The picture on the wall

“There’s an old and faded picture on the wall
That’s been a-hanging there for many a year
‘Tis a picture of my mother for I know there is no other
That can take the place of mother on the wall”

That’s the first verse of an old and faded song by the Carter Family. I bet most people have a mother photo hanging on a wall somewhere in the home. I know I do. In fact, one hangs on the wall in our computer room. It’s old, but it isn’t faded.

It’s an old black and white head and shoulders shot. I’m not certain of when it was taken, but my best guess is she was in her  early twenties. Young enough to know what she wanted in life, but not old enough to know if life would give it to her.

On the sixteenth of December 1917, Marjorie Brennan, my mother, was born in the Gorbals, a rough and tumble neighbourhood of Glasgow. Living in the downtown tenements was never easy. There were a lot of tough areas in Glasgow a hundred years ago. There still are, but the Gorbals led the way. It was always a good place to come from, to have survived. The city made several attempts to move people out and clean it up. They were a succession of urban planning failures.

In the mid-thirties, the Brennan family was moved to a new semi-detached council house in Riddrie, a north eastern district of Glasgow, about half an hour from the Gorbals by bus. It was a definite step up from their Duke Street tenement home. Council houses were solidly built in those days, and the ones in Riddrie are still occupied  today, although now they are privately owned. I was born in the upstairs bedroom of one of them.

I don’t know how many children born in the Gorbals went on to university back then. Some did, but most of the notable natives listed in the area’s Wikipedia page were football players, musicians, or gangsters. Marjorie was one who did get out. She entered the University of Glasgow’s Faculty of Pure Science in 1936, majoring in chemistry and mathematics. She graduated in 1939, a couple of months before the outbreak of the second world war.

When the war started, she was recruited to work for the British War Department at Irvine, a small town on the coast of North Ayreshire. She worked as a Chemical Experimental Officer in the Royal Ordnance Factory. Her job was in the laboratory, sampling and analyzing material used in the production of TNT. In peacetime, the factory produced dynamite for ICI-Nobel, a Swedish company founded by Alfred Nobel.

After a couple of years of that, she was transferred to work for the British Admiralty at a newly constructed naval base in Helensburgh, a town on the coast of the Firth of Clyde. Her position there was a Technical Experimental Officer in the Admiralty’s Degaussing Department. They would somehow or other scramble the magnetic field of the Royal Navy ships, protecting them from German mines.

Degaussing was a temporary fix, and the ships needed to go through the process on a regular schedule. They easily entered and exited the deep ocean lochs around the Firth of Clyde. In the off-work hours, staff at the base and sailors from the ships would meet at dances and other social functions.

That was how Marjorie Brennan met a young English sailor, Charles Pickersgill. He was a telegrapher on HMS La Capricieuse, a ship that was seized by the Royal Navy after France capitulated to the Germans in 1940. It was an unlikely romance between a Glasgow girl from the Gorbals and a London lad from Shoreditch, but it lasted. They were married in 1943 and more or less stuck together through all the ups and downs of the rest of their lives.

After the war was over, the family moved to a small English town half way between London and Windsor, close to London Airport. Marjorie began a long career as a school teacher. She taught in two schools in England, three in Quebec, and one in Guelph. She taught mathematics and chemistry, the subjects she majored in at university plus, for a couple of years, biology and religion. She took an early retirement from Bishop Mac in Guelph in 1973.

After retirement, Marjorie dedicated the rest of her life to helping Jean Vanier and his L’Arche federation of homes for people with intellectual disabilities. She moved to Stratford to become the founding director of the first L’Arche home in that city. Vanier founded L’Arche with one community in the French village of Trosly–Breuil in 1964. Today, it has 147 communities in 35 countries around the world.

Marjorie retired from L’Arche in 1989 and died in Stratford on December 02 2002.

When I look at that old picture on the wall, I see a young woman with determined eyes. A young woman who needed to break out of the doom and gloom of the Gorbals and the chaotic slums that dominated Glasgow in the 1920s and 30s.

Her parents took her and her brother and sister from the Gorbals to Riddrie in 1935. She and my dad did the rest on their own.

2 Comments

  1. brilliant… thanks for doing this.

  2. Thank you. Your beautiful story resonates with many I’m sure. For those of us from working class roots, who grew knowing our parents suffered from malnutrition and prevailed through the ravages of war, both physical and mental. As you say, determined and courageously creating their lives. Your story reminded me of my mum and dad and my trips back to England and visiting the places they grew up in.

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