Letter to My Scottish Grandmother
By Priscilla Long
I remember fusty objects, old-fashioned over-politeness, over-furnished rooms. Antimacassars—those lace doilies fixed on the armrests and headrests of upholstered chairs. Paisley-patterned rugs, floral wallpaper, framed scenes of cows, a framed embroidered locomotive. The grandfather clock. You kept parakeets in birdcages. I keep a framed drawing that once hung in your little house, the head of a girl. Who was she? What did she mean to you? I have no idea. There’s no one left who could possibly know.
I remember your Scottish accent, the way you said bean for been. How have you bean?
The beds were made, apple pies baked, sweaters knit, antimacassars crocheted. I remember your secretary desk with the flip top and cubbies for bills and correspondence. Correspondence. Even the word is almost gone. Folded letter paper and matching envelopes. The polished wood dining table. Small, crowded rooms. Small house, white clapboard, green shutters, Haddenfield, New Jersey.
You were a long way from Paisley, Scotland, where you grew up. You went back only once, in 1922. After that, never again. You had family members, sisters—a mother? a father?—you never saw again. Thirty years, fifty years … Why?
I knew your stories but you did not tell your stories. My father was your son and so I learned something of your life. The only story you told was a funny one: how you and the other girls in some sort of Scottish boarding school dropped chicken bones down the chimney into the fireplace on the floor below, where they landed in a fashionable ladies’ parlor.
You never spoke of the traumas, and it may be that the sofas and lamps and carpets and antimacassars created a carapace to keep trauma out. Begin with the trauma of war. Begin with your first husband, my almost-grandfather, a captain in the Royal Navy. Germans torpedoed his ship. The year was 1914. The crew was saved, but Captain Edward Humphrey went down with his ship. He went down for the sake of his honor and that of the queen. I’m wondering how you felt about your captain’s honor. You with your baby girl. My sister once asked you about it, hoping to glean the story from you. A look of shock crossed your face. You changed the subject.
Your second husband, my granddad, Major Walter Long. He was an American soldier who fought in this same Great War. He brought you to America in 1919. Granddad had a first wife who died of tuberculosis in 1914, two years after they got married. Did he ever speak to you about her? After her death he went to the war. He fought at the Battle of Verdun, which lasted for most of the year 1916. I have a picture of him, a war hero, with his Croix de Guerre, in full uniform. Within the rickety old frame, under the glass, there are dried flowers. Handwritten on the yellowed mat: “flowers picked on the battlefield at Verdun.”
Your first child together, my retarded Aunt Marjorie. Let’s call her my traumatic-brain-injured Aunt Marjorie. Just after she was born, the attending American doctor dropped her on the floor. A trauma to the child’s head and no doubt a trauma to you, the mother. To have your third child, my father, you returned to Liverpool, having lost all trust in American doctors. This was in 1922. You stayed for several months. It was—I think—the last time you saw your family.
You spent your years caring for Marjorie and for your Walter after he sank into dementia fifteen years before he died.
Mostly your life is a mystery to me. Why did you never go back to visit the sisters you so loved? Why did I so lose touch with you? Your name was Annie McIlwrick Sproul Humphrey Long. You were born in 1885. Your father, James Sproul, repaired looms in the weaving factories of the British Industrial Revolution. You came to America in 1919. You died in 1978. You were my Scottish grandmother.
I am writing to tell you that I have not forgotten you.
Priscilla Long is a Seattle-based writer of poetry, creative nonfiction, fiction, science, and history, and a long-time independent teacher of writing. She is author of six books, including the writer’s guide The Writer’s Portable Mentor, second edition (University of New Mexico Press), and a collection of personal essays, Fire and Stone: Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (University of Georgia Press). Her book of poems is Crossing Over (University of New Mexico Press). She is also author of Minding the Muse: A Handbook for Composers, Painters, Writers, and Other Creators. Her history of coal mining is Where the Sun Never Shines: A History of America’s Bloody Coal Industry. To learn more go to www.priscillalong.com