While I am at teacher’s college in Scotland in 1990, my mother asks me to go to the Glasgow records office and get a copy of my father’s birth certificate. “Yer daddy would be ashamed if he knew I asked ye tae get it. His father signed it way an ‘X’. He couldnee read nor write,” she tells me. I am shocked by this revelation that my mother seems to take delight in disclosing. She always acts as though she is above my father. She is a Clydebank lass and he is a Glasgow boy, which means that she is too good for him in her estimation. My Grandfather Griffin’s illiteracy further confirms her feelings of superiority with regards to my father, however deluded they are. I collect my father’s birth certificate and before I leave the registry office I take it from the envelope in which the clerk has sealed it to look to where my Grandfather Ever Griffin has made his mark. I trace his ‘X’ with my fingertips. It reads: “Father has made his sign with a cross ‘X’ and recorded his name as Ernest Griffin’. This birth certificate is the only contact I have with this man who died more than two decades before I was born when my father was only seven years of age. My Irish grandfather may have been illiterate but I, his granddaughter, am studying to be a teacher in his city of residence: Glasgow, Scotland. That’s something at least.
I stay with my mother’s mother initially, my Grandmother Craeron, but that proves to be impossible. My mom’s older brother, Jock, tells me to come and stay with him if living with my gran becomes unbearable, which it has already become. I am under a lot of pressure that year. The financial cost alone to attend Jordanhill is astronomical. I simply cannot fail.
“I hope ye have a man tae gae hame tae,” my grandmother says at least a dozen times each day.
My Auntie Christine, the nun in the closed order of the Poor St. Clares in Scotland, calls me from the monastery in Bothwell, Glasgow where she is housed and says the same thing. “A degree is nice, hen. But I hope you have a man tae gae hame tae.”
My grandmother criticizes everything about me, my family and Canada.
“I guess Scotland wasnee good enough fer yer mother,” she says daily.
“I guess it wasn’t,” I agree with her.
“What bloody cheek! Scotland has the best beef and the best wattah in the world! And we take care of our auld folk, so we dae!”
I tell her about Canada’s beef, water and old age provisions just to wind her up, but her daily assaults prove to be a distraction that I cannot withstand. It is like living with my negative mother, only a thousand times worse. My grandmother bolsters up my cousins in my presence by telling them they have lovely legs or beautiful figures though they are shorter than I and stout. I am tall and slender but she tears me down to the ground. She is also demanding of my time. As I go out to school in the morning she calls me to help her rise and dress. On one occasion I pretend not to hear her calling my name and keep going out the door to make my classes in time though I feel great guilt in doing so.
My Uncle Jock comes up the road to visit my gran but he never stays past ten minutes. He grows red in the face at her constant bitching.
“Right mother! I’m away!” he declares and jumps up and runs off.
He says to me again, “If you cannee stay here, hen, you can live way me fer the year. I know what my mother’s like.”
I stay with my gran for nearly three weeks. She is in a rage about something, I don’t recall what, while I am trying to study. I close up my books, pack up my belongings and take a cab to my Uncle Jock’s. Anticipating this would be the case, he has already given me a key to his flat. There I have peace. He is a taxi driver and is never home at night, and I am away during the day. My Uncle Jock is the father of my molester, Cousin Morag. It is difficult to be at his house for that reason, but Morag lives in London and I never have to see her. My uncle and I coexist quite nicely for the year.
I telephone home upon receiving my first school placement that September and my father answers the call.
“I got Drumchapel,” I sob.
“Come hame, hen. Get the first plane oot and come hame. You’ll ne’er handle it,” he says to me.
I don’t go home. I leave my uncle’s at five in the morning and take two trains and a bus arriving at Drumchapel Academy by seven o’clock for the commencement of that initial teaching practicum. As the bus pulls up to the school, I note that the entirety of Drumchapel is grey. The Scottish sky is grey, pregnant with the promise of an icy rain. The school is of a chipped, grey stone, and the surrounding houses are constructed of the same deteriorating hoary gyprock. There are drunks sleeping off the night before all around the school. Some of the windows of the school are broken and much of it is boarded up, a sure sign that there is more school than there are pupils, making it more plausible to shut down half of the building to save on heating costs. I see mothers smacking their children on the back of the head getting them up the road to school as they shout and curse their progeny.
