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Musings of a lowly pilgrim
Life lessons | Mental Health | Motherhood | Stewards of our planet | Travel

Tristan and Isolde

June 10, 2018

My all-time favourite movie is “Tristan and Isolde”. It is a tragedy/love story, which is right up my alley, along with Dickens’s book, “A Tale of Two Cities”, Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables” and Thomas Hardy’s “Tess of the d’Urbervilles”. Maybe, like Peter Pan, I never grew up and cling to the idea of undying love and the integrity of a soul against all odds. Nevertheless, I am a hopeless romantic. I still believe in true and enduring love, even though I have never experienced it, the enduring part I mean.  Maybe that is what buoys me even when my heart is bleeding from the slashes of life and reality. Times may change, but the human condition does not. Here I am, approaching sixty, yet I still find myself sobbing over heartache in films and books. I wonder if there are other lonely old souls out there who still hope there is more for them than facing the day alone.

Tristan and Isolde
© 2005 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

Right from the get-go, I was interested in the opposite sex. I think I was in the single digits when I had a crush on Little Joe from “Bonanza”. I must have been born with stars in my eyes. Then, at the advanced age of ten, I found myself in a co-ed boarding school in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) with a few hundred older girls whose primary objective was to attach themselves to one of the boys in the boys’ hostel. I was the youngest student in the whole school, two years younger than the first years, as it was a secondary school and I had started primary school early and had also been upgraded in school. So there I was, still a child, among all of these boy-crazy teenage girls. They had lots of fun with me, trying to set me up with one of the boys. Lord Almighty!

The cast of “Bonanza”.                                            Photography by Gary Null / Bonanza Ventures

And this was one of the most disreputable schools in Rhodesia. All of my classmates from Zambia went to decent schools, but, as my parents rarely considered what was best for us, my sister and I ended up in this school, the school where the disadvantaged kids went. My dad made a good living in Zambia, so we could have gone to a better school, but if my parents could get away with spending less, they certainly would, and did. I have nothing against disadvantaged families, after all, before we moved to Zambia, we were fairly poor. And poverty is no crime. My dad did well for himself, going to university and climbing out of the coal mines of Fife, Scotland.

Kirkcaldy, my birthplace
Kirkcaldy Harbour, Kirkcaldy, Fife, Scotland, my birthplace. (photo credit: unknown)
Fountain at Beveridge Park, where I nearly drowned as a young child.

It was his degree in ventilation engineering that landed him the job on the Copperbelt in Zambia. And I really have no regrets over having had the benefit of living in Africa. I intend to go back there at some point, but this time I would like to spend my time with the indigenous people. Prior to our arrival in Africa, I had no idea there was such a thing as racial prejudice, but I learned very quickly once there. Another attribute my parents would have passed on to me had it not been for my guardian angel surrounding me with protection. I was seven when we arrived in Zambia, too young to understand prejudice, but, when I asked to play with the girl next door I was given a firm “no”. She was likely the daughter of one of the servants and she hadn’t learned prejudice either. What a shame to want to separate your children from others because of colour.

Chisokone Market, Kitwe, Zambia. Photo credit: Edu-Tourist on Flickr

The educational system in Zambia was sadly lacking when it came to high school, so all of us privileged white kids were sent to neighbouring Rhodesia, where the educational system at that time was based on the British standard. I didn’t even mind the more than nine hundred kilometres distance between me and my parents because I was out from under their oppressive rule. But the boarding school we attended was very sketchy. The things that went on!

Victoria Falls, on the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe
Photo courtesy of tourradar
Que Que School Badge. (photo credit: unknown)

We had very little supervision or guidance and most of the teachers left a lot to be desired, not all, but most. I can still remember several single teachers who stayed in our hostel flirting with my dad when he brought us to school at the beginning of the term. He didn’t seem to think this was questionable behaviour. And then there was the infamous date that was arranged for me. I recall being totally terrified, wondering what on earth I was supposed to do, showing up, and then running away when the boy appeared. I wonder what they bribed him with! Fortunately, after some issues, someone alerted my parents to just how terrible this school was and I was then sent to an all-girls boarding school.

St. Peter’s School, Bulawayo, Rhodesia
Photo credit: Val Freeman Sheppard, one of my classmates.

