Friday, November 26, 2010

Red Carnations

Anne likes flowers in the living room. For over a fortnight we’ve had a bunch of dark pink alstroemeria from our own little garden. I planted them the year we arrived. They were at their end yesterday so Anne bought some bright red carnations (for me, because she knows I like them).

They sit there, jaunty, in a vase beside me. She also picked two red roses, Dublin Bay, from the climber we’d planted. She bruised the stem and placed an aspro in the water, time-honoured customs to preserve shape, scent and longevity. A kind neighbour had brought some little pink carnations of the kind described by Shakespeare. So the room looks colourful.

Part of the appeal of red carnations is that in season when he dressed to go out my grandfather, Pop, always wore one in his button-hole. A keen Labour man, it displayed his conviction and loyalty. He in his turn probably got the habit from his mother whose Sumner garden always had carnations, pink, red and white. I was six when great-granny Barclay died died in 1940, aged 98.

Here is a poem I wrote about her years ago.

how environment has shaped me
protocol, parameter & precedent
I wonder about Mum’s paternal
grandmother. “Lyttelton was like
coming home, laddie, coming home,”
easterly drizzle, ochre hills, or
just the look of land after the
rough charter voyage from Dundee?

Then a clean apron among the burnt
stumps & butter churns at Pigeon
Bay. I am told her husband though
a tartar was good at felling totara
& on the County Council. When they
shifted to Okuti her many children
walked over the hill to the native
school; from their studybooks she
taught herself to read.

I recall lavender
& camphor clothes, thick glasses,
carnations along her fence, lapses
into Gaelic, tram rides into town,
& the time her son a cabinet minister
brought Peter Fraser home, I watched
her pour tea from a pot I had never
seen before & to the nodding great
man describe me as a future politician.

She would not have understood
the theologian’s ”politics is the sad
business of dispensing justice in a
sinful world,” everything except John
A Lee or her shortbread could be perfect.

How I have failed her.

Once apparently
they asked,”did you never want to go
back? & she replied, “such a long way.”

When I had a sore throat, she mixed
aspro, honey, told me to stop crying &
sat up all the night to share the pain.

A devout Presbyterian she went to church every Sunday. A devout teetotaller she had a strong conviction that a hot toddy was good for colds. She seemed to have a lot of colds. Pop’s brother, Jim Barclay, a Cabinet Minister in the first Labour Government, brought Peter Fraser to see her when she was dying. Of course I did not know that, such things were not talked about in those days. Mum was nursing her. Great-Granny called out from the bed-room for me to come and meet the great man. He was quietly spoken, this was not the booming voice Pop listened to on the radio. Gravely, he shook my hand and told me to be kind to my mother.

Apparently the comment about ‘such a long way’ is a family mythology. Cousin Sally’s research unearthed the information that Great-Granny and her husband had gone back to Dundee in the late 1920s. They were not impressed, the town had shrunk and was grimy. (The Depression was beginning to bite). When I taxed Mum about it she told me that the remark was in response to her question about them going back again. I know Great-Granny hated the sea, despite living by it. She did tell me about the crowded conditions of the first voyage out. Children died of a measles epidemic on board.

With the wet shower being installed, Susanna my caregiver is washing and dressing me in the lounge. ‘Lovely carnations’ she said this morning. They were her parent’s favourite flower. Susanna hails from Germany. Something satisfying about a shared connection over a flower.

1 comment:

  1. What an interesting and thought-provoking post. I really enjoyed reading this poem; I marvel at how you gently evoke these people so that they instantly become real to the reader.

    "a clean apron among the burnt
    stumps & butter churns at Pigeon
    So beautifully done.