Greenock, Then and Now
Greenock, Not 'Gren-ock'
My mother grew up in Greenock, Scotland. She was born there, at The Rankin Hospital, and lived in the town until she was nineteen years old. She still remembers the exact addresses she lived at during her two decades there. 151 Cathcart Street, 10 Ann Street and lastly, 8 Peat Road. These were the homes that my mum grew up in. These were the places that shaped her; the places that shaped who she is today.
Born in Greenock, Scotland in 1955, she was an only child, but remembers growing up surrounded by a close-knit family. A family whose people I am bred from but know only from the memories of my mother.
I see the old, worn photos, sent to my email inbox and I study them, looking for the features that I might recognize. I see my grandmother's father and mother and I wish fervently that something will make sense. That some character trait will jump out of the photo and into my lap and scream at me, saying, 'This is who you are! I am who you have come from!'
But I only see a grand old couple, their handsomeness chiselled by age and lore. I see their children, looking like any other children would at the camera, waiting for the go-ahead to run about...to be released from holding their positions...my kin...did they ever think of me? Did they ever think that one day, a little girl born of their kind would write of them and think of them and look for any memory of them?
Treats & Fare
The Saturdays my mum had growing up were often spent at Granny's house and they would begin with rolls & bacon. My mum and her daddy would go to my mum's granny's for this delectable breakfast, before heading into town, where my mum would often spend her pocket money on a hairnet for her Granny.
After the town, where she and her dad would likely visit one or two of the several local stores like Neil Service - Fruit and Veggie Shop, Neil Caskie's Groceries, Denny the baker's or Jimmy Maitland the butcher, she and my granddad would travel back to Granny's for a lunch of pie and peas. Back then, my mum tells me, lunch was the main meal of the day and at suppertime, fish & chips or cold meat with a salad of some sort was common. In fact, my mother's childhood meals were quite regular, to the point of being routine:
Mondays - Fried Slice (square sausage), potatoes and turnip
Tuesday - Mince & potatoes, and peas
Wednesday - Corned beef, potatoes and cabbage
Thursday - Fried links & potatoes, and peas
Friday - Beef stew & stewed links, and mashed potatoes
Saturday - Pie & peas
Sunday - Roast beef or boiled chicken
Although this menu rarely changed from week to week, sometimes on Thursdays, for a treat, they would substitute mince patties for the links. Mince patties are wee rolled balls of hamburg and chopped onion, flattened, dipped in flour and fried. As she tells me this her mouth is watering at the recollection. Another favourite 'treat' of hers, and one that my siblings and I enjoyed throughout our own childhood, were cheese toasties (similar to a grilled cheese sandwich, a cheese toastie is a piece of bread with slices of cheese on the top side, broiled in the oven on the rack just until the cheese begins to bubble).
Sometimes on her Saturday outings her dad would splurge and buy her a little bottle of Orange Crush Soda from Willie Gibson's Sweetie Shop. Of course, as this was one of the few sugary treats she would get, my mum would savour it, rationing the soda out at a wee sip each day, to make it last until the next Saturday.
I pause here in my writing to reflect briefly on the wealth of 'treats' my own children are given to enjoy on a weekly, if not daily, basis, and am reminded of how easily the pleasure of receiving those treats can fade into expectance when they become commonplace. I suppose that it's because my mum's childhood held such rare (and insignificant to those of us raised with so much more) gifts that she now showers her grandchildren relentlessly with sugar. And I know that it's not the candy itself, but the delight my children take in it, that fuels her.
In comparison to my childhood and that of my kids, as a young girl, my mother's gratuitous intake of sweets was pretty much limited to that bottle of orange soda pop, and on occasion a wee bag of sugar with a big rhubarb stalk dipped into it or if she was really lucky, a 'wee, pokie hat' -- an ice cream cone. No wonder she can't pass a shelf of chocolate bars or a display of the latest candy without grabbing a few to dole out at the next family visit.
School & Recreation
My mother attended Grosvenor and Mearns Street Elementary Schools and graduated from The Finnart Secondary School (where her uniform skirt could measure no higher than an inch and a half above the knee, and was checked with a ruler by the head teacher almost daily) at the age of fourteen. Yes, fourteen. The school system then, in Scotland was obviously very different than it is now, here in Canada and now in Scotland itself. Kids there now finish school at eighteen or nineteen years old, as opposed to fifteen or just under as it was years ago.
