Parachute Silk.

 

I think about what my mother wears

framed on my sideboard in sepia

finished in silk satin.

Her sweetheart neckline and smile 

pinned by a lens and last-minute alterations. 

 

She grips her airman’s arm, their smiles frozen. 

They forget his silk —

remnants of a crew. Only confetti flies now,

their dreams as borrowed her dress and 

his de-mob suit.

 

My parents married in 1948 in the historical flush of post war weddings. On the day of their engagement, in 1947, just before he proposed, my mother asked him ‘where’s your uniform then?’ It was one of her more unsubtle moments, but we can forgive her because she was only nineteen and I have no doubt that they were in love, like all the post war couples. Like them I suspect my parents wanted to get back to normal. From a female perspective I was shocked when a history professor told me that ‘all people wanted to do post-war was get back to normal.’ And I was surprised by this. Then I underestimated the effects of traumas such as the Blitz of 1942, Combat in Bomber command and incarceration as a POW. I remember mum telling me that dad was full of antics when he was first de mobbed. There is a story of him astride a one of the lions in Trafalgar Square on VJ night. I can remember being puzzled but as mum pointed out, ‘You can’t incarcerate young men for years at a time and not expect them to let off steam.’. However, I was to discover his story was far more complex.

An Easter Wedding.

There is a photograph of my mother arriving at Llansamlet church. She beams down at the camera. Behind her a young girl, partly hidden by my mother, gazes at her silk brocade dress. Is she a relative or an onlooker? The latter is more likely as weddings in Llansamlet, judging by the photographs we have, were a community past time. A Saturday chance to get out and gaze at or criticize the peoples best finery and ‘doings’. Whoever this young girl is – she looks about twelve or thirteen – her hair is parted on the left side and held back by a comb or a slide. My aunt could in time identify her, but I am unequal to reaching back and grasping at names and faces to find a match. The girl’s coat looks like a thin tweed but the trees in the background of the photograph are bare. Stripped ready for spring. The weather is sunny and dry and unseasonably warm. My mother’s veil is held back by a coronet of artificial silk (I hope) flowers and her face is framed by black pin-curls, caught in the back in a roll on her neck – I think.   My mother continues to smile at the camera so that seventy-one years later, her face is remains lit by sunlight. Flecks of silk in a feather pattern absorb the light showing the pattern of her dress while the leg of mutton sleeves are stiff. The sleeves are pointed and buttoned with a row of tiny silk button. My grandmother‘s amethyst pendant hangs slightly awry in the bustle and flurry of getting to the church, and the sweetheart neckline that frames it is just slightly too large for my mother. Perhaps she lost weight. It could be because the dress is borrowed. My mother is slender in the dress which clings to her form. My grandfather, who has the same look and gait as my brother, holds her train and veil in his hand – perhaps to protect it from the damp gravel outside the church. But his body is turned protectively towards my mother on his left. He smiles, peering through his spectacles at the church steps they have to negotiate. Three house keys dangle from his pocket. 

In the group photographs my father and mother stand on the church steps, a primitive kind of photoshopping so that neither is dwarfed by the best man, John Gould, and Maureen who is one of the bridesmaids. Esther, dad’s youngest sister looks shy. She looks like my grandmother. Her head tilts downwards and her dark eyed gaze is shy. Glenys dad’s other sister resembles Gloria Gaynor. Perhaps it is this coupledwith her age that makes her smile confident. The bridal couple smiles. But no matter how much I gaze at the photograph these are parents that I do not recognize. My mother will not be twenty-one for another month. she leans into my father slightly who is holding pair of grey gloves between his hands while she clasps his arm. His fringe flopscaught in the sunshine and the breeze that sweeps my mother’s bridal gown sideways in a solo bridal shot. The camera was not fully straight, as the frame of the photograph tilts leftward. Perhaps they are all leaning towards my father glad to have him home safe. Previously, the only emotion I glimpsed were happiness and joy. But on a closer look at dad there are signs of strain. He smiles but the smile is shy, and he looks slighter. His face is heart shaped and his dimples are clearly defined. Holding his gloves closes him and mum off in a bridal loop of their own making. They all look impossibly young in the warm sunlight but there is a look of vulnerability in the two men pitched as they were into combat. I don’t know what happened to John Gould – he was dad’s best man and best friend growing up. I think they were in the RAF together. Dad also had a close friend called Smithy. I don’t know what happened to him or how they were best friends either. There is still so much I don’t know about my father that I can do is fill in the narrative gaps with fantasies that are close to the truth as I can make them.

