"Cowardice asks the question...is it safe? Expediency asks the question...is it politic? Vanity asks the question...is it popular? But conscience asks the question...is it right? And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular but one must take it because it is right." ~Dr. Martin Luther King

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Keeping The Record Straight

The History Channel recently featured the Battle of Loos in the First World War. Casualties were buried in trenches where they died. Large numbers were Scots. Recently television featured recovery of the remains of one member of the Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders and enough belongings to determine his identity.

He was a poor man - a coal miner. They speculated he joined the Army in hopes of making things better for his family without an idea of what it entailed. They visited the area he had lived with his family and imagined streets of "muck” with no water or electricity in the homes. They said his widow and eight children would have been turned out of their home after his death and there would be no assistance for them from anywhere.

Some of the details of the story were familiar to me from my mother's memories and my own experience.

Coal mines were outside the towns. Owners provided housing known as . Miners' Rows. A single water spigot outside served a whole row of homes. Lighting was by oil lamp. Electricity.had not been invented.

My grandfather grew up in Bartonholm. It was two rows of houses out on a moor. I remember the ruins and the mine abandoned. Grampa told me once of walking in to Mass on a Sunday in his bare feet , with his boots tied around his neck with the laces, to save the shoe leather.

Mass was said once a month in a local public house hotel by an itinerant priest.

When they were first married, my grandparents lived at Bartonholm. My mother was a toddler there. Grannie would be in her early twenties .. My mother was her fifth child. She had already lost Wee Jeannie from whooping cough . When couples married in those days, they bought a cemetery plot. at the same time. There was no immunisation from childhood diseases. They did not expect to raise all of their children.

Grannie was fastidious in her housekeeping. When she finished work each day, her broom would be scrubbed and stood outside the door to dry. . Auld Kate O'Neil. Grampa's mother didn't think much of Grannie's airs and graces. . Every morning, my mother would go to see Granny , wearing a clean white pinafore . Kate would give her bread and jam to mess it up.

Grampa was the oldest in a large family of brothers and sisters. The older members shared the raising of the younger ones. . . They went to work at fourteen, down the mines with father. Grannie and Grampa left Bartonholm and moved into town.

He then had to walk several miles to work.There were times when he worked up to his oxters (armpits) in water . Then walked home in freezing temperatures. He would have to stand in front of the fire for his clothes to thaw ,. A tin bath would be waiting for him to scrub the coal dust from his skin .

Miners worked ten to twelve hour shifts, six days a week. They were paid "piece work".,however much coal they dug out each shift. There was never enough to provide for the average family of ten children. In some ways ,it wasn't much better than slavery .It was just a step up from Feudalism.
My grandfathers ,Henry Diamond and Patrick Finnigan, coal miners both, were among the founders of the British Labour Party. They elected Keir Hardie, the first Labour Party member to the House of Commons.

The terrible privations and sacrifice endured by the soldiers of the first world war shamed the British government to introduce "universal" suffrage in 1921. Until then, only property-owners had a right to vote.

It's not hard to understand how an academic in 2008 , with no knowledge of a people's spirit might have a skewed idea of how things were in 1916. My mother was a teen-ager then. . Mining communities were part of my environment. Bartonholm still stood in ruins out on the moor when I was a child.

My memories do not square with how the archaeologist envisioned things.

Miners’ Rows were low to the ground. A glimpse in a window would reveal a fire burning with copper and brass reflecting a warm red glow. Glass lamp funnels sparkled in the firelight. . Door steps of stone were scrubbed daily. A band of white on each side freshened at the same time. .

There was bare earth and lots of rain but not "muck" . The ground was hard-packed by the foot traffic of thousands over who knows how many years. Traffic that wore down stone and wood into a hollow had the opposite effect on bare ground. It packed down hard and smooth like cement.

Grampa in his youth was a football star. He was Capped, a high honour, twice. He was offered the chance to play at a new professional level. It would have meant travelling. He turned it down. It would have meant leaving his wee wife and weans.

My grandmother's oil lamps were the envy of her friends and family. She bought them from catalogues and kept their source a secret. They were suspended by chains from the ceiling and taken down daily for wicks to be trimmed and glass funnel washed and polished . She had a collection of cranberry glass. It disappeared at the time of the General Strike. Had to be sold I guess to put food on the table.

The first chore of every day was to clear the ashes from the grate, The range would be polished to a high shine with black lead and then the fire would be lit. That was an art..

Grannie was a voracious reader. Her method of birth-control was to stay up reading until Grampa was well and truly asleep.

Family finances were the responsibility of wife and mother. All pay packets, small brown envelopes, were brought home and handed over unopened. The man of the house would have a his pocket.-money returned. Grampa was a saver. But no matter where he hid it, Grannie would find it and but nice things for the house. He never complained.

Grannie's parents, my great-grandmother, Jane Fox, married to James McCafferty, could neither read nor write. But she kept a pig and knitted and sold men's socks. Jane and James were from Ireland. . James lived until he was a hundred. He did read and write. He was a signal man with the London. Midland and Scottish railway. He was also a resource for his community. He read and wrote their letters and kept them informed of the news of the day.

My mother, born in 1902, remembered him with a long white beard and red stocking cap sitting up in bed , still receiving and helping people. She never understood why there were always people visiting . We came to the conclusion together. .Education was not universal in Ireland
Jane and James' children married Irish Catholics, all except Grannie. She married a Scottish coal mining Catholic. Granny always had the a feeling of being looked down on because of that.

