Climbing Family Trees: What If? by Mary McIntosh

Climbing Family Trees

More great stories, poems, and helpful hints about genealogy and searching for your family's roots from the twin authors of "Climbing Family Trees: Whispers In The Leaves"

Sunday, October 02, 2005

What If? by Mary McIntosh

“What If?”
Mary McIntosh
St. Petersburg, FL When my story, "The Newfangled Device" was published in 2001 on the web site, little did I realize what a far-reaching effect it would have on my life! It told of how I learned to love the computer by one day latching onto a search engine and discovering Kirkby Lonsdale, the small town in northern England where I spent my summers as a very young child. Three years later that same story led me to find the house where my mother was born in 1884. This is my story of serendipity.
"Memories of Kirkby Lonsdale," was the subject on the e-mail displayed on my monitor that day in 2003. A man in England had written, asking if I wanted to share any more memories with him. He was re-opening the pub in a small hotel, and living in Kirkby Lonsdale, the village where I'd spent my summers as a child. James and I started sending e-mails to each other. Many of his descriptions were the same as those I'd written in my article, and it was fun to be in touch with someone who was walking down those same streets. He sent me a picture of himself, seated on the wall outside the building where my grandmother lived.

Then one day he asked the question, "Would it be possible for you to take one more 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 into my past.I was now in my 80s and traveling had become difficult for me, but I felt I could manage the trip if someone was there to help me. James offered to meet me in London and we'd drive to the Lake District. It sounded so good, but what did I really know about this man? He was in his early 40s, he told me, 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 that 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, I'd always had a great desire to see if I could find the house my mother was born in. When in her 70s, she'd painted a watercolor of it from memory, which I inherited upon her death. I knew she was born in Middleton, near Kirkby Lonsdale. 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 on running the marathon in London in April, and would stay on and join me on my trip back to my beginnings. At least if things didn't work out, we'd be traveling together. And so, in April 2004, at the age of 83, I returned once again to the land of my birth. My daughter ran the marathon. I arrived at Heathrow. She and James met me. James turned out to be a delightful young man, and was agreeable to anything I wanted to do.My mother's father died when she was nine, and my grandmother was left with five children. She needed an income, and in the late 1890’s, jobs for women were not that plentiful. Luckily, she was able to procure the position of caretaker of the Institute, a building used for meetings, receptions, and such in the town of Kirkby Lonsdale. This is where the family lived, where I spent my summers as a young child, and where James, Heather and I were headed.James had kindly arranged with the present caretaker of the Institute for us to actually go inside so I could look around. It was still used for meetings, but no longer had sleeping arrangements. I did notice the kitchen had been enlarged, and electricity installed, though we saw several gas jets still on the walls. The large fireplace remained, and I remembered how we children had taken our Saturday night baths in a large galvanized tub in front of it. Then, we walked out the kitchen door. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. The four outhouses, the only facilities for our use, were still standing. Told they were now used for storage, my daughter swore they still had a certain aroma about them.The town had changed little from those pictures that appeared along with my story. Now bustling with autos, it still retained the old-fashioned charm of the horse and buggy days, as I had remembered them. We were there on a Thursday and, just as I recalled it as a child, the market place was bustling with stalls of produce the local farmers had brought in to sell. Then we walked into St. Mary's Church for a few moments, the church were my parents were married.I enjoyed my re-visit to Kirkby, but now I needed to find my mother's place of birth. The next day James drove us to Middleton, the neighboring town. It is difficult to know what to call Middleton. It is hardly even a village, for there are only 300 people living there, mostly sheep farmers. There is no school, no shops, no petrol station, but there is a church. We stopped there first.My great-grandfather had been the Vicar of this little country church, which we found open, and discovered his name on a wall. Dark inside, the church probably held no more than fifty people. In my grandparents' days it would have been the focal point of the community, with the Vicar living nearby. Now, we were told, an itinerant minister visits each Sunday. Outside, on a lovely English spring day, with wild daffodils growing abundantly, we walked around the churchyard. Many of the gravestones were so old they had toppled over onto the ground. Those covered with moss were difficult to read. We did find my great-grandfather's grave, and close by, the grave of my grandmother, as well as of the grandfather I never knew.Now it was time to search for the house, though I had no idea whether or not it still existed, as the family left in 1893. My daughter kept snapping photos. "That one looks like the painting," she'd say, but I was never sure. Several of them were either too small, or much larger than the picture my mother had painted. We did find the old vicarage where a farmer and his family now live. They allowed me to stand in an open doorway to the house, and have a picture taken. This is where my great-grandfather lived, and I'm sure Mother must have visited many times. At first I thought this might be the one, but I didn't recall Mother ever telling me she'd lived at the vicarage. I was getting a bit discouraged.
"We'd better be heading back." 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 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 curve of the road. Even some of the shrubbery looked alike, though the sensible side of my brain knew this was highly unlikely. Then called Rose Cottage, it is now The Swan Inn.The trip turned out to be very joyous and emotional. I never thought I'd ever be able to visit England again. And seeing the place where I'd spent much of my childhood was wonderful. But the highlight, discovering my mother's home at almost the very last minute before we had to leave, was serendipityAnd so I ponder. What if I'd never written that 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…?


At 1:08 PM, Blogger Julian said...

My name is Julian Sale and my wife Maggie and I live in Kirkby Lonsdale about half the year and in Toronto the other half. We have been in Kirkby Lonsdale for about 5 years now and absolutely love it here.

I found your story very inspiring and I am pleased that you had such a wonderful visit.

I have a blog at with lots of pictures of Kirkby Lonsdale and area and thought you might enjoy seeing them.

You are an inspiration to be able to travel so far at 83 and to be able to write a blog about it. Most 83 year olds I know don't even know how to turn on a computer.

Thanks again for sharing such a wonderful story.


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