She once told me a story that took place while she was in school and I remember as a child feeling immense humility while listening to it (even at my young age); humility both within myself but directed more so towards my mother. It may have been the first time I actually looked at my mother as someone who had had a life previous to the one I shared with her. One that included life lessons and emotion and troubles and all the things that made her the glorious example of grace that she is. One school day, she and some other older students were charged with escorting some of the smaller children through the town but these 'poor weans', said my mother, had to go on the trip with their heads covered in a crude, mustard paste as the school had just found head lice on them all. Mum explained how sorry she felt for the 'poor wee souls' as she held them by the hands and walked them through town looking this way, and she a child herself at the time. She's always been a bleeding heart.
A typical Greenock day for my mother would see her at school before going to her Granny Kay's for an afternoon visit, then off to piano lessons and after completing her homework and attending choir practice, a wee bit of tele in the evening. Her family's first television set was black and white, to be replaced in 1962 with a colour TV, complete with 2 channels! In 1970 came the third channel, and these were called: ITV, BBC1 and BBC2. Again, I smile to myself as I spot my own daughter flicking through the stations and checking the TV guide listing channel frequently, before finally settling on four programs, which she will switch back and forth from whenever her concentration is broken by an irritating commercial.
My mum's people weren't poor but they certainly weren't wealthy and they all knew how to stretch a pound note as far as it would go. Perhaps lending some truth to the notion of the stereotypically stingy Scot? Mum recalls, "We usually got the Daily Record to read on a weekday along with the local paper, The Greenock Telegraph, and on Sundays we'd get to read The Sunday Post...though each family member would usually buy a different newspaper and then we'd all trade. It saved on buying them all," she ends with a wink.
At the completion of high school my mother got a job at the Corporation of Greenock (the equivalent of our City Halls), where she was a shorthand/dicta-typist for the Town Chamberlain. She still lived with her parents at this time, but to make extra money would babysit for her boss at his mansion in the 'West End' of Greenock. Like most teenagers she spent her free time with pals, going to the movies and frequenting her favourite local hot spots of the time; Rio Stakis and Aldo's (restaurants), or the Cafe Continental in Gourock, a nearby town. Normal adolescent activities were enjoyed, as she reminisces, and the thought of her smoking cigarettes, drinking bottles of Carlsberg and being reckless have me chuckling to myself. Who'd have thought that she may have given her own parents as much grief as I gave her?
Marriage & A New Home
In 1974 my mum and dad were married in Greenock, and I used to ask them to retell their wedding anecdote over and over. On their impossibly foggy wedding night their vehicle crashed into a brick wall while they were driving. No one was injured, and they continued with their honeymoon before deciding very soon after, to both move back to Canada. My father had been born in Scotland, but had come to Canada as a baby with his mother and her young family, to meet his father who had immigrated first to find work and a home. He had been visiting family in Greenock when he and my mum met, and in the same year they were married, they travelled by airplane to Hamilton, Ontario where they would raise three children, my brother, sister and I, and remained married for almost twenty years.
Mum's first home at 151 Cathcart Street is now a parking lot, 10 Ann Street was knocked down to build new, modern flats and 8 Peat Road is still standing there, but with a new roof. It had been built originally with flat roofs, not a brilliant thing to do, laughed my mother, in a country often pelted with rain and high gales. She remembers sitting in the living room after work one night when the gales became so strong that they blew the roof right off of the building so that it was hanging down over the living room window.
The only local shop still standing from those she visited as a child is Maitland's, but there are still a few of her childhood hangouts still operating, like Aldo's and the Continental Cafe. Greenock is home now to its own local McDonald's, KFC and Burger King, and although pizza is a big favourite these days (and had been a long awaited addition to Greenock's emerging fast food trend, Mum tells me that it tastes horrible and nothing like it does here.)
When my mother lived in Greenock there was just one taxi for the longest time, but now there are a lot more and although there are no subways, public transportation is comprised of many more accessible buses and trains. I asked her about the 'young scene' there today though her most recent visit was about nine or ten years ago now, and she says there are the regular pubs and lounges, but mainly (and especially for the tourists) the places that offer the beautiful views that Scotland is famous the world over for are where you can find the most traffic. Wellpark, Cross of Lorraine, and Cloch Lighthouse, to name a few along with the old churches in town have always been and will probably always be the 'hot spots' of Greenock, Scotland, though decades old and virtually timeless in my mind.