Harry Leslie Smith's Blog - Posts Tagged "labor"

Crikey, I am 88 today. Many years ago, I was told that the midwife who helped bring me into this world had a fondness for the demon gin and carbolic soap. She was by all accounts a thrifty magpie who spent a good deal of her day predicting my family's decent into the gutter. Perhaps it was because my father could only pay half her fee. Despite the paltry sum, she received at bringing me into this world; I don’t think she cursed me when she put me into the dubious arms of my mom. I think that she slapped my bottom and wished me good luck and good riddance and left me swaddled in the blankets of poverty and ignorance.

Looking back now, across the river to my beginning, I wonder how many bairns that midwife brought into this world, from that poor and hungry coal mining neighbourhood. If they were anything like my family, they began their first steps way behind the starters block and were handicapped by limited health care, education, proper sanitation and decent housing.

Somehow, I and many of the other’s from the birth canal class of 23 survived to grow into gangly teens. However, we were not destined to follow into our father’s footsteps and go down deep into coal pits of Yorkshire. The world had other plans for us boys of 1923 and we were led reluctantly into war. During those five years, the lights of many of my brethren, from 1923, were extinguished in faraway places like Tobruk, Monte Cassino and the Sheldt.

As for the rest of us, we carried on in this Divine Comedy called life. We built families, businesses, communities. For some of us, the memories surrounding the unjust and uncivilized conditions we were born into were so strong, we fought to reform the systems of government across Europe and North America. Other’s from my class of 23 were quiet revolutionaries and insured that those in their families were loved and would never want for food or shelter.

Today unfortunately, most of those babies from 1923 only appear in our newspapers as an obituary, their lives compressed into a haiku twitter. So as one of the few, who is still here, still active, still bloody lucky from 1923; I will take a page out of my midwife’s book. I shall toast my good fortune with a Gordon’s gin and tonic. 1923 A Memoir Lies and Testaments by Harry Leslie Smith
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A hundred years ago, on April 2nd, enumerators for the 1911 census flushed out across Ireland and the British Isles and counted every man woman and child. From Blowhard aristocrat to down and outer, they were tallied like inventory in a businessman’s ledger book. Yet, those citizens from the Isle of Man to Aberdeen were more than numbers in the national census. It was a country wide snap shot which froze a moment, in 1911, like it was an ant mummified in primordial amber.

An enumerator on that cool spring night came to my grandfather’s pub located on the doorsteps of a coalmine in the West Riding. The census does not report whether the enumerator stamped his boots at the pub’s entrance and complained of the chill in the air. Nor does it mention if my grandfather poured the man a pint for performing his civic duty. The details contained in the census are sparse and methodical. The document does not reveal the thoughts of the now silent signatories.

I look at the broad, bold penmanship of my grandfather while below him is the neat precise strokes my father made as he wrote his name on the paper. Down the list his brothers names followed his, until finally their two female domestic servants hastily left their names at the bottom of the census document. Perhaps, at the time, the males in the room made light of the females participation and joked that they were suffragettes in disguise.

When, I scan my family’s participation in the census, the poignancy of that record overwhelms me because it is shared with eternity. Their personality, their position in the world is frozen to that time and date by declarations of their age, employment and marital status. There is a surety in their handwriting which cries out and declaims an unshakable belief in Edwardian society, Britain’s empire and god’s good favour, from up above. But progress and time can’t remain stuck and my family’s fortune, their health and their optimism began to unravel after the census was taken. Britain’s demise was slower but just as inevitable. The following year, the unsinkable Titanic sunk in the bitterly cold North Atlantic drowning not only passengers but the dream of man’s supremacy over nature. Within, three years of the census, the world went to war. Millions of men were murdered in battles which erased a generation and enriched armaments corporations for decades to come.

So looking back on my ancestors, who were counted, in the pub on the doorsteps of a coal mine in the West riding; I bid them good night. They make me wonder if our own days in the sun are dwindling down. Is our society at the end of epoch? Are we like a clock that no longer keeps time and is it already past midnight?
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As it does in April, it rained today. It wasn’t a hard or bitter rain. It was just unpleasant drizzle which made my morning walk uncomfortable. Even the dog, who dawdled beside me, was despondent. The damp seeped through my rain coat, while I grimly sloshed through sidewalk puddles on my way home to a warm cup of tea. Young power walkers barged passed me with their iPod buds locked to their ears, dismissing the glory of the stroll with their arrogant strides.

By the time, I had reached the public school, near my residence; I was so tired of the wet, sunless day. I had to rest. On the pitch, I saw school boys’ practise rugby. I looked at the young teens learning to scrum, their knees caked in turf and dirt. I marvelled at their youth, their pursuit of this one moment in time. I stood for a while watching them, the dog panting beside me, the April rain smearing my glasses. I wondered how many more cruel April’s remained for me. I am afraid not as many as I have already experienced as a boy and a man. I lingered, for a while longer, watching the boys at their sport and yearned for my spring, my youth in 1945.

