Episode 9 – Losing Dad, twice.

Mary Cane

Mary Cane is an artist and writer, presently a PhD researcher at the Elphinstone Institute, (Ethnology and Folklore) looking at how grandmothers are  passing on family story and knowledge to families, especially those who have settled far from home. See marycane.uk. for more information

This podcast is not: a critique, a guide or a study. It’s simply a good tale followed by a short chat inspired by the tale and by the place, Cornwall, where the tale is set. Think of it as a staycation podcast. If you know Cornwall – you’ll want to listen to hear what’s been left out. If you don’t then listen and begin to get to know it.

Disclaimer 1. Although transformation of women into trees or stones (or blocks of salt) is discussed, Cornish Pixies are not mentioned.

Disclaimer 2. Captain Nancy Blackett – an inspiration to many women including Mary Cane – is not to be found in any Royal Navy List though she did captain a British ship.

Mary Cane’s true tale, ‘Losing Dad, twice’.

Andrew Greig says in his book, ‘At the Loch of the Green Corrie’:  There are places and times on this earth when the ground, as it were, grows thin, and the dead arise of themselves. Gone days, dead parents, lost friends, old loves rise around us as an escort, an entourage, to provoke counsel and console. As we drive or lie with a book at the days end, we may glimpse them at the edge of vision.  They must be spoken with if we are to remain honest.

When I read this story to my husband, he said “I like it all except that quote”.  I often delete what he doesn’t like, but in this case I haven’t.  I like the way those words support my whimsy, my flimsy grasp, on the bare-naked truth, and the idea that there is ‘the other’ to embrace and play with, when we need it.

 So…to tell the tale of losing Dad twice: Normally you only lose a parent once, but in our unremarkable Cornish family, we managed to lose our Dad twice. For two years after Dad died, his ashes had remained around the young Copper Beech tree he had planted. We found note in his handwriting with those instructions. It startled us because we hardly ever saw his copper plate handwriting, and we didn’t talk about him dying while he lived, only about him getting better, at 90, from his chronic heart condition. Now, when we visit Mum, she asks us to go and check on the tree, as she can’t get out much. (maybe she really means check on Dad) and she always adds ‘Make sure the plaque is alright’. That cheesy plastic ‘remembering a loved one’ plaque she bought that makes us cringe.  So…we go, and check, give a sidelong glance to the tree and come away quickly. Perhaps we are a little embarrassed at the mawkish words on the plaque and not quite sure what to think or do by the tree. Last June, I went up. The plaque was nicely hidden in the long grass, and the Copper Beech was growing on, a good 6 feet tall in the shelter of the surrounding Hazels.  Job done.  Last month it was Peter’s turn, he went up as usual and as he rounded a corner into the thicket, expecting to see, but didn’t see … the tree. Nothing was there, save a shallow, shocking, earthy, pit. No tree, and no blessed plaque. Gone, nothing there.  An exhumation.  The Copper Beech had been dug up and taken away…  tyre tracks leading from the scene were the only clue. 

