As the northern hemisphere celebrtes spring and looks forward to May Day or Beltane, we here in Africa are attuned to the coming of winter, the autumn bonfires of Samhain. I found myself standing outdoors in the garden this morning, looking at dark birds’ feathers and falling leaves, thinking of my Scottish grandmother of whom I know so little.
She was posibly alcoholic. The only reason I have for thinking that is because alcoholism runs through my family the same way reddish-fair hair and freckles do. And because my father never spoke to or contacted his mother once after he left home and sailed for Africa. There must have been great distrust and bitterness between them. I asume she is dead now and I have no idea if she ever knew I existed or wondered about me. My father had another brother and sister. His brother went to Canada after World War II and his sister married and stayed in Scotland. Beyond that I know nothing.
So I have done some genealogical searches on the Internet and found nothing. Jean Hamilton from Lanark who married a man from Linlithgow right back at the beginning of the 20th century has vanished into the obscurity of history. Her married name gives no better results. I know she was widowed young while living in France, her husband killed in a [drunken?] car accident in about 1933 and that she brought up her children in an apartment under the shadow of Holyrood Palace.
I know her youngest son (my father) was one of 31 000 small children evacuated from Edinburgh in 1938, their names tied on billet cards around their necks, boarding steam trains from crowded platforms and not knowing if they would ever see their parents again. And I know that my father spent nearly two years living on a farm in the Scottish Borders countryside. I wonder how Jean lived with that separation, I wonder if the estrangement began then.
I know it is likely she resembled me in certain ways and that our characters may have shared a Celtic feyness or Scotch stubbornness. My father was a clever articulate man who chose to stay silent on most topics and had a wide streak of cruelty running through his complex nature. I don’t know if my grandmother was a harsh Calvinist or a gentle lost sul unable to stay away from the sherry bottle.
In African traditions, people consult with the ancestors all their lives. I am not sure that it would be an unmixed blessing to hear from my Scottish grandmother. My questions might remain unanswered and there might be new and troubling questions. But as the autumn twilight gathers in the garden, I think about her and what we would have to say to one another. On life and parenting and sobriety. And the question of place and belonging.