Saturday, June 8, 2013

In the Way Back

This is biographical and hopefully not too boring. (Get out the blankies and hot cocoa for a nice nap.)

Well, I was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland before World War II. It broke out just before I started elementary school and my childhood memories are of wartime conditions such as strict food rationing and carrying a gas mask to school with me. I recall my mother making banana sandwiches when I was about 4 years old and then didn't see another banana until we hit the United States shores in 1947. But since I didn't know any better, the food I had was sufficient to me. We had little sugar as it was rationed but my aunts went blackberrying in summer and made jam. We always had fish for fish and chips. We picked edible seaweed (dulce, which was pronounced dulles) and chewed it for a snack and gathered what we refered to as "willicks" or winkles. These were tiny sea snails which were boiled and eaten with a pin. All in all, it wasn't a bad diet. My parents had a vegetable garden and my father installed a chicken run in our small back yard. We got along. We burned coal for heat - our house had a fireplace in every room including my bedrooom. I walked to the Belmont Church Road primary school where three grades (we called them forms) were taught. I had just started at the upper school when we left the country. I should note that in Southern Ireland, the Irish Republic, there was no food rationing. The government had declared neutrality and did not support Great Britain and the Allies. We managed to go there on a vacation once and had bacon and all the things we couldn't get up North.

We spent quite a bit of time at Donaghadee, a small seaside town, where some of my father's family had summer bungalows spread out along the Ballyvester Road. When bombing raids were expected in Belfast, most of the family descended on the bungalows to get out of town. My father had 10 brothers and there could be quite a crowd. To a child, it was almost like a big party sometimes.  I loved walking the shore and going into town to the Royal Hotel or Grace Neil's Pub with my parents. Grace Neil's is said to be the oldest pub in Ireland and is still there to this day.

As to the war, we had an iron box as a dining table which served as a shelter in case a bomb fell on us. Fortunately, none ever did. The German planes mostly bombed the shipyards area. We lived in the suburbs of Belfast, a few miles out of the town center. We children played near bomb craters so they did get fairly close to our house. When the war ended, my parents booked passage as soon as possible on a converted troop ship going to America, where we joined my mother's sister.

I think in those wartime years, when I was growing up, I saw an Ireland which had reverted somewhat to an earlier age. Since petrol (gasoline) was strictly rationed, my father had to give up his car and take the bus to work. People used bicycles quite a bit - I rode mine several miles to the North
Road school. The delivery people used horse drawn carts if they couldn't get trucks, and farmers ploughed the fields with a team of horses. Normally, you would probably not have seen this in the environs of the industrialized city of Belfast. In spite of rationing and blackout curtains at night which plunged the streets into darkness, life went on and as a child, I took it all in stride, not knowing anything different. The air raid sirens went off mostly at night when I would have been at home. As far as I knew, everything was normal. Events were held, people went on holiday (vacation) my mother took me to auctions to look for furniture and she hired a cleaning woman who told fortunes in the tea leaves. I don't know what she told my mother. If she mentioned it, I have now forgotten. It must have been a good one because she lived happily to the age of ninety two. No one in my family was killed in the war except a cousin in America I had never met. I have gone back once to Ireland, in 1961. Maybe I will go one more time.

Monday, June 3, 2013

It's Electric

 We recently returned from a visit to the Thomas Edison historic site in West Orange, N.J. I was quite worn out afterwards after climbing up and down throughout a factory and then a Victorian mansion, but I enjoyed it. Looking at the old machines reminded me of my father who was a factory foreman. We didn't get into the chemistry lab as there already was a tour going, but did see where designs were drawn up and a museum exhibit of various items. There was a man running small motors to explain the difference between AC and DC power. Outside, strange noises reached us from the men recording sounds on wax cylinders to show how the first records were made. Then we took a shuttle bus to Edison's home, Glenmont, which was built in 1886 in what is known as the Queen Anne revival style and which proved to be very interesting as it was furnished with the original items and looked as though Mr. Edison would be home from the factory down below in the valley any minute. It was situated on the top of a hill and had wonderful breezes in spite of a day in the 90's. An elderly man sat in the garage and told visitors how Edison went on camping trips with a "convoy" of fifty vehicles. Rich people in the 1920's had quite a different lifestyle from today - not that I am well acquainted with lifestyles of the rich in the present day! I hope Zach enjoyed something of it all at 10 years of age. Maybe he will remember the tiger skin rugs in the parlors!
We were told that some actual Edison grand children (adults) might be present as they frequently turned up on Edison Day. Of course we don't know if we were rubbing shoulders with an Edison or not, but it led me to read up on the family a little. I discovered that Samuel Edison, Thomas's father, was born in Nova Scotia, as was Art's grandfather. They also had Loyalist origins, fleeing from New Jersey to Canada after being arrested during the Revolution. The Edison family eventually went back to the United States, where Thomas A. Edison was born in Ohio. He finally ended up back in New Jersey. What a good thing his ancestor didn't get hanged for his Loyalist sympathies! (Which almost happened, I believe.) We might not have had electric lights that worked - at least, as early as we did have them. And would Hollywood have existed? Edison pioneered the movie industry. This site is definitely worth a visit as there is much to explore. The friendly Park Rangers were very helpful. Also interesting to us were the surroundings of Glenmont. It is located in what is probably the first gated community in America, of 450 acres, along with another 173 estates, and contains its own park within a park. As we sat on an iron bench under a tree on the rolling lawns, viewing the house, I thought it would make a wonderful setting for a novel. Jane Austen would have loved it.