My parents welcomed a third daughter into our lives in 1970. Lil was just hours shy of being a Canada Day baby. She was born on June 30th rather than July 1st – Canada Day. It was a Tuesday, and I was five. My mother often told us that we almost lost both she and the baby during the birth. My mother was overweight throughout her life. When she went to the hospital in labour with Lil, the nurse did not believe that she was in labour.
“You’re a big, healthy girl”, the nurse said. “You’ll be fine.”
She wasn’t fine and the baby, who was born too late, entered the world with a cola-coloured birth mark covering half of her tiny forehead. The birthmark would eventually fade away but it existed because of the pressure placed on my little sister’s head in the birth canal. At least that is what my mother said. Mother and newborn remained in hospital some weeks after Lil’s arrival. My father worked shift work at the Ford Plant. He was on days for two weeks and then nights for two weeks. When he had to work the night shift at the Ford plant while my mother remained in hospital, he would leave us with the McAlpines, another Scottish couple my parents befriended in Canada. I hated it when my dad was on nights because we couldn’t be at home with him.
Mame and Ross McAlpine had two sons, the younger of whom was partially deaf and had to be fitted as a baby with a hearing aid. They lived in the apartments next to Springbank Park and I found, as was the case with my mother, Mame was impossible to please. I was feeling lost and abandoned in the absence of my parents and Mame would scream and shout at me and hit me as did my mother.
Life was calmer with just my father. After Lil was born, when my dad was on days, he would take us to the hospital in the evenings to visit my mother and new baby sister. St. Joseph’s Hospital in London is situated next to a children’s playground that sits deeply at the bottom of hills that rolls away from the hospital parking lot and surrounding downtown streets. Cissy and I would run wildly down those steep hills and into the park. Not that Cissy would play with me. She never did that. It’s just that we were both running into the same park at the same time. My dad would then take us to the hospital cafeteria where we’d help the refectory lady clean up the tables in exchange for Eskimo pie ice cream sandwiches while my dad visited my mom and wee sister. We were not allowed to go with him, but after his visit he would take my sister and me out to the parking lot and we would wave to my mother as she looked down at us from her hospital window. I flapped my hand in her general direction but felt happy that she was away from me. I just wanted to go home with my dad.
My mother says that when I first laid eyes on my baby sister I said, “Oh. She’s cuter than us.”
We were bringing the new baby home from the hospital. I stood in the backseat perched between my parents so I could get a good look at her. My mother held the new red-headed baby in her arms. In the following weeks my mother had to recover from her C-section. When we were alone together in our washroom, my mother showed me a lengthy, angry pink scar that cut her flabby belly in half. I was repulsed by her billowing flesh and the red mark that branded her a third time mother.
I was seven, Cissy was ten, and Lil was two when we went to Scotland for a summer holiday for the first time since we had immigrated in 1966. Before we went, I found a stack of tweed bonnets in the nearby forest. I brought them home to take with me to Scotland for my Grandfather Crerand. My mother murdered me for bringing them into the house and threw them out.
“They’re likely full o’ lice ye stewpid wee bugger!” she screamed. “Are ye bloody stewpid?!!” she ranted in front of Shirley MacKirdie and Deirdre Royer who stood shocked at her outburst.
My mother made us matching outfits for the journey home. We had powder blue polyester pant suits with navy blue turtlenecks we wore underneath the baby-blue vests. We wore matching purple anoraks that reminded me of the purple wrapper around a Cadbury chocolate biscuit. We had short-sleeved striped turtlenecks – Cissy’s was beige and white and mine was purple and white – and we had long sleeved knit jumpers – mine was red and white and Cissy’s was beige and white.
We landed in Glasgow at night and got the airport bus from Prestwick to my granny’s house. I sat next to my mother on the bus. She explained to me that the road dividers were called cat’s eyes. I agreed that they looked like cat’s eyes as they illuminated the slick lanes in the dark, foggy night. We saw two drunks walking arm-in-arm along the road, staggering into traffic.
“Look at them twa drunken bums!” my mother said. “Disgraceful!”
As the bus passed the two men, my mom realized they were her two alcoholic brothers walking up the road to my gran’s house where they would greet us. One brother was puny – short in stature and slim – and the other brother was taller and very fat. They were Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.
On her wedding night my Grandmother Crerand hid in the toilet with a knitting needle to protect herself from the mysteries of the marital bed. She must have overcome her sexual trepidation because she went on to have eight children, seven of whom survived into adulthood. Each time she was pregnant she refused to leave the house and she wore her coat even inside the house to hide the fact she had had sex. No one was allowed in the Crerand house when Mary Crerand was expecting, which seemed to be all the time.
