Out of the Camp

Ch. 45. 1962 & 1999.

In 1962 my Auntie Lillian from Hamilton, Ontario came to visit us in Edinburgh. She wasn’t really my Auntie; her husband, Dave, and my Dad had been pals when they were both stationed at Military Home Command in Aldershot, Hampshire, England in the early years of the war. Dave was in a Canadian Infantry Division and had been killed during the Dieppe Raid in August 1942, one of 3,600 Canadian and British soldiers to die in the disastrous assault on the French port. After his death my parents kept in touch with Dave’s widow, whom they hadn’t met, and they would maintain their correspondences for years, always remembering birthdays, each exchanging cards every Christmas. She never had children and didn’t remarry. Growing up I always received gifts at both Christmas and on my birthdays. She never forgot. One birthday gift that I treasured and which she sent when I must have been around 6-7 was a white t-shirt bearing an illustration of a Canadian Mountie on his horse that I absolutely loved. It was in full color with the Mountie wearing his red tunic astride his beautiful sleek black steed.

Her 1962 visit marked the first time that any of us had met, and she stayed with us at the Gilmerton Dykes house for the three-week duration of her visit, when we visited my Nanna Peg and Uncle Bill in Granton, cousin Wilma and her husband, Alister in Corstorphine. Cousins, Jessie, from Newhaven, and Margaret and husband Phil from Leith all came to see us at home. Naturally, we proudly took Auntie Lillian around Edinburgh to see the Castle, Arthurs Seat, Princes Street Gardens and the Old Town including John Knox House and Holyrood Palace. In fact, I’d drawn her a map with a guide listing some of the City’s sites that we’d visit which she sent back to me recently with some pictures from her trip. She’d kept them all these years! Can you believe it? During her visit, my Dad hired a car and we toured the highlands which he really loved. During the war, he had spent a lot of time there on military maneuvers and exercises. At the time he was based in Fort George, near Ardersier, when engaged in operations in the Cairngorm Mountains near Tomintoul, a village nestled at a height of more than 1100 feet in the vast northern slopes and where he took my mother and I on a couple of other occasions when on motoring holidays. He would always tell us that Tomintoul was the highest village in the highlands in addition to being situated by the river Avon and on the famous Scotch Whiskey trail. That year, my Auntie Lillian was also taken on the well-worn tour which also included Inverness where, incidentally, we would always spend a night at the Corrie Lodge and where my Dad seemed to be well-known. Then we would drive down the banks of Loch Ness, all eyes peeled in the hope of spotting ‘the monster’ but, as usual. we were out of luck. As we neared Fort William, he took us to another favorite location of his, the Spean Bridge Commando Memorial. The memorial is located in an area of the Commando Training Depot which was established in 1942 and where my Dad took part in military exercises. After the war, the memorial was unveiled in 1952 by Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother and is one of Scotland’s best-known monuments and offers spectacular views of Ben Nevis and Aonach Mor (Big Ridge). Needless to say, we took lots of pictures with my Auntie Lillian at all of these places. After Fort William we headed south again through the stunning Glen Coe Pass towards Stirling Castle and finally, home again to Edinburgh. We later took another trip to Worksop in England to visit aunts, uncles and cousins on my mother’s side of the family.

1999 cont. The Burial.

