Archive for the ‘family’ Tag

My Life in Music: 1981

At the beginning of 1981, my family moved to a different part of Kitchener, which meant I changed schools. Partway through the school year, I found myself in Mr Hennig’s grade 6 class at Smithson Public School.

Mr Hennig has the dubious honour of being the worst teacher I ever had. When we left Canada, I had been in the very early stages of learning cursive handwriting. Canadian kids, at least at that time, learned this in grade 2. So the first assignment I handed in to Mr Hennig, he asked me why it wasn’t in cursive script, why was I still printing? I explained that I hadn’t learned that at school in England. He said, “you ought to know this by now. I don’t have time to teach you. The letters are on the classroom wall. Figure it out for yourself.”

So at age 11 I had to teach myself how to write cursive script. It’s one reason why my handwriting is so appalling even I can’t read it. Being left-handed doesn’t help either.

Me in 1981

Then we were given an assignment to write a story – always my favourite thing to do in school. I scribbled away with my story, and at the end of the lesson handed in ten pages. “What’s this?” Mr Hennig asked. So I explained it was my story. He said, “this is way too long. I don’t have time to read this. You need to write shorter stories.”

I don’t know what Mr Hennig was doing with his time, but evidently he wasn’t spending it teaching. I was glad to leave his class at the end of the school year, and move to Stanley Park Junior High to start grade 7.

The picture included here is the standard school photo for grade 6.

The other thing that happened in 1981 is that my youngest sister was born. So we were now three sisters – oldest, middle, youngest. The 11-year gap between me and my youngest sister means I have very clear memories of being woken up in the middle of the night by the baby crying, and it was this that first made me think that babies were hard work and I didn’t really fancy any of my own. My opinion did not change over the years. At least now, at age 50, I no longer get people telling me I’ll change my mind. I never did.

Our little record player looked rather like this

The two-year gap between me and Middle Sister meant that, at that point at least, we didn’t mind spending time together. That changed as we moved into teenage years. But back in the very early 80s we were both getting interested enough in music to buy singles of our favourite songs. And in those days, we had similar enough tastes in music to pool our allowances and buy records jointly (that, again, would change in later years).

One Christmas – and I think it was Christmas 1981, but it could have been the following year – we were given as a joint Christmas present a portable record player, the kind that folded up into a carrying case. The plastic turntable was just big enough for a ’45 (for those of you old enough to remember those). In addition, this little record player had coloured lights on the front that used to flash in time to the music. I went looking online for a picture, and I think the one I have included here was pretty close. My sister and I used to turn out the lights and dance to our records, pretending we were in a disco. One of the singles that we bought together, that we particularly enjoyed dancing to, was “Mickey” by Toni Basil.

I present it here, with the original video, as the song for 1981.

High School Reunion

I spent eight years of my life living in Canada. I moved out there with my mother, stepfather and sister in 1980. I was ten years old at the time. I resented having to move countries. I moved back in 1988, at eighteen years old, after finishing high school.

The high school I attended was Grand River Collegiate, in Kitchener, Ontario. I spent five years there because in those days Ontario had a grade 13 – now long gone, I understand. The school opened in 1966. Last year, 2016, to celebrate its 50th anniversary, it decided to have a ‘reunion weekend’ to celebrate fifty years of ‘Renegades’.

I have a lot of bittersweet memories of my teenage years. Does anyone ever have a good time during puberty? But in high school, at least, there were some good experiences, and it was a big improvement on junior high. It was in high school I began to have confidence in my writing – that this was, at least, something that I was good at, and I had some very encouraging English teachers. I made some good friends in high school, friends I am still in contact with. I started playing Dungeons & Dragons. And I was finally able to drop that most hated of classes, Physical Education. The Canadian education system – at least when I went through it – did not seem to comprehend that some people will never, ever, be any good at sports, no matter how hard you push them. But that is a post for another time.


Me (L) and my sister, haunting the old school corridors 30 years on

Ultimately the most important lessons you learn are those you discover after school. I was bullied in school. I suppose most people are. Perhaps we had it easier, in the days before social media and the internet when your bullies had to come face to face with you instead of hiding behind Twitter accounts. Bullying is always tough. But you grow up, you learn to love yourself and you learn to put the hurtful things the bullies said behind you.

Anyway, the school opened its doors for an open house weekend as part of its reunion celebrations, and I decided to go. My sister, who still lives in Canada, came along. We were both, briefly, at the same high school. But she was three grades below me and at the time she found me terminally embarrassing, so we were rarely in the same place at the same time.

It was a strange experience, going back into my old high school after nearly thirty years. I think back to those times and sometimes it feels like it wasn’t me – like it all happened to someone else. And the school has changed quite a lot since I attended. There’s a proper drama room with a stage now. We just had a room with a carpet and no desks – we had to sit on the floor. There’s a really high-tech music room, with soundproof practise booths. But as I walked around, every so often a memory would hit me. We went up the stairs to explore the upper floor and I suddenly remembered clattering up and down those stairs every day, between classes. I went into the girls’ toilets and remembered that these were the ones I used every day, at school, because they were conveniently placed between corridors. I’m pretty sure the decor, or the facilities, hadn’t changed in 30 years either.


