My Serendipity Travels

Mary McIntosh

© 2007 by Mary McIntosh

                          2008 Travel Nonfiction Winner

Photo property of the author.
Photo property of the author.

 “Would it be possible for you to take a nostalgic trip back to England?”

With just those few words I embarked on an experience so simple, yet so profound, that it became a beautiful and inspiring journey back to my childhood.

Shortly before I retired in 1991 at the age of 70, computers were installed in each office, but only with word processing on them.  I wasn’t too enthused about this as I was a fast typist on my electric typewriter, and didn’t feel I needed one of these “newfangled devices.”

 But I had no choice. I had to learn how to use the computer.  When I retired, I purchased a second-hand one to use at home.  Even though Internet was already installed on it, I planned to use this computer only for writing the stories I hoped someday might get published.   I hadn’t counted on my kids ganging up on me, telling me how wonderful the Internet was, and look at all the time I had available to ‘surf the net.’ I was extremely reluctant to make the change, but finally agreed to see what it was all about.  I promised myself I’d try to understand and learn this new device, but I was still not comfortable with it.  One day all that changed.

 As a young child, I’d spent my summers at my grandmother’s in Kirkby Lonsdale, a small town in the Lake District in England. While seated at my computer, on what turned out to be a memorable day, I decided to do some exploring with a search engine. I clicked on Kirkby Lonsdale and discovered this country town, with fewer than 2000 people, had its own web site.

 When pictures of Kirkby Lonsdale showed up on my monitor, I recalled all those happy summers I’d spent in the mid ‘20s. For hours, it seemed, I was glued to this website, as view after view appeared. I was not just “seeing” Kirkby, I felt I was actually back again in this old market town.

 I now felt brave enough to try to discover other things on the Net. One day I found a website that featured first-person stories about places where folks had discovered their roots.  I decided to enter their contest, and wrote about how I learned to love the computer by ‘visiting’ Kirkby Lonsdale on the Internet. I titled it “The Newfangled Device.” It was published on their web site. I was ecstatic, though at the time I had no conception where that one piece of writing would lead me, or what serendipity it would produce.

One day, in the spring of 2003, two years after my original story appeared on the Internet, I received an e-mail from someone I did not know.  Since the subject displayed was titled “Memories of Kirkby Lonsdale,” I decided to open it.  It was from a man living in England, who wanted to know if I’d like to share other memories of Kirkby Lonsdale with him.  He was in the process of re-opening the pub in the Kings Arms Hotel in that small village in the Lake District.

 James and I exchanged e-mails. It was fun to be in touch with someone who was now walking down the same streets as I had so long ago.

 Then one day he asked the question “Would it be possible for you to take one more nostalgic trip back to England?”

 I would love to return, I thought, but I was now in my mid 80s, and traveling had become difficult for me. Maybe I could manage if someone could help me. James offered to meet me in London, and we’d drive north together. It sounded so good, but what did I really know about this man? He was in his early 40s, lived in Blackpool, but I knew little else. Should I go and hope for the best?  Was I being a foolish old woman? What if I got to London and he wasn’t there, then what would I do?  What if he turned out to be the kind of man who preyed on older women? Maybe he thought I was rich because I was from America. What if I went and we didn’t like each other? What should I do?  I really wanted to go for, besides re-visiting Kirkby Lonsdale, I’d always wanted to see if I could find the house where my mother was born, in Middleton, near Kirkby Lonsdale. When she was in her 70s, she painted a watercolor of it from memory. That painting was now hanging on my wall at home. If I went, maybe James would drive me there.

 I swayed back and forth––yes, I’ll go, no, I shouldn’t take the chance. Finally the decision was made easier for me when my daughter, Heather, told me she planned to run the marathon in London, and would stay on and join me on my trip back to my childhood days.

 And so, in April 2004, at the age of 83, I returned to the land of my birth.

 My daughter ran the marathon. I arrived at Heathrow. She and James met me.

 My mother’s father died when she was twelve, and my grandmother was left with five young children. She needed an income.

 In Kirkby Lonsdale, where we were now headed, my grandmother was able to procure the position of caretaker of the Institute, a building owned by the church, with a public reading room, library, and large hall for meetings and receptions. This is where the family moved to from Middleton. My grandmother’s job was to maintain the rooms, and to make sure they were ready when meetings were scheduled.  Bedrooms for the family were on the upper floor.

 We spent an entire day in Kirkby Lonsdale, and it was wonderful.  Little had changed. Even though it now bustled with autos, it still retained that old-fashioned charm of the horse and buggy days that I remembered. We were there on market day. The town square seemed just as busy with stalls of homegrown vegetables and fruit the local farmers had brought in to sell, as it had been when I wandered down to watch, over 70 years ago.

 We strolled around the town, and each bend in the road brought back a different memory. “That’s where I saw my first picture show,” I said, pointing to a building on a corner of the main street. “We climbed up wooden stairs on the outside, gave the man a  ha’penny, sat on hard backed wooden chairs, and watched a black and white silent picture. This was long before the talkies came about.

 “Oh, look. There’s still a shop in the same place across the street, though it’s got a different name. It used to be Mr. Richardson’s Meat Market. My cousin, Hilda, and I would stand in the doorway for hours, it seemed, watching sheep and pigs being brought in on a wagon, and led off into the alley next to the building. We’d watch as their throats were cut, and blood poured out. After the carcasses were de-gutted and skinned, they were hung in the window.” I doubt my grandmother knew we were doing this, for I’m sure she would never have allowed us to watch this horrible event. We thought it was great. I don’t recall anyone getting sick from eating the meat Mr. Richardson sold.

