Sparrow pie and zinnias – the working class

Esther Darlington MacDonald remembers some special moments with her grandmother.

by Esther Darlington MacDonald

My maternal grandmother was a gamekeeper’s daughter.

The lowly estate of her father, a tall, wiry, dark complexioned man who looked like he had a smattering of gypsy blood in his veins, I could not help comparing years later, with the gamekeeper in D.H. Lawrence’s novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The novel that rocked the literary establishment in the 1920s and set the avidly censorious eyes of governments to peruse the story of a woman of substance who would commit adultery with the lowly game keeper. The use of those Anglo Saxon four letter words was no less a cause for the uproar about the novel.

My teenage imagination made me look at my diminutive grandmother, all 4 feet 9 inches of her as a product of no less a romantic union with my diminutive, wheelchair-bound great grandmother who bore less than a dozen children in almost as many years. The association was complete in mind’s eye only, of course. The grandmother I knew who grew tall zinnias in front of the veranda, knit gloves for the Royal Canadian Navy men, steamed Christmas puddings for her daughters, and laid a mouse trap near the front door of her Corydon Avenue home to snare, with the aid of a dry crust of bread, not mice, but sparrows, was no more than the most tentative link forged in the British class system of the day.

In rural British society, the use of the gamekeeper on large estates was essential. They were needed to control poachers, maintain the habitat of the deer, rabbit, and the trout in the nearby streams. They were men of the earth who toiled in the forest, earned the lowest of wages, and raised their large families in cottages on the estate, a suitable distance from the mansions of their owners. Often, they were illiterate.  And often, their children were too. Except for a few, who managed to get schooling in the essentials, and then, more often than not, the boys were put to work as farm laborers, and the women were put to work in what the British called, “Service” in the mansions as house maids. At the age of ll, my little grandmother became a housemaid in the same estate in which her father worked as a gamekeeper.

So there you have it. The the background of my mother’s origins, origins that ultimately would have a profound influence on my own life so many years later.

We do not live by bread alone, as the saying goes. We live by the genetic heritage of our forefathers. We bear not only their blood in our veins. We bear the whole ritual of their life interests, their loves, their prejudices, their character, hook, line and sinker. We are the trout of the same streams. We are the deer that moved through their forests. We are the men and women who moved through their lives, and whom, in turn, profoundly effected their own. We are more than we know.

That mouse trap surprised me. It was a warm day in mid summer when I noticed it so near the front door of the house. And my grandmother’s reply to my question about the mousetrap was equally surprising. “I am catching sparrows.” My grandmother, killing sparrows, the grandmother who loved birds with a passion, had a wooden wren’s nest in the backyard, and could identify birds by their songs, – killing those poor feathered house sparrows in the brutal maw of a trap. I was shocked. But said nothing. Just hoped that the trap would not kill the sparrows, and my grandmother would give up the effort. And not many hours later, I was relieved that she did. Sprung the trap, and carried it back into the house.

I have searched the internet to find out the kind of life my grandmother and great grandparents lived in the midlands of England, near Coventry. The internet told me that numbered licence plates for cars was introduced when my grandmother was in her 20s. Cars could drive no faster than 20 miles an hour. I discovered that 80,000 demonstrators gathered in Hyde Park in London to protest the immigration of Chinese labour. I discovered that the soccer games my grandfather never failed to hear on the radio, particularly Manchester’s, was founded in 1878, when he was just a boy in short pants, and became Manchester United in 1902.

I learned that servants in the estates where my great grandfather was a gamekeeper and my grandmother was a house maid, worked from dawn until 11 pm and they were paid 11 to 14 pounds a year. I learned that the cottages lived in by the workers of those estates were made of field stone, and the roofs were thatched. The cottages had no plumbing. Toilets were out back of the cottage. And people bathed infrequently, but they would swim themselves clean in the rivers and streams. In these low pitched cottages heated by peat in the fireplace, with little light from few windows, they went to bed necessarily early, after eating their sparrow pies, or whatever the wives could manage to cleave for these hardworking offspring. Meat was scarce indeed. And rabbit roasted over the peat fire was a special treat on Sunday.

I recall my grandmother ordering rabbit from the T. Eaton company and telling my mother she had ordered one for us. After grandmother left for her own home down the street, I recall my mother complaining. She hated rabbit, she said. And I knew my father would not eat it. But the rabbit came, delivered in the T. Eaton van drawn by a spritely and beautiful dark horse. And the rabbit was wrapped in brown paper and held together with brown tape.

As for sparrows, as far as I know, grandmother never made a sparrow pie. At least none that I ever smelled baking in the wood stove in the kitchen. I could only imagine that the mouse trap venture never succeeded, and to think of all those sparrows “baked in a pie and when the pie would open and the birds began to sing. Think of what a lovely thing it was to set before the king!”

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