Exhibit A: Evidence of Sara’s terrible dress sense during adolescence?

In the corridor that used to be where all the French and business studies (ie: typing) were, ‘decade rooms’ had been set up. So of course I headed straight for the 1980s room. Photographs of the time were hung up every where, and who should I see in that room but my old typing teacher. While I was talking to her telling her how in all honesty her typing class was the single most useful class I ever took in my life, my sister was prowling the room looking at the photographs. I was in quite a lot of them. I threw myself enthusiastically into high school and joined all the clubs. I was trying to get people to notice me. My sister was making a point of trying not to be noticed. She kept bringing me pictures I featured in. Most of them I remembered – I bought all the yearbooks, and most of the pictures were there somewhere. But then she brought me one I hadn’t seen before. “How do you know that’s me?” I said. “The face is turned away.”

She gave me a look and pointed at the picture. “Look at that outfit! Of course it’s you. And socks with sandals? Who else would wear that?”

Perhaps she had a point. I am attaching the picture as Exhibit A. I am the person with long brown hair in the foreground, lookng away from the camera. You can judge for yourself whether or not my dress sense was as terrible as my sister perceived it to be.

On the whole it was fun, revisiting my high school for a day, and it brought back some good memories that I had forgotten all about. But I think the most important thing about reminiscing on high school days is to remind yourself how far you’ve come since then.

Christmas Past

This time of year, I like listening to the Salvation Army Band, which is possibly a surprising statement from a confirmed atheist. But I haven’t always been so. When I was a child, my parents belonged to the Salvation Army. I was sent to Sunday School, and taught to believe in God.

My earliest Christmas memories are from when my parents were still together. We lived in a little town in Lancashire, in a bungalow which had had the attic converted into another floor. My sister and I both had bedrooms in the attic rooms. My parents slept in the downstairs bedroom. On Christmas Eve, my sister and I put our pillow cases (no stockings for us – we had pillow cases) in our parents’ room. I once asked my mother why the pillow cases had to go in their room. She said she wanted to watch us open our presents. I never questioned this at the time – I still had an unshakeable belief in Santa Claus.  I suppose I was a gullible child – I believed whatever anyone told me, because it never occurred to me they could be lying.  So when all the grown-ups were telling me that Santa was real, I accepted this without question – after all, why would they be telling me this if it wasn’t true?

Anyway, Christmas morning my sister and I would gallop down the stairs and charge into our parents’ room to see what presents had been left for us. The excitement of seeing that pillow case stuffed with presents has been unmatched by any thrill in adult life.

My dad used to play trombone in the Salvation Army band, and in the run-up to Christmas we would go and watch him play in the shopping precinct, all bundled up in winter coats and mittens, which were attached by a piece of wool running down the arms of my coat and along the back, so I couldn’t lose one of them.

Whenever I watch the Salvation Army band play at Christmas time, I remember those early Christmases, when my parents were still together, and Christmas was all about new toys, singing carols, marzipan and Baby Jesus. And then I feel very sad, because life was simpler then and I can’t go back there.

It happens to us all, of course. We have to grow up, and when we do life gets more complicated. My parents divorced; both of them married new partners; we moved to Canada and I had to leave everything I was familiar with behind; I found out there was no Santa, and therefore no magic; I stopped believing in God; I started called Christmas ‘Xmas’ because I realised it had all become hugely commercialised and I no longer believed it had anything to do with the birth of Christ.

But music has the power to tap into our emotions on a very primal level, and I cry when I listen to the Salvation Army band because it takes me right back to the little girl I was, and can never be again.

Thinking about the subject of this post made me realise that the shine began to come off Christmas for me the year my parents divorced, and subsequent events tarnished it even further. I know, logically, it’s not possible for me – or for any of us – to go back to the innocence and simplicity of childhood.  So I listen to the Salvation Army band when I hear it playing Christmas songs, and even though doing so always makes me cry, it still takes me back to a happier time and place.

My Life in Books: My Naughty Little Sister

For the first two and a half years of my life, I was an only child, and then the first of my two younger sisters came along. For quite a long time I resented her existence, because of the inconvenience she imposed on my life. No longer did I have the undivided attention of my parents and grandparents. And I was expected to share my toys.

So when I discovered Dorothy Edwards’ “My Naughty Little Sister” books, I identified fully with the long-suffering older sister who narrates the books, telling the exploits of her mischievous little sister and ‘Bad Harry’ – the little friend down the road. Neither of the sisters have names. The point of view of the older sister is first person, and the younger sister is always referred to as “my naughty little sister”. And what trouble this little girl gets into. One story that sticks in my mind is when, at a birthday party, she and Bad Harry get to the trifle that has been specially made for the occasion. After sticking their fingers in the cream for a while, they both get spoons and proceed to eat the whole thing between them. They got very sick, and when I was a child this struck me as a Very Naughty thing to do.

