Family

Pictures of Perfection: Christmas 1956

The film is dark and grainy, and the room is poorly lit. None of the cast is wearing the proper sort of clothes or makeup. And all of them, particularly the father of the little moppet with the starring role, are bursting with their pride in the first member of a new generation in the family. It’s the iconic Christmas of my childhood, my first real memory, one I have been able to call up at a moment’s notice all my life, but which lived only in my heart and in my mind for almost 50 years. Until, that is, a most unexpected gift from Dad gave it back to me “for realz,” as the children say.

Granny and Grandpa’s. 104 Church Lane, Handsworth Wood, Birmingham 20, England, UK. Northern 4749, if you wanted to phone and have a conversation. (This entailed going under the stairs where the telephone was located, and hiding yourself away for the duration, almost as if there was something a bit untoward–nay, rude even–about standing there talking into the air, as if to someone who was actually in the room with you, but, really, wasn’t.)

The old air-raid shelter under the living-room floor, where my mother and Uncle John used to lie awake at night and listen to the bombs raining down around them. The kitchen, with its tiny gas stove and old stone sink, and its attached pantry, which usually had a cake of some sort front and center in it. The cereal box (All-Bran), emptied of its original contents, and kept on the old teak draining board, where Granny used to stuff the tinfoil lids from the milk bottles, and then, when it was full, send them off “to the seeing-eye dogs.” (I never could understand how covering up the eyes of “seeing-eye dogs” with gold and silver tinfoil disks [for that was how I imagined them being used], was at all helpful. It was decades before I “twigged” and realized that it was actually a recycling project.)

The enormous old cast-iron and wooden mangle in the wash house, with rollers about three-feet wide and eight inches in diameter, full of splinters just waiting to embed themselves in my freshly laundered underpants and undershirts as they went through. (The washing machine itself is also worthy of special mention, a Rube Goldberg [they say “Rowland Emmet” in the UK] contraption of spectacular inefficiency and complex mechanical maunderings.)

The oak seat in the upstairs “loo,” with the split in it which pinched your bum every time you sat down (it was still there the last time I visited Granny, in 1984, and just as memorable). The “box room” in the attic, a child’s paradise, full of the toys and books that my mother and uncle had played with, and read, as children themselves. The beautiful, tiered, garden full of lovely roses: Queen Elizabeth, Princess Margaret, Peace, and other varieties — heavenly scents that don’t seem to exist anymore. The raspberry and gooseberry patch all the way at the bottom of the garden that, magically seemed to denude itself of all fruits whenever I was in the vicinity; Granny kindly blamed the birds. I’m sure that was it.

So much love. So many memories.

Christmas, 1956. There was a sprinkling of snow. A “White Christmas” outside, and bitterly cold in British terms–this means that the temperature was probably in the mid-thirties (when the temperature in the UK was still expressed in rational units of measure, and when people still bought and paid for things with real money, too. Before all this high-falutin’ “decimalisation” business started and the rot set in. (BoJo, please call your office and tell them to put those two things at the top of your list, next up after you’ve “got Brexit done,” K?)

I was just two, We’d come home from my first sojourn in Nigeria, and it was Christmas! Granny was there. My mother was there, young, bonny, and carefree. Great Granny was there (she must have been 87 at the time, having been born in 1869, four years after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. She died in 1968, several months before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. GG was a fearsome old lady, mostly bedridden for the last decade of her life, with a knobbly walking stick which she would rap on the floor to indicated displeasure (usually at something I’d done), but even she unbent this Christmas, excitedly unwrapping packages with her first great-grandchild.

And my dad was there. Lord, I miss him every single day. It was impossible not to feel happy and safe around the force of nature that was Dad. And to know that, no matter what, he’d never falter or fail. That he’d never let me down. And he never did. He was so proud of his little girl. I tried to learn the lessons he lived, and I hope I got most of them right, particularly the most important ones: He taught me to be loyal, to be kind, to be truthful, to be brave, and to be strong. And when I couldn’t manage the last two by myself, to ask for help. Like (I think) most people, I’ve had to do that a few times, and I’m grateful for my friends who’ve held me up and carried me through. Some of you are here. Thank you.

Who else was there? Well, Uncle John (Johnno), my mother’s only sibling, young, and still a bachelor at the time. Maudie Nichols was there. She spent a lifetime “in service,” (think, in a smaller way, Anna from “Downton Abbey,” or Rose from “Upstairs Downstairs”) and was Great Granny’s maid-of-all-trades. Poor Maudie. GG was a hard taskmaster, and Maudie wasn’t allowed a “young man,” even in her youth. Her half-days off were spent in church. She wasn’t supposed to read the lurid tabloid newspapers that she loved, or to play the weekly game of “spot the ball” she always hoped she’d win a fortune on. When she went shopping, she’d hide the newspaper under her coat when she got back home, so that GG wouldn’t see as Maudie took it up to her room.