Drumchapel is a rough area of Glasgow like Pollock, the area of Glasgow in which my father grew up. In my heart resounds the message: This is where my dad came from. He grew up in an area just like this. In that way, Drumchapel presents me with a deeper understanding of my father. In my heart, I feel that he did the best he could and I manage to forgive him a little bit for the times he raised his hand to me.
The History Department Head, MacVicor, is to mentor me during my eight week practicum at Drumchapel Academy. MacVicor has dark hair and blue eyes, possesses a kind heart, a keen sense of humour and – like me – is married.
The first day he introduces me to his class one male student says, “Hey, Misses. Dae all the waymin in Canada look like you, like?”
“You behave yourself,” MacVicor tells his student.
“I’m gain’ tae Canada if all the waymin in Canada look like her. She’s a bit alright, in’t she, sir? Nice bit o’ stuff.’” The boy winks knowingly at MacVicor.
“I’m warning you, son,” MacVicor says.
“Wha? Is she yer waymin, like? Is she yer wee dolly-bird, like?”
“Right! Out!” MacVicor expells the child from class.
The students are fascinated with this Canadian woman in their midst. Many of them have never even been into Glasgow, a five-minute train ride from Drumchapel, much less to another country.
“Is everywan in Canada a millionaire?” one student asks me.
“Aye. Dae they all have swummin’ pools?” another wishes to know.
Jack is teaching Grade seven in an affluent area of Hamilton and we agree to exchange letters between our Canadian and Scottish students. When Jack’s class’s letters reach me I read them before I distribute them to my students in Glasgow. They are filled with “I have…” statements. His Canadian students are the offspring of doctors, lawyers, accountants and engineers. I teach in an area where a family of five children might have five different fathers some of whom can be found in Barlinnie prison on the opposite side of the hill that shores the northeast end of Glasgow. My Drumchapel students have nothing. Often they have no house phone or heating much less a television or video games. I cannot give them those letters from Canada that are little more than a list of what the wealthy Canadian students possess materially.
I take the train into Glasgow every weekend. I also go to Edinburgh, an hour by train from Glasgow. I love walking the sett streets and taking in the history of the place. It thrills me to imagine Scotland’s literary heroes like Robbie Burns or Sir Walter Scott walking these same narrow, flagstone thoroughfares hundreds of years before. I walk the cobble road to Edinburgh castle or Holyrood Palace where Mary, Queen of Scots once lived, and take in the views of the city as I imagine what Scotland must have looked like when all of those romantic, historical figures lived there. I run into my Drumchapel students jumping the train on the weekend without paying for a ticket and I offer them their fares, but they refuse to take a penny from me. They prefer instead to run from the conductors, diving off the train at the first opportunity to evade capture.
Nothing, including the trains, runs on time in Scotland, and the only person this seems to annoy was me. When the train is late, people don’t even react. They just light another fag or continue to read their newspaper. It drives me wild with anger for the first few months because I am accustomed to the fast pace of Hamilton, Toronto and the 401 highway that connects the two large Canadian cities. In my feelings of homesickness for Canada, I look forward to the October opening of a McDonald’s restaurant in Dumbarton near my uncle’s flat. I used to take Jack’s nieces and nephews to McDonald’s in Canada and want to treat my cousins’ children in Scotland in the same way. The October opening becomes November and then December, which is typical of Scotland’s scheduling. The local MacDonald’s finally opens just before Christmas, by which time I have become as anesthetized to delays and cancellations as my Celtic countrymen. I go to McDonald’s after Sunday morning Mass, sometimes with any number of my many cousins’ children, and order a Big Mac meal for myself and whatever the wee ones desire. McDonald’s Scottish beef patties are more savory like sausage rounds, and though I don’t enjoy them as much as the beef in Canada’s McDonald’s I reason that it is still a taste of home.