That school just happened to be directly across the road from an all-male post-secondary technical college. I ended up getting expelled from that school for sneaking out at night. I wasn’t alone, I was just one of three girls who was caught. We had a rotating schedule of which girls could go out on what night. But I was getting into the groove of spending most of my waking hours dreaming of my prince charming who I was bound to meet very soon! So, parents, please, if you plan on having or already have children, put a little effort into teaching them what it is to be a decent human being and to be loved. Don’t just toss them to the wolves, as my parents did, leaving them to find love and affection where they could. Oh, they did have rules, lots of them, but there was absolutely no communication between myself and them. Everything was “no”, but without an explanation. And, as described in a previous post, the occasional time I was granted permission to do something, like having a friend over, it was such a humiliating experience, I never wanted to repeat it. I realize my mother was raised in Nazi Germany, but even as I grew older, there was no evidence of love in my family. Neither of my parents ever said those three words to me, and I certainly couldn’t have garnered that they did from any of their actions. I was in their home to work and obey. I know I sound bitter, but I’m really not. I would feel the same way towards anyone who so neglected their children, though I do understand that neither of my parents had much of an upbringing.

Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe, late home of Cecil the Lion

I don’t hate my parents. In fact, if it hadn’t been for God pulling me out of that church, I probably would have ended up treating my children more or less the same. I am eternally grateful I didn’t. I am far from the perfect parent, not one of us is. We all make mistakes but I would hope that we continue to grow and learn and admit to our mistakes, thus expanding our capacity to teach what is true and valuable to those in our care. I evolved into the most pathetic, lenient parent, but I’m not sorry. I continue to make mistakes, as some of my children are quick to tell me, but I can be told and corrected (sometimes) and they do know that I love them more than I could ever express.

Nenagh, Co. Tipperary
photo credit: unknown

Fast forward to Ireland, where I moved with my parents when I was thirteen. My brother and sister were left in Scotland to fend for themselves. That period of my life will forever be branded on my heart as the one time I felt truly loved. Being the new girl in a fairly small town, Nenagh, Co. Tipperary, I was rarely without a date. I know thirteen is terribly young, but it is junior high, and that is when girls who are so inclined begin to date. It was all very innocent at that age, holding hands and smooching. My mother got wind of me dating and promptly dragged me to the doctor’s office where she informed the doctor that I was having relations with boys. Can you imagine? I was thirteen! The doctor didn’t believe me either, but, thankfully didn’t try to put me on birth control. I’m not sure that was even an option in predominantly Catholic Eire. Despite being brought up in a military environment I somehow managed to have a sunny disposition, which has been misinterpreted many times over the years as flirtatious and promiscuous. (I’m not like that anymore. As time passed I became more withdrawn.) And, parents, if your child has no love at home, he/she will look for it somewhere else. It is a basic human need.  Anyway, the result of visiting the doctor’s office was me being grounded for a ridiculously long time, which resulted in me running away and then returning with my tail between my legs and having my grounding extended. That was when I attempted suicide the first time. Though Greg’s suicide has left me scarred and angry, I see a huge difference between a 53-year-old committing the act and a thirteen-year-old. When you are thirteen the reason for a suicide attempt is more of a cry for someone to notice you. At least that was what it was for me. My mother had enough pills laying around I should have actually been able to pull it off, but I guess it was the wrong combination or I took them too late at night so I was still alive in the morning. All I can recall from that space of time was being jostled around in an ambulance and having the bottom of my feet scraped at the hospital. My stomach was pumped and I was put in isolation in the hospital because my parents thought I might contaminate the children in the ward. Even after that, there was no conversation as to why I had done this. It was not even brought up.

Nenagh Friary
Photo Credit: Andreas F. Borchert

But I loved Ireland. The people in the town were so extraordinarily friendly. I made friends easily and, as my mother was now spending time in a mental hospital getting shock treatments, I had a bit more freedom. I was now the ripe old age of fourteen and was walking home from school one day with a friend when she was joined by a fellow I didn’t know. He was really cute. My friend and I parted ways and the boy continued on down the street with me. I was so nervous I just kept blathering on until we reached a point where we also parted ways. I didn’t give him too much thought, but several days later, in the middle of one of my classes, a girl from another class asked to speak to me. I didn’t know who she was, but she delivered a note to me that said I should be outside the post office at 7:00 pm that night with my girlfriend, Maeve. Well, I certainly wasn’t going to pass that by! We were there at the appointed time when these two guys approached, one of them being Michael*, the fellow from the walk. The other boy was his partner in the band they played in. Michael* was the drummer and Patrick* was the lead singer. Oh my goodness! To a fourteen-year-old girl, there just wasn’t anything more romantic than being wooed by the drummer in a band. He was eighteen, but I don’t think there were laws against dating underage girls at that time as the law in Ireland had just set the legal age for marriage at 16. Up until the previous year, the common law in that country was that a girl could marry at 12 and a boy at 14. And I had friends who were fourteen and working full time to help support their families. Things have changed significantly since then.

