As I was digging through my dad’s bookshelves (I often take a peek when I visit and ‘borrow’ a volume or two), which are overloaded with books by and about Dylan Thomas I came across a thin pink book, it’s more a pamphlet actually, called Christmas and Other Memories by Aeronwy Thomas. It’s an absolutely delightful read and my dad has kindly allowed me to include my mum’s recollections in this Christmas blog. Unlike my grandfather’s story, A Child’s Christmas in Wales, this piece does not exaggerate in any way (no wolves in Wales here!) or look back nostalgically. In fact, it’s uncomfortably ‘real’ at times and demonstrates that Dylan was often an absent and ‘hand’s off’ father – I think so many were in the 1940s and 50s. However, there are some lovely examples of how he shared his love of language and literature with his daughter, and she in turn revealed the wonders of words to her children, and I have to my son, and so, it will hopefully go on… Mum also clearly remembers her father’s sweet tooth – that, unfortunately, we have all inherited!
Christmas: When Dad showed goodwill towards children by Aeronwy Thomas
My memories of Christmas spent with my family at Laugharne, at the now famous family home, “The Boat House,” began with a bang.
Luckily my mother was never a spoil sport, whatever other defects I might attach to her, and she filled our stockings with things that squealed, whistled and trumpeted: rubbery toys, whistles and trumpets that whined metallically and magically.
My two brothers, Llewelyn and Colm, could never match my attention-catching and squeaking, banging and trumpet wailings. I snatched their stocking presents from resisting fingers to add to my own, assembled cacophony of “musical” instruments amidst their howls of protest.
The noise must have been terrible enough to send my peace-loving father sloping off to his work shed at the other end of the cliff walk. But not at Christmas.
Christmas Day, as I remember it, was a day where normal habits and routine were temporarily waived and we, the children, came into our own. We were allowed to bully my father for an hour or so before he gingerly made his way off to Brown’s pub, 20 minutes walk from the house.
Before joining the festive crowd in the pub, he would cross the road to The Pelican, the house his parents inhabited in their last years. I cannot remember if my grandparents shared Christmas at The Boat House.
As they were such an integral part of my childhood, they might have faded in my memory. I can remember Christmas more for the general excitement due in the major part to my father’s unaccustomed presence and participation.
One Christmas he returned with an enormous doll’s house which preceded him, by an arm’s length, as he delicately stepped his way down the precipitous flag stone steps of the garden path.
He broke his arm so often that we all waited with bated breath to see whether he would fall again to have his arm placed in its habitual gipsy scarf, Nelson-style across his chest.
My mother maintains the Thomas family had “chicken bones”. Granny Thomas, as we knew her, constantly fractured arms and legs. However, my father’s extreme care of the doll’s house circumvented another accident.
He and the huge doll’s house arrived as far as the front door where he deposited it. We fingered and commented on the many apertures, bits of furniture all jumbled together and the sectioned off rooms.
Anyone could see it was for me, the only girl in the family, and I cannot remember being more touched by any other one event (and that was 30 years ago, much as I dislike admitting it).
This gesture of my father’s was most unusual for its physical effort, some-thing to be avoided at all costs with a strong Irish wife who loved movement of all types. In fact, when it came to lugging the coal left in sacks outside his shed the services of an odd job man were enlisted.
Christmas in our house started with stockings and the bigger presents were given out after lunch, so that the aim was to get to that moment as speedily as possible.
The weather was always bleak, cold and damp and I can never remember any exciting, lovely snow as we trudged to church (unaccompanied by adults) for the morning service.
My mother waited for us on our return, for a long walk before lunch. It was called by her our “penance” and felt like one as we tried to keep up with her as she took great strides and lungfulls of damp sea and country air.
But after a while the walk acquired the magic it always did and we followed our usual trail across St John’s Hell. Our return “loop”, another of my mother’s expressions, took us along the shingle and mudflats of the estuary, with over-head the castle walls and the cliffwalk with the occasional person or dog peering over at us and the estuary. The last part of the long walk took us along the rocks which shinned to avoid sinking in the mud which surrounded the Boat House.
