The Lilac Timetable

When I woke up Granny had grinned at me from the glass on the washbasin, now her teeth are wedged in a piece of marmalade toast. I know she won’t bite but am wary of this person who a week ago was a relative stranger. 

Granny grew the best parsley. It’s a fact. No-one can argue with the sweet memories of a six year old mind, yet to be muddled by the contradictions of life. 

My fingers curl around a Petroselinum crispum stalk.* I cup a tuft of the green goodness in my hands and wonder where the frilly begins. The ending is obvious: in my mouth. But my thoughts are interrupted by a passing train so I rush inside to note the number … and am collared for breakfast. 

When I woke up Granny had grinned at me from the glass on the washbasin, now her teeth are wedged in a piece of marmalade toast. I know she won’t bite but am wary of this person who a week ago was a relative stranger. 

“Jump into your new hot pants and wait in the conservatory”, mum instructs. “We’re off to visit aunt Stacey today”.

But my pants are short and my patience not long.

I’m outside again.

Hop. 

Skip. 

Rip.

There’s an uplifting of my thigh on a metal stake and a down-sinking of my heart.

Mummy’s face is purple with anger. “I told you to stay inside.”

“Rosemary don’t fret, I’ll get them mended in a tick”, cajoles her mum.

I’m caught, dressed only in shiny patent shoes and matching socks, tap dancing between the two. Too young to appreciate we are connected by an umbilical cord once removed and that the dynamics in this room go far beyond a tear in my clothing. The outcome of my day is in the hands of someone with curly hair that has no beginning or end – a lavender white parsley head.

Fingers drive needle and thread speedily to create row upon row of parallel stitches. Tending and mending had been her life with four children however she could not fix her youngest son’s muscular dystrophy.

Thimble prevents a pin prick trace of her on my shorts but her story lives on in me regardless. It’s lodged in my cells. Only nature can reveal what it wants in the future, and then sometimes you have to go searching for it as for a drop of blood on a Queen Anne’s Lace flower. **

The series of railway tracks, imbedded in mauve fabric, lack the elegance of fine lace but my sage grandmother has provided a safe landing space for me and my mum as the flat head of  parsley-like flowers offers to beneficial insects visiting the garden.

Just when I think we are free to carry on with our day, granny rotates the fabric and proceeds to add rows perpendicular to those already stitched. A grid forms with multiple intersections and spaces between.

This mend is no longer about today. It’s about decades earlier when Rosemary, aged eight, defiantly persuaded the hairdresser to cut off her beautiful blond locks. And the time when she inked out her eyes in the school photograph. And …

Doris cried and wore holes in her knees, praying for wisdom to raise her children correctly. Later, as a young adult, Rosemary’s life took a perpendicular turn. The route to Gloucester and back was a predictable, direct train trip – but that to Northern Rhodesia wasn’t even on the map. Within a year Doris lost two of her four children. One to the arms of Jesus. The other to the mercy of Africa. From then on mother and eldest daughter intersected only sporadically through airports and train stations. The gaps between were filled with ‘foreign-ness’, though there was enormous commitment to minimise this, through regular letters.

Back to this moment Doris grasps a precious few minutes to hold three generations together.

Then she hands me a lilac timetable – not for the trains, but a permission slip to play besides the tracks; to enjoy the garden – to hop, skip and jump in the squares between “breakfast” and “we have to be out by 11am”.

And I wore love, tenderness and reconciliation for the rest of that day.

Life would be warped if we only ever travelled along our parallel lines. It’s the weft – the cross threads – in our relationships that strengthen and hold us together. Sadly there was only one more intersection between granny and myself. A visit to Zambia where she read “Are You My Mother?”, to my younger sister and I. Written by P D Eastman, it’s a book about searching, belonging and knowing where you come from. 

Five decades later I’m growing parsley in my own garden in New Zealand. Disappointingly it lacks the sweetness and vibrancy of my childhood but it’s still a connection, however tenuous, between me and my grandmother.

* Curly parsley is a hardy biennial herb of the family Apiaceae, or Umbelliferae, or (commonly) the carrot family. If left to flower it can grow to 1 metre tall but usually it is grown in our gardens as an annual.
* *This plant (Anthriscus sylvestris) grows abundantly  along the hedgerows of England. In North America it goes by the common name of wild carrot (Dacus carota). Like parsley, it belongs to the Umbelliferae family. Intricately arranged, tiny white flowers resemble a luxury doily made from elaborately tatted threads which have no beginning and end. Close inspection reveals a spot of red in the centre. This is a small, but significant detail that distinguishes it from deadly hemlock (Conium maculatum), another relative. One legend attributes the name Queen Anne’s Lace to the Anne who reigned in England from 1702 - 1714. While making lace she pricked her finger and so the drop of blood is said to represent her grief of child losses.

2 thoughts on “The Lilac Timetable

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  1. Lovely post. Powerful memories, deftly and beautifully threaded together. The hotpants pic made me smile– I remember those days, including the long socks, sometimes with a frill along the top edge, and the patent leather shoes of course!

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