Grandparents, guides and mentors

I only ever knew one grandparent. It’s a partly a function of the era in which I grew up and partly because we literally lived continents apart.

John and Mary Cameron, late 1950s or early 1960s

These are my Scottish grandparents. My father’s father, John Cameron, died before I was born. How long before? I haven’t a clue. Were my parents married at the time? I don’t know. Wee Granny, as we called her, because, I am told, she was a little lady, I met as an infant. I was baptised out of her home in Glasgow. I remember being told that she visited us in Bridlington in Yorkshire, after my sister was born.

Glasgow calling

I don’t remember a letter or Christmas card from her, but there will have been. I do have a vague memory of the telephone ringing – because in those days they did ring, and loudly, in an echoe-y hallway – in the wee hours of the night, and voices. It would have been around 1972. Midnight telephone calls – actually, calls after 8pm – were never good news.

At breakfast the following morning, Mum said, and before Dad got to the table – he always joined last – “Wee Granny died yesterday.”

“It” was never discussed although Wee Granny did get mentioned in conversation and reminiscences from time to time often.

The one I remember

Big Granny, on the other hand, so nicknamed because she was tall, I do remember.  As a six year old, I remember an elegant and regal woman who smelled of talcum powder. She smoked cigarettes using a long, black holder.

Delia Stockford (nee Carrol), 1920-something

Big Granny was born in 1900, so we always knew her age.

Grandpa Stockford and his four daughters circa 1933.

Grandpa Stockford was killed in a shooting incident in a shooting range before the Second World War.  Not long after that, all four children went down with Diphtheria.  The youngest did not survive.

Big Granny, 1937

Big Granny came to South Africa once. For three months, I think. It was from late 1969 and into 1970. My clearest memories of that time is of Mum taking her a daily breakfast tray of black tea and toast. Which she only ever ate with butter.  Plain toast and butter always make me think of her.  Granny used to write me the odd letter when I was at boarding school. One I distinctly remember:  she wrote to me about a beech tree in Kew, and which my father talked about, which had split down the middle and died. There was a drought in England.

I have also never forgotten the beech leaf pendant – a real leaf, dipped in gold, I think – which she always wore. Every day. I often wonder what happened to it. I thought  It was beautiful.

After another midnight telephone phone call, Mum went to England in late 1979 because the end was nigh. It was the first time mother and daughter would see each other since that visit nine years before.  It was also the first time Granny and her remaining daughters were under the same roof since the 1950s. And the last. She died in early 1980. She was 79 and I, just shy of 17.

Four more Grannies and Grandpas

Because my parents had emigrated, we had no extended family in Grahamstown where they eventually settled; let alone in South Africa.  With two children under 18, there were two couples in their friendship circle who became surrogate grannies and grandpas.  We were happily adopted and I have fond memories of Uncle Richie baking bread (my first memory of bread baking – he was a baker), and Auntie Dot baking the most amazing Madeira cake.  The baker didn’t approve of all his wife’s baking methods, and it was often a source of much mirth.

Uncle Richie wasn’t around for my 21st birthday celebration, but Auntie Doris was.  My cake was a Madeira.  Her gift to me.  At my request.

Auntie Doris, Mum and I at my 21st garden party

Also at my 21st birthday party was the couple who, had something happened to my parents before I reached that milestone, would have been my legal guardians.  They were fellow Scots and my father and Uncle Jock had much in common.  I remember Auntie Ella as the gentlest, sweetest soul I have ever met.  She had wonderful rings which I constantly admired.  With hindsight, I think she had always wanted a daughter.  They had had only one child – a son.  Auntie Ella, thanks to rheumatic fever, had a bad heart so one child was a miracle.

Auntie Ella and Uncle Jock at my 21st birthday garden party. That’s my dad lurking behind my right shoulder.

She allowed me to play with her hair.  Something my mother never permitted.  Ella’s hair was naturally wavy, and when I started playing with her hair, was developing a white wing above the widow’s peak on her forehead.  When she died, in 1991, she left me the garnet gypsy ring I had admired most.  The Husband who, sadly met neither of them, chose it as his wedding ring.  Our home has a number of special things that came from their home and which help them to stay in my head and heart.

Party people

All four of those people loved a party.  They loved dancing.  Ella couldn’t but she played a mean piano and Jock drummed – on a cake tin with knitting needles if there wasn’t a drum available.  They shamed my parents on to the dance floor for years.  Both Auntie Ella and Auntie Doris gave this pre-teen more than one dancing lesson.  They taught me the twist and the jive – pointing one’s toe, and wiggling the hips…  Somewhere, there is was a photograph of this eleven year old dancing with Uncle Jock at a wedding.  It’s still in my mind’s eye, my lemon yellow, large polka dot, long frock and my hair in pigtails and ribbons…

The mentors and friends

There are two people who shaped my thinking and, at different times, offered guidance, support and friendship that had a profound effect on my life.  One, a former teacher who, like my mother, was called Ursula.  She was my Standard 8 (year 10 teacher), and it was she who instilled in me my love of geography.  When I returned, reluctantly, to do teaching practice at my old school, she took me under her wing.  That I went on to get a distinction for one of those practical observations and a project in which I re-engineered the apartheid human geography school curriculum, is in large part, her “fault”.

Standard 8, Clarendon High School with Ursula van Harmelen. I am sitting third from the right. It was 1978.

I moved on and learned that she had turned to teaching teachers at my almer mater.  We reconnected when my mother died:  I’d literally run to the sanctuary of Ursula’s down to earth and irreverent and comforting home and person.  I became a regular visitor when I had occasion to be at Rhodes University for work.  I got to know her sister and now that Ursula is no longer with us, Mary and I (and I know some of Urs’s other former pupils) stay in touch. Yes, the Mary of the flatbreads.

Then there was Bill.  Larger than life and who supported and mentored me as I became involved in community work and consulting.  After he died, I paid tribute to him here.  I could not do him justice here.

Last word: This was in part inspired by this contest.  I suspect that because, as usual, I’ve deviated from the rules, this is not an eligible entry.  That said, and as I always say, I don’t participate to win but rather because the topic makes me think.  This one did.  Thank you @galenkp.

Until next time, be well
The Sandbag House
McGregor, South Africa

Photo: Selma

Post script
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