My Dad, Arthur, liked Copper Beech trees, but they were hard to get established on that exposed Cornish farm up on the edge of Bodmin Moor. He had lost one or two over the years, so decided to wait until there was more shelter. He loved his trees. He thought they were more reliable than the milking cows he tended all his working life. He was brought up in the nearby wooded valley and the fields he walked as a boy were bluebell, stitchwort and campion hedged, linked by ancient Cornish mossy lanes.  He married Mum and her small farm just a mile away, but up on the hill. Windy or shrouded in mist, it’s straight hedges, were built from quarried stone taken from moorland tin mine buildings. The only trees were stunted, leaning away from the prevailing weather. He began planting trees up there in his fifties. There was one for my wedding in 1972. and others when the country was saying ‘plant a tree in seventy-three’.  He went on to fill first the one-acre Platt, then the three-acre Entrance field, with a mixture of native trees and shrubs. Rowan and Wayfaring tree, Hazel and Hawthorn, Alder and Sloe, Ash and Holly. He enjoyed walking around, and pruning them with the secateurs he carried. He made bonfires that spat with a thorny fury, while they tidied up.  In his later years he tottered and doddered through his groves, making little beaten down pathways of attendance, around them and through them. He would stop, steady his behind against his shooting stick, making sure it wasn’t hurting his increasingly tender piles. Spreading his feet wide for stability he would snip off small twigs and branches. He used to say he wasn’t in the business of growing ‘gooseberry bushes’. Some of his trees as a result have a startled look. Bare trunk, up to the point where he could reach, with a shaggy lollypop top. Towards the end of his life he couldn’t collect up the trimmings to burn. They were left to make a tangle in the grass, pinned to the ground by the cheeky brambles which looped in from the edges of the field. In twenty years he had created a maturing wood alongside the footpath up to the moor. He was happy to see the paths he made used by people he knew, like Mrs Hawken who took her dog up to the moor before her hip went. He would leave a bowl of water under a hedge in case her dog was thirsty. And Mrs Congdon who went up to the moor in summer to pick a punnet of whortleberries. The trees suffered a bit from bored schoolboys on their cross country runs, and rabbits and deer that chewed or rubbed bark, but I don’t think he would have imagined that he himself would be lost and spirited away. How did the tree thieves manage it?  At dead of night, cloth-capped and capable, with van and spades?  Was it a snatch and grab with young strong men in hoodies, pulling and tearing at the roots?  Was the tree hastily squeezed into a pot for quick cash sale in the morning,  or stolen to order, to be replanted in someone’s garden. Where would they have taken the booty, with Dads calcic remains, clinging to the roots. I can imagine those little fragments of bone rattling along in a van along with his favourite tree and some of that poor moorland soil he tried to earn a living from. A strange trio. 

He always said his soil was thin because most of it was being farmed by the farmers down in the valley where the rain had washed it. He would have enjoyed a trip in a heavy vehicle though. He didn’t get to travel much. The only time he left his familiar territory was during the war when he drove an army cooks truck across France from D day landings to the relief of Paris. One night in France delivering hot food to the front lines, shells were exploding around. He says jumped out and hid behind a dead horse. Another time he quickly dug a slit trench to lie in when the battle got too close. He used to say you can dig a trench quick when you’re young and frightened. He was good at making himself scarce. He was a man who moved slowly, carefully, he fitted right in, unnoticed. An everyman in an earth coloured twill jacket. Mum couldn’t find him in Woolworths on a rare shopping trip to Plymouth, when she had us children gathered ready to leave. Where were you? She said, flustered… when he appeared.  ‘Over there,’ he said, ‘over there, where I could see you’. 

High up on the farm, in his retirement from active work, he would sit in the lee of a hedge, and look out at the land and sea. Under skylark song, he would balance his field glasses on the fork of his blackthorn thumb stick. He had lost the leafy privacy of the valley, when he moved up to the hill in 1950, but he gained a panoramic view. Without leaving home he could see what was going on what was ‘appening. Cricket in the recreation field. The Ginster’s Pasty lorries leaving amongst fragrant onion smelling factory exhaust, traffic on the road to St Mellion, the shining white ‘tent shapes spoil heaps of the china claypits. The Eddystone lighthouse would have been a speck in the distance, across the rift where the Lyner river cuts through the Cornish hills. That same view would have been seen from the Copper beech if it had been allowed to grow and rise above the Hazels.   

I had enjoyed imagining his ashes, that we had spread around that Beech tree, slowly making their way down into the ground, then up into the trunk and then branching out and into the cellular structure; into the twigs, the fluttering leaves. He would have become part of that Copper Beech, the ultimate camouflage. Dad, in a new shape, reliable and enduring, with his grand view of the county he lived his life in. 

But we have all had to move on, and even Dad has had to get used to a new horizon.  

Bye Dad …Wherever you are.

Martin Stephenson gave permission to use his song Rain as intro and exit, sung by Helen McCookerybook (permission also granted)


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