What If...?
 

Mary McIntosh
 

© 2005 by Mary McIntosh

When my story, ”The Newfangled Device” was published on a website in 2001, little did I realize what a far-reaching effect it would have on my life. ”The Newfangled Device” told of how, as a retired senior citizen, I learned to love the computer, by one day discovering Kirkby Lonsdale, the small town in the Lake District of England where I’d spent my summers as a very young child.

Three years later that same story led me to find the house where my mother was born in 1884.

This is my story of serendipity.

The subject displayed on my e-mail that day in 2003 was ”Memories of Kirkby Lonsdale.” A man, living in England, wrote asking if I wanted to share other memories with him. He was re-opening the pub in a small hotel in Kirkby Lonsdale.

James and I began sending e-mails to each other. It was fun to be in touch with someone who was walking down the same streets as I had so long ago.

One day he asked the question, “Would it be possible for you to take one more nostalgic trip back to England?”

With just those few words I embarked on an experience so simple, yet so profound,  that it became a beautiful and inspiring journey into my past.

Born in London, England many years ago, I remembered most clearly the summers I spent at my grandmother’s in Kirkby.  I would love to return one more time, but I was in my 80s and traveling had become difficult for me.  Maybe I could manage if someone was there to help me.  James offered to meet me in London and we’d drive to the Lake District. It sounded so good, but what did I really know about this man?  He was in his early 40s, lived in Blackpool, but I knew little else. Should I go and hope for the best?  Was I being a foolish old woman?  What if I got to London and he wasn’t there, then what would I do?  What if he turned out to be the kind of man who preyed on older women?  Maybe he thought I was rich because I was from America.  What if I went and we didn’t like each other?  What should I do? I really wanted to go, for besides re-visiting Kirkby, I’d always wanted to see if I could find the house where my mother was born.  When in her70s, she’d painted a watercolor of it from memory. This was now hanging on my wall at home. I knew she’d been born in Middleton, near Kirkby Lonsdale. If I went, maybe James would drive me there.

I swayed back and forth––yes I’ll go––no I shouldn’t take the chance. Finally the decision was made easier for me when my daughter, Heather, told me she planned to run the marathon in London in April and would stay on and join me on my trip back to my beginnings.  At least if things didn’t work out, we’d be traveling together.

In April 2004, at the age of 83, I returned to the land of my birth.

My daughter ran the marathon. I arrived in Heathrow. She and James met me.  James turned out to be a delightful young man, and was agreeable to anything I wanted to do

We journeyed to Blackpool a famous seaside resort.  Heather and I stayed in a hotel overlooking the ocean. In April it proved to be a restful stay, as the summer visitors had not yet arrived. Each day James picked us up and drove us around and I would exclaim, ”Oh, yes, I remember this.”

But a visit to Kirkby Lonsdale was what I was really looking forward to.

My mother’s father died when she was ten, and my grandmother was left with five children. She needed an income, and in the late 1800s, jobs for women were not that plentiful. In the neighboring town of Kirkby Lonsdale, she was able to procure the position of caretaker of the Institute, a building used for town meetings, fraternity clubs, receptions, etc. This is where the family moved, where my parents met, and where Heather and I were headed.

We spent a whole day in Kirkby, and it was wonderful. So little had changed.  Even though it now bustled with autos, it still retained the old-fashioned charm of the horse and buggy days I had remembered.  We were there on a Thursday, and the market place, as I had remembered it, was busy with stalls of produce the local farmers had brought in to sell.

James had arranged for us to go inside the Institute and, although changes had been made––electricity instead of gas jets on the wall––it looked very much as I had remembered it. I noticed the fireplace in the kitchen was still there. I once again could envision my grandmother giving each of us a bath in a large galvanized tub in front of this fireplace.  In the 1920s we rarely bathed at any other time, as water had to be pumped from a well. We would take a sponge bath doing the week, but it was most important for all of us to be totally clean before attending church the next day.  Besides my two brothers, several cousins would spend time in Kirkby, so giving each a Saturday night bath was a major event. After we’d been scrubbed down, we’d jump out onto the hearth, wrap a large towel around ourselves, don nightclothes, and climb the stairs to the upper floor where we slept in feather beds.

