1871, The National Library
My memories of St David’s day throughout my youth are very strong: wearing my daffodil proudly into class (not the little silk charity pins you see today, back then these were giant fresh trumpets – about as subtle as Louis Armstrong’s, too). It was a great day: being special and different made me proud of my Welsh heritage. I confess, I was quite the show off in my youth…
It didn’t strike me as odd until much later that my mother didn’t speak with the same Cardiff accent as my Grandma or ‘the aunts’ (my mother’s cousins). Perhaps it was the influence of my Geordie grandfather (six-year-old boy sliding down the stairs on his Grandma’s silver tea tray), or her Irish grandmother (a Catherine Cookson heroine in 1900s Cardiff, with a dozen children of her own and a dozen more strays that she’d pawn her winter coats every year to feed, and husband who could fix anything), that she ended up non-accented.
There were so many voices in my family growing up – so many feast days and special days, and so many accents from around the isles that none of them seemed out of place, or different… The strong, strange Norwich twang of my Great Grandma on my father’s side (everything a child could dream of, with her pirate’s cackle and her black eye patch and her dramatic flare and glamorous style: red blouses, black pencil skirts and short crepe jackets, well into her nineties, with black tights and lipstick, bright as you can, you’re never too young or too old to turn a head) – her husband spoke with a wasp in his mouth which might once have come out of a plumb, many years ago. Posh-drunk, I’d hazard a guess, they were the sort that had cocktails before dinner and put cloves in their apple pie instead of cinnamon, and everything reeked of TCP… And none of the menfolk are related by blood on this side… My Caterham-educated father who pronounces it ‘yesterdee’, and beer as ‘bear’ and still laughs at the memory of his beloved Grandfather farting and burping at the same time at the dinner table, causing his mother to have one of her conniptions… Her husband, Hassan, the sound of his slippered feet (Egyptian leather, Egyptian cotton, the beautiful inlaid boxes of Pharaohs, queens and reams of unfathomable stories told over cushions, tables, ashtrays – an endless race of chariots through lotus grass…) the Turkish delight coiled in boxes he said were jellied snakes, and the way he pronounced words like Bela Lugosi, giving him the air of a cinematic immortal – accented splendidly by the music of his morning prayers coming from the mysterious room upstairs with the 70’s purple wallpaper… a place never ventured into, but often imagined.
These strange family things, unique to each of us, might no make others smile the way our same-nesses do, but everyone a hotch-potch of relatives, like a garden of plants from all over the world, come together and somehow making a sort of harmony, even in the discords. These are our relatives, these are our funny memories. Not so much a family tree as a family border.
Time passes, companions and characters leave us, but every year the daffodils come, and there are a mountain of sugar-sparkled welsh cakes, a little blackened, but all the better. Nothing you’ll taste will ever taste as good as these…
I remember my Welsh Grandma today, from whom I got my green fingers and makers’ hands.
Family, for better or worse, shapes you and lingers. Something strange happens as you get old, and all of it mingles into a honeyed recollection that doesn’t always preserve the bad quite as well as it does the good. Tears and bitterness fade, but the essence of strong wills remains and gathers admiration, and forgiveness.
Be happy and safe everyone, mind how you go!