Jack writes to me several times a week, as I do him. Through my letters, I take my husband with me on my days and explain all that I hear, see, experience and feel. His letters to me are beautifully handwritten in calligraphy. Every second or third day, the postman slides Jack’s letters through the mail slot in my uncle’s door and I run down the stairs to get my post from home. Even in those moments, I understand that my excitement over the letters is less about receiving letters from Jack specifically. I am homesick for Canada. I carry the mails with me on the train and read them over and over again on my journey to school, hungry for news from home especially of Jack’s family and our friends. My dad writes to me as well. Those letters from my father mean the world to me. I cherish them. Of course, my mother never writes me. Not once. And if I call home to speak with her or my father she loses her head. “Bloody long distance charges! Are ye daft?”
Despite the steady stream of post from home, I grow increasingly lonely during my time at Jordanhill and my attraction to my head teacher grows. Another student teacher comments on the chemistry I share with MacVicor. “The sparks are flying between you two,” she says and I am embarrassed that others can see that MacVicor and I fancy one another. The best part of MacVicor is that he is caring and he makes me laugh. His colleagues tease him about not liking football. “That’s terrible, MacVicor. And you being Scottish and all.”
“I’m no Scottish. I’m frae the Isle of Man,” he quips. He often pesters me. “Do all Canadians say, ‘Have a good day?’” MacVicor asks me.
“Is that what you think?”
“Yes,” he smiles.
“Well, I couldn’t care less what sort of day you have so I’ll never say it to you, so you needn’t worry.”
“Aye. But that’s your Scottishness coming out in you, isn’t it? You’re not nice like most Canadians. Real Canadians are very pleasant and they do say that.”
MacVicor gives me a lift to the train station saving me the hassle of getting the bus to the Drumchapel depot after school.
“Sing me Canada’s national anthem,” he says to me.
“I will if you sing me Scotland’s. Och. That’s right, son. Scotland doesnee have a national anthem,” I say in my best Glaswegian bur. He laughs and I break into Flower of Scotland. Reaching our destination, I jump out of MacVicor’s car.
“Have a good day!” I shout through the half-open car window as I shut his passenger door, and he throws back his head and laughs.
Nothing happens between us but there is a mutual attraction between MacVicor and me, which makes me further question my commitment to my husband. I desire to be single.
I see gorgeous, Scottish businessmen on the train in the morning and I wish that I could meet one. If I truly loved my husband, would I be attracted to other men? I don’t think so. I listen to the small children speak on the train with their lovely Scottish accents (a far nicer accent than the grimy bur that my cousins and their children possess) and I wish that I could have children with lovely, Scottish BBC inflections. I don’t want to be married to Jack. I never wanted to be married to him. I am twenty-four and feel so sad, trapped by my choices. My life is over before I gave myself a chance to live a life. I am sure I went to Glasgow for teacher’s college in large part to escape my marriage and our families. I am running away.
When Jack comes to Scotland for Christmas he is thrilled. He has never been anywhere except with me to New York City the previous December. I have adjusted to life without him and am less enthusiastic about his coming. Upon his arrival to Scotland we pick up a rental car in Helensburgh. I stand on the walk, sheltering myself from the winter rain, waiting for Jack to be instructed as to how to maneuver the right-hand drive (complete with left-hand gear-shift) by the car rental attendant. With Jack behind the wheel, the rental car bounces around the block four or five times until Jack masters it. He does so rather quickly, though I had my doubts he would ever manage it. My gran has us down to her house for supper one night and she gives us money for our travels, which makes me feel terribly guilty for abandoning her earlier in the year.
“That’s your wedding gift frae me,” she says. “I never sent you anything ‘afore.”