The hotel we walked by on our first meeting.
Photo credit: Unknown

Back to Michael, he was the most passionate person I had ever known (in my long and varied life up to that point!) He was tall with long curly hair and beautiful hands, you know, like Tom Hiddleston’s. He wrote poetry and was a member of the Sinn Féin, which, to me, was merely icing on the cake. I was just becoming politically aware and believed that Ireland had the right to rule herself. So, despite the fact that I was British and a Protestant, though my family never practised any sort of religion, I supported him all the way.  My father is an atheist and my mother called herself Presbyterian, though I don’t recall ever having any discussion about faith and there certainly was no bible in our house. We would go on long walks, Michael and I, in the brilliantly green countryside, with our arms wrapped around each other, making walking extremely difficult, but I didn’t care. I was in love. My girlfriend and I would hang around at the band’s practices and, because our boyfriends played at the local dances, we didn’t have dance partners so we sometimes danced on the stage. This was any teenage girl’s dream come true.

Beautiful Nenagh
Photo Credit: Andreas F. Borchert

Unfortunately, because Michael went to university in Dublin and I went to school in Nenagh, ours was a long distance relationship, with us having only most weekends and holidays to see each other. I met his train every Friday night, but one Friday he didn’t get off the train. I was confused. Where was he? I asked his friends where he was and they didn’t seem to know. I received a letter from him the following week telling me he had met someone else at the university. My first heartbreak. We had been writing regularly to each other during the week. I received my letters from him at a friend of my parent’s house. My parent’s friends sometimes tried to talk them into cutting me some slack, but they never listened. So I knew I could trust this friend to receive my mail at her house. But I was truly devastated. I thought we would stay together and eventually get married. He was my Tristan. He loved me and expressed it in a hundred different ways. When it was Christmas. I bought him a sweater, wrapped it up and gave it to him at his house. He bought me a heart-shaped locket and waited until after the Christmas dance he had played at, walked with me to a park and, under the moonlight, opened the box and put the locket around my neck. Remember people, I was fourteen!

Castle Otway, near Nenagh
Photo by IrishFireside on Flickr

After our break-up. I wasn’t really interested in anyone. I dated a bit but nothing serious. And in case you are wondering why on earth someone so young dated so much, I just wanted someone to love me and hold me.  Then my parents told me we were moving again, this time to Canada. I was gutted. I was losing everything I loved. I had friends and snippets of a normal life made easier by the fact that my mother was mentally ill and was so drugged up she couldn’t get off the couch. I know, I was a heartless daughter, I didn’t really care that she was ill. And the funny thing is, my dad pretended that everything was perfectly normal.  I had become a fantastic liar, telling my mom I was going to a meeting at the Scout’s Hall, when in fact I was going to a dance. We were packing up and selling, with six weeks left to go when I went to one of those dances. I danced most of the night with Michael’s little brother. Michael had a large family and I had become friends with most of his siblings during our time together. I was behaving ridiculously, exiting the hall and announcing to all those milling outside, while flinging my arms in the air, that I had arrived, at last,  It was then that I noticed him leaning against the wall, looking at me. It was Michael. He wanted to see me again. Back was I amongst the stars. Unfortunately, I only had six weeks left in the country so we were doomed. But I was so happy to have this wonderfully loving, gentle, passionate, artistic person back in my life. As I said before, this was an innocent relationship. Either he was one of the very few, or Ireland was just much more conservative overall, but he was a perfect gentleman. We wrote to each other for a while after I came to Canada, though, of course, life goes on and we drifted apart. But I will never forget him, my first love.

*Names changed to protect their identity

  1. You have captured and expressed our life so well, that I could feel how I felt living that other life and the emotion that has welled up inside of me!!
    You are an excellent story teller!!

    1. I hope it wasn’t too painful for you, Sue. I had an easy time with our parents compared to your’s and Robert’s. While writing this I, too, was transported back in time. We have very colourful lives, don’t we?

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