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When and where does the World Seem like Heaven, Now? How is this reflected in your writing?

Heaven is plain brown chapel on a brown and heathered hill overlooking the gray sea in the south. There are no stars. Only the lights from the oil refinery and steel works glitter in the east from the cooling towers. The wind whips around this closed off hamlet–which faces Kilvey Hill — part sheltered part cut off from the old sea town now a coastal city.

The landscape cut its inhabitants off with only one road towards the town skirting the back of the hill. It led down to the river, the canal and dock wharves– green and singing now– yet ghosted with dockers, hauliers, pilots, stevedores, copper workers tavern girls and potters. So the hamlet stayed safe.

Here my ancestors made their own heaven on ‘The Cefn’; stuck fast to their language, and bathed in a Baptist tradition betrayed by the Blue Books until their Christian names mutated into English variants. Hearth and heart held their mother tongue for Sunday psalms,hymn singing and socials in the chapel school house; in tunes sung in tin baths soaping and sudsing the silt from their backs.

So perhaps this is reflected on my writing as I research my father’s family. I have listened to ‘Under Milk Wood’ every morning for the last month. It seems like a prayer to the polysyllabic, flat, and open- vowelled song and nonsense that is ‘I’ll do it now in a minute!’ And ‘ Let’s go by there.’

The idiosyncrasies of language are warm and endearing; their word play signify love and affection.

It is an accent which causes hiraeth: in its urgent tug towards a place and time. When my accent catches on a vowel I hear the voices of my mother, grandmother and aunts. Their gestures mine. ‘You see.’ Part question part statement and accompanied by the pinch of forefinger and the thumb of my right hand.

So ‘writing heaven’ is living with my ancestors in my head telling their stories of migration to the sea town, either along the canals from Abercrave or in a cargo ship along the South Wales coast. Telling me stories of setting off for America, following in the footsteps of the chapel congregation who left a century or so before them. They compromised settling in their homeland but far from their home.

Their story is of building a safe community in a fast-moving, ever-changing, landscape and of being fodder for the industrial revolution and canny enough to appreciate the advantages it offered. Part of my story is to find theirs.

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Sunday Best

Sunday best for me was firstly a black and white wool coat with Peter Pan collar, red dress with blue tie on the petersham collar. A black and white check full skirted dress. Later (it took 3 years to grow out of these) the coat was green and I had a full skirted dress in autumn colours with swirls of leaves. Occasionally I would have ‘a new dress for whitsun’. I didn’t understand why Whitsun. It wasn’t as if we went anywhere, so I suspect that was a left over from my mother’s childhood.

My grandmother Mary-Annie was a bit of character I suspect . When I first started writing seriously,she was the first person I wrote about as a young mother and bride. ‘Stubborn’ my mum used to say, ‘The Jones’s are stubborn.’ the adjective has negative connotations suggesting pride, intransigence, a tough nature and unwillingness to compromise.

But how different ‘steadfast’, ‘persistent’ and resilient sound. Here this would include the willingness to stick to beliefs and hold fast to a way of life and action.

Uncle John told my daughter and I a story about her once. ‘See,’ he said, ‘all she wanted was a best coat to wear for chapel on Sundays.’

I imagine she saved and saved and saved, but that her savings were always used for an emergency. How I know that the ‘the girls’, my father’s sisters, were well dressed I have no idea but I knew that mamgu made their clothes. And it was much later that in the census of 1911 I saw that she was a dress maker in Ben Evans – the Swansea-famous department store.

But this wish to have a best coat for chapel says much about her attitude towards chapel. Given that her great grandfather built Adulam, she was immersed in the baptist faith, which she carried on when she moved to Heol Las and Ainon. Also the Thomas family descendants were economically diverse from prosperous grocers to coal hewers and hauliers. A certain resilience was needed given that this was a large family descended from seven children, who became the deacons, secretaries, Sunday school teachers, Sunday school secretaries for the chapel. It must have been tough to live up to these expectations and there would have been tensions. She would want to be smartly but not ostentatiously dressed.

Being a dressmaker in a department store at the beginning of the century, she would have had an insight into the wealth of the industrialists who sent their wives and daughters to shop there. She would also have known what was fashionable and beautiful. She was an Eva Smith /Daisy Renton of her time albeit without the awful ending. So perhaps my grandmother had an endearing streak of vanity wanting to look good and feel smart. And coats are smart things and family legend states she was a smart woman. In all senses of the word.

