Sunday, August 16, 2015

Homes and families

Albert House is being renovated. The house, place of my birth and my home for twenty-five years, is being brought into the 21st century. And with it the past is being chipped away. The garden has already been destroyed. The apple trees, my mother's pride and joy, are gone as is the orange blossom that she planted so I could carry some of this most traditional flower on my wedding day. She didn't live to see that day but I did carry orange blossom in my bouquet and I left for the church from this my home.

The destruction being wrought made me think back, to remember

It took the builders three days to knock through the wall of my bedroom to put in a window. Day after day, they chipped and hammered and swore until the hole in the four foot thick wall was big enough to let in the sun, but bigger than the view of Polly Garter next-door’s garden deserved. 

With my great-gran on the steps of Albert House
My bedroom was at the back of the house in the part that had already withstood eight generations. In my great-great-great-grandfather’s day it had been a public house. Years later, when it was finally rid of the smell of ale and gin, my great-grandmother wanted the front, which at that time still bore the legend, ‘Albert Inn’, fashionably pebble-dashed. The work had scarcely begun before the local bigwig, Harry Libby, came thundering to the door, ‘What are you doing, woman? This is sheer vandalism, destroying the heritage of the village.’ My great-grandmother didn’t give birth to twelve and raise eight children to be told what she could or couldn’t do with her own home — especially not by an upstart village boy — and she told him so.

That house, the stands in the middle of a terrace in the heart of the village. It was a matriarchal household: throughout my childhood there were four generations of women living there. My grandfather was a quiet gentle man, content to sit in his chair by the window, listening to the wireless and smoking his cigarettes, and my father, well, he was a character in one of my library books. On the rare occasions when I felt well-disposed towards him, he was the heroic Mr March away at war; most times he was the unseen parent who packed his daughter off to boarding school and sold her pony the moment she’d gone.

My great-grandfather, the man occupying centre stage
My great-grandfather, on the other hand, had died the year before I was born leaving a legacy of legend. He – almost single-handedly if family history is to be believed - had built Ford’s first factories in America. When the hiraeth became too strong, and he returned home to Wales, Henry Ford himself – again, the stuff of family myth - came to our village and begged him to return, offering to transport the whole family back to the States. But the women wouldn’t go and a good thing too else my story would be completely different.

As I said, my great-grandmother had eight surviving children and her presence in my growing-up home meant a constant flow of visitors. The encompassing of me within this extended family provided a shelter, the walls of which were stronger than bricks and mortar, and it was easy to ignore the non-existence of one person, to have only a vague awareness that something was missing but that it didn’t really matter much. I was surrounded with love and its Welsh synonym, good home cooking. When there were lots of us, the family, there for dinner we would pull out the table and I would squeeze onto the bench next to the wall. This was my favourite place, where the bricks I leaned against were warmed by Mr Shires next door’s fire. I sat quietly in the glow of conversation and knew that here I was safe. 

In 1964 I passed my eleven plus and the door to the another world, to Glanmor Grammar School, a more precarious world of Latin and physics, was opened to me. There was one other fatherless girl in the class but her father had had the decency to die. I explained to those who wanted to know that my father worked abroad. The summer of love was still to come and, in any case, free love only applied to the beautiful people out there, not the parents of good grammar school girls in South Wales.

My French teacher was called Miss George. She was soft-spoken with a gentle face and greying uncontrollable hair. In her lesson she asks around the class the question, Est ce que faites votre pere? Thirty three girls sitting in rows waiting for their turn, or in my case, praying for the bell to ring, please, before Miss George gets to me, please don’t let her ask me. Shall I lie, make up an answer? Il est un medecin. Tres bien, where does he work? No, I’d blush, stutter, be caught out. Mon pere est mort. Convenient but they all know. The bell rings, the problem goes away for today, and I go home to steak and kidney pie and rice pudding.

Some of that extended family on the steps
So was that it? The worst I had to bear? It stands out in my memory but when I stop and think, try as I might, I cannot recall one unkind comment, not one slur on my parentage through the whole of my childhood and adolescence. If that was as bad as it got, then surely the family did its job well. 

When I enter the house that is now my home, I breathe in the same sense of security that my first home gave me; I hope my children feel it too. 

Since it was sold out of the family, Albert House has come on the market several times. Each time one or other member of the family views it with barely-concealed desire. But it’s never really suitable: too big, too small, no garage, no garden. 

I was the last of the family to be born in Albert House and I linger over the link with the past. I’ve looked on old maps, tried to locate the public house that was to become my home. I’ve never been able to find it. 


nick said...

My two childhood homes are still there and nothing much has been done to them, externally at any rate. It would be very strange if they were suddenly demolished and replaced by something quite different. I loved our first home, even though it was poky and we were all falling over each other. Our second home was more spacious but it never felt like home somehow. It had a rather heavy, soulless feel to it.

Trubes said...

What a lovely story of your childhood Liz,
I really enjoyed reading it.
What happened to you Dad in the end hope you find a suitable place
for your memorabilia,

love Di xx

Liz Hinds said...

Albert House wasn't particularly big, nick, but it felt it when I was little.

I never knew my dad, Di. I doubt if I'll be lucky enough to get the stones.

Graham Hunt said...

I live about half a mile from the house I was born in. I was the last of us three, all born in that house. My Mum and Dad bought it when they'd had enough living with my Mum's parents for a few years. It also had a large allotment sized garden so Dad could have his allotment at home rather than down by the railway.

I have a friend who lives opposite that house. He lived there when we did too it was his Mum's house and he moved back when he inherited it and he was penniless in California. However I have to go to his house and not look at the old homestead - I do sometimes but there are so many memories there... it still is Dad's house, he built the porch, the side corridor... I wonder what is left inside and what is not that I'll remember.

Gledwood said...

O I love old stuff. I was watching an old German film the other day about a grey haired ancient old nun who meets her teenage sweetheart and leaves the order to be with him and in that there were loads of scenes of photo and loveletter burning. Why do people do that? It's obscene! Unless the letter contains really embarrassing stuff I think stuff like that should be kept.
How's George??