on the street 30-years later would I even recognize his blue-green eyes? Forever aching for that lost limb, that sweet chubby hand braided into my own. Mine is an imagined vignette …. but it’s what actually happened to Florence and Joe, and thousands of others like them.
Once when my tummy was stretched tight and round, my belly button bulging forth like a small, hard nose, Flo placed her soft old hand on that mound and held it there, warmth pulsing through the layers of skin. We smiled and in that moment the bounty of our mutual love shone. I was awed by that silent yet profound transmission – so much further than arms length and brighter than full moonlight. It felt safer than a snow cave in a howling storm, more vivid in my memory than what had happened 10-minutes ago, and far more real.
Flo lived to be 104. Her early life was tragic, but she was a strong survivor. I remember her in her baby-blue silk dress, a cake-like hat on her head, curled into her wheelchair, welcoming the many visitors to her 100th birthday. My Mom fluttered around; my Dad, me and my kids, and my siblings and their families, cousins, many friends – all were in attendance to honour the Queen of our family.
Closing slide – An imagined group shot: Flo and her brother, their poor lost mother, my daughter and son, my mother, father, brother, sister and me, husbands and wives, our grandchildren. Hands clasped, eyes alight; love and wisdom breathing through us, across time and space and out, beyond memory.
Chris Maclean July 2021