sheep

Why I love children

I love their whimsy, how they abandon themselves to fun and are able to find it in almost all things. And how they have not the slightest fear of judgment or disdain.

In Tongue years ago, way up in the northernmost reaches of Scotland I popped in to a local shop. While browsing I spotted a wee lassie there with her father, dressed up in her lovely kilt, a matching tartan tam perched at an angle on her head.

She was curious about me – and watched me, as children will do – her eyes following me around the shop.

Standing alongside her I pointed to a tiny toy sheep displayed on the shelf, which was dressed comically in a full perfect tuxedo.

I asked her, quietly: “Now what would a sheep be doing dressed in a tux?”

She thought about it and then announced, seriously:

“Maybe he’s goin’ tae a weddin’.”

thimble

The Sadness of Her Sewing

A poem for your birthday, Mom. I miss you like it was a thousand years.

 

The Sadness of Her Sewing

 

There she remains,

In the folds of her nightgown

Tucked deeply in her bedside drawer,

Releasing the scent of her Chantilly.

In her favorite clip-on earrings

Of aurora borealis rhinestones,

All  the colors of the northern lights,

She explained,

And here, perhaps most,

Up on the closet shelf,

Her worn wicker sewing basket,

A frayed tapestry on the lid of

a young woman’s face.

Inside, among the bobbins,

Mother’s tarnished metal thimble,

Its tiny nubs smoothed glossy from use.

Remembering now whenever she mended

I would hear her sigh deeply,

As the steel cap clicked

Against her flying needle,

Her impatience palpable,

Desperate to be done.

Knowing now it reminded her of

Being pulled from school at the age of nine

To do piecework for a gruff Glasgow furrier,

Stitching together overcoats in dingy rooms

From towers of animal pelts,

Never to return to school

Or childhood

Again.

 

paternal-grandparents-doctored-840x400

Thank you, Katherine and Robert.

I think it impossible for any of us to imagine the sacrifices made for us as we remember those lost.

Pictured are my father’s parents, Robert and Katherine McCallum, in Glasgow in (I am guessing) 1914, 1915… just before my grandfather went off to fight in the First World War.

Robert and his five brothers all fought in various capacities. He alas was subjected to mustard gas on the battlefield in France (although it had been outlawed) and died shortly thereafter. My grandmother meanwhile handled the home and cared for their many children but, sadly, only survived her husband by two years.

I love their confidence in this photo, their hopefulness, the equality between them that shines through. I wish I had known them. I wish I could tell them how proud they make me, here, in Canada, 100 years later, in a life they could not even comprehend.

I hear from the scant stories there were of them that my grandmother was very independent, a real firebrand, and that Robert was a born storyteller and generous in spirit. I’m sure they had faults too but sweetly these never made it into the few stories I have of them.

I thank you, Katherine and Robert, for all that you did and all that you both were.

best St.Kilda photo boreray cliffs st kilda larger boreray cliffs st kilda

The Edge of the World

Glancing down at my bare feet

I see plainly the feet of my forebears:

long thin finger-like toes that link us,

irrefutably, astonishingly, across time,

these claw-like appendages that enabled them

to scale the cliffs of St. Kilda

in search of seabird eggs for food.

 

Ropes tied to their waists

barefoot Kildamanes as young as four

rappelled off the island’s vertical rock faces,

two sea stacks jutting out of the Atlantic

like giant pointed teeth.

 

For hundreds of years this resolute tribe

foraged for the eggs their lives depended on

among the hidden ledges and wind-battered crags

where the gannets, puffins and fulmar roosted,

eggs their only hope of sustenance

in that unforgiving place,

further out even than the Hebrides.

Fishing, incongruously,

considered too dangerous a pursuit.

Salt killed crops stone dead.

Trees steadfastly refused to grow.

Stories say the sea beat so hard in one storm

it blew sheep and cattle over the cliffs,

left villagers deaf for a week.

 

Survive they did,

surrounded by nothing but birds,

churning blue black ocean and stretched-out skies,

until visitors brought maladies they were defenseless against.

The seabirds owned it first:

it is theirs alone,

again.

 

I study the ominous hunting grounds of these birdmen,

my ancestors,

I see the spectacular waves battering the shore.

I look down at my feet,

their feet, wiggle my long agile toes

and whisper

in Gaelic,

the only language they knew,

Cuimhním.

I remember.

 

Photo courtesy of Alex Mahler.