Grannie bake fine bread and scones and was an excellent cook. She sewed, knitted and hooked rugs. Before there was such a thing as a stove she made her own with a metal tray placed evenly over two primus stoves. Her pots stayed shiny and never blackened with soot .

She was also a midwife and delivered babies for women who could not afford a doctor. She believed newborns were hurt by handling.. She placed the infant in the centre of a shawl and draw the four corners together and carried it where it needed to be without touching. . .

She had a sweet singing voice and an endless repertoire of Scottish and Irish ballads and could be heard singing any time of the day.

My mother had ten siblings. The youngest was born shortly before James the eldest was killed at the Dardanelles in 1917. He was twenty-two. In 1935, they took in my mother and her five children. In those days, women stayed in the matrimonial home no matter the circumstances

Grampa was still working six days a week. His knees were bent with rheumatism, his fingers blunted and twisted with years of howking coal. But he would still get down on one knee and fix a bicycle flat tire .

That was Harry Diamond, coal miner and Annie.After she died in 1946 and Grampa led the family reciting the rosary by her bed, and then he said, ; " Now there's nothing left for me but to do but wait."

Monday, December 15, 2008

A Family Occasion

There were no cards, cakes or parties. I remember clootie dumplings but not for anyone in particular. There may have been a thripny piece or a sixpence wrapped in wax paper in the dumpling. Whoever found it was just lucky. Being your birthday didn't guarantee the prize. We went to live with my grandparents when I was eight. No dumplings after that. I never felt deprived. Nobody I knew celebrated birthdays either. No place for sissy English stuff like that in our Scottish childhood.

For years I understood my birthday was on New Year's Eve. For the bans to be called in the parish church a Certificate of Baptism had to be provided. Seems I was christened three weeks before I was born. It took a while to discover how that happened. Aunt Jean told me the night before we left for Canada.

Seems my birth was not registered within the legal limit. To avoid the fine and, necessity being the mother of invention, my father simply lied and moved the date forward a month.

My children were adults before my real birthday was known.. I've always felt a bit of a fraud about it. If I couldn't be sure of the date, should I be accepting gifts and good wishes? First it was New Year's Eve and lost in whatever else was happening. Then it was close to Christmas and lost in that hubbub. This year it fell on a weekday. A gathering could have been the weekend before or the one after. I wasn't giving it much thought.

I had been asked earlier if I wanted a big to-do. "Absolutely not" I said. We own up to the day but numbers are not mentioned in my presence. I spend minimal time in front of a mirror. I avoid my reflection in plate glass windows when crossing the street. Every day I wake up feeling not a day older than the day before. Why should the world know my calender years?Less said, the better for my equilibrium.

I did not find it strange to be at the Bondhead Golf Club on Sunday afternoon. Heather Sisman had said she found a deal online. Two- for- one Brunch. She always finds deals. She scored hundreds of dollars of free groceries at the Dominion Stores when they were Fresh Obsessed. In the driveway approach, I commented it would be odd if son Frank was there with Lorna. I dismissed the thought. they recently moved to Hockley Valley. Why would they drive all that way for brunch on a Sunday?

So I rounded a corner unsuspecting. There was a scurry of little people. Familiar faces. What's this, I thought, somebody having a party and didn't invite me? Then I was in the room. Son Frank, Bryan Cousineau,the best Police Chief York region ever had, Ron Wallace and his new wife Pat were at the door with beaming smiles .The big beautiful room with a fire in the hearth and festooned with Christmas greenery and sparling ornaments was crowded with people I love.

“Did I not say this birthday was to be a secret?” I intoned . And it was indeed. But only to me. As it was for the first twenty-one years of my life.

All of my children were there, Stephen and Mary, Frank and Lorna, Martin and Marnie, Theresa, Heather and Andy, Mark and Storm and Andrew and Rhonda. Lindsay and Scott came with her two beautiful little girls, Cheyanne and Abigayle – my great granddaughters.

Vanessa was there, expecting twins. James is in Seattle working to bring them there, but not for a while. Patrick, the artist took time off from work and the long bus ride from Ottawa. Cameron, who missed the bus from London for Myles' July wedding in Ottawa , was there. Rory, Theresa's boy, and Mark, son of Mark and Storm, brought young ladies to join the clan. Stephanie the actress came from school in Guelph. Partner Eric was in Sudbury and we missed him.

Quiet, graceful, tall and slim Meghan glided in the wake of cousin Robyn, she of the amazing red hair and freckles and many talents who may go to France as an exchange student in the spring. Ryan sat at the bar, drank pop and chatted to the bartender. He was joined occasionally by cousin Hayley, she of exceedingly droll humour.

Young Michael joined Adam, Patrick, Keenan, Aaron and Cameron, all recently finished school, all with lots to share in lively conversation.

Lizzie the feminist and most likely politician, at school in Peterborough, was missing and missed. Myles, son of Mary and Stephen was also absent, as was his wife Melissa.

Friends of almost fifty years, Mary and John were there as were Margaret and Doug, with whom I share four grandchildren.

Grace Marsh and husband Bren, Alison Collins-Mrakas and Tim Jones, Ron and Pat - friends and comrades at arms, shared a glimpse of my life outside politics.

They were a merry throng but none more than myself. Being together in that place made it a momentous occasion. I shed no tears then but I do now as I tell the tale. I am more fortunate than any person has a right to be. May they always know how much I love them and how proud I am of each and every one.