Andrew and I sat in that hospital waiting room for hours. I remember a very heated exchange with a doctor who came out of the emergency room asking me what I in my distressed state regarded as stupid questions – don’t ask me now, what they were. Anyway, I guess I offended him, and he snapped back some smart-ass retort as he left us. I mentioned earlier that that day passed in a fog, and I really don’t remember much about it, certainly not the substance of that exchange. There was a lady who came into the waiting room at one point and began making inane conversation. She worked at the hospital but I ‘ve no idea what her job was, but I do clearly recall she was attempting to perform the role of some sort of counsellor or chaplain and, as sweet as she was, she really wasn’t very good at it. I just remember long silences, which I was actually fine with, but clearly made her very uncomfortable having real difficulty coming up with something appropriate to say. I don’t remember how long we were forced to endure this anguish or the circumstances surrounding our escape, but I do know they were never able to revive Mary. I have a vague recollection of one of the doctors advising me of her time of death and that because hers was a sudden death, that an autopsy would have to be done and her body, therefore, transferred to the County Coroner at LA County Medical Centre where the procedure would be carried out. It was some considerable time before we received the death certificate and had her body released allowing us to schedule the funeral service which was held at St. Therese Roman Catholic Church in Alhambra, three minutes from our home at the time in San Gabriel, and the interment took place at San Gabriel Cemetery, approximately three minutes in the opposite direction. In addition to our own children, all four of Mary’s siblings came, three traveling from England and her brother Gerard, from Malaysia. There were nieces, nephews, cousins and friends coming from a variety of locations, both domestic and international. Friends, neighbors, co-workers, technicians and office staff from my business who all knew Mary as she would often stop by the office during the day while out on her calls. A day or two before the funeral we met with the head priest at St. Therese’ to discuss arrangements and the desired form of mass. The family were delighted to discover that he was from the Irish Republic as were Mary’s parents, in addition to Mary and her brothers, Martin and Gerard, all of whom were born in Fermoy, County Cork. The other, younger siblings, Peter and Jacynta were both born in England after the family had emigrated. We all went over the proposed mass, readings from family members, scripture to be delivered by the priest as celebrant. Then there would follow the eulogy and reflections by other family members and friends. We all left the church office feeling happy that everything seemed in control, and we could look forward to a peaceful and dignified Celebration of Mary’s Life.

In the morning of the day of the Mass we all gathered in the church, family sitting in the front three or four rows, the casket was already in place at the head of the nave. As we waited, an organ prelude played and people drifted in taking their seats, some coming over to say hello and to offer their condolences. By the time the priest turned up there was a good crowd spread out around the church, however, this wasn’t the Irish priest we were expecting and who had promised the family that he would lead the service. This was a younger man, probably in his mid-40s. He was directed to where we were sitting by an usher and immediately approached us, introducing himself and announcing that he would be leading the service. When we objected and asked where Father Michael was, he very patiently explained that he had been apprised of the arrangements and that we shouldn’t worry, everything would be fine. Before we had a chance to respond, he spun on his heel and marched over to the chancel sitting down to one side of the alter. I don’t now recall how the service began but I do remember some scripture readings, hymn singing and prayers. Now we came to the Gospel Reading to be given by the priest. We waited quietly assuming, wrongly, that he was praying briefly before standing up and walking to the pulpit. Except, he didn’t! The silence lengthened and there began some restless movement and shuffling in the church and, glancing at the father, I observed that he was staring vacantly into the middle distance completely oblivious to the rising level of discomfort over what was, or rather, what wasn’t taking place in the church. Eventually, Mary’s younger sister, Jacynta, could take it no longer and jumped up, headed for the lectern, and duly delivered the Gospel reading. Meanwhile, the priest, unaware that anything was amiss, continued to happily stare into space throughout the proceedings wearing an expression of beatific serenity, totally oblivious to anything that was taking place in his immediate surroundings back here, on earth. There followed some musical selections, the eulogy delivered by Mary’s elder brother, Martin and a remembrance given by me which I got about half-way through before breaking down in a hot mess and hurriedly retreated back to my seat. There were one or two other tributes from friends and co-workers and the priest evidently deigned to rejoin us in the present, sufficiently to say a few words of closure and directing everyone to the San Gabriel Cemetery approximately half a mile along the road for the burial. As everyone slowly filed out of the church, we were accompanied by a recording of the soprano, Leslie Garrett, singing the Vavilov setting of Franz Schubert’s aria, Ave Maria.

At the cemetery with the coffin in place suspended over the grave and everyone gathered around, we waited for the priest to arrive. It was a cool, cloudy day and thankfully dry as I waited with everyone for the day’s final obligation, the awful responsibility and task of laying Mary to her final rest. As I stood there deep in my own thoughts and memories it suddenly hit me that the full depth and reality of this dreadful truth hadn’t even begun to sink in. Her laughter, her incisive wit, her delicious irreverence, her larger-than-life presence, her openness, her generosity of both spirit and the material, and her love. All of it was gone, lost to me and it was now expected of me that I should carry on. How could I carry on? What would be the point? She was my reason for living, she made me what I am. I was an introverted, insecure, inarticulate, immature youth of 23 when we met, part of me was gone so what was left? What was I now? How could I continue without that foundation?

