She was my dad’s mother, and with her being a widow and him being her youngest surviving child, she lived with us, as was the custom among the Irish families of Liverpool’s heavily Catholic North End. Most of the families down our street had a Nanny in residence. With the war just ended, many of the younger wives and mothers were looking outside of home and hearth, continuing to work, as they’d done through the war years. The nannies picked up the domestic slack, cooking, cleaning and policing the small army of little kids who’d come along in the conflict’s wake.
During daytime hours, they ruled the street, from their morning sand-stoning of the front steps to their gossip sessions , standing up on chairs, so they could chinwag across the high brick backyard walls that divided the three-up three-down row houses. They ruled the kitchens too, with something always on the stove, it seemed…..a pan of scouse kept warm at all hours, the big tea kettle always just under the boil, so a pot could be brewed up in short order. They lived for the tea, did the nannies, and with the de-rationing of sugar, they made it milky and sweet. Every visitor, whether a neighbor or a visiting priest, was an excuse for a brew-up, and countless cups were put away in the course of a day. Nanny Bennett, who lived directly across the street from us, was a vast turtle of a woman, who smoked a corncob pipe as she sat on the front step, and could scare the bejasus out of you when she let loose with her formidable lung power. You could hear her streets away, bellowing “ Tommeeeey “ to summon her grandson, my best pal, and he’d make himself scarce, as she was well capable of giving him a clip round the ear if he didn’t show up sharpish.
Nanny K. differed from the local grannies, in that you’d never catch her raising the voice out in the public street, and she carried herself in a different way, somehow. The family lore was shrouded in mystery, at least to a nipper like me, but there was always the sense that we were a cut above our circumstances, and Nanny K. was, for want of a better word, lady-like, by the rough and tumble standards of our neighborhood. When she went out and about she always wore dark tailored coats, tight-waisted and calf-length, with high-heeled court shoes, her legs still shapely and well-turned. A hat was de rigeur, from toques to wide brimmed picture hats, of the Queen Mum variety, and the ensemble was inevitably rounded out with a nice handbag. She always kept the colors widow-dark, which actually added to the chicness of her look, and as she only had the pension, she took meticulous care of the few pieces of good wardrobe she possessed…because Nanny K. had a sideline, which required her to travel to parts of the city that required a fashionable turn-out ( not places where you could imagine Nanny Bennett being welcomed with open arms ).
When I was born she was sixty-seven, and given the fact that I was an only child, with both of my parents working, and my dad being away for stretches, following the construction jobs he’d concentrated on after his stint on the ships, she was my sun, moon and stars, and I was the apple of her eye. She had me reading long before I ever went to school, and as she’d bred several musicians while married to a musician, she made sure that I had unfettered access to the big mother-of pearled upright piano in our parlor, even before I could reach the keys myself. As soon as I could toddle, she started taking me with her on her engagements, and it continued, particularly when on school holidays, until I was nine or ten, which is why I can remember so much about it. She’d trained me to be observant, always keeping the eye out, and as she never talked down to me, but she talked plenty, I got pretty attuned to adult speech and behavior at an early age.
She was what would have been described at that time as a handsome woman, her strong-boned face dominated by a prominent Levantine nose, but she was trim and lean, with big, soulful eyes and arching dark eyebrows, and athough she seldom smiled or laughed outright, she had a lively and engaging personality, which had obviously helped her in her extra-curricular pursuits. You see Nanny K. was….well, not a fortune teller…she scorned that whole thing…..but she read the tea-leaves, and read palms, building a large and affluent clientele over who knows how many years, ranging from local big-wigs in business and higher society, to visiting theatricals of the upper echelons, not to mention certain well-to-do ladies who sought her counsel. If we’d been living in New Orleans, she’d have been a Reverend Mother type, but she was Nanny K., Mrs. K., or in certain special instances, May, to her people.
