It was at my grandparents’ farm that I learned what love was. At that time I would not have called it love as the word “love” was never mentioned, and it was only later in time that I realised that that was what it was. It was there, however, that I knew safety and security, and many of the things that go to make up love. My grandparents were not demonstrative and there were no such things as cuddles and hugs. Love was shown in a very practical and unemotional way, but it was nevertheless there. I loved to go there, and experience the joys that were to be found there. Each night my grandmother and I would walk down the long lane to the main road, clasping glass bottles with little plastic blue milk checks in them for the milkman in the mornng. I would be gazing upwards into the vastness of the night sky, and looking in wonder at the thousands of stars twinkling down at me. My grandmother would bring me down to earth barking out at me,
“Watch where you’re going.” Quickly followed by “You’ll come to grief.” I had no idea of what grief was, but from the tone of her voice I knew it was not a very nice place.
“Mind that pothole,” she would say, grasping my hand firmly and pulling me closer to her. I was not, however, to be deterred, and in my curiosity I asked her where God was. It seemed to me that there were so many stars up there that there could hardly be room for God, and although I was only three years old, the one thing I knew about God was that He was big. I have no idea where I had heard about God, as it certainly wasn’t from my grandparents. However, my mind was fully taken up with finding out where God was. I decided that He must be somewhere behind the stars. My grandmother declared that she did not know where He was, but that He must be up there somewhere. As we continued on down the lane, she held onto my tiny hand firmly, and I felt the strength of her habd holding mine. It was a￼ wonderful feeling, and I felt what I was later to find out was a strong sense of love for my grandmother.
Her love showed itself in other ways too, though. Always the questioner, I never let up on asking questions, and she never tired of the continual onslaught. Never did I see irritation in her voice, or see it in her face. In fact, she was always very interested in my questions. Not only that but she was quite playful, if in a rather understated way, too. On an autumn night we would sit by the fire in the range, and she would peel an apple that had been picked in the orchard, and she would give me a piece of apple peel that I threw over my shoulder so that it landed on the floor behind me. We would look to see what letter of the alphabet it formed, and that would be the beginning of the name of the person I would marry.
Many times I would sleep in the big feather bed with my grandmother. She￼ always claimed that she did not sleep very well, and so we devised a game whereby we counted sheep, and announced to each other when we reached the hundred mark, then the two hundred mark, and so on. My grandmother did fall asleep, but I, excited by the game, did not want to fall asleep, and nudged my grandmother awake excitedly at the five hundred mark. She woke up, and in a bleary eyed fashion showed some excitement about my having reached the five hundred mark. She showed no anger or impatience at all.
I loved my nights sleeping in the big bed with her, and would wake up singing every morning.
Just as I learned love here, I also learned about darker things – like death. Here, I had my first introduction to death. It had never occurred to me that we could possibly cease to exist. In my mind, we lived for ever. One day one of the farm animals died, and my Uncle was leaning against the huge sideboard in the big farmhouse kitchen, talking about the animal that had died.
“What does died mean?” I asked. It seemed to be something not very nice, for everyone was somber. It was explained to me that to die was to be no more. To cease to exist. It was a concept that was quite hard for me to get hold of, and I asked if people died too. I was told that they did, and I sat in shock for a while. I suddenly realised that at some point my grandparents and my parents were going to die one day, but not only that, I was going to die too. A darkness came over me, creeping across my childhood innocence. Nothing could ever be the same now. Sensing my distress, my grandmother told me that I need not worry about it now, for this was something that was going to happen way into the future. I tried to dismiss thoughts of death from my mind, but it was difficult. It was not long after that, however, that Joey, my budgie died. He lived in a cage in what we called the middle room of the farmhouse. He was a beautiful blue and white bird, and one morning I went in to greet him as up, and to my horror, found him lying motionless on the floor of his cage. I let out a piercing scream, and my grandmother came rushing in to me. She explained that he had died. I could not get over it, and moped around for days.
And then there were the mice. Always, it seemed, I would hear my grandmother saying, “We’ve got a mouse again.” Then would come the ritual of setting a trap. Sometimes it would only be a matter of hours before we heard the trap go off, and we knew that the mouse was dead. Sometimes as well, one of the many cats would die, and so gradually, I became no stranger to death.
I was to learn, here, that life was not all joy and light. There could be dark times too. Life on a farm has many ups and downs, and is not always idyllic. Yet always, it was to this place that I wanted to return when I was living back with my parents. If life on the farm had its dark times, life with my parents had much darker times. The farm felt safe and secure to me, whilst life with my parents did not. Here, my spirit was broken on many occasions￼, and I turned into a very anxious child. There￼ was much fighting going on between my parents, and we were constantly having to move. The places we moved to were not very pleasant, and certainly not suitable for a child. My mother would get jobs looking after sick old ladies, who always died in the end. So if I was no stranger to death at the farm, even more so now, did death become my companion. I remember one day returning to what passed as home, and I found my mother and various other people in the hall in a very somber and strained state. My mother pointed to the door of the room where the old lady had resided in her bed, and said to me,
“Don’t go in there.” I wondered why I could not go into the room, and what was happening. It turned out that one of the people in the hall was a doctor, and he had just certified the old lady as dead.