Sunday, June 15, 2008


Thinking of fathers that I have known, it is impossible not to recall my paternal grandfather. His name was Milton Laughland, son of the British political activist James Vint Laughland and Margaret MacDougall, a coal miner’s daughter. He combined his skills as a pharmacist with a shrewd business sense to become one of the leading executives at Burroughs Welcome and Company. We children called him “Pop.” It occurred to me that some of my younger cousins and siblings may not remember him at all. They may have no memories of Grandma and Pop's house in Scarsdale, New York, which to me was one of the most magical places in the world.

It was a spacious Tudor-revival house in a tree-shaded neighborhood near a park with a duck pond. The house was stucco with a sloping slate roof and leaded windows; we referred to it as a “gingerbread house.” Built on the side of the hill, the backyard was terraced, lined with stone walls, and perpetually damp and mossy from all the trees and shrubs. The screened porch overlooked the yard and made an ideal castle for an imaginative small girl. In the valley a train would periodically rumble past; ever after the sound of a train in the distance has been comforting for me.

My grandparents lived modestly but well. Any kind of ostentation not only would have been shunned; it never would have occurred to them, not in a thousand years. The interiors were in subdued hues, mostly greens, since Grandma said that green went with everything. The furniture was dark wood, very sturdy (as suited a family of mostly boys) and generously stuffed, especially the huge burgundy-velvet arm chair near the fireplace in the living room. Pop enjoyed sailing so there were lots of maritime objects around, paintings of sailboats, barometers and such. The shelves were lined with books and the walls with interesting prints and original drawings and paintings. There was a clock on the mantelpiece that chimed the hours, a mirror in a thick baroque gold frame, and a painting of William Laughland of Southhampton, Pop’s grandfather. In the dining room was a massive oak table and an amber-toned mirror over the sideboard, as well as shelves of plates with the coats of arms of the various Irish and Scottish clans from whom my grandparents claimed descent. The kitchen was a cheerful teal with wooden cabinets and a big pantry. Grandma made porridge, pies, chicken soup and lots of coffee.

Pop was a fun grandfather. Mine are a child’s recollections; I learned from other sources that he could be a difficult man, but I knew him only as a wonderful grandparent. He could make the most innocuous phrases sound hilarious. He sang nonsensical English music hall ditties which as small children we found immensely amusing. He was stout and seemed much taller to me than he actually was, with sky blue eyes that did not miss a trick. For all his joking and teasing he commanded respect tinged with awe. We were always on our best behavior around him. His hobbies of sailing, curling and photography we regarded as sacrosanct because if Pop liked something it added weight to its general importance in the world. Of course, the highlight of our visits to Scarsdale would be when Pop took us sailing in his boat on Long Island Sound. Sometimes the waters would be choppy and people would get sea sick but I never felt nervous or doubted that Pop was not in complete control of the boat.

My grandfather was not a religious man, and although he was married to a practicing Catholic, he had no use for the Catholic Church. Apparently before his marriage he was interested in converting but quarreled with a priest; I do not know exactly what transpired but afterwards Pop would have nothing to do with religion. He possessed, nevertheless, a high moral character, strong values and a sense of honor. My grandfather was the type of man who showed his love and devotion by providing a stable home and economic security for his wife and children, as well as whatever was needed for education, music, hobbies, travel, anything that would expand the mind or enrich the personality.

Pop’s sudden death while in his early sixties shocked the entire family. Grandma missed him terribly and prayed for him everyday. They had been about to go to England; since Pop’s retirement they had begun traveling; they had been to Spain and loved it. I was twelve and went to stay with Grandma so she would not be so alone in the big house. Grandma was going to Mass everyday, praying for him. About three years later one of my little cousins, who had been an infant when Pop died, came down one morning announcing that he had seen his grandfather in the night and that he had told him to tell us that he was "alright."

I count myself as being very blessed to have had such a grandfather and am so glad that I got to know him a little bit. May he rest in peace. Share


Anonymous said...

Beautiful recollections. Now I'm interested to hear your grandmother's story....!
I, too, went sailing as a young girl, on the Chesapeake, though----and love the water. That's what I miss the most about living in the Ohio Valley--a long expanse of the next life!

elena maria vidal said...

The Chesapeake is a great place for sailing, too! Oh, I will add a link to my grandmother's story.

Esther said...

Thank you for sharing this with us!

elena maria vidal said...

You are welcome, Esther.