‘Exercise Book’ by Ailsa Holland
Dad has dug out loads of papers and items from both sides of the family. Among them is an exercise book, kept by my maternal grandmother while she still lived with her parents in Edinburgh. It’s full of poems and funny little stories she’s copied out by hand. Mum says she used to go to old folks’ homes and recite poems to the residents. I never knew this before.
So far she’s the only ancestor I’ve discovered with a connection to poetry and I love that it’s her. Some of my earliest memories are of us playing make-believe: going to the seaside, riding on donkeys, eating strawberry ice-cream.
I like seeing her handwritten poetry, so neat and even, when before I only knew it from a few recipes. I enjoy reading the poems and short stories she chose for her recitations, including the Scottish authors Robert Burns, Ian McLaren and J.M. Barrie. McLaren’s piece in dialect I can imagine her reading. The Burns poem ‘For a’ that’ tells me she had good values, a sense of social justice. Another favourite is the comic-sad ‘Castles In The Air’, in which a scullery maid imagines herself with fine suitors – ’ten lootenants round me car in Pic-ca-dilly’ – or at a box in the theatre ‘with dimond lor-ga-nets’.
I wonder what dreams my Gran had.
I know she passed civil service exams and worked in London for several years, that she rode a motorbike, that one of her favourite places was the Peter Pan statue in Kensington Gardens. Perhaps she recited J.M. Barrie to herself there? I know that she very much wanted a child, that she was prepared to give up her job in order to get married (required of civil service women at that time).
I know she put her life at risk getting pregnant with my mother after her first daughter died at ten days after a difficult birth. But there’s so much I don’t know. What did she dream about in her single-woman years in London, in her housewife-and-mother years in Newcastle-upon-Tyne? Her handwriting gets me a little bit closer to her and I’m so grateful to have this exercise book.
(Copyright: Ailsa Holland, 2022)
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