Perhaps, it was a selfish wish to want to step back into those days, for just one more brief moment. After all, it was a bloody time for many as the war spiralled down to its end. However, for some, like me, we were permitted the grace to continue our lives and find joy in a cigarette or a brew up, while birds overhead began nesting. During that final week of the war when the months straddled the rain of April and the sun of May; Europe was slowly being reborn. And across the border in Nazi territory, a young girl’s life was spared. She was walking, with three friends, in the botanical park in Hamburg. They were enjoying the beauty of an early spring and that the war was almost over. Above them they spotted an American fighter plane rapidly descending as if to strafe the young women. Yet, realizing they were young, non combatants, that the war was nearing its end and that even animosity can be spent, he soared passed them. The pilot tipped his wings to either indicate victory or perhaps peace. One of the women, who witnessed the brazen pilot’s flyby, became my wife. As for the pilot, I hope he still struggles through the rain of April, with the same gallantries he displayed in his youth.
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It was a month after my wife’s death, when I found them. They were in her writing desk buried under sheaves of ancient letters and mementos of a well lived life. It was a stack of old Mother’s Day cards, tied together with a string. She kept the cards, I suppose to remember those mothering Sundays, from the first to the last. She wanted to hold onto those moments when her children tried to define their love for her.

I remember cutting the string and examining these ageing fragments of affection to her, from our kids. The cards on the top were handmade and produced when the children were in kindergarten to grade three. They were constructed out of hard crate paper. Their sides were uneven because the craftsmen were not familiar with scissors or straight lines. Each card greeted me with a yellow sun drawn with a thick crayon nub. It shone down onto a pencil sketched stick figure, tagged underneath as Mum.

Some of the children’s earliest demonstrations of love for their mother were decorated with paper mâché tulips or butterflies. Inside, no matter the child, the greeting was the same, I love you Mummy printed in a bold and primitive style. By the middle of the pile, the Mother’s Day cards were no longer handmade but store bought. The front of the cards displayed polished, shots of fresh cut flowers and bold fonts proclaiming For You Mother. The cards’ interiors were as shiny as their exterior and treacle verse slithered down to the bottom of the embossed paper like maple syrup dripping into a bucket. They looked anonymous and mass produced, except for the flash of individuality found at the bottom of the cards: each one had the motif I love you Mum and in our sons’ unique hand writing, their autograph. At the very end of the stack were the Mother’s Day cards from the year of her death. Our children had grown into men but each of their final Mother’s Day cards displayed a love as simple and as direct as the proclamations they made to her in their boyhood.

When my wife died, it came as no surprise to me that our children placed onto her still body, a Mother’s Day card, handmade in their boyhood. It was only natural, that our children didn't want their Mum to feel alone and abandoned while she made her journey to the crematorium. They wanted some part of their hearts to travel with her to her final resting place, amongst the atoms and debris of the expanding cosmos.
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My grandfather was a walrus of a man, who in old age was most comfortable resting on his laurels, far from my grandmother’s hectoring tongue. It was a rare occasion to find him standing. It was rarer still to find him standing outdoors, beside me, on the edges of winter.
It only happened once, on a cold, wet day in November,1920. Contrary to popular myth the 1920's never roared, at least not for my family; it brayed at us like an irritated donkey.
Armistice Day was the only occasion which altered my grandfather’s supine preference. For that day, he always rose to the occasion. During those grim ceremonies, he stood tall and rigid beside our village cenotaph to commemorate the fallen, the lost and butchered from the Great War. My grandfather wasn’t there to remember his service, in that fools war. A conflict which did more to enhance the balance sheets of Mr. Vickers and Herr Krupp than ennoble youth. No, my grandfather did not serve in that conflict: he was too old. His time in the King’s army was spent in India, in the 1890′s where he saw no uprising, fired no gun but came back to Yorkshire with a fondness, for chutney and Calcutta after dark. My grandfather came with me to the centopah in 1920 to remember his son Tom, whose name was etched on the memorial commemorating the fallen men of the village. My grandfather came on that day and every other remembrance day to pay respect to his eldest son who was consumed, like the millions of other young, boys, between 1914-1918, in a war they said would end all wars.

Now, like my grandfather, I am old and shuffling. Today, I will go before my centotaph and remember my war and it’s loses. During the ceremony, I will say a little prayer for serving men and women everywhere. I hope, regardless of their uniform, they will expire with the distinction my grandfather earned upon his death. The local newspaper honoured him as the village’s oldest soldier. Granddad died in his bed, with his boots off, at seventy-three. Now that is dulce et decorum.
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