Memoir writing is a special place where we often learn to make sense of ourselves and the experiences we have had in life. For me though, memoirs are a little more than that. Memoirs trickle into my mind as small, but beautifully crafted, pearls of wisdom that have been carefully planted there for me to discover when the time is right. In every story I tell I find a delicate pearl of wisdom that someone has shared with me along the way. So, although many of my stories are fiction there is always something very real contained within.
I begin my memoir writing with a lady who secretly planted lots of pearls of wisdom in my mind. She died many years ago and only after her death did the pearls begin to really shine.
Isabella Stirling ‘A remarkable unremarkable life’
Sitting in a café near the beach with my mother I spend a fascinating hour piecing together my Grandma’s life. Why am I doing this? My motivation is very simple. To me, my Grandma was a remarkable woman living through remarkable times and it is important that such lives are made permanent in some way.
Born in 1896 Isabella Stirling entered the world at a time of great change. She died in 1985 and in that near century she witnessed the birth of equality. In a family of five with two sisters and two brothers she lived in a council house in Glasgow and from a very early age adopted an attitude that ‘she knew no different’. Arguably, this attitude saw her through her life where she quickly learned to deal with life’s challenges. Her fiancé did not return from the First World War but she eventually married in 1931. Now Isabella Stevenson she and her husband Peter moved to Shotts. My mother joined the family when Isabella was 42. She was born at home as Isabella ‘couldn’t be doing with hospitals.’ In reality this was perhaps the only thing in life she feared. She never trusted doctors and rarely went anywhere near them.
Isabella, or Ella as she was known in the family, knew how to work. Coming from a large family she had learnt the importance of routine and she applied this within her own family. With only one child there was perhaps less need for it but that didn’t stop Grandma. Nothing stopped Grandma. My mother remembers sleeping in a cot until she was 5 years old because in post war times you had to apply for a permit to buy a new bed. In the winter she and her parents all slept in the living room as it was the warmest room in the tiny house. The toilet required a trip through their shop, out the front door and round the back of the house next door. That was their accommodation and there was little expectation of improvement in the early days.
She lived through two world wars and she watched her world change beyond belief but throughout all of it her spirit shone through. My earliest memories of my Grandma are steeped in detailed observations of her routine. She never entered the kitchen before putting on her apron. Her meals were as regular as clockwork with little deviation in menu. She sang to my Grandpa’s piano playing after lunch and we played cards before a sandwich tea every evening. Bedtime was 9pm sharp. As a very young girl I am not sure what I made of these routines. My own family life had not really inherited such a strong sense of routine with my own mother having three babies born in the 1960s. I did, I think, feel that my Grandma’s routines were a little odd but, at the same time, I found them very comforting.
Ella was a seamstress by profession and she was the person who taught me to sew, opening up a whole new world to me that my mother and I still enjoy today. She worked in interiors and my mother has a memory of Ella being taken by horse and cart to a big house every day for a week to make new furnishings. In 1946 Ella and Peter took over a grocers shop and they worked alongside each other administering the ration systems that still dominated post war Britain. I am quite sure that their customers who knew them then would refer to their old fashioned values and customer service. I can see this being a cornerstone of their business. From a young age my mother was inducted into the ways of the grocer’s shop and by the time she was 15 she had left school to work full-time in the shop. Ella went back into the home leaving her husband and daughter to run the shop. When they retired in 1964 they bought the house that I have memories of in Garrowhill, Glasgow. Coming from a large family house in England, I never understood Grandma’s house. It was a two up, two down semi-detached house with a lot of concrete outside and in a row where all the houses were exactly the same. It was truly soulless from the outside but inside Grandma had made it into a comfortable home complete with all her hand made bits and pieces. Their routines meant that their days were full and there was a calm atmosphere that drifted into every room.
Ella’s marriage was strong. You can see it in the photographs and I can see it in my memories. Ella, however, was the strength of that marriage. Peter did not have the strongest constitution but Ella was as strong as an ox. I can remember her strength as she hugged me when I arrived for a visit. I would help her in the kitchen as she baked scones or apple pie for lunch. She taught me how to peel potatoes and how to make stew. No food was ever wasted in Ella’s kitchen and this skill has been passed down to my mother. Peter’s domain was his garage which he had set up as all men aspire to but few ever achieve. There was never any talk of buying new, just how best to repair. Peter would put on his brown work coat and away to his garage to fix something before bringing it back and safely installing it. Of course, all my memories were of a retired couple as they gave up their shop in the year I was born. Their only ventures beyond the house were down to the shops to purchase food and off to church on a Sunday. Ella was religious and maybe this helped her get through life because I am not sure she ever questioned anything. If I look at my 21 year old daughter I see a young woman who questions everything. Nothing is ever accepted without a degree of reflection. Ella did not question; she just got on with it. I asked my mother if she thought her mother was happy. She replied that she didn’t think happiness really came into it and that her mother didn’t really have anything to be unhappy about. My mother just remembers her mother always being there. For me that is a sign of significant strength. Life has a habit of throwing things at you but a strong mother will just brush them aside and focus on her role as a mother. My mother touches on the subject of her father’s depression and her mother’s injured leg that forced her to rest in bed. Both times must have tested Ella but still she remained ever present.