As we walked out the side door of the Institute, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.  The four outhouses—the only ‘facilities’ for our use—were still standing. We were told they were now used for storage, though my daughter swore they still had a ‘certain aroma’ about them!

We then wandered around the small town, and each bend in the road brought back a different memory  “That’s where I saw my first picture show, up those outside stairs. It was a black and white silent movie,” I told my daughter.  “It only cost a penny, and we sat on hard-backed wooden benches.  See that store on the corner. It used to be Mr. Richardson’s Meat Market.  My cousin, Hilda, and I would stand just inside by the hour, it seemed, and watch a pig or sheep being slaughtered, and their carcass hung on a rack in the window.  Ugh! Just the thought now of my ever doing that makes me shiver.”

James, can we go down Mitchell Gate?” I asked. “Once a week grannie would give us each a penny, and we’d go down to Miss Dean’s Sweet Shoppe to spend it. It was a wonderful place with rows of glass jars filled with pink, red, green and yellow sweets. After spending time deciding which ones I wanted, Miss Dean would take the jar off the shelf, turn the metal top, pick up a large scoop and weigh out my choice. Then she’d place the sweets into a small white cone-shaped paper bag and, while she held the two sides of the bag, she’d twist it around and around so that none of the sweets fell out on my way back to my grandmother’s.”

Mitchell Gate was just as steep as I recalled, but Miss Dean’s Shoppe was no longer there.

St. Mary’s Church, where my parents were married, is in the center of the town.  We walked into this beautiful old church, with its Norman pillars still standing, and the sun, shining through the predominantly blue east window, cast a lovely glow upon the pews. Each Sunday morning the bells in the church pealed out, welcoming all to services.  My grandmother used to tell us that the bells sang out ‘Will you come to church.  Will you come to church,’ and they really did sound like that.

I’d visited and enjoyed Kirkby, but now it was time to try to find my mother’s place of birth in the neighboring town of Middleton.

It is difficult to know what to call Middleton.  It is hardly even a village, for there are only about 300 people scattered around, mostly sheep farmers.  There are no shops, no petrol station, no school, but there is a church.  We stopped there first.

My great-grandfather, John Holmes Abbott, had been the vicar of this little country church, which we found open, and discovered his name on a wall. Dark inside, the church probably held no more than fifty people.  In my grandparents’ days it would have been the focal point of the community, with the vicar living nearby.  Now, we were told, an itinerant minister visits each Sunday.

On a lovely English spring day we walked around the churchyard. Many of the gravestones were old, some had toppled over onto the ground; others covered with moss were difficult to read. We found his grave and that of his wife, Mary (my mother’s name and mine).

Close by was the grave of the grandfather I never knew, who died when he was only 36, and my grandmother, Isabel Abbott, at 79. Wild daffodils covered the grounds. I plucked one from my grannie’s grave and brought it back with me.

Now it was time to search for the house, though I had no idea whether or not it still existed. The Abbott family left in 1893.  My daughter kept snapping photos. “That one looks like the painting,” she’d say, but I was never sure. We found the old vicarage where a farmer and his family now live. They allowed me to stand in an open doorway to the house to have a picture taken. This is where my great-grandfather had lived, and I’m sure my mother must have visited there many times.  At first I thought this might be the one, but I didn’t recall mother ever telling me she lived at the vicarage. It became a bit discouraging.

We’d better start heading back to Blackpool,” James sad. “I’d like to get home before it gets dark.”

I knew we had to leave, and I’d just about decided her house was no longer there, when Heather exclaimed, “Mom, look at that one across the road.  That might be it.”  I wasn’t too convinced, but when we got home, and the photo was developed, and we looked at the two of them together, we knew they were the same. My mother’s painting, and an enlarged framed photo are identical––the doorways, the chimneys, the curve of the road. Even some of the shrubbery looked alike, though the sensible side of my brain knew this was highly unlikely. Then called Rose Cottage, it is now The Swan Inn.

And so I ponder. What if I’d never written that piece?  What if it hadn’t appeared on that web site? What if James hadn’t read it?   What if I hadn’t been brave enough to travel again, and rely on a stranger to take care of me? What if…?
 
 

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