Three summers ago, when I was feverishly researching my Scottish great-grandmother’s story for a novel I was writing based on her short yet dramatic life, I decided to go directly to the source: First, to the General Register Office on Princes Street in Edinburgh for solid documentation; then, with copies of those old birth, marriage, and census documents in hand, to the place my Scottish ancestors called home.
So, one sunny morning on that fateful trip to Scotland, all alone and operating only on faith, I took a train from Edinburgh’s crowded Waverly Station north to Dundee, then a bus to Forfar, then another bus to my destination: Kirriemuir, a lovely little village of winding, narrow roads and shoulder-to-shoulder red sandstone weavers’ cottages, unchanged since my great-grandmother’s day in the mid-nineteenth century.
As fate would have it, with only a few shy inquiries on my part and generous help from a few kind locals, I was soon put in touch with the perfect person to aid me in my quest – Sandra Affleck, the town’s foremost historian and author of three books on Kirriemuir and its most famous son, Sir James Matthew Barrie, author of Peter Pan. The connection Sandra and I made that afternoon in June 2011 has lasted, in fact deepened, to this day.
But on that day, she dropped whatever she was doing to take me, a complete stranger and foreigner, on a long walking tour of the neighborhood where my great-grandmother, Helen Reid David, her husband-to-be, William Black, and their contemporary, schoolmate, and no doubt childhood friend James Barrie once lived.
“This is where Helen and William were married,” Sandra said, pointing first to the copy of their 1881 marriage record in my hand and then to a broad, steeple-less building that once was the South Parish Church. “Unfortunately, we can’t go in. It’s been converted to flats….
“And here is where the Free Church School – for both boys and girls — was, which James Barrie and no doubt your great-grandparents attended together.”
As we walked the hamlet’s sidewalks side by side, I felt a strong kinship with Sandra, a grandmother, retired primary school teacher, writer, and J.M. Barrie scholar, who, with her supportive husband David had raised a family in Kirriemuir and knew the territory well.
When Sandra drove me back to my hotel, I asked her one last question: “Do you think it’s crazy of me to need to walk where my great-grandmother walked – and to feel that her spirit is guiding me on this journey?”
“I don’t think it’s crazy at all,” Sandra insisted. “You must follow your heart.”
In the following months, which grew into two years, Sandra cheered me on as I wrote my novel, Imagining Helen, based on my great-grandmother’s story. Sandra became for me every writer’s dream, a stalwart alter ego, ever ready to encourage and applaud. Although that manuscript still languishes in a drawer, waiting for an interested publisher to magically materialize, and I sometimes agonize that no one will ever know or care about the beautiful and brave Helen David Black (whose spirit, like an insistent muse, haunts me still), I’m comforted to know that one person truly does care — as if Helen were actually her ancestor too — and her name is Sandra Affleck.
[Photo: Sandra on holiday in Portugal last November]
In a recent e-mail exchange for this WOW blog, Sandra, now 71 and enjoying her age, shared with me more of her own story, and I’m delighted to pass her words along.
“I took up research into Kirriemuir’s history when I was in my thirties,” Sandra told me, “when I was newly married, new to the area, struggling to adapt, and feeling I was mentally stagnating. Native people absolutely love living in this town, but I’ve noticed they may not be aware of its history. So, as a relative newcomer, I’ve been determined to see to it that the real history is recorded for posterity. My hope is that through my books and articles I’ve been able to open people’s eyes to the debt they owe their ancestors.”
When I asked what she found to be the advantages of advanced age, her words came in a flood:
“Experience of life and people — having seen some things before and having learned how to deal better with them. Realizing more clearly what is important and what not so. Knowing that material wealth is an empty objective and that good reciprocal relationships with the people around you matter more than anything. Learning not to take one’s good health for granted but appreciating it daily.”
Asked what sustains her, she was quick to reply: “Coffee, chocolate, and my husband! Oh, and in J. M. Barrie’s words, ‘A certain determination about not being beaten.’”