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A Momentous Occasion

In 1947 when I was 8 years old my father died.

All of Britain was suffering major shortages of everything from food to clothing to coal. The country was recovering from the brutal War - World War II. Traumatic changes were happening in my life too.

I was inconsolable with grief over the loss of my father – and my grandmother. Granny had always lived with us, but then she moved away. I always went with her to Church, to their evening services, whist parties and picnics. I loved her reading Bible stories to me whenever I visited her in her part of our house.

When my mother turned our large house into a Bed and Breakfast my granny moved in with our uncle in a lovely home, but it was quite far away. This freed up more rooms in our house for paying guests.

It was a long long walk to see my granny to get her to explain what had happened to my father and why she had moved away. She took me to the cemetery where all our ancestors were buried and told me stories about them. She told me how my daddy was not really gone I could still be with him by just thinking about him. I really didn't understand about death.

I was not included at the service at the crematorium for my father, but it was my job to look after my little brother. I pushed him around in his pram while we spent the day visiting all the places I had been with my father: The Botanical Gardens, Puddocky - a shallow stream where we caught tiddlers and put them in a jar, - Inverleith Gardens and the water of Leith.

After the funeral the household was in utter confusion, turmoil and upheaval and I felt abandoned. All Granny’s furniture, books, pictures moving out and new furniture moving in, painting, decorating, new curtains, different bedrooms for all of us. Everyone was so busy trying to get the house set up to make money for my mother. I was not much help, so quite often I sequestered myself in the space created in the centre of the drop leaf table in the hallway. I was alone, frightened and traumatized.

Like most people in Scotland my father was raised a Scottish Presbyterian, but he tried to live by the tenets of The Rosecrucians and passed some of those Ideas on to me.

My mother tried to give me 'momentous occasions' to to take my mind off the loss of my father. One occasion was the gift of a full-sized lady’s bicycle – it was too large for me, but I did learn to ride it and it definitely filled up all my days and a big part of my teenage years bicycling around the country staying in hostels.

The second occasion was to send me on a trip to stay with my Aunt and spend some time with my two cousins. My mother gave me the money so that I could take the trip.

Dundee is 40 miles from Edinburgh so I would have to go on the train. This was not my first trip away from Edinburgh without my mother because my sister and brother and I had travelled by train and bus many times without our parents. We would travel from Edinburgh to Fife on trains and buses to visit my other granny – my mother’s mother.

I knew all the train stations, where to get off the train and where to go to get on the bus, which bus to get that went to the village where our grandmother lived and what times the buses connected.

For the journey to Dundee I wore a Campbell tartan kilt, green blouse, wooly cardigan, my camel coat, Clarks sandals and ankle socks. I carried my valise and a little handbag with my hanky, my money and a letter addressed to my aunt in Dundee.

I left the house alone and walked 2 blocks to the tram stop to get the tramcar that would take me to the Waverley train station – I could have walked it in 20 minutes, but mummy had given me the tram fare.

Even although I was only going a few stops on the tram I went up the spiral stairs to the upper level into the closed compartment and shut the door. The conductress on the tram took my penny and reeled out a strip of paper from her ticket machine with the time and fare etc printed on it which I kept in my hand, of course, in case the inspector came on board asking for ‘tickets please’

I still had another penny in the pocket of my knickers in case I needed to use the lavatory. Little girls used to use the expression “I need to spend a penny” instead of saying 'toilet'. Little girls’ underwear always had a pocket for a hanky and a penny. Toilets in many countries have a slot for a coin which allows the stall door to open.

I got off the tram and walked down the Waverley steps into the large train station. My little legs have walked up and down those long windy steps hundreds of times – no escalator in those days.

Since I was a railway brat (my father had worked for the Railway). I knew I had to go to the Railway Administration office to get my railway pass first before going to the ticket office to purchase my discounted, return, ticket, 3rd class from Edinburgh to Dundee.

I then had to go to the huge reader board to see which platform I needed to find to board the train.

The reader board (not electronic) told me the time of departure as well as the platform number. When I was on the platform I knew I had to walk to the far end of the platform to get the best seat on the train when it pulled in. I don’t know if there were seat reservations for pass riders back then.

I got a window seat and put my little valise up in the luggage rack above my head and sat down to watch the fields and towns go by. We would be going over the Forth Rail Bridge, which is such an icon and so famous. It is an old friend to me as I have travelled over that bridge dozens of times.

On the journey I could recite all the names of all the stations from Edinburgh to Dundee. I knew better than to even think about going to the dining car. If we ever ate on a train it was food we brought with us, and that was not very often as our mother was never that organized.

Upon arrival in Dundee I found the Taxi stance, hailed a taxi and asked the driver to take me to the address on the letter I had for my aunt.

I am sure I overpaid the taxi driver because I gave him the halfcrown my mother had given me for the taxi fare – I didn’t ask the driver what the fare was and I don’t remember him giving me any change.