Anchored by her routines, my mother does not think that a sense of duty came into it. That surprised me because that is what I saw as a teenage girl. I saw a woman with a strong sense of duty as a wife who looked after the needs of her husband. I always imagined that this was because she was a dutiful wife but maybe she was simply a wife. Whatever the motivation this is what I recognised as womanhood. I thought my Grandma was marvellous and she represented all that was expected of a woman. As my life developed I entered a completely different era where woman were not happy to be just in the home. My contemporaries all wanted much more than that and still do. I often wonder what my Grandma would have made of that.
When I first came across the slogan ‘make do and mend’ I thought it had been invented specifically for my Grandma. Understanding its association with the Second World War and knowing that Ella had raised a family through those times, I can see the obvious connection. But, as with all things, Ella took it to her heart and built a home out of bits and pieces created by her own hand. I have a vivid memory of watching her sew me my very first pinny (apron) out of off-cuts from a pinny she had made herself. Watching her sew on the machine was like watching magic; it moved so fast and with no effort. I couldn’t imagine ever being able to do that. Grandma taught me to sew by hand and when practising on the sofa next to her she would take my work and turn it over to inspect the back. It was invariably a mess at the back and I would state that that didn’t really matter because no one would see the back. She would tut loudly, unpick it and make me start again. To this day I regularly turn my work over to look at the back.
Talking to my mother in that café one rainy afternoon I can hear her saying ‘I was allowed to’ when referring to her childhood. I get the strong sense that Ella and Peter parented with a sense of agreed principles. They kept my mother close in their simple and ordered life. When my mother was 18 she regretted leaving school without any qualifications and looked into her options. She was advised to try nursing because she could get in if she passed the entrance exam. It would mean her leaving home and Ella and Peter refused to let her go. A timely intervention from Ella’s one and only friend, Annie, brought a change of mind and the permission form was signed. I can feel Ella’s heart breaking just a little here as she let her only child forge out on her own. My mother eventually married and after the birth of my older sister the new family decided to leave Scotland in search of better prospects in England. Ella and Peter made no fuss but I can feel Ella’s heart breaking just a bit more. Once more life had sent her a challenge and she answered by weekly letters to her daughter and taking up camping. Camping allowed my Grandparents to visit us and share holidays. I can still recall all the homemade bits and pieces that made their tent more comfortable than ours. My Grandma was 68 years old when she discovered camping.
I spent time with my Grandparents when, as a teenager, my own parents put me on the night bus to Glasgow. I visited them on my own and saw their lives through my own eyes. In recent years I have had time to reflect on these visits and can see just how much I admired my Grandma. To me she was the definition of a strong woman. She understood who she was and she met the needs of those close to her. She may never have questioned but maybe she never needed to. Her home was comfortable and welcoming and she gladly passed on skills to me that I cherish to this day.
I have a significant piece of her legacy. Grandma’s blanket is reached for on a regular basis to keep out the evening chill. It is a blanket made from large remnants which make up a patchwork pattern. Importantly, sewn inside the patchwork fabric is a military blanket and it is truly a warm and comfortable blanket. It doesn’t just keep me warm it makes me feel comfortable. It takes a special blanket to do that. As a small child I remember a walk-in cupboard in the front bedroom of my Grandma’s house. Up on a high shelf were neatly folded blankets, all made by Grandma. I can clearly see her stitches on the blanket as if tracing her life. A life where routine perhaps dominated a little too much, a life where expectations were perhaps a little too low but, ultimately, a life well lived. I did indeed learn womanhood from my Grandma because I know how to be strong and I have never let anything stop me. As I reflect on my daughter and her bright future, I once more value Ella Stirling and only regret that Molly Ella (named after my Grandma) never had the privilege of meeting her or getting to know her. Despite that, Molly seems to instinctively reach for her inner strength as she begins to make her way in life. Maybe the essence of what was ‘Ella Stirling’ lives on in Molly, quite possibly.
Ella was always acutely aware of others less fortunate than herself. She would collect together little luxuries in an old shoebox for when they might be needed. Some of the items were handmade. When she heard of a family going through a difficult time she would make up a ‘goodwill box’ and send Grandpa out with it to leave it on the family’s step so they might find it. No on ever knew it was her. Scottish island mum has picked up the baton of this tradition through their own Goodwill Boxes. If you would like to know more click on the Kindness Project to read all about it.