We stay at my uncle’s and then we travel all around Scotland on our own. We spend Christmas Eve at my mom’s youngest brother’s house. He lives in picturesque Pitlochery where he manages an ancient whisky distillery. It snows softly that night and as we make our way back from midnight Mass, Jack carries me on his back down the old stone steps that lead from the chapel to the church car park. I giggle as he jostles me down the steps. I like it when my husband carries me, and protects me in those small ways. It allows me to feel feminine in our marriage.
I prefer to stay in our own accommodations, and we take a room in a quaint Bed and Breakfast in the old town. We are starving after midnight Mass. We manage to rustle up packages of crisps from the pub, which Jack carries back to our room by the handful, and we wash them down with amber ale.
We drive to St. Andrew’s on Christmas Day. There is no snow on the golf course, and as we walk the greens, Jack, an avid golfer, is invited by three players to be their fourth. Once his game is finished, Jack bounds towards me off the course smiling like a child who still believes in Santa Clause. I stand looking like the old queen with my pink floral scarf tied around my head to protect my ears from the taciturn wind blowing in from the North Sea. We spend our wedding anniversary, Hogmanay, in Edinburgh at a Scottish ball. I wear a long, black velvet gown that I buy in the Boxing Day sales. Jack wears his charcoal grey suit, which I told him to bring. They pipe in the haggis as someone reads Robbie Burns’ Address to a Haggis. We dance the reels and sing all the folk songs that Jack has taken great pains to learn before his trip.
“God. You know more of these songs than the Scots!” I tell him.
Jack is still not one hundred percent recovered from the Achilles injury. I watch him limp along a cobblestone rise on the high road in Edinburgh, grinning ear to ear as he shambles toward me, and know that I feel no attraction for him anymore. Jack and I eat a festive Christmas turkey dinner and full Scottish breakfast at every B&B in which we stay. I start to notice during that year in Scotland that I eat when I am stressed, lonely or sad. I anesthetize my pain with chocolate and pastries the way another might use alcohol, drugs or sex. By the end of our two weeks of traversing the Scottish Highlands my jeans start to fit a bit too snugly, while Jack appears to remain tall and slender at least with his clothes on. With his clothes off he has a bit of a tummy.
After our travels to the Highlands and the Isle of Skye, we return to my grandmother’s house. My gran is away in England with another of my mom’s brothers. My gran gives me the key to her house so that Jack and I can stay there on our own. Jack drops the long, iron key for the front door in the truck of the car and we are locked out of the car and the house. It is a cold and snowy night, and quite late. I have to go to a neighbor and call a locksmith to come and pop the boot of the car so that we can retrieve the key and gain entry to the house. I am furious with him and he cries. I hate his tears. He is weak. He is not a man. I emasculate my husband for any errors, which makes him increasingly nervous and that makes him progressively clumsy. Our arguments always come back to my desire to be free.
“I feel like I’m an anchor around your neck,” he says. “I feel like you settled for me.”
I agree with him, “You are an anchor around my neck. I did settle for you.”
He cries and pleads with me to stay until he doesn’t. While we are staying in the skiing village of Aviemore, he finally says to me “If you’re going to leave me, leave me before kids come because if you leave me with our kids that will kill me.”
When he flies home after the holiday I am conflicted. I stand weeping in his arms at Prestwick Airport before he boards the plane.
“Take your time, love,” a female British Airways attendant tells me as Jack and I hug and kiss good-bye.
I had to get used to being on my own again when I went to Scotland in 1990. The first month was difficult, but once I survived that initial separation from Jack, I was fine. When he came for Christmas, I resisted becoming too accustomed to being a couple again. I don’t want to suffer after he leaves so I protect my heart while he is here. As hard as it is for me to say good-bye to my husband for another four months, a part of me is glad when he goes back to Canada. I like my own space. I am confused in my feelings for Jack. Throughout the year, I look at job postings in Scotland, but there are none. There are only teaching opportunities in England and I don’t want to work there. I have always wanted to return to Scotland. Throughout my life in Canada I feel like a woman without a country. When I am in Canada I feel Scottish and when I am in Scotland I feel Canadian. I never know where I belong, or to whom. I am from away in both places.