As I sank further into this gloom of encroaching depressive madness, I was suddenly aware that there was a sense of anger in the air which brought me back to the present. There was some general discussion underway throughout the crowd concerning the whereabouts of the priest and why he was taking so long to get here from the church just down the street when, suddenly, someone announced his approach from the parking lot. When he arrived, he didn’t acknowledge or address anyone, rather, he headed straight for the funeral director who was hovering by the hearse at the rear of the crowd and asked him in theatrically hushed tones, easily heard by all, if he had any Holy Water with him. The funeral director looked both shocked and embarrassed at this, obviously never before having been asked such a question by a priest at a graveside. Undaunted, our holy father spun on his heel, oblivious to the crowd whose attentions were collectively riveted on him as he headed back towards his car, muttering that he felt sure he had some holy water there. There was something about this priest, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, other than to consciously acknowledge that he wasn’t quite present, having appeared permanently distracted since he arrived at the church that morning. I didn’t know quite what to think as we waited for him to return and someone – I don’t remember who – sidled up to me and whispered, “You shouldn’t be upset, you know. She’ll be up there laughing her ass of at all of us!” For the first time that day I smiled, and I gratefully acknowledged and agreed with the sentiment. I thought, “of course, she’s up there and she’s doing this, making me smile on this unspeakably dreadful day. That’s my Mary, causing chaos on this day of all days and making an outrageous, melodramatic exit which was often her wont to do.” As I looked around the assembly it was clear that the thought had spread throughout the crowd as everyone looked at me and smiled nervously. I was going to be OK! I‘d get through this. I have my kids and my friends. My extended family might not be close by but they’re out there and I can always speak to them and jump on a plane and pay a visit from time to time.

The priest finally returned with the Holy Water and concluded the interment, also blessing us enthusiastically with a superfluity of holy water before concluding the service. As we left, walking down the drive to the cars, I noticed several people pulling handkerchiefs and other textiles from their pockets or bags to wipe the excess Holy Water from their faces or clothing. This oddball holy man apparently had a somewhat dark sense of humor. In the Irish tradition, we had a grand wake at home that evening which overflowed out of the house onto both the front lawn and the back garden where, thankfully, no one fell into the pool. I was both glad and relieved at this since I hadn’t thought to put the cover on. At one point in the evening, I was discussing the day’s events with our next-door neighbor, and I happened to mention that I couldn’t understand what was going on with that damn priest. He looked at me in disbelief and realizing that I was serious, he said, “He was drunk! He was pie-eyed from the minute he arrived at the church this morning.” Apparently, the coffin-bearers from the funeral director had told him, they smelt the alcohol on his breath. I thought, “Well, he might have passed the flask around a bit. I could have done with a snifter or two this morning.”

1962. Visiting Nana Peg w/Auntie Lillian. Back: me, cousin David, Mum, cousin Jessie. Front: Auntie Lillian, Nana Peg, Uncle Bill

August 1959. Me at Kinlochleven near Fort William.

1959. Me standing by the rented car we used to get up there.

1959. Me and Dad on Culloden Moor, site of the 1745 battle of Jacobite Rising.
1959. Pony-bothering near Braemar.
1962. Auntie Lillian meeting the English contingent. L-R: Auntie Iris,Mum, Auntie Lillian, Nana Mitchel, Uncle Gordon, Cousins David & Nigel. I’m at the back with the Shandy, my Mum’s poodle.
1962. Back: Uncle Alger w/Betty Fox & me w/Shandy. Middle: Nana Mitchell, Mum, Uncle Gordon & David. Front: Trevor.
1962. L-R: Auntie Lillian, Trevor & me.
1962 Edinburgh. L-R: David, Dad, Shandy, me, Jessie, Nana Peg & Auntie Lillian.