Sunday, 11 January 2009

What do we leave behind?


The man I am going to write about was born in the last decade of the nineteenth century. He never had children, so I suppose his name will only occasionally crop up in somebody's family tree. He had an ordinary sort of life (don't most of us?) and yet I don't know of anyone of my acquaintance who enjoyed his life more, or got so much out of it.

The youngest of eight children, born in the fens of Lincolnshire, he was always his mother's favourite, content to stay at home with her rather than go out with his friends. As he grew towards manhood he became passionately interested in two things - gardening and embroidery. From then on he spent his summers doing the one and his winters doing the other.

As I said, he was an ordinary sort of man, not at all an intellectual, only poorly educated. When he left school at twelve he took a job on the railways and became a Plate Layer. It was a job he was to do all his life. And like everything else he did, I am sure he put maximum effort into it. But he lived for his two consuming hobbies.

When his mother died and his siblings all left home, he stayed with his father, bought the house they lived in from their landlord and set about transforming the garden. He loved growing things from seed and soon the garden was a riot of colour, visited by everyone in the village.

In the winters he would sit by the fire and embroider his tablecloths. He would catalogue the hours they took. The one in the photograph took 296 hours - it was written on a piece of paper and pinned to the corner of the cloth.

At the age of forty three, whilst working on the line near to a country house, he became friendly with the spinster who lived there with her brother. The friendship blossomed, forged with the odd glass of port wine and slice of cake that she passed over the fence on to the line when he was working in that area. After a long, old-fashioned courtship they married and she moved in and took over the running of the house.

The relationship as I remember it, was idyllic. She looked after the old man, fed him well, and - if she didn't approve of his nipping to the pub each lunch time (she was a Wesleyan methodist), she turned a blind eye to it. He sucked mint imperials before he came back home and the easy relationship continued until his death.

She and the Plate Layer lived in the same house until their deaths. The garden continued to be magnificent - nemesia were his favourite flowers and I have memories of beds stretching the length of the garden. She kept an immaculate well-run house. There was always a lovely fire in the grate, she was an excellent cook, and they loved nothing better than entertaining friends and relations to tea on Saturdays.

I remember those teas - pork pie, sausage meat patties, salad, queen cakes, fruit cake, home made bread, beautiful china, silver tea pot white damask napkins. But it was after tea that the ritual began.

First of all he would bring out his current tablecloth. We would admire it and after much entreaty he would bring out all the others he had done, all carefully wrapped in tissue-paper in the chest of drawers.

Next we would have to enjoy (or in my father's case - endure) a game of Tiddley-winks - for this was her passion. Years of practise had made her a champion at the game. If I close my eyes I can see her now, tongue held between teeth as she concentrated on a particularly awkward shot!

Then we would gather round the piano for their shared passion. They were both Wesleyan methodists and because there had been no organist in their chapel, he had taught himself to play the hymns on the piano. He never got very proficient and always played the left hand slightly before the right hand - but every week he practised the next Sunday's hymns for hours, so that by Sunday morning he could play them. I suppose our Saturday night's singing round the piano was his dress rehearsal.

By today's standards this might sound a boring life, but I don't think I have ever known two happier people. His gardening got more adventurous, people came from all over to see his chrysanthemums and he sold cuttings at the gate for chapel funds. She continued with her baking and always had a Red Cross stall at any village fair - her cakes would sell like - well - hot cakes!

When I think of him now (they both died in the 1970's) I see a stout, staid man, with big fat workman's hands; a slow and methodical man, not much given to talking, always to be found pottering in his greenhouse or sitting in the bay window with his cloths.

Over the years I know he made at least sixty. I recall one or two - one completely covered with orange calendula marigolds, another with purple and pink pansies - and of course the one in the photograph, which I have had since my teenage days. Although now it is threadbare in places, I treasure it greatly. What happened to the rest of the cloths? I have no idea. But this one stands as a memorial to a man who filled every hour of his life with something interesting to do and who lived a full and happy life. And any one of us should be proud to do that.

41 comments:

The Solitary Walker said...

This is a wonderful reminiscence, Weaver. Thank you for sharing it with us.

It reminds me so strongly of the village life of my own Lincolnshire childhood. Both my parents were Wesleyan Methodists too. My father played the organ in the chapel for many, mnay years - until his hands became too arthritic.

Dominic Rivron said...

I vaguely remember them. If boredom is, as is often said, "a lack of imagination" then I don't think their lives sound at all boring.

jinksy said...

Beautiful cameo of a corner of 'an ordinary' life - if there is such a thing.

HelenMHunt said...

What a fantastic story!

Poet in Residence said...

Weaver,
Thank you for reminding me of the countless hours that I had to spend playing tiddlwinks. By the way, re your castle item below there's a wonderful poem to do with Battle of Crecy, about a fly landing on somebody's eyeball, (I think Miroslav Holub was the poet).

Arija said...

What a lovely gentle soul he sounds. I too have been known to be fanatical about my garden and embroidery, so I undestand his fascination. A national costume blouse in white drawn threadwork I once did (that burned with the rest) took me more than 800 hours!

Should you experience a hankering for summer roses, I have posted some of mine.

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

Beautiful story. Really.
It reminds me very much of my husband's uncle. Except Uncle Rob stayed home until his mother died, finally married his own spinster when he was sixty! He lived to be 94 and had a prolific garden all his life. I once wrote about him. You can read it here if you would like:
http://fromthehouseofedward.blogspot.com/2008/07/good-luck-charms-and-memories-there-is.html

Raph G. Neckmann said...

I love this, Weaver! I feel warm and content reading it. Thank you so much.

