'Lord save us, damn and blast!'

Last updated 05:00 06/01/2013
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FOUR SISTERS: Elizabeth, Sarah, Annie and Nell.

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"Lord save us, damn and blast!"

All these years later, this is what I hear when I think of Great Aunt Nell. A small, dumpy figure with dark clothes, sharp eyes, and that outburst of hers. I loved it - the folk I knew seldom came out with anything stronger than "bother".

Nell and her sister Annie visited New Zealand about 1955. They'd probably booked their ship berths at least a year earlier and expected to see their sister Sarah, my grandmother, on the Rongotea farm.

Sarah died in 1954, before Nell and Annie reached us. So they met nieces and a nephew they'd never seen before and who themselves had never left New Zealand.

As for me, all I knew was that from time to time, large bundles had arrived in the post. On the back of each, the return address: 508 Dumbarton Road, Partick, Glasgow, Scotland. The aunts sent them and they contained back copies of the People's Friend and the Sunday Post.

And now the aunts were here. I never really took to Annie, but I loved Great Aunt Nell.

She told us she lived in a tenement and had a ten minute walk before she saw a blade of grass, which she wasn't allowed to walk on. The farm's acres of green paddocks amazed her - "You mean no one's going to tell me to keep off the grass?"

Aunt Nell became a familiar sight, trudging the mile in to the local township along the grass verge of the country road, day after day. From time to time someone would offer her a lift but she waved them on.

I don't know why I liked her so much. She was just a friendly presence, blunt and matter of fact. From her I picked up odd facts about mysterious Glasgow, where the butcher made door to door deliveries. "But he won't bring my meat on Saturdays, I don't know why. Now, where did I put my knitting? Lord save us, damn and blast!"

Nell and her sisters grew up in Belfast where their father worked as a riveter and very likely helped build the Titanic. 

Years later, in 1987, I went to Britain for the first time. I met Nell's son Gordon Sharp. I liked Gordon immediately; I could see echoes of Nell.

Over in Derry, I met cousin Ray and his wife Sheelagh. They had warm memories of Nell.

"When we got married, our families weren't happy about it - Catholic and Protestant, you know. We were living in London at the time and they weren't going to come to the wedding. Aunt Nell was an old lady, not in good health, but she came down on the train, all the way from Glasgow, with a present for us. Just to show her support."

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In Carrickfergus I met another cousin, Gladys. She told me someone still lived at 508 Dumbarton Road in Partick, Glasgow. Nell's niece Nellie Thomson was in the same flat her aunt had occupied years earlier.

So I went to Glasgow and found Dumbarton Road.

A rambling old tenement building, not far from a Woolworths. I climbed several flights of dingy stairs and knocked timidly on the door. An elderly woman opened it.

"Look, you don't know me but I'm from New Zealand and I believe your mother was my grandmother's sister."

She blinked but invited me in. She made a strong cup of tea and got out the biscuits. We sat down to talk. I passed on Gladys's query.

We sat and chatted and she marvelled at the fact that I'd come all the way from New Zealand. And something else occurred to her. "Your grandma, Sarah, I remember now. She used to send us butter parcels during the War."

It was an odd feeling, to be halfway across the world and discover all these second cousins. As I sat in Nellie's flat I thought, this is where those People's Friends and Sunday Posts came from all those years ago.

"Well, Lord save us, damn and blast!'

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