How were you as children and young people made aware of international issues and of different cultures?

In her remarkable way, historian Marguerite Van Die, threw out a question to myself, Bob Fleming and our cousins; “How were you as children and young people made aware of international issues and of different cultures?”

What a fascinating challenge – to boil down into a few words the experiences of lifetimes lived. I made one attempt years ago, called it ‘My Grandmother Rode Elephants’ and filled up 40 pages…

As a child, growing up on Donlands Farm for the first ten years of my life, one memorable image was; the photo of my surgeon aunt, Dr. Evelyn Fleming, standing beside a young indian girl on crutches, aged about 10 years old. Half of one this child’s legs had been cut off just below the knee, yet there she was smiling as she balanced on one leg. On her left side stood a young Indian nurse in uniform.

This child had been left by the roadside to die.

My beloved grandmother, Lydia Orford Fleming, went three times on the long sea-voyage to India, in spite of a heart murmur the doctor could do nothing about. There she actively supported the building of a village around a hospital where Aunt Ev was chief surgeon. Grandmother died in Aunt Ev’s arms there in India, on my seventh birthday, September 20th 1937.

I remember her casket, piled high with flowers, in the big living room at Donlands Farm, brought back on the long sea-voyage through the Suez canal. Watching her coffin lowered into the ship was the darkest day in Aunt Ev’s life, she told us later.

As she stood at the ship’s railing, the Captain said quietly ‘Remember she has a risen, glorified life’.

Uncle Murdoch McKenzie, now ill, came back to spend his final months of life at Donlands farm. Born in Scotland, he had gone on foot among the Chinese people, whom he loved, for 30 years. Eventually he became Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in China.

He survived the Boxer rebellion with his library buried in a pit. My mother’s sister, Aunt Stella, spent nine of her happiest years there in China as his wife. At Donlands, I remember her reading out loud to him the story of the Curie’s discovery of radioactivity.

My mother had begged granny Fleming to take her with her on her next visit to China. Mother stayed on with Stella and Murdoch for two years. Later she said to me “Ever after I knew there was a great world out there”.

She traveled down the Yangtze river in an open Sampan – their money consisted of gold pieces sewn into the ceiling of the ship’s cabin. One day at dusk, a group of armed men stormed aboard the ship, but they were only looking for food. People were starving…

On Sunday evenings during the summer at Lake Simcoe, eight to 15 of my cousins and neighbours and I would gather around the piano at my Uncle Goldie and Aunt Jean’s cottage to sing the old Methodist hyms. On Sunday mornings, my mother allowed us children to run our own Sunday school on her screen porch. We chose the hymns and had to memorize a verse of scripture. Imagine our fury when one cousin produced the shortest verse in the bible. “Jesus Wept”. We became familiar with the earliest stories from the Jewish scriptures, especially memorable was the story of the woman in the famine in the hilltop village who shared her last meal with the prophet and her son. And the oil and the meal never ran out after that. A story to live by.

In all the years those hymns have never left me and one or two have always been sung at family funerals. Nor has the 23rd psalm, which my mother used to whisper in my ear, just before I fell asleep at Donlands.

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

Although my dad had been killed in a tragic car accident four months before I was born, stories about his remarkable life were an integral part of my childhood.

He and his brothers had built an orphanage in India during the great famine of the 1920’s. He had gone on foot to visit the mill-owners to find jobs for the orphans. Later he traveled to South America, part of the time on foot, to find locations for missions. Later he was based at the headquarters of the ecumenical Christian Missionary Alliance at their Nyack New York headquarters. He was a much-loved teacher who on occasion engaged in pillow-fights with his students. At one point he found an entire radio station on a Russian ship which he had transported to New York and used to broadcast back to South America…

When I was four years old, my mother booked passage for the two of us on a Cunard liner to England where we were to meet Aunt Ev and Granny Fleming on a trip back from India. My mother rented a car and the four of us tootled around England. A policeman held me on his shoulders to watch the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. At Clovelly, we walked down the cliffside to the sea then found a donkey to bring granny safely back up the steep slope. Granny also rode elephants and camels to my delight. And persuaded her reluctant daughters and daughter-in-law to do the same. Over her horse-haired sofa in the living room at Donlands was a watercolour of a Bedouin praying in the desert with his camel standing silently near him. A memorable image of my childhood. That picture still hangs on my wall.

After my second year at Victoria College in Toronto, my mother and I went off to Europe to meet Aunt Ev, once again on furlough from India. This time our destination was Europe. There we met some remarkable people, including the head of the Dutch Red Cross, Madame Lotte van Beuningen. She had faced down six Nazi commandants in order to bring food into the local concentration camp near her home.

Right after graduation, I packed my bags and headed off for four years in Europe as a volunteer in Post-war reconstruction and reconciliation work. A memorable experience. Click here to read more about this.

My mother had given me one simple guideline for living “make the world a better place because you’re in it” Today I meet countless young people who are doing just that, in small groups, often with no publicity and not much money…

During those years in Europe, my mother drove the two of us down through France and Spain along often-deserted roads after the civil war to visit my uncle Lloyd who was living near Malaga. He had been a fighter pilot in WWI, had shot down 7 enemy planes — I believe saving Allenby’s camp from destruction. And returned home wounded. He married my beloved Aunt Helen, who often traveled later with my mother. Now he was living in Spain where he had founded AA and helped many people recover from alcoholism, including a young jeweller who we met. His younger brother, Murray, was also in the air force – thanks to him we were able to watch Queen Elizabeth’s Coronation cavalcade from the balcony of RAF club in London.

One missing factor in all this was any awareness of our Irish background as a family. My cousins Bob and Everett set off to try and find our family farm in Northern Ireland. Then my husband Neil was asked to write the biography of John Main (see In The Stillness Dancing). Both of us set foot for the first time in the land of our ancestors. That was the beginning of a life-changing experience for me, a shift in my whole inner landscape. (see Polly of Bridgewater Farm)

1 Comment »

  1. 1
    Jan Morgan Says:

    This is a great read, Catharine. I hope you are writing your memoirs!


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