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Photos from the attic

Growing up, My favourite space in the house was the attic; a large spacious area lined to keep out damp, with insulation pocketed between the rafters and beams. To get across the space I had to dance over beams with the always nervous feeling that I would put a foot through a ceiling. The widest wall was the chimneybreast. Brick red but the cement was rougher than on the external wall. It was nerve wracking to go that far across the roof to my toy box and Lego box. Here. were old well wrapped boxes of blue china; my father’s books, old brass candlesticks, copper kettles stray tea sets and ornaments gave the attic an air of adventure. There were treasures to be found that never lost their charm no matter how many times I ‘found’ them

It was here in a suitcase that the family photographs were ‘filed’.

I shivered when I snapped open the lock and sifted through the photographs wondering who some of the people were.

There were duplicates of my parents’ wedding in the case, photos of my mother as a child, her aunts and uncles; images from the nineteen thirties with the ladies having shingled brown hair , soulful eyes always sitting sideways in knitwear and pearls. Occasionally, there would be a name or a date the photographer’s signature or the signature of the person whose photograph it was. Always in blue or black Quink, and often in copperplate handwriting.

The suitcase was grubby cream,lined with faded pink silk that had become brittle with age . Some photographs had been delicately hand coloured by my aunt who worked in a photographer studio making one wedding photograph – a hybrid of art and technology – and while beautiful I was always unsettled by it.

The fashions changed as I shuffled the black and white decades between my hands. They became more and more familiar though their stories remained untold.

It was my parents’ post war wedding which fascinated me the most. The mounts were edged in silver with embossed paper and the silver script on the invitations was neat and elegant. There were news clippings of their engagement and wedding and one news clipping when my father was posted as missing in action. They are lost now.

On the day my mother died I remember standing in the garden – I had taken the children out to play. I looked at the birdbath – it was dry. I was playing ‘bubbles’ with my daughter. We watched them rise in the shady fenced garden and as they rose they eventually popped as if they had never been. Over in a second – at least that’s how it seemed at the time. The photos are now divided amongst the three of us. The suitcase long gone. But their faces still gaze at us ….

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Images

There is a photograph of my grandmother standing in her garden. The gardens of Heol Las were long and narrow and filled with produce: marrows, potatoes, carrots, and in summer, peas beans tomatoes . They housed the odd pig for autumn butchering too.

My grandmother was tiny so the lens points townwards. This lady has the look of my sister and daughter. She has a heart shaped face and she gazes into the lens quizzically. It is a digital copy so the image is undated. There are a fence and brick wall in the background defining the boundaries between the houses, although my grandmother owned both. Famously she came home after seeing the houses built in Heol Las and bought two: one to rent and the other to live in. The idea being that one would pay for the other – canny lady. Behind her, the hills, that make Heol Las a hamlet,curve along the background of the picture. She clasps her hands in front of her. Sunlight bleaches the pattern out of her wrap-around apron. Her age is indeterminate, she looks young and her skin is clear, unblemished and smooth. Her hair falls in soft curls brushed smooth and shining . She is beautiful.

It’s impossible then to date the photograph, it feels like the late nineteen forties but could be the early nineteen-fifties. But she looks mischievous, as if she has a humorous story to tell or is about to crack a joke. Her eyes sparkle;yet, like her youngest daughter in another photograph there is an air of shyness about her.

I suspect my father is the photographer. In another photograph that I’ve long lost,she is stouter older and wearing a long coat with deep pockets. Her hat is rakish and as my uncle whose wedding it was said, ‘she looks like a gangster.’ Again there is the same mischievous glint but this time knowing how sick she would become, there seems to be an air of frailty about her. In this photograph she is surrounded by sons, daughters, their wives husbands and children. I think she would be happy and proud.

She is of course the great granddaughter of the chapel founders. Like them she had a strong faith. She was determined and ambitious for her children. She supported them in all ways. All she wanted was a brand new coat to wear on Sundays for chapel-best. She certainly looks her best in the image I have in my possession. I missed out. I wish I could have known her.

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Bonymaen Ancestors

It’s been a while since I wrote here as I’ve been concentrating on researching the kinds of experiences my father had as a POW between 1943 and 1945. Suddenly it seemed I had a structure and I have ‘gone with it’. I like what I’ve written. In between writing I have spent time delving into the history of my great-great-great-grandparents , Shon and Nans Thomas — from Cefn Road Bonymaen.

