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Open Features: An Outing With Great Aunt Mary - 2 – What Surprise?

…Upon her arrival Aunt Mary fell to and helped with the egg cleaning. As each egg was cleaned it was placed in a wooden egg crate. This crate was collected by Jimmy who left another in its place to be collected the following Saturday. In those days the eggs formed a significant addition to the farm income. The humble hen more than paid for her keep in those days.

In our house, and I presume in many others, the egg money was my mother’s and was used to help meet our weekly grocery bill. My mother had a well-deserved reputation for thrift and in some weeks managed to squirrel away a few shillings from this money, and thus she was able to delve into the accumulated sum to procure little presents for us children and our father at birthdays or other special occasions…

In telling of the visit of a great aunt who lived in the United States Alan McConnell paints a wonderful picture of a "lost’’ time in rural Ireland.

Watch out for further episodes in this vivid sequence.

It was the following Saturday before we saw Aunt Mary again. She arrived in the afternoon while Laura and I were helping mother clean the week’s production of our hen’s eggs. Jimmy McColgan, the “egg man”, regularly arrived around 4.00pm of a Saturday to purchase our weekly collection from the nesting boxes.

Our two ducks, supervised by Mr Drake, also produced a number of eggs, but since no one in our household was partial to this species of egg and its strong taste, my mother usually gave them to Peter, whose mother, father and four siblings ate them with every appearance of relish. I could never fathom why we kept ducks at all as they never found their way to the table due to the fact that Laura put names on them, Doris, Myrtle and Percy, would you believe, and treated them as members of the family. So my parents never had the heart to do other than leave them to their own devices around the yard.

So far as hen eggs were concerned, I liked nothing better than two soft-boiled eggs scooped from their shells into a cup with an added knob of butter. For years, until I discovered the delights of the omlette, this was my favourite method of increasing my cholesterol level!

Upon her arrival Aunt Mary fell to and helped with the egg cleaning. As each egg was cleaned it was placed in a wooden egg crate. This crate was collected by Jimmy who left another in its place to be collected the following Saturday. In those days the eggs formed a significant addition to the farm income. The humble hen more than paid for her keep in those days.

In our house, and I presume in many others, the egg money was my mother’s and was used to help meet our weekly grocery bill. My mother had a well-deserved reputation for thrift and in some weeks managed to squirrel away a few shillings from this money, and thus she was able to delve into the accumulated sum to procure little presents for us children and our father at birthdays or other special occasions.

Practical as ever, these gifts usually took the form of clothing, although on the odd occasion Laura and I might receive an improving book. In the matter of choosing the books my mother left that in the hands of Miss Probus, the travelling librarian, and I must say that she invariably came up trumps in that department.

Two of the books that come readily to mind are Kidnapped and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. The latter is still in my possession and over the years I have returned to it, relishing Mark Twain’s dry humour, something that mostly went over my head at the age of thirteen, but then the engrossing tale was enough to grab and keep my attention while not always absorbing the subtle wit and underlying social comment. I remember that one of the books Laura received was called A Quiet Time For Molly. But of any others she received I have just no recollection.

At that time, of course, grocery bills were kept down by reason of the fact that we had our own potatoes and other vegetables along with milk and butter. As well as this, when we killed a pig the by-products proved a very welcome addition to our larder.

Our labours with the eggs were completed by mid-afternoon, and when the last egg had been deposited in its crate Aunt Mary disclosed the reason for her unheralded visit.

She addressed Laura and myself, “It’s such a nice fall day I thought I’d go over to visit your grandfather and grandmother and I would like you two to come with me. We can stop at Miss Warke’s café on the way and I’ll have a surprise for you there.”

We were never averse to visiting our grandparents, but usually Laura and I would use our bicycles for such a journey. With Aunt Mary we knew we would have to walk the whole long three miles there and back. Unusually for someone who had spent so much time in the United States, she believed that any journey within walking distance should be covered by use of “these God-given legs”, and to her three miles was well within the limit of what those legs were capable of covering.

However, the lure of the visit to the café which lay just about midway between our home and our grandfather’s, and the surprise in store there stirred up our curiosity and overcame any reluctance we might have felt at the prospect of what was to us a lengthy hike but to Aunt Mary “just a good stretch of the legs.” As we set out we endeavoured to gain some hint of the “surprise” but she was not forthcoming in the slightest.

We loved to get Aunt Mary all to ourselves so that we could try to satisfy our insatiable curiosity about life in America. Our knowledge of that land consisted of what we gleaned from the ancient black-and-white films shown rather infrequently in the local Temperance Hall by travelling showmen.

We were well versed in the antics of Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton. I particularly favoured western features such as those starring Tex Ritter and Hopalong Cassidy. These latter Mary called “horse operas”, “oaters” or “shoot ‘em ups.” She herself was not a great fan of movies, but she did tell us about films now being made in colour and mentioned titles such as Gone With The Wind and The Wizard of Oz. By this time these had already been on the circuits for years but were quite unknown in our backwater.

What with our babbled questions and Aunt Mary’s answers it was no time at all until we reached Kate Scott’s crossing gates on the narrow gauge railway line. We found the gates barring our way as the 3.30pm down railcar was expected at any moment and, indeed, came into sight just as we reached the gates. Kate, who was standing by the gates, remarked that it was well on time as it was now only 3.40pm!

While Mary engaged Kate in conversation Laura and I hung over the gate and waved to the passengers, most of whom obligingly waved back

From the crossing to the café was but half a mile and that was soon covered in our eagerness to find out the nature of the surprise in store for us.


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