The author claims to have based the stories on the exploits of her own sister in childhood. I was never sure when they were written. When I read them in my childhood, the only thing I remember dating them was mention of coal being delivered into the cellar down the coal chute. By the 1970s, not too many houses were using coal.

I imagine these books will still be enjoyed by children today, especially those with younger siblings. Sibling rivalry has existed since the beginning of time, and small children have always had the capacity to be naughty. Even if your parents try to tell you otherwise.

Truth Vs. Fiction

(Cross-posted on the WriteClub blog)

There are unquestionable parallels between my amateur sleuth, Shara Summers, and me. But she is still a fictional character, as are the other characters in my novel DEATH SCENE.

But we all write about what we know, intentionally or not. My mother visited me from Canada recently. At one point she was scrutinising my ceiling and made the comment, “your cleaner’s not very good. There’s a cobweb on the ceiling”.

I had to laugh at this. Shara’s mother makes exactly the same comment in DEATH SCENE, when she criticises the cleaner employed by Shara’s sister (except in the book the suspect dirt is on the window, not the ceiling). My mother hasn’t read the book, so she had no way of knowing this. Maybe truth crosses into fiction sometimes. Or maybe it’s just that mothers everywhere are all the same…

Family Ties

My dad and his siblings have an arrangement to get together with their paternal cousins about once a year. This arrangement apparently came about when they realised they were only ever seeing each other at funerals. There are no surviving members of my grandparents’ generation, and my dad’s generation didn’t want to get to a stage where they were next reunited at one of their funerals, so they now get together annually. I had occasion to join the last of these gatherings, which took place at the end of October last year, to get to know all these people who share my genes, but are mostly strangers.

I find the concept of genetics fascinating. I have gone through my life prizing the fact that I am unique, and yet the more I learn about my family tree, the more I come to understand that many of the peculiar quirks that I thought made me an individual are actually family traits.

There’s no doubt that my dominant genes are those from my father’s line. It’s evident I am my father’s daughter. The philosophy of being myself, no matter what others think, I get from him. My inherent lack of interest in clothes and fashion also comes from him. It seems my dislike of vegetables and fondness of all things sweet and fattening is also a family trait. As we all tucked into our food at our family gathering I noticed I was not the only one loading up on the desserts – and no one was tackling the vegetables with any enthusiasm.

One of my grandfather’s brothers had a colour cine camera a long time before such a thing became commonplace, and his vast collection of cine film has now been converted to DVD. This footage spans an era from 1948 through to 1977. It’s fascinating to watch as a snap shot of Lancashire life through the decades, along with the changing fashions and hairstyles – most evident in what the brides were wearing. Only the family matriarch, “Grandma Townsend” – my paternal grandfather’s mother – looked the same at every wedding, wearing the same style coat and the same hairstyle as the years rolled on.

She died when I was about six. I have vague memories of visiting my great-grandmother when I was a child. She lived in a little terrace house in Ashton, characteristic of the Victorian-era houses that are commonplace in Northern towns. I found her quite intimidating – but I was very young and she was very old.

There’s some brief footage of me near the end of this family film archive, aged about five, jumping around in my grandparents’ garden with my sister and my cousin. The attached photo is of me, at around that time. Note the 1970s anorak – a good indication of just how old this picture is!

It’s always been important to me to retain my surname – through insisting on being published under my own name, and not changing it when I got married. It’s hard to explain sometimes why it was so important to me to keep my name, but learning more about the family history has given me a better understanding of why I’ve been so proud of this name I bear. We may not be perfect – what family is? But now I understand what it means to be a Townsend, and why I should be proud to be so.

Memories of My Grandmother

I was sitting opposite a woman on the train today who smelled like my grandma. I assume she had the same perfume that my grandma used to wear. I never knew what it was, but she smelled of it, her flat smelled of it, her clothes smelled of it. Even after she died, that smell lingered in the empty flat.

She’s been dead ten years now, my grandmother. I guess I don’t think of her as often as I should. Suddenly, with that smell, a smell I haven’t encountered since she died, all these memories came back. I remember her face. Soft skin lined with many wrinkles (when I was a child I called them ‘crinkles’). Her hair was thinning – she wore it dyed reddish brown, short and curly. She went to bed every night with it adorned with curlers like Hilda Ogden. She had bad feet – swollen and bunion-ridden. She had bad legs – riddled with varicous veins. She had dentures that didn’t fit properly, and she would make an inadvertent whistling noise with any word that contained the letter ‘S’ (including of course my name).

She always seemed old to me, as I suppose most people regard their grandparents. Yet in spite of that she was full of boundless energy, running around with me and my sister when we were children, even after our parents were worn out.

I sometimes regret the fact I didn’t always have time to listen to her stories. I regret the fact that at times I thought she drove me crazy. She didn’t live long enough to see any of her grandchildren get married, or to meet any of her great-grandchildren (she had five granddaughters, including me, and three of the others have kids now).

But it’s strange that I haven’t thought of her in a long time, and suddenly all these memories come to the surface, all because of a perfume a stranger on the train was wearing. I have heard it said that the sense of smell is the most powerful sensory trigger for memory. I think perhaps this must be true.