It was always lovely to get home out of the low-lying, swirling mists of the cold winter day. By this time, my father returned from his indoor pub revelries ready for lunch cooked by out “treasure” Dolly.
At Christmas we all ate together. My father’s aversion to the noise of children, whereby he ate separately, was forgotten today. This aversion was normally so strong that when we travelled in trains my mother and us were banished to one carriage while my father travelled in another – a bag of sweets in one hand, a good thriller in another.
On Christmas Day, the entire family ate in the dining room with a huge coal fire roaring in the grate, the holly over the mantelpiece singed at the edges. I loved the dining room, a small, cosy room with the table and chairs painted a shiny blue.
The same pot of paint must have provided new skins for the two sheds and the garden gate and the outside woodwork of the house. A sideboard, also blue, had ornate plates and china dogs when they were still not considered collectors’ items. On occasion my mother would raid the housekeeping money (when there was some) to buy Staffordshire dogs and plates depicting places from a travelling salesman who set up shop in a nearby house. She could not resist pretty china.
After a traditional lunch: turkey, sprouts, mashed swede and potato, we opened our presents. These were nearly always books chosen by my father. Some of the books I can recall were The Wind in the Willows, Arthur Ransome books for Llewelyn, Baba, Dickens (of course) and especially for me Mary Poppins and Enid Blyton, because none of us knew she was uneducational.
From America, my father brought us many books, such as the marvellous illustrated books posing questions like, “Who gave us Catherine wheels?” and you turn the page to see slant-eyed Oriental children holding the spluttering wheels in their hands.
I loved these books. My father would often read to me, but always books of his own choice. We both favoured Grimm’s Fairy Tales. He would enact the main characters becoming the wolf or simpering little child, giving creditable characterisations of evil and good. We both relished the thrill of horror and fear that Grimm’s never fails to invoke.
“Read to me, read to me,” I would scream at every opportunity. My father reading to me was my special ground with him and has given me the conviction of sharing a special relationship. This is a conviction held by others about themselves, I believe.
Throughout all the excitement of opening presents, my father and I ate sweets. It was a communal passion. Boiled sweets including the old-fashioned humbugs with beige, white and liver-coloured stripes, and were my father’s delight.
Mine were liquorice and sherbert. I can never remember being told to eat fewer sweets in out house, and so grew rounder and more like my father every day.
After lunch, and presents and sweets and more sweets we started on games. My father had had music in his day with his father quite an accomplished pianist but none of us were musical.
You could say words in any and every form had taken over from music. My father and his father would do the crossword every morning before crossing the road for their first pints of beer.
My father involved everyone in his overriding interest in words. To have married a man whose main interest is choral music offers not only a change from my background but is a constant source of refreshment for me.
The games my father enjoyed the most were unsurprisingly based on words, so charades were played. His choice of words in spite of being brilliantly acted were rather difficult for us.
My own choice was always the same: macaroni and spaghetti and it amazed me how everyone guessed them straight away year after year. When we all got overtired, and started to quarrel among ourselves, my mother would stop us. One time, a crate sent all the way from California by a fan or friend of my father;s was opened at this stage to reveal exotic dried fruit inside. We all pounced on it…but I was beginning to feel rather full. When our exuberance, refuelled by the short rest, could be contained no longer we started playing our favourite Blind Man’s Buff in which our hysterical dog, Mably, took an important role, biting everyone’s angles. This was the time my father usually felt he would like to make a move.
With my father out of the house, at Brown’s waiting for my mother, games were followed by a noisy bedtime session. I tried not to delay my mother. My new books and my torch lay in waiting.
My mother would soon be leaving and there were no babysitters in those days, luckily. On reading my father’s reminiscences years later I was surprised to see how he had read books by torchlight too. The characters seem to take a life of their own at night, and I listened with relief to the front door closing as my mother departed in one of her quilted, swirling skirts.
Maybe they would return, as they did some years, with friends, stumbling down the unlit path and maybe mother would dance, Isadora Duncan style.
Now where’s my torch? I thought fumbling in the dark, and once again before I could enter my make-believe world of words or even mull over the wonderful Christmas Day, I would fall asleep.
Image of the Laugharne Boathouse courtesy of © Tin Shed Experience