I rang the doorbell of my aunt’s house and was very apprehensive as to how my aunt would react when she saw me standing on her doorstep. She did not know I was coming for a visit – no telephones.

I guess the letter explained everything and I was installed in her guest room. I did spend a lot of time with my two cousins. My mother and her sister are not at all alike. Auntie Chrissie was very serious, well organized, her house was very orderly, her children very well behaved, with everything in its place. My mother was just the opposite so I didn’t think the visit was going to be much fun. My cousins were very disciplined and very serious too. We didn't play games together, but read books and did some sewing and knitting - I didn't like knitting.

My aunt and uncle really did try to make the trip momentous. They took me (me alone, not my two cousins??) on a picnic to Wormit, which is a recreational destination across the river Tay from Dundee. We went in their Rolls Royce automobile. I shall never forget the smell of the leather interior with the oval, peach tinted rear window.

Wormit was deserted and not very inviting, but we had the most delicious little sandwiches, tiny cakes and a flask of tea brought in a luxurious leather picnic case complete with china plates, cups saucers and boxes all strapped into place with leather straps buckled down to keep everything separate. Everything was very elegant including folding chairs and a tartan blanket. I was very impressed, but terrified I would commit some faux pas or at least break something.

Before taking the train back to Edinburgh Auntie Chrissie took me shopping to buy a dress for me. I was so excited as I had never had a new dress before. Everyone in the country was wearing hand-me-downs and 'make-overs'.

During the war no one had any coupons ) for dresses (everything was rationed) – even if there were any in the shops. At that time I was wearing my brother’s old kilt with the fastening tabs transferred to the other side.

Kilts can be worn for any occasion by boys or girls. One Christmas when I was about 5 mummy made 3 kilts, one for each of us - all in the Campbell tartan. People didn't only wear their own clan tartan and she probably been given all that wool serge fabric. It is not easy to sew all the pleats, line the top inside and sew on all the leather/strap/buckle fastenings. Our own clan tartan would be Lindsay - not Campbell.

Here we were in a real department store with all the wires across the ceiling and the cash capsules zooming back and forth to the accounting booth, which sat in the middle of the store, with bells ringing to signal their arrival. I had never been in a posh department store before. My mother did a lot of sewing and ‘made do’. She would take old garments and remake them into clothes for all of us.

My aunt and the store clerk did all the talking and searching and a dress was packaged up in brown paper with string appropriately tied with a loop for carrying. I didn’t get a say in the matter, but I heard my aunt using words like: serviceable, warm, value, coupons, hem, resize and ‘not show the dirt’.

I wore the dress on the journey back to Edinburgh. It was a maroonish brown in colour, made of wool, was belted, buttoned down the front, had long sleeves, was way too big for me and itched like crazy.

My aunt took me on the bus back to the railway station in Dundee and saw me safely on to the correct train. The train journey was only a couple of hours long.

I got off the train at the Waverley and walked up all the stairs to Princes Street to take the downhill tram trip to get home.

I was feeling very proud of myself to have made this trip all by myself, didn't get lost, didn't lose a coat, or my suitcase, I behaved myself and had a wonderful time. I couldn't wait to tell mummy and my brother and sister all about everything - especially the picnic at Wormit.

When the tram car is going down Broughton Street it swings out at a curve in the road right at Barony Street which is immediately before my stop at London Street. Because there is no door on the tram - just an open platform, everyone always makes sure to stay well away from the open side of the platform when the tram car swings out or passengers can lose their balance.

An older lady had just got on the tramcar at the stop before I was to get off. I was waiting for the tram car to swing and was holding on to a hand-rail. The lady was standing with her back to the open entrance to the tram. Everyone knows you don’t stand there, but the lady even let go of the hand-rail to get something out of her handbag! We were the only two passengers on the platform, she was the last passenger to board and I was waiting to get off at the next stop. We were facing each other and I tried to tell her to hang on, but ……..

When the tramcar swung out at Barony Street the lady fell off the tramcar backwards. I screamed and the tramcar screeched to a halt …. I remember all the sparks created by the brakes being applied.

I was the first person off the tramcar and I looked down at the lady. I can still see her tan coloured tweed suit, her brown leather shoes, gloves and handbag. She was not wearing a hat and her brown/grey hair was wispy and blowing around. She was not moving, just staring straight up at the sky – and she was dead.

I was just a little girl of eight and no one talked to me at all at the scene of the accident. Sobbing and shaking I ran as fast I could the two blocks to get back home. When I rang our door - bell and my mother opened the door her first words were “My God, what in the world happened to you!”, as she clutched me to her in a tight cuddle.

I think I knew then what it meant when someone died - but this was a sombre way for a little girl to learn these harsh realities.

I had been sent on a trip to recover from the trauma of the death of my father and had replaced it with the trauma of a woman dying right in front of me. I was as white as a ghost, shaking all over and crying, (itching from the wooly dress), but so glad to be at home where things were not so momentous.

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Very touching, Dorothy. I enjoyed reading it very much.

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