Her given maiden name was Mary ( or Marie ) Lynotte, coming from a French lineage that had arrived in Dublin sometime in the mid- eighteen hundreds, and there was always the thought that a bit of the Romany might be in there. She’d met and married Tom Kellaher, a bandsman with The Irish Guards, when she was a prematurely white haired teenage girl ( a trait that passed on to my cousin Pauline ), and they had children together in various parts of Ireland, before my dad and his baby sister Edie, who died young from the scourge of T.B., were born in Liverpool, which was where the family had fetched up.
I learned in later years that Tom established light housekeeping and another family in an adjoining parish, but that was long before I came along. By that time, the old roue was long planted, and if I have some unknown cousins…..well, it’s a juicy thought. I never even had the smell of him, and Nanny never spoke of him. There might have been some tit-for-tat, as I heard just recently that one of her children was the result of an affair she’d had with a German doctor, when she and Tom were living in Belfast…true or not, she was a little different from the norm, which I sensed about her even when I was a little ‘un.
My earliest memories all seem to involve her…being held in her arms by a night-time window, the sky as bright as day due to a munitions ship that had taken a direct hit from a Luftwaffe bomb down in the docks, and right as the war was ending, too, tears streaming down her cheeks as the dull, percussive crumps of the exploding ordnance rattled the panes…or sitting in my pram, fascinated by the jingle of horse drawn carts, which still plied the cobbled Liverpool streets with coal, milk and other supplies, as Nanny would be engaged in conversation with some acquaintance on the main street of our neighborhood, but breaking off to point out to me what she considered a good example of horse flesh, she having the eye for a fine nag….tagging along with her when she’d cross the street to bargain with Mrs. Fearon over the price of the eggs that the raw-boned Kerry woman sold from the henhouse she kept in their backyard by the cut, the railway gulch that bordered our street. Although the Fearons had respect in the neighborhood, having sent two sons to the priesthood, and a daughter to the convent, they were themselves rough hewn country people to whom the city around barely seemed to exist. Because of the cut, the back yards on the opposite side of the street from us were much longer, with actual grass, so the Fearons had a couple of goats back there in addition to the hens and the odd goose or two. In that yard you could have been somewhere on the Dingle Peninsula, rather than in gritty, grey Liverpool, and although almost everyone on our street was Irish, they’d mostly assimilated to various degrees…not Mr. And Mrs. Fearon. I heard people call them bog-trotters behind their backs, but they were probably just clinging onto their comfort zone.
Nanny’s comfort zone was her bedroom, up a half landing from mine, with her photos, mementos, small religious statuary, and the furniture she’d brought with her when she’d given up her own place. This room wasn’t off-limits to me, although I was encouraged to knock before entering. One time, I forgot, probably due to excitement at some literary discovery I had to share with her at once. As a result, I saw one of her secrets…she always wore her pure white hair in buns or chignons, so the sight before me was breathtaking. She was standing in front of her dressing table mirror with her hair down…down her back, down to the floor and more, a full silver waterfall of hair. With her ankle length white nightgown, in the flickering glow of a Sacred Heart votive, she was brushing it meditatively, and if she saw me in the doorway, she didn’t let on. I crept away, hoping I hadn’t interrupted her reverie.
When Nanny K. was at home or around the neighboring houses she wore the standard outfit of wraparound pinafore and head scarf, flat shoes and ankle socks, practicality for domestic tasks being paramount, but I’d always know when a venture farther afield was in the offing, as soon as I saw her buffing her court shoes. I’d always be done up in the Sunday best too, as we’d ride the bus, or occasionally take a taxi to some far leafy suburb, with big houses sitting in their own grounds, or to the grand Georgian townhouses in the shadow of the Anglican Cathedral, near the city center, where resided her ‘ ladies’. These houses opened my eyes to how the other half lived. Domestic servants were not unusual, but we never used the servants entrance…it was the front door or nothing for Mrs. K. As I was a very well-behaved child, and precocious with it, I frequently remained in the room while the session occurred. There would be tea served, of course, as fresh leaf patterns were de rigueur, then she’d almost imperceptibly slide into the divination. Similarly, if she was reading palms, it was more like she was soothingly holding the person’s hand ; there was never a hint of hocus-pocus in any of her actions. In retrospect, I believe she was a folk psychologist whose calm demeanor and quietly lilting voice was a comfort to these people, some of whom were obviously in need of comforting, despite their affluence, and Nanny’s real skill was in that area. I think the tea leaves and palm lines were simply tools to aid in her real mission.