Maudie loved children. She’d tended my mother and uncle when they were young, and she lavished attention on me, pushing my stroller to what was then Victoria Park, where we’d feed the swans and the ducks. She’d “rub-a-dub-dub” me in Granny’s enormous old cast-iron bathtub, then dry my hair with a bakelite hair dryer that weighed about a ton, and had an element which used to get red-hot and blew out heat like a blast furnace. And when I had a cold, she’d rub Vicks Vap-o-Rub on my little chest with her hands, the palms of which were like leather and the fingers like sandpaper, and she’d lovingly wrap me in warm flannel and put me to bed.

And Grandpa! Grandpa was there, with a sprig of lavender for a boutonniere, and a pocket full of Cadbury’s Chocolate Buttons. And, his cigarette. Always his cigarette. He taught me to roll cigarettes for him. I probably should have had him prosecuted for corrupting the morals of a minor, but I didn’t know any better at the time. (I wonder if that’s still an option? It can’t matter that he died in 1973, can it?) He had an ashtray on a stand that was about thirty inches high, and after you’d flicked enough ash into it, you pressed the knob on top of it, to send the little tray of ashes “down below” into the tub, where it would quickly spin and divest itself of its cargo, before returning itself to the top, so you could fill it up again. Sort of like the ashtray equivalent of a salad spinner. I loved it. (Sometimes, if you pushed too hard, or if it wobbled, it would send cigarette ash up your nose, or all over the room. That was especially enjoyable.)

Who else? Oh, yes. Auntie Betty. Great Granny’s niece, and Granny’s cousin. A smart, kind and lovely woman who’d have made a wonderful mother. She never married, having met her soulmate during the war, after he escaped Poland and joined the RAF. His wife hadn’t died in a concentration camp early in the war, as he’d been led to believe, and after the camps were liberated, and he found her, they emigrated to Canada, and Betty never heard from him again. In 2007, Mr. She, who’d gone to England for six weeks in the spring to help care for Dad (who’d broken his hip), took Betty a copy of A Question of Honor, the story of the Polish-American Air Group’s Koskciuszko squadron. He’d met the authors at an event in Pittsburgh, told them Betty’s story, and they gave him a book to give her, which they inscribed with a personal note. She always had it close at hand for the rest of her life.

Betty was born in 1912, three months before the Titanic sank, and she died in 2015, a few weeks before her 103rd birthday. I wrote about her here.

For almost fifty years, I carried the memory of that long-ago Christmas around with me in my heart, taking it out occasionally to smile over, and perhaps, sometimes, shed a tear. And then, in 2004, my sister, who is prone to occasional feats of Herculean organization and extraordinary managerial skill, managed to get Dad to turn over his cherished library of 8mm film (none of which had seen the light of day for decades), and she organized it as best she could from the notes he’d written on the boxes, and sent it off to get it put on VHS tape.

And a few months later, there we all were, Mum, Dad, my brother and I, enjoying a feast of groundnut chop at my sister’s house, and watching the world premiere of the Family Film Archives. It was an epic event, red carpet and all. The single malt scotch was particularly welcome. I don’t think they serve groundnut chop with Laphroaig or Highland Park on the side in Sokoto or Mubi, but it was a nice touch. Cultural appropriation Diversity, as it were.

There were some continuity flubs in the movie, and things were not in exactly the right order. In some places, people seemed to get younger as the story developed, in a Benjamin Button-like way, and in others the lead actors seemed to circle the globe instantaneously, and then find themselves back where they started, within a few seconds more. So the narrative flow wasn’t entirely consistent. But, Lord, it was fun.

And then it happened! Right between the scene of the old Ford Zephyr unloading from the boat (swinging in a car-hammock above the assembled crowds in Lagos), in about 1958 or so, and the scenes of a five- or six-year-old me playing with our two adult Dalmations and their eight puppies. There it was! Christmas 1956. Just as I’d remembered it all my life. Unfolding, right in front of me again.

But wait! What’s this? Something I actually had forgotten!

All my life, I’ve favored Christmas trees decorated without tinsel, and hung with what Jenny calls “the little wooden duck” school of Christmas tree ornaments. I love them. And if they are damaged or injured, a wing missing, a foot on backwards–so much the better. Mr. She is just the opposite. For him, the shinier and twinklier and lightier, the better. Tinsel, glitter, reflection, twirling baubles–you get the idea. Never the twain shall meet. An annual battle, for a lifetime of Christmases.

I usually lose. And that’s ok. Although I defiantly hang my one lonely little wooden duck ornament on the tree every year just to assert my independence and show that I can. He’s quite old, and he doesn’t have feet anymore. But I do believe he can still fly.

And now I know exactly when my little wooden duck fetish started. It’s not surprising at all.

It started about one minute into the perfect Christmas.

I hope I haven’t overdone it or worn out my welcome here with this self-indulgent post. But this month’s group writing topic was “memories,” and I have many! I’ve shared so much of my life, and of my rather eccentric and highly individual family members with all of you for such a long time (nine years now), that, in addition to showing off a bit, I wanted you to meet them, as close as I can get to “in person” at this remove of space and time.

Merry Christmas from our house to yours! And a Happy and Blessed New Year!

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