Week One Memoir assignment “Branching Points”
The first Christmas I remember was the year I was three. We lived in the country then called Nyasaland. As I remember it we had neither electricity nor running water, needing paraffin lamps at night, and there was much excitement the day a porcelain bathtub arrived to replace the galvanized one we’d bathed in before. I did not know what the holes were for, never having seen a plug or taps.
One day a tree was brought into the house and my parents produced a deck of cards and before I went to bed we decorated the tree with them. In the morning a big stocking full of mysterious objects hung at the foot of my bed. I wasn’t given much time to investigate however as my father seemed anxious that I should go downstairs. There to my wonderment and delight I found the tree had been transformed, complete with sparkling decorations and real candles burning brightly. Father Christmas, I was told, had done this magic, changing the cards into decorations. When I found a couple of cards near the bottom of the tree my father seemed disappointed, but to me it made it all the more real, proving this was the same tree.
I remember a few other things from that time. My mother showing me a partly formed chicken in an egg which had been broken open. Playing with a tiny toy: two little plastic bears with a table and chairs and minute blue bowls into which my mother put a crumbled cornflake and a drop of milk and we pretended the bears were eating breakfast with us. Sitting on the verandah drawing pictures. Many years later this little sketchbook turned up in my father’s accumulation and I remembered how I’d asked my mother to draw me a picture of a car and how she had said she didn’t think she could draw one. Nevertheless along with my childish scribbles and her other demonstrations for me there is a quite respectable representation of a car.
For years I thought there was a different moon in Africa because one night a huge honey coloured moon looked in my window, and the next time I remember seeing the moon it was a smaller silver disk seen from a Northern country. One evening my father called through the window to tell my mother she should come in or she would make herself ill. She was, I think, rounding up some escaped poultry.
Was it that night or another one when I was kept awake by the sound of wailing? Then someone came and got me up and took me to my mother’s bedside. I thought it was morning and I asked her why she wasn’t getting up to have tea. A voice told my father to take me to have tea, and we sat at the kitchen table for a while having a warm drink. A little later in a dark room, it was still the middle of the night, a woman in a long blue dress, perhaps it was a nightgown, told me God had loved my mother so much he had taken her to live with him.
The next thing I remember is being in a hotel room with my father. I’d been sick, sick a lot and there were no more clean sheets. Later I learned I’d been sick for a while and we were staying in this hotel while we were on our way to where I could be put on a plane and sent to live with my aunt and uncle who were in Kenya at the time. My father was lying on a bare mattress and he asked if he could get in beside me under the last sheet because he was cold, and I said no, but somehow I felt bad about saying that. I was pleased when morning came and I found he had shared the sheet after all.
Then we were separated for a while, and I lived most of the next three years with my aunt and uncle and their children. The year I was five we went to England by ship and spent that Christmas with my grandparents, the parents of my mother and my aunt. After Christmas I stayed in the Channel Islands for a few months with the woman who eventually became my stepmother. My sixth birthday was the year of the coronation and my gifts almost all had something to do with the coronation. I remember those months on Guernsey and Sark as something of a golden age of my childhood.
After another half year or so with my relatives I was put into the care of a woman hired to take me to Canada to join my father who had emigrated in mid-1953. I remember how, as we came into Halifax, she was afraid I wouldn’t recognize him, she never having met him. But I saw him standing at the railing, looking down into the water, and I shouted out, “Daddy, Daddy!”
It was many years before I understood that the true branching point was not the night in the spring of 1951 when my mother died, but that long journey across the North Atlantic in January of 1954, when I left behind all my family, everyone, everything I knew, except my father, who himself had lost so much more.