 We walked down Mitchell Gate, the hilly street where Miss Dean’s Sweet Shoppe used to be.  It was a wonderful place with rows of glass jars filled with pink, red, green and yellow sweets. Each week grannie gave my bothers and me a penny, and we went to Miss Dean’s to spend it. After trying to decide which ones I wanted, Miss Dean would take the jar off the shelf, turn the metal top, pick up a large scoop, and weigh out my choice. Then she placed the sweets into a small white cone-shaped paper bag and, while she held the two sides of the bag, twisted it around and around so that none of the sweets fell out on my way back to my grandmother’s. Mitchell Gate was just as steep as I recalled, but Miss Dean’s Sweet Shoppe was no longer there.

 We now visited the Institute. James had arranged with the present proprietor for us to go inside and, although changes had been made––electricity instead of gas jets on the wall––it looked very much as I remembered it. The large fireplace in the kitchen was still there. I once again envisioned my grandmother, each Saturday night, giving us a bath in a large galvanized tub in front of this same fireplace. Besides my two brothers, several of my cousins often stayed at the Institute during the summer, so giving all of us a Saturday night bath was a big job. As water had to be pumped from a well, we rarely bathed at any other time.  Instead we took a sponge bath during the week.  But, it was most important for all of us to be clean before attending church the next day.

 After we’d been scrubbed down, we jumped out onto the hearth, turned our backside toward the hot fire, quickly wrapped a large towel around ourselves, rubbed dry, donned nightclothes, and climbed the stairs to the upper floor where we slept in feather beds.

 I climbed those stairs again. They must have done something to them, I thought, for they were much steeper now than when I climbed them as a child.

 Heather and I then left by the side door.  I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The four outhouses––the only ’facilities’ for our use in those days—were still standing. We were told they were now used for storage, but my daughter swore they still had a certain aroma about them.

 Next on the things I wanted to do, was drive to Middleton and see if I could find where my mother was born in 1884.

 It is difficult to know what to call Middleton. It is hardly even a village, with less than 200 residents, mostly sheep farmers. There are no shops, no petrol station, no school, but there is a church. We stopped there first.

 For 51 years my great-grandfather, John Holmes Abbott, was the vicar of this little country church. On a lovely English spring day we walked around the churchyard. Many of the gravestones were very old, some had toppled over onto the ground; others, covered with moss, were difficult to read. Amongst wild daffodils covering the grounds, we found my great-grandfather’s grave.

 I was enjoying this, but we still needed to search for my mother’s house, though I had no idea whether it still existed as the Abbott family left Middleton in 1891. My daughter kept snapping photos. “That one looks like the painting,” she said, but I wasn’t sure. “Maybe it’s this one.” She continued taking pictures. I was getting discouraged.

We’d better be heading back to Blackpool,” James said. “I’d like to get home before it gets dark.”
 I knew we had to leave, and I’d just about decided her house was no longer there, when Heather exclaimed, “Mom, look at that one across the road. That might be it.”  I still wasn’t too convinced, but when we got home and the photo was developed, and we looked at the two of them together, we knew they were the same.  My mother’s painting and an enlarged framed photo are identical––the doorways, the chimneys, the windows, the curve of the road - even some of the shrubbery looked alike, though the sensible side of my brain knew this was highly unlikely. Then a farm called Rose Cottage, it is now the Swan Inn.

This trip occurred in 2004, but there is still a continuing serendipity to the story I wrote six years ago.

In January 2007, James visited me in Florida.  One day I told him about my father and his church work, which had been his life’s vocation. After his return to England, he clicked on the Internet and discovered my father’s name, and found a lady in the Roanoke, VA area who had a copy of a 1932 painting, titled ‘The Nazarene’ by H. Stanley Todd. At the bottom of this painting, the artist had written a dedication to my father, “To B. Frank Mountford, with highest esteem and appreciation. (Col) H. Stanley Todd, 8/28/33.”  It is now hanging on my wall at home.

 I became e-mail friends with the lady from whom I bought the painting, and knew I wanted to meet her.  Since Salem, VA, where my parents lived for thirty years, was close by to where she resided, it would be an ideal opportunity to re-visit the town my folks had loved so much.

Serendipity was at work again. Because of becoming friends with James, I took another nostalgic journey.  In September 2007, my daughter and I once again “followed our hearts” and visited Salem.  We were able to enter the house where my folks had lived, and where my mother died, to walk into the church where I was married in 1948, and stop in at the newspaper office.  During the 1950s my father wrote a weekly column for the Salem Times-Register.  He kept a copy of each of them, which he pasted in a scrapbook, which I have, though now yellowed with age.  Because of this encounter, the editor asked me to write a short piece about my re-visit to Salem, which appeared on the front page of the Times-Register on October 18, 2007.

In a very unique way, I saw the house where my mother was born, and on this latest trip was able to see again the house where she died, all because of a story I wrote six years previously. I was able to reminisce about my father, and recall, once again, how much he loved life in the town of Salem.

And so I ponder. What if I’d never written that nostalgic piece?  What if it hadn’t appeared on the Internet? What if James hadn’t read it?  What if I hadn’t been brave enough to travel again and rely on a stranger to take care of me? What if he hadn’t discovered the painting in the Roanoke area? What if…?

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