Here is the first in a series of well-researched creative vignettes I am writing about my father’s side of the family, in Yorkshire and Cumberland and Malaya.
I have written AND VOICED this family story, part fiction, part fact, part family myth that explores genealogy in a different way.
Alzheimer’s runs in my father’s family. This vignette is based on a serio-comic family story about the Reverend John Forster of Knockburn, Northumberland who succumbed to that disease late in life.
John Forster of Knockburn, Northumberland
(photos courtesy of Our Primitive Methodist Ancestors website.)
Emma Cowen of Durham, his wife.
Brampton, Cumberland, 1920
Birdoswald Roman Fort, Hadrian’s Wall Cumberland (Cumbria)
John Forster awoke one night from a rather disturbing dream, stared down upon his wife of 33 years in the bed beside him, and bellowed in his booming preacher’s voice: Old Woman, what are yee doing in my bed?
The wife was jolted awake – but she caught herself and calmly replied. I am sleeping. Well, I was sleeping.
Woman, what are you doing sleeping beside me, repeated her aged husband, punctuating his sentence with a downward stab of his spiky chin.
I am sleeping beside you because I am your wife, the old woman replied. What other reason would there be for me to be sleeping beside you?
But, you are NOT my wife, sputtered the old man, splashing his snowy white beard with little beads of saliva.
I am, most certainly, the woman replied, this time with a slight quiver in her voice.
I am EMMA Cowen of Durham, the woman you married in 1892 . You are John Forster, former Primitive Methodist minister from Knockburn, Northumberland, and, she added, playfully, in an effort to pacify him, author of numerous essays on politics and a lovely book of poems Pictures of Life in Verse.
I know who I am,” the old man said, menacingly. It’s you I ‘ave me doubts about.
Emma Cowen sighed and pulled herself up in the hard-packed feather bed, battling through her many bodily aches and pains.
Her husband was suffering from a softening of the brain, so said the doctor, and this fog took over him especially bad upon waking from a sleep or sometimes even a short afternoon nap.
This episode was particularly startling though. The anger! Where did it come from?
We are married, Emma insisted, knowing full-well it was useless to argue at these times but somehow not able to help herself.
We have three children, Nora, a concert pianist who teaches music at a girls school in Maryport, another daughter, Agnes, in Carlisle, just two streets away and Dorothy who is a planter’s wife in Kuala Lumpur, thousands of miles away. Dorothy has two children, Peter and Denise. They go to school here in England and they visited us in Carlisle just last summer. Do you recall?
I know who Peter and Denise are, John Forster replied, in increasing frustration, knotting his furry brow.
Peter is the soft bairn I took to BIrdoswal Roman Fort at Hadrian’s Wall, who whimpered that he was tired before he got halfway there. And it’s not but 7 miles aft. No Border Reiver blood has he!
I repeat, it is YOU I don’t know – but with the pitch of his voice lowering he asked, “What are you doing in my HOOS?” This sounded more like a plea. The moonlight coming in through the window in the bare bedroom lit up the watery irises of his eyes – and not in a comforting way.
The little girl in Emma wanted to check the corners of the room for wicked fairy-folk, malevolent gyests or mischievous boggles.
I live here, said Emma, defiantly.
But, my wife is Mary Chaytor Hall, naw Emma Cowen. She of the strawberry blonde ringlets. She was fair, you know. Very fair. YOU ARE NOT FAIR! These four words fell like sharp knives upon Emma’s heart
How self-indulgent of her to feel this way!
She shook the feeling and said in a dull monotone, “Your first wife was Mary Chaytor Hall. You were married six years only. She died, young. Was this the 100th time she had to explain this fact to her husband, she wondered.
Was she the daft one for attempting to knock sense back into this head?
We married in 1892, she continued. It is now 1925. So we have been married 33 years by my counting. And I’ve stood beside you, the busy wife of an itinerant preacher, moving every two years all over North Yorkshire: Carlisle, Crook, Middleton-in-Teesdale, Cockersmouth, Stanley, Helmsley, helping you prepare your sermons. Occupying the pulpit myself when you were indisposed. Teaching Sunday School. Tending the infirm and weary in our flock.