My grandmother’s house had two small bedrooms, a tiny front room and miniscule kitchen. It was a 1950s prefab built after the war by German POWs. The house that my grandparents had lived in during the war had been destroyed in the Clydebank Blitz. The town stood right next to John Brown’s Shipyard where they built war vessels. John Brown’s is where my mother’s father had worked during the war. Two devastating nights of Luftwaffe air raids over the shipping town had destroyed all but seven homes in Clydebank. My mother’s house was hit by a bomb in those March 9th and 10th, 1941 air raids. My mother was just three-years-old, and a wall fell on her crib. The only wall that was left standing in the Crerand home was one with a picture of the Sacred Heart on it, Jesus flaming heart overlooking the rubble German bombs had made of Clydebank in March 1941.
After their home was destroyed in the Blitz, my mother’s family was split apart, the eight children were farmed out to relatives and neighbours. At the same time, my Grandfather Crerand ended up in hospital crippled with rheumatoid arthritis for almost two years. The staff would dunk my grandfather, suspended in a sling, into large vats of hot wax to relieve his pain. One night he said that he saw the Sacred Heart of Jesus standing at the foot of his hospital bed. Christ’s heart glowed from his chest and He made the sign of the cross over my grandfather who, the next day, was well enough to walk out of hospital.
My Grandfather Crerand found a cottage in Kirkintillach and asked the Girl Guides, who owned it, for possession. They gave it to him and he proceeded, with the help of his two oldest sons, to clear out all of the bottles stored inside. Together, father and sons put a roof on it so that my granddad could bring his family together again under one roof. They lived in the country, had pet ducks and ate duck eggs for breakfast every morning for the rest of the war. They went to school in military boots, which is why, my mother said, that she was splay-footed in life. They packed their lunches in the gas masks that they were requisitioned and required by law to carry with them to school.
My mother’s infant brother, Tómas, died when he was two. He had a hole in his heart. My mother said he loved sugar and he would eat it by the spoonful from the bowl. The night Tómas died was the only time my mother saw her father drunk. Her father fell into the trees around the house weeping over his lost son; however, that was not the only time she saw her father drunk. When my mother was married her father drank again.
“He’d drink oot a’ clooty cup!” my grandfather’s sister said of my granddad. She meant that her brother (my grandfather) would drink booze out of a shitty cup he loved the drink so much.
My mother leapt to her father’s defense saying she had only seen her father drunk once in her life, when her brother, Tómas, died. Even on her wedding day my mother felt compelled to put some bitch in her place. My mother was always up to high doh. Her screaming, shouting and black moods were part of the package of going anywhere. As a child her own mother called her the Black Bitch and beat her with a wooden hairbrush. She had dark hair and dark eyes and I am guessing that she was a rageoholic even then. I asked my mother’s youngest brother what it was like to grow up with my mom. His eyes got wide, he grimaced and shook his head.
Our 1972 trip to Scotland was the first time I would meet these relatives I’d heard so much about. My dad’s parents were dead before I was born so there were only my maternal grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins to come to know. My father didn’t keep in contact with his side of the family, and he had no plan to contact his family while were we back home. Whenever we went to Scotland it was all about my mother’s family, the Crerands. I hardly knew the Griffins as a child.
My mother’s father didn’t say much. He was a quiet man who wore tweed caps and smoked a pipe. He had black eyes and wore immaculately ironed shirts every day. I remember him sitting quietly and puffing on his pipe. My grandmother was a different entity altogether. She was a nag and critical of everyone and everything. She couldn’t allow peace to exist. She was also as big as a house. She waddled, huffing and puffing with every step. My mother’s family would come down to Gran’s for a sing song while we were there. We gathered in the front room and everyone had to take a turn singing a song. My father used to sing the Irish rebel songs of his beloved Celtic football club. He sang a particularly sad song called Nobody’s Child, about an orphan boy who waits to be adopted but never is. It was heartbreaking the way my father sang it. He was that orphan boy who was forgotten by his own family. His father died when he was seven and he buried his mother at age twenty-one. I sang Billy Don’t Be a Hero when I was pressed. I didn’t want to sing publicly but one was shamed if one passed as my older sister always did. She would never do anything brave. As for me, I wasn’t courageous as much as I just didn’t want to disappoint my father. I needed him to be proud that I was his daughter.
