During the second world war my father was away. He was a soldier for six years, chased from Greece and Crete by the Germans, more successful in North Africa and Italy.
During those war years in England, I was so lucky. My mother was such a wonderful person to live with and to be brought up by. She loved life. She loved nature. Our walks together were so enriching for me. She revelled in the joy of tracing the effect of geological history on the landscapes we were in. She would suddenly reach down to the ground and pick up a rock, ‘Ah, magnesium limestone!’ And then, a few minutes later, ‘Ah! oolitic limestone and she would drop brick sized specimens into the bag on my back. I was only five at the time, and carrying these heavy weights distorted the shape of my spine and this can clearly be seen to this day. In a less evident way, I am still fascinated by rocks and landscape. We are what we have experienced.
My mother loved, not only rocks but flowers and trees and especially birds. One summer’s afternoon, in North Yorkshire, near Whitby, she suddenly gave me her binoculars and said, ‘Look in the top of that horse chestnut tree! I think there’s a Golden Oriole! Can you see it? Bright yellow with black wings!’
We watched the Golden Oriole for about twenty minutes, moving around in the foliage, then it disappeared.
Golden Orioles are migrant birds flying from South Africa to Europe every spring and returning late summer, but they do not normally come to Britain. Even in the summer Britain is too cold for them. This Golden Oriole had been blown off course. It didn’t belong in Britain.
We were very excited. We went to the same place the next day and the next but we didn’t see it again. And the next holidays we went back to the same place hoping to see it but we didn’t. Year after year we went until I grew up and didn’t go on holiday anymore with my mother and father.
As the years went by we often referred to seeing the Golden Oriole. It came to symbolise the richness of our time together during the second world war when my father was away.
When my mother was eighty I decided to paint her a picture of a Golden Oriole in oils. She liked it. It meant so much for her and for our time together.
When I was fifty eight, fifty years after seeing the Golden Oriole with my mother, my wife, Julia, and I had a house built in Godollo, a town to the East of Budapest in Hungary. One warm, early, summer afternoon, I was sitting in the back garden watching the men fit the roof tiles. There must have been about six or seven men busying themselves and doing a good job.
For a moment my eyes turned pensively to my left, into the trees in the old cemetery. I saw above me a Golden Oriole; the male of the species, bright yellow with black wings. I had not seen a Golden Oriole for fifty years.
Suddenly, I heard a voice which seemed to fill the heavens with its size. It was my mother’s voice; my mother’s disapproving voice.
‘Andrew! I don’t agree with what you have been doing in recent years, but I wish you well with this new house!’
I looked at the roof to see if the men had heard the voice, but they continued to work as if nothing had happened. I expected them to be scanning the sky and appealing to each other with furrowed brows and questioning hands.
I looked at the branch where I had seen the Golden Oriole. It was no longer there.
I haven’t seen it again.
I wait for the Spring when the Golden Orioles return to Hungary. They hide in the upper foliage I don’t see them but I hear them. I hear their short song falling like heavy petals through the leaves.
Comment on the story and using it in class
This is simply a description of an important event in my life. I have invented nothing…just described.
I have told this story very often in schools…I suppose I would feel more confident in telling the story to children over the age of 11 than to younger ones. I think the older ones have a better chance of feeling the feelings in the story. And, of course, I have told the story to adults.
I always need to say that I am not a mystical person who automatically believes in ghosts and so on. I always say that I think my mother’s voice was in my imagination but then I stress that I really experienced my mother’s voice as, not in my head. I usually ask them to tell their neighbour what they think might have happened.
Sometimes this discussion becomes a broader sharing of related experiences. One student told me that a rare butterfly came into the room where her grandfather had died and lay for the family to pay their last respects, ‘and then the butterfly flew out of the room, through the door, down the corridor and out of the front door into the garden.’
The text, as it stands here, is almost exactly as I tell it to students. In this written form alone it is just too difficult for students with elementary English to cope with. That is the advantage of telling a story and not reading it. When I tell the story I can draw on the board or show photographs and maps. When I tell the story I can act out, for example, looking at the Golden Oriole through the binoculars, and I can act out our sharing of the binoculars and act out our excitement and togetherness.
Everybody, without exception, has tales to tell. It is precisely because the tales are not utterly out of common experience that they are interesting to other people. We like to hear other versions of what we have experienced ourselves.
So, if you haven’t told stories from your life then please consider doing so…you are as rich as anyone else. Dig down.