And so you too should be able to vote, said John, his line of thought veering into the present. What has property got to do with it?
Yes, we worked hard for that, didn’t we, in our day. Woman suffrage.
John stared at her with vacuous blue eyes now, the silvery moonbeam having moved. Watery blue, his eyes. He blinked, once, twice, three times.
I don’t recall ye ‘ever making sermons, woman. ” said John. “Ye didn’t have the head for it.”
Emma frowned. “I most certainly did,” she said.
And Peter was upset because you carried Denise part of the way, but made him walk, Emma added, by way of a dig. He is only five years old after all, just one year older than Denise.
As if things were as before and her husband could comprehend a dig when he heard one.
The dig came from her own angry place.
Who was her anger directed against? Her husband, his first wife, God? No good place among them.
If Mary Chaytor was the only woman he could remember, at times, would the memory of second wife, Emma Cowen, eventually fade completely from his brain and she become nothing more than a warm body in his bed?
A stranger in his bed.
She who had stood by her husband, as an undeniable equal in life and work, all of these 33 years.
Ahhhhcchhh, I don’t understand, John growled, his frustration swelling. I don’t understand. He shook his head hard dislodging his nightcap over his right ear in comical fashion.
Emma edged an inch or two away from her husband, feeling guilty.
Then, John Forster suddenly turned away from Emma and lay back onto his hard feather pillow.
The peace and calm lasted but for a brief moment..
Henry Maine! It’s all his fault! John Forster howled, his head still attached to his pillow.
Henry Main? Who is this Henry Main? Emma asked.
He said it all come from the Romans, the Twelve Tables, but he was wrong. It makes no sense.
Liberte, Egalite,Fraternite,. John Forster’s skinny freckled forearm shot up in the air. We must lift up our voice against classism, materialism, against selfishness in all of its forms.
Emma almost smiled. She could see him for a moment in the pulpit again, preaching to his untidy frazzled flock of North Country farmers and their wives.
My dear, dear husband, you are an unhinged filing cabinet, overturned and burst open, foolscap floating away on the capricious air currents. I always said you were too learned for you own good. And see, it has all turned back on you, all this old knowledge swirling around in your befuddled brain. If it isn’t this Henry Main, whoever he is, it’s praise for Karl Marx. If it isn’t about Marx, it’s critiques of St Paul or Cicero.
What er you talkin’ about, woman? Cicero is not a filing cabinet.
Emma chuckled out loud this time.
What should she do? Call for her daughter, Agnes, again? At 2 am? No, let her sleep.
She took a different tack. Would you like to me to go outside to the pump and get yee a cup of fresh water, Emma asked John.
The doctor had said dehydration was an enemy of old people. She started to swing her leaden legs out onto the hardwood floor but arrested them in mid air.
No, woman, it is dark outside. The wolves may be out. I’m not wanting any wife o’ mine to put herself in danger’s way.
She did not ask which wife he was referring to, the old haggard one or the beauteous young one. It felt good to hear her husband’s concern.
The mischievous fairy inside Emma wanted to ask “What wolves are you expecting to find in the city of Carlisle?”
But, she this time, she checked herself. It occurred to her, that she could not go on as before.
We are both strangers to each other, now, Emma thought.
The Lord certainly does works in mysterious ways, the loyal wife whispered to the bare bedroom walls, to the window frame with the peeling brown paint, to the pellucid moon beam bending around the frayed gray gingham curtain. She pulled her prickly woolen blanket up over her chest.
And my poems were fine, weren’t they? John Forster purred. My lyrics of uncommon charm and grace, they said.
Yes, Hinny, your poems were very, very fine.
And with that John Forster, my great grandfather, fell back to sleep. Emma Cowen, my great grandmother, adjusted the cotton nightcap to cover his bony head, as lovingly as she could muster, and steeled herself for the morning.