We did actually meet some of my father’s family during that trip. My dad was the youngest of six siblings. We met his older brother, Dànaidh and his family. Dànaidh served in Germany during the Second World War. He had seen a barn full of corpses in Germany, the emaciated bodies stacked from floor to ceiling. He told my father that said he could never get that image of hatred and death out of his mind. He married a beautiful German woman named Lilli, and brought his bride home to Scotland after the war. They moved into the family home in Pollock, Glasgow with my father, their mother, and two of my dad’s sisters, Ailisl and Roísìn. Dànaidh continued to live in the Griffin family home after their mother died when my dad was twenty-one, and that is the house in which we visited with them during our summer holiday there. My mother told me that my German Auntie Lilli was my godmother. I tried to understand her when she spoke to me but she still had a thick German accent and I found it difficult to completely comprehend her. My Uncle Dànaidh was tall, thin and bald. He sat next to me as I wrote a story and drew pictures in his front room next to the fire.
“You’re a writer and an artist,” he said. “Those are two gifts that run in our family, the Griffin family.”
We had a sing song at my Uncle Dànaidh’s house too. My dad’s brother and sisters still living in Scotland came up to the house to meet us. I sat on the stairs with my cousin, Petula, my Uncle Dànaidh’s only daughter, and together we watched the adults in the front room. Petula was a year older than I. She was a very pretty blonde girl, slender and tall for her age and called ‘Pet’ for sort. People sat in the front room behind thick clouds of cigarette smoke, chatted together and sang songs as ice-filled glasses clinked. My cousin, Pet, and I sat on the carpeted staircase in the front hallway and looked through the wooden rails on the steps at the adults enjoying themselves after seven years apart. My dad sang Nobody’s Child again and his sister, my Auntie Mary, sang I Left My Heart in San Francisco. I had heard my father speak fondly of his oldest sister, Mary, but I found her to be terrifying. She looked sad the night she sang her song for her family. Her cigarette smoke swirled before her face, which was angular and hard. Only her large, blue eyes – exactly like my father’s – softened her otherwise sharp features. My father stopped staying in touch with his family after that visit. Often when we went home to Scotland when I was older, he didn’t bother contacting any of them.
“Call your family, dad,” I’d tell my father.
“Och. I cannee be bothered,” he’d say.
“I want to know your family too,” I told him.
“Och,” he’d say.
During that summer 1972 visit, I used to wake early in the mornings to have some freedom in the peace and quiet of the house as the others still slept. I would go outside to ride the scarlet scooter around the circular drive in front of my grandparents’ house and the neighbouring house belonging to the Bishops. My granddad, also an early riser, would quietly sit and watch me as he puffed on his pipe. He put out Cornflakes for me while the milk was still cold. They had no fridge and I liked to get the milk when the milkman first delivered it and it was still chilled. Granddad poured the cold, creamy milk and heaped sugar into my bowl until I said, “When!”
One of my mom’s brothers took us camping along the lochs. We had to take a boat to reach our campsite. All of the cousins would swim in the crystal clear water to the various islands or to boats anchored in the shallows. The peace was always shattered, however, with the squabbles of my mother’s siblings. My mom found it hard to get on with anyone for very long, finding it necessary to put people in their place.
My eldest cousin, Lizanne, who was eighteen at this time, complained to the younger cousins, myself included, at having to always look after the wee ones while the adults were at a pub for a drink.
“I’d rather be there than way a parcel of bloody weans,” she moped.
My mother overheard her grouse and tore a strip off of her in front of all of us. “Ye bloody watch it ma lady!” she said to Lizanne, who was devastated at my mother’s chastisement. My cousin never answered my mother back and I felt ashamed of my mother as she wounded Lizanne, who was so beautiful, kind and gentle.
On that trip, I was with my two alcoholic uncles, Laurel and Hardy, one afternoon when they stopped at a pub and left me in the car. They told me not to tell anyone that they’d left me in the car for a few hours. I told my mom the first chance I got but she didn’t care. My father did, however, when I told him. He and my mother rowed over it, and in the end it was decided that I wasn’t to go with her brothers, who were drunks, again. Uncle Hardy’s wife was a great horsewoman. She rode her horse to my gran’s one night and tied it to the lamp post outside her house for a laugh. My grandmother had a tantrum the likes of which I had witnessed only my mother throwing and my two-year-old sister. That auntie was banned from the house for a time. My gran often picked on my father in the same way. I never understood why since my father was so good to my grandmother. He wanted to love her as a mother since his own mother was dead I suppose, but there was no loving that woman just as there was no loving my mother and there was no loving me.