Memories and absent family

As I said on Sunday, I’m reading The Sandalwood Tree by Elle Newmark as part of my Transworld Book Group Challenge:

It’s the story of Evie Mitchell, who is in India with her husband in 1947. Martin is documenting history in action during the Partition on a Fulbright scholarship; Evie keeps herself making their little bungalow spotless and teaching English to a few local children. One day, she finds a concealed bundle of letters hidden away in the wall of the bungalow. While she can’t interpret very much of them, the reader is given access to a second storyline – the tale of two girls raised as sisters. Felicity leaves Adela in England and makes her way back to India where she was born (and where we know she will leave the letters).

That lengthy synopsis is to give a bit of an introduction to what I wanted to talk about. In one of Felicity’s letters home to Adela, she writes:

“The smell of India is in the air & I have come alive. I find myself dragging steamer chairs about for old ladies & borrowing pulpy white babies from their brown ayahs to dance up & down the deck whilst I sing ‘Camptown Ladies’. Do dah, do dah.”

The last sentence brought back a memory so strongly that I had to put the book aside immediately and puzzle it out. Even as I try to write about it, it’s wriggling away from me.

My grandfather (Poppa) passed away in March 2010 and remains firmly in my memory as mostly deaf and having one glass eye (and a love of leaving his glass eye somewhere where it would be sure to frighten the daylights out of the niece/granddaughter who would happen across it). He married my Nanna (passed away June 2010 – and would have been 84 yesterday) when they were 23 and 21 respectively and they were well known for loving to dance. Why none of their children learned to dance is beyond me, because I can remember Nanna and Poppa dancing around the living room, Poppa’s 5 hip replacements notwithstanding. I wish I’d realised what a romantic thing it was at the time and made an effort to learn a few more waltzes on the piano; they’d been married more than 50 years and still loved to waltz.

Anyway… Poppa used to hobble about the house and sit out in his office and write great treatises on the management of arid lands in western New South Wales, and every now and again a dancing tune would escape from him as he lined up his next sheet of scrap paper to use the back of. Camptown Ladies (or Camptown Races) must have been one of them because as soon as I read “do dah, do dah” I knew the song exactly. Here it is:

Unlike my other grandfather (still going strong at 90!), who has an uncanny knack for putting his descendants to sleep by crooning Fauré’s Pavane, I don’t think Poppa used to sing to us, just to himself, or just because the air needed a song.

I thought about posting this yesterday, but in the end I wrote my usual BTT post and delayed this. The memory was so strong and caught me completely off guard. So I shall sit back and eat some more of the delicious chocolate cake I baked for Nanna’s birthday (following her recipe, of course – I inherited many wonderful everyday things from her, but the chocolate cake is one of the best) and think about absent friends and family.

Have you had a memory come barrelling out of a book? Lyrical memories of family? How do you pay tribute to the family patriarchs and matriarchs gone before us?

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4 thoughts on “Memories and absent family

  1. Debbie Rodgers 19 August 2011 at 6:53 pm Reply

    What a beautiful post! Your memories of your Poppa & Nanna are very sweet. Be sure to treasure your other grandfather while you have him. You’ll miss Pavane when he’s gone.

    I know I must have had a similar experience while reading, but can’t bring to mind just now. Thank you for sharing yours while it was still fresh.

    • readingwithtea 19 August 2011 at 11:02 pm Reply

      Thanks for stopping by – I wasn’t at all sure about putting this post up but I’ve never run across music being triggered so strongly by words before and was quite interested in it. And now two people (one by email) have said such lovely things about this post, I am resolving to write a bit more personally.

  2. Verity 20 August 2011 at 6:13 pm Reply

    Happy birthday to your Nanna. I love the idea of making her cake to remember her. I always bake something involving Earl Grey to remember my friend Emily.

    I am not sure that I have ever thought about paying tribute to matriarchs and patriarchs; my paternal grandparents died before I ever knew them, and my grandad when I was 11 – I missed him dreadfully but remember him by being very precious about my doll’s house which he built me – I am still cross that it doesn’t have a home in our new house!

    Maybe we should all learn to waltz? Neither Mr W nor I can dance, but I think it would be romantic too.

  3. Iris 21 August 2011 at 9:55 am Reply

    This was a beautiful post. It made me go silent for a while, not sure what to say really. I don’t have such wonderful memories about my grandparents, so it sounds even more special to me the way you treasure them. Also, baking a cake in memory of your grandmother using her recipe sounds like a lovely way to remember her.

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