Friday 23 March 2012

The history under the gravestone

My mother-in-law, Wilma Wilson, died a year ago last Friday. So now I have nobody to phone up and ask how you make butter (for 'Malefice') or how you muck out a cowshed (for 'Saving Rafael.') 'In hot weather,' she said, 'the butter just slips through your fingers,' and I gave the phrase to one of my characters.

She was born on a farm near Ballynure, in County Antrim, and in her childhood she lived a lifestyle so different from anything I never knew it might as well have been a hundred years earlier - though there were technical innovations, like the steam-thresher, or 'thrasher' as it was rendered in County Antrim dialect, for the oat crop. All the men came and helped on each others' farms when the thresher came, Catholics and Protestants alike.

But there was neither gas nor electricity on the farm; Wilma found her way up to bed with a candle, and was frightened of the moving shadows in the stairwell. They burned peat on the fire; the beds were covered with patchwork quilts, and there were rag rugs on the oilcloth-covered floor. You washed with a jug and basin.

The kitchen had a big open fire, that heated the boiler. It was nice to sit on the warm lid of the boiler and stir the porridge, cooking in a pot suspended from a big chain. They had cows, so they made their own butter - Wilma learned to make it in a glass churn, but sometimes her father yoked the horse up to a horse-churn, which wasn't such hard work, though it must have needed the watchful eye of the housewife to make sure the butter came right.

Wilma was a hard-working and skilful baker - she was still baking wheaten bread when she died at the age of 89, and we ate the last few delicious loaves out of the freezer, grieving but appreciating her skill that last time. Even after she married and became a Belfast lady she'd go back to the farm on Wednesdays to help with the huge farm bake; potato bread, potato oaten (delicious), soda, wheaten (wholemeal soda), pancakes and slims - which were a kind of skinny scone. Oatcakes were dried out on a frame beside the fire, and there was treacle soda and spotted dog (soda bread with raisins in). All of these were made on the griddle, but scones were made in the oven, and upside-down cake made with apples or rhubarb. 'Mammy' used to sweep the bakeboard with a goose's wing, like the mother in the Seamus Heaney poem.

They had a horse for the field, and one for the trap - a strawberry roan called Rab. They kept chickens, Rhode Island Reds and White Leghorns, but Wilma liked turkey eggs best. The iron was heated with coals inside, or on the fire. Social life happened at the Young Farmers' and at church, and, of course, at weddings and funerals, where the coffin was carried to the church, sometimes for miles, by male family members and friends. When Wilma died, her sons, her nephew and two great-nephews, and her grandson-in-law carried the coffin - but only from the church to the grave. It was a very moving act of love, though.

When I was a young married woman, I remember going to see 'Aunt Mannie' (Minnie), whose farm was in the old style, lit by oil lamps and candles, with a Victorian chaise-longue in the best parlour, china in cupboards, a belly-straining spread put out for us to consume as best we could - and Bible texts, whose frames had crosses at each corner, ambushing you from every corner of the house. I'm convinced that 'The Lord Thy God Seeth Thee' hung in the toilet, but maybe this is too good to be true.

It feels odd to be the bridge generation between that way of life - which my father also knew when he spent his holidays on a farm near Weston-super-Mare - and our modern lifestyle with its smart-phones and electricity-guzzling appliances. When Wilma died we were very much aware that one of the last links to that earlier way of living had gone. At least I keep up the tradition of bread-baking and my own grandfather's tradition of vegetable-growing. I'm very glad that I asked my mother-in-law about her childhood and wrote down what she said. There's loads of oral history available, but that kind of knowledge is particularly precious when it comes from the family.

Anyway, I'll leave you with the above photograph of her brother Dave's dog Monty - 'a right good dog, my mother-in-law said warmly - and a recipe for 'Slims' which my grandmother-in-law wrote down in her recipe book - which incidentally is crammed with newspaper wartime recipes, so it's additionally fascinating.

6 ounces flour
½ teaspoon cream of tartar
2 and a half ounces butter
1 and a half ounces sugar
¼ teaspoonful of baking soda.
Pinch salt
Enough milk to mix very stiffly.

Sift the flour, rub in the butter. Mix all the dry ingredients. Add the milk to mix stiff. Turn out onto a floured board. Roll out thinly, about a quarter of an inch. Cut into rounds and bake on a hot griddle till nicely browned and well-cooked.

And here's her shopping list for the 'Thrasher.' The '2 big bakes' refers to the kind of batch I've described above. A lot of work for the farm women!

Incidentally, in the Antrim countryside, creepy-crawlies were called 'alligators.' Does anyone else know that expression?


Susan Price said...

Every word fascinating, Leslie. And yes, these memories are so precious.
I liked 'the right good dog'!

Linda B-A said...

What a different world Wilma inhabited and how privileged you are to have had a connection to it. I'm still getting over the recent death of my father. He was born a few years after the end of the Great War in the West Riding of Yorkshire, and he used to talk about playing water polo - which was all the rage - and sitting in the liquorice fields of Pontefract sucking roots. Such bewildering changes in less than a century - all that we've gained and all that we've lost.

H.M. Castor said...

What a haunting title you've chosen for this wonderful post, Leslie. Yes - at each death, a whole world of experience goes to the grave. And bravo for writing down what Wilma told you - how valuable that is! Frustratingly, I have memories of *having* fascinating conversations with older relatives (when I was a child & took such things, I suppose, for granted) but I now can't recall the detail of what they said. (P.S. Just yesterday I saw a photograph from the funeral of someone I once knew - the carrying of the coffin - and thought what a moving act that is. An act of love, as you say.)

Leslie Wilson said...

I was thinking of Heine, and maybe so were you, Harriet. 'Unter jedem Grabstein ruht eine Weltgeschichte.' 'The history of a world lies under every gravestone.'
Wonderful poet, Heinrich Heine, and perceptive!

H.M. Castor said...

No, I wasn't, as I'm ashamed to say I don't know Heine at all. Will investigate!

Sue Purkiss said...

Baking day sounds absolutely mouthwatering!

Leslie Wilson said...

Incidentally, my mother-in-law loathed having her hair long - it was ver fine, and got horribly tangled, so it was torment having it combed out. As soon as she could she got it cut short, and always wanted everyone else to have short hair too. Bless her.

Ann Turnbull said...

Leslie, this is lovely! It reminded me of some Gillian Clarke poems I was reading earlier - that wonderful texture of everyday life. And, like Susan, I love the 'right good dog'.