Leenie said...

Events won't be remembered unless they are described. Your writing should be priceless to this man's family. I wish I had more information like this on my ancestors. On my mother's side only a few generations back they lived in Buckingham, Radcliff, London, Durham and Derbyshire.

Rowan said...

What a marvellous post, it's lovely to read about two such talented and happy people. My dad was a platelayer so I know what a hard and physical job this was and he too was a keen gardener. I was so glad that your platelayer found someone to share his life with - their lives sound idyllic rather than boring! I hope all his other tabelcloths are safe in hands that love and appreciate them.

Elizabeth said...

What an astounding tribute to an extraordinary life.
A well told tale and I'm sure the subjects would be amazed that their (extra)ordinary lives are being thought about all over the globe.
Such telling details and how clearly I can picture them.
A great joy to read.
(And I hadn't even thought of Tiddlywinks for at least
twenty years).

Pam said...

I enjoyed this so much. (I also find people's family tree books very interesting with lives matched and married and described in fascinating detail - who has children, who has none and why. I am also intruiged how and when couples first met. I'm a chatty person's delight-the good listener! Thank you so much for this post - the kind of thing obviously that I love to read...and I'm thinking there's hope for my brother yet!

Leslie said...

What a wonderful story, you make them so real. I guess we all would like to be remembered in such a beautiful way. Thanks, for sharing your stories. Hugs !

Kayla coo said...

I have so enjoyed reading your story, I feel like I have stepped back in time.
It shows that taking tea was an important ritual and a decorated cloth made the tea table so inviting.

BT said...

What a wonderful story weaver. I really enjoyed reading it and especially about the romance and happy marriage.

20th Century Woman said...

This lovely story proves that you don't have to have a life full of exciting events to have an interesting and fruitful one.

Teresa said...

Sounds like two lives well lived. Much to be said for lives of quiet contentment and simplicity- may the rest of us do as well.

Kyfarmlife said...

That was a truely beautiful story!!!!! How did you know this man? He really created something beautiful to leave behind for his legacy...not plain or normal at all....very talented man! Wonderful story in a world of so much bad news and tragedy! I love to hear things like this!!!
As far as the weather....Our winter is usually wet and muddy....BLAH...but we get some beautiful sunrises and sunsets due to the weather, so thats something to look forward too!
We say Red sky at night, sailors delight, red sky in morning, sailor head warning!

The Weaver of Grass said...

Wesleyan methodism was always very strong in Lincolnshire, Robert.

The Weaver of Grass said...

Their lives were never boring Dom. They enjoyed every minute. I honestly don't think you ever met them. I think your memory is rather hearsay.

The Weaver of Grass said...

I think, Jinksy that we might consider our own life ordinary but if others were to look into it they would probably find it less so, as we are all so different, aren't we?

The Weaver of Grass said...

Thanks Helen.

The Weaver of Grass said...

I do so want to read that poem, poet in residence - buit i just cannot find it at all. Are you sure you have the poet's name right as all I get coming up on Google is some film maker. It sounds such an odd poem I am dying to read it!

The Weaver of Grass said...

Incidentally poet in residence - do you consider those hours spent playing tiddliwinks as being time wasted or did it sharpen your hand eye coordination!

The Weaver of Grass said...

Thanks for the comment Arija. So sorry that you lost that blouse - I suppose you have learned to be philosophical about it by now, but it is those kinds of things that can never be replaced. Shall look at your roses shortly.

The Weaver of Grass said...

Thanks Pamela - I shall read about your Uncle Rob shortly. These old characters had such interesting lives. He must have been happy to live to 94.

The Weaver of Grass said...

Thanks Raph - like to think of a warm, content giraffe ,

The Weaver of Grass said...

I so agree Leenie that memories want writing down or they disappear for ever. That is one good reason for keeping a blog.

The Weaver of Grass said...

Thanks for the comment Rowan - he was my mother's brother and as the railway line ran fairly near to the bottom of our garden, when he was in the vicinity he would come and eat his lunch with us. That is how I learned about sound travelling - I wouldlook out of the window and see him working, see his hammer hit the plate and then - a split second later - hear it.

The Weaver of Grass said...

Tiddliwinks seems to be part of most people's pasts Elizabeth!

The Weaver of Grass said...

There is hope for us all Pam. An old couple in their nineties married near here a short while ago. It is never too late to find love!

The Weaver of Grass said...

Thanks Leslie

The Weaver of Grass said...

Yes Kayla coo - I wonder how many people use a table cloth and fine china these days.

The Weaver of Grass said...

Thanks BT hope you enjoyed your time in UK

The Weaver of Grass said...

Depends, 20thc woman, what you mean by exciting events - I suspect we all mean something different - I am sure my couple found lots of things exciting (even tiddliwinks!)

The Weaver of Grass said...

Hear! hear! Teresa

The Weaver of Grass said...

Kyfarmlife - he was my mother's youngest brother.
Like your substitution of sailor for shepherd - that is really interesting.

Heather said...

People knew what contentment was back then - many of us have lost that. What a lovely post and the more so because you remember those people and have your tablecloth to keep those memories alive.

Red Clover said...

This was one of the most beautiful posts! What a wonderful man. Were I to have an award for top posts I have enjoyed reading this would receive it. Thank you! In fact, I would love to link this from my Any Girl blog (Red Clover in "Real Life") and so my other family members can enjoy it. I'll send them on over! Thanks, Weaver. You are wonderful.

Any Girl said...

p.s. I loved you line "the garden was a riot of colour"! The line is as pleasant as the garden sounds!

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