I always knew that the ‘family were big in Adulam’ but as a child I had no idea what that actually meant, and with my fathers death the stories were lost. I’m descended from Shon and Nans’s youngest son, John and his wife Mary. John and his sister, Elizabeth were born shortly before Shon and Nans decided to leave Gelli for Life in the US In this they were following in the footsteps of others who had left Capel Rhydwilym a hundred years before. They left at a time of increasing rents, tithes, poor harvests, tolls and the beginnings of The Rebecca Riots at Efailwen some six or seven miles away. However, they settled in Swansea. He became a barge man and a haulier loading coal in Foxholes. They worshipped at Babell and their eldest son was baptised by Y Dyn Dall . When they broke away from the chapel in Foxholes , the first sermon of the breakaway chapel was preached on Nans and Shon’s doorstep. (See Stairway to Cefn by Nance keevil and Philippa George.

I drove up to the Cefn this week and it was the first time I had been there since I was a child. As usual I got lost driving out to the lower end of the hamlet towards the farms. On the south facing slope the chapel dominates the landscape. It is huge. Brown as peat, the south wall is breathtaking. It straddles the steep incline. This is of course the new chapel – the first tŷ cwrdd was likened mockingly to a birdcage. By the time the first chapel was completed Shon was 57 and Nans was 58. They accomplished so much. They built a new life in the face of social and economic force, used their faith as a force for good and changed and influenced a welsh speaking hamlet. Then as now it must have been difficult to lead a life of Christian faith in the face of so much social and economic change. Their children and grandchildren became deacons and their faith renewed and handed down through the generations.I couldn’t find their graves but as I turned to leave I found the grave of my great grandfather, close to the garden wall of the house where he had lived. Someone had left flowers there.

And now as I research Swansea and Bonymaen these people have become ‘alive’ in my thoughts and dreams. In a mix of phrases from ‘Under Milk Wood’ with ‘owls flying home’ to chapel, ‘the principality of the sky’. Eli Jenkins and his poetry, I dreamed of my grandmother with long black hair wearing a smocked pinafore . She is laughing heedless and happy on the hillside. A tomboy in the making and a wicked glint in her brown black eyes!

Someone asked me this week if I believed in time travel and I do inasmuch as it is possible for the past to seem more pressing and urgent than the present , or if its people occupy my thoughts and dreams.

I am awed by their legacy. Seven children, two of whom emigrated tributes in Welsh Baptist newspapers listings their virtues kindness, gentleness, neighbourliness, steadfast faith,wisdom bathed in scripture.

It left me wondering what their imperfections were and how difficult it would have been to live in their shadows. Let alone the imposing shadow of the chapel building, the hall and it’s cemetery.

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Searching for Narrative

Writing about my father’s experiences as a Prisoner of War is, on times, harrowing- not least because though I can date and place him in events I cannot really corroborate these as part of his story because other than two events- his capture and two snapshot on the forced march he never spoke about them. ‘Ifan suffered much.’said Mike Evans in a message to me after we discovered his mother was best friends with Nancy dad’s sister but at a distance of seventy five years I’m unlikely to find personal accounts now. So it’s almost a lost narrative slipping through my fingers in fragments of stories passed on, historical accounts, messages and impersonal service reports that say little about who he was. Moreover given that it is over 40 years since his death, it feels that he has slipped further down stream out of sight in a river-haze.

Part of this enterprise is a search for him – perhaps we always have an innate need to search for what is lost: keys, tickets, debit cards, childhood friends, school days, childhood summers and significant relationships. But it seems in some respects, that he is lost too a bit part in the greater narrative of historical accounts. Dad was never a ‘glory-boy’. His approach was to stay alive and survive. That he and fellow POW came close to being shot by SS captors is documented historically and coincides with one other story I’ve been told.

Part of my concerns with narrative belong to the recent historical commemorations and remembrance services for WW1 and WW2. As a child, these services seemed more low key and muted. Dad, wearing a winter coat, bought poppies in Swansea Market, places them in the grass around St Mary’s , then we left for home. There was no discussion, no elaboration simply due respect and thanks and I suspect for dad. many memories. However, It’s hard not to feel there’s another elaborate narrative around the commemorations of the last two to three years and I would love to be a time-travelling historian to see how all this ties together with what’s going on in politics today. Maybe what I’m searching for is lost, maybe I’m a bit lost and am looking for what can be found. However it feels as if so many letters, documents and fragments are slipping through my fingers.

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