She had a small notebook filled with her neat, tiny handwriting, and she’d consult it on the bus to a session. I assume that she kept notes on her clientele, although, at the time it was, to me, just another part of the ritual. I was what she termed ‘passremarkable’( one of many words that were either of her own invention or malapropisms ), in that I tended to speak up if I saw something, or someone, unusual, so she’d alert me in advance, so I didn’t say something that might offend. There were two clients in particular that required a buttoned lip.
One was an elegant lady whose young son, not much older than me, had quite literally put his eyes out while running with scissors. This little blind boy would cling to his mother’s leg most needily, and would get very upset if she tried to disconnect him for even a moment. Even at my young age, I could feel that this was a household under considerable strain, and I knew that Nanny was doing something that helped that woman, I just knew it. On the return journey she’d talk about the situation in her adult way, as she always addressed me, although maybe she was really talking to herself in the absence of an actual grown-up, and not thinking that I was absorbing or understanding her words. “ She’s about to snap, that one, mark my words, and no help from the husband, neither, the poor woman.”
The other was a spinster lady, probably in her forties, who lived, with all the genteel accoutrements, including at least one servant, out in the fashionable seaside suburb of Crosby, at the farthest edge of the city. Hunch-backed, with a short leg that required a platform boot , she hobbled around with a sturdy cane, supporting herself on the heavy, dark Victorian furniture. There was a profusion of Catholic iconography around the place, and the lady was what Nanny referred to as a ‘ religious hysterical ‘….” Sure, she weeps for the sins of the world every Sunday at Mass, but she’s weepin’ for herself, the poor creature, and never a man to look at her with anything but pity. “
By the age of seven or eight I had developed good penmanship and a solid sense of correct grammar, which was why I became this lady’s scribe. In addition to her obvious physical problems, she had bad eyesight, and difficulty controlling her hands, so her writing was not presentable. She had confided in Nanny that she’d been composing a letter of admiration to the Archbishop, but couldn’t think of sending it in her own hand. Of course, I was volunteered for the job, and so began a very odd episode in my young life. While Nanny conducted her sessions, I’d be seated in an adjoining room with a pile of paper, numerous drafts of this letter, written in a shaky, spidery scrawl, with untidy excisions, smears and blots, but decipherable.
It was long and rambling, and while I didn’t necessarily understand all the content, I got enough of the gist to be able to organize it for grammar, paragraphs , spelling and punctuation. When presented with the first page, written on expensive, heavy bond stock, she was well pleased, so on we went. As Nanny visited her no more than once every few weeks, and the material didn’t leave her house, it was an extended task, particularly as the lady was constantly adding to it, so by the time it was finally ready for the mail, I was close to eleven, and more knowledgeable about many things than I’d been at the onset. The final missive was about twenty pages, and somewhere between a love letter, a fan letter, and a parishioner’s praise for a rising star in the Catholic religion’s firmament (Heenan, a charismatic Liverpool / Irish prelate, went on to become Cardinal ). Strangely enough, she never mentioned her infirmities at all, and I remember very clearly when she got the reply….even to my young eyes it was obviously a form letter, yet she had it already framed, the Archbishopric crest glowing on the embossed notepaper. Even at that youthful age I could see that this unfortunately ill-made woman was off in some other reality, and I always hoped that she got some comfort from the doing of her letter. Nanny certainly thought so…” that was a good thing you did there, me lad, though you might not know it yet “ The last time I saw this lady, she hung a St. Christopher medal around my neck with her trembling, dysfunctional fingers, and thanked me for my help. Lost the medal, remembered the lady.
