|Written by Erin Pizzey||Sunday, July 22, 2007 7:35 AM|
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According to my father, my mother once recovered from her caesarean that I forced upon her, packed an extensive amount of luggage and disappeared off to visit her friends in Peking. My twin sister and I were left in the care of our English nanny at the top of a very large gothic Victorian castle in Tsingtao. I always presumed that our mutual dislike stemmed from the fact that for some reason or other I failed to bond to my mother although my sister had no such problem. I was to blame for the wound in her otherwise perfect body because I was lying across her uterus and stubbornly refused to be born for three days. From as early as I can remember, my father often intoned ‘you nearly killed your mother.’ I have to admit I never really felt guilty, but then I did feel guilty for not feeling guilty.
My mother was Canadian. Her father and mother came to Canada as immigrants from Ireland. My grandfather Thomas Last became a very wealthy man in the town of Portland, Ottawa. He was a man of enormous energy and according to those who knew him he was a mean miser, a violent bully and terrorized his three children. My grandmother Maggie died giving birth to my Aunt Peggy. She was a sweet woman and loved her children. Soon after she died, my grandfather married again to a woman who had her own children. She was as cruel and as vicious as my grand father was. She disliked her stepchildren and favoured her own. The children were expected to work around my grand father’s farm like little slaves and my mother very rarely talked about her childhood. She took refuge in a fantasy world and really, as far as I am concerned she never left her safe place.
My mother told us that after her mother died she was given to elderly relatives who lived in great luxury in Toronto. She explained that though she was a lonely and isolated child, she was treated like a little princess. She planned to be a doctor and she was studying at Toronto University when a huge financial crash wiped out her relatives’ investments in paper mills and they could no longer afford her education. She qualified as a nurse and then with her friend Barbara, they set out to travel to Peking, in China to work as nurses at a big medical centre.
She turned her back on her family and reinvented herself from then on. I can imagine my mother’s arrival in the small circle of people working at the Peking Medical Union. At that time, Peking was a thriving, multi-cultural epicentre of ex-patriots. My mother threw herself into the exotic social life that surrounded her. She told us that she was shy of men but she was now in her late twenties and she and her friend Barbara were determined to find husbands. It did not take them long to meet two eligible young men, Cyril Carney my father and Paul Veitch his best friend.
I do not know when my mother changed her name from Ruth Last to Pat but maybe it was at that time when it was so important to her to attract an eligible bachelor. She must have felt that part of her reinvention was to choose a snappy modern name. There are many dark sepia Kodak photographs of my mother on horseback, my mother at the races, my mother camping in huge tents and boxes of pictures of my mother at parties. There are also pictures of my mother with my father. She looks dwarfed by this huge awkward man. In none of the pictures are they looking at each other or ever touching. Barbara and Pat got engaged to their men and then they were married.
According to legend, my mother won a lot of money on the Irish Sweep Stake and took my father around the world for their honeymoon. She had forty matching sets of suitcases and a jewel case. When they reached England, reality hit my mother. She assumed and probably there were hundreds of women like her who shipped themselves out to the colonies to find husbands, that the men they met were all landed gentry with country houses back home. My mother would not have noticed that my father spoke with a broad London accent. He obviously did not tell her about his background. He must have let her believe that he was taking her back to the bosom of his English middle class family. The truth was that my father was grew up in Hounslow, west London. He was the seventeenth child of a turbulent family. If her father and stepmother were cruel and violent towards her, my father’s family were equally dysfunctional. Pat Last married a man she never loved but now she was faced with the fact that not only did she not love him but also she was encumbered with his family who certainly did not take to her ‘fancy’ ways. She despised all of them. Pat, who spent so much of her life reinventing herself and escaping from the stink and the mud of her farm, now, found that she was part of a huge sprawling poverty stricken drunken Irish family.
My Carney grandfather was even bigger than my father was. Legend has it that he could hold five men against a wall with one arm. He drank a quart of whiskey every day and he owned the Black Lion pub in Brentford. He also raced horses. Jack, the eldest brother rode the horses in the races and when they lost all the money the same horses pulled coal around the local streets. I know nothing of my grandmother except that she gave birth to seventeen children of which ten died in early infancy of preventable diseases. My father was bitter about the poverty he experienced in his childhood. His memories were classical Dickensian memories of holes in his shoes and his clothes. They had no electricity and he did his homework by the light of a candle.
Brentford grammar school gave my very brilliant father a first class education. His childhood was so brutal and the frequent deaths of his brothers and sisters meant that my father had no happy memories of his childhood. It was custom in Irish families that when a child lay dying the whole family kept vigil by the bedside. Most families living in slum conditions lost children, but for my father, the pain of their deaths was overwhelming.
My father never talked about my grandmother Mary Rippingham. She was a big woman weighing seventeen stone and according to my mother, she was a prostitute and ended up in a mental hospital. The eldest sisters brought up my father, but he showed scant concern for their welfare ever after. He too turned his back on his family but he never tried to reinvent himself like my mother. He remained as uncouth and uncontrolled all his life. He had a raging temper and a cruel sense of humour but he was of great value to the Foreign Service. His undoubted brilliance and his grasp of the political implications of the huge changes that were taking place across the British Empire meant that whatever he did and who ever he offended, he was much needed at his post in the Chancery in Peking. For better or for worse, my parents were now joined in an unholy matrimonial bond that would survive their ferocious fights, her hatred of him and his utter addiction to his beautiful, doll like wife.
Copyright © 2007 Erin Pizzey, All Rights Reserved
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