The houses we visited, with their spacious high-ceilinged rooms and expensive furnishings, were like museums, or maybe mausoleums to my young eyes, hushed and spotless, in such contrast to the cramped but cozy confines of Mandeville Street, which I infinitely preferred. To this day I’m uncomfortable in places that don’t look lived in; neat and tidy is one thing, but any place that looks like a showroom makes me want to run a mile.
In striking contrast to the spookiness of some of Nanny’s house calls was the backstage experience, as she had clients among the visiting theatricals, and I was fascinated by the milieu, from the minute we slipped in the stage door entrances, usually in the late afternoon, before the artists began their pre-curtain preparations. In her bedroom Nanny had a collection of autographed photos, all with personal messages to Mrs.K., or May, signed by some of the prominent theatrical figures of the day. I particularly remember visiting the glamorous Evelyn Laye, and her sister-in-law, the musical theater star Binnie Hale. Nanny always had a grand old time with these worldly ladies, as I’m sure they enjoyed her theatricality, which was always kicked up a notch when she did her thing in that sort of company. Olivier and Ralph Richardson also took tea and readings with her, and they each smelled better than any male I’d yet been in the vicinity of, in fact the back stage areas always had a wonderful waft, what with the grease paint, floral bouquets, and array of perfumes and colognes employed by the ladies and gentlemen of the theater, by whom she was always enthusiastically welcomed. It was obvious that whatever her gift was, it gave her an entrée into areas of society that were not usually open to the residents of the hard-scrabble North End of Liverpool, and most remarkably she kept her extra-mural activities so discreet that when I was reminiscing about the very things I’m telling you now with my mum and dad, they apparently had no inkling of any of it, except for the acknowledgment that ‘ she read the cups now and then, but just for a bit of fun ‘. The fact that she had a moneymaking concern going on seemed to elude them completely, which ended up making her even cooler in my eyes.
The only client who I recollect coming to our house on a regular basis was a school-teacher with the Dickensian name of Miss Winkle. She would show up on her afternoon off, always bringing me a book that she thought I’d be ready to read, so there was always something new to occupy me when Nanny got down to business. Miss Winkle was a quintessential school-ma’am type, in neat tweeds, silver-haired with gold-rimmed glasses, yet she had an exceptionally pretty face, and was probably no more than forty or so, fitting the profile of Nanny’s clientele. Miss Winkle was known to my mother, however, and I gleaned some information about her from mum not long ago, which painted the teacher in a new and interesting light. I was discussing Nanny K.’s exploits for more than the first time, getting the usual dismissive reply, so brought Miss Winkle’s name up as a proven client. As mother is in her nineties now, and dad long gone, the old lady is more inclined to spill the beans about the past, her memory clear and razor-sharp. It turns out that prim and proper Miss Winkle had been the long-time mistress of a prominent married industrialist, which was why she remained single. At some stage, the industrialist’s extra-curricular frolics were discovered by his wife, and a scandal ensued, which had put Miss Winkle in a spot, and on the spot, as to the propriety of her conduct, she being a highly placed teacher at a private girl’s school. Who’d have thought she was a femme fatale, with a tumultuous romantic life, risking all for love ? The thought of her being a chandelier swinger is hard to imagine, but now I know why she’d felt the need of Nanny’s services, for, of course, Nanny had personal experience in that area herself.
As time went on the Nanny slowed down, and the house calls petered off. She’d still see Miss Winkle from time to time, and always had time for a visit from Cousin Francis, a cousin by association, not blood, who was about as screamingly queer as you could get away with in Liverpool at that time (although he didn’t get away with it for long ). He’d show up in a cravat, corduroy jacket and riding boots, flourishing his cigarette holder, wafting Turkish tobacco….a dish of swish, for certain, but welcomed and nurtured by the Nanny always, and he obviously enjoyed the unconditional acceptance that was her hallmark.
She checked out at seventy nine, in as cool a manner as I could have guessed, in her sleep, more or less. No illness or suffering…just a cough in the night and bye, bye. When she was laid out in her coffin in the front room, the mirror shrouded, curtains drawn, and candles burning, I saw a corpse for the first time, but, you know, it wasn’t her. It was simply the empty carriage for the spirit that had gone on to other business.