Sunday, March 20, 2011

John Anderson, my jo

My father was the gentlest, sweetest man I ever knew.  He was famously taciturn, hardly ever speaking unless he had something important to say, and then in a voice that was always quiet and calm.  I don't remember him ever getting excited or losing his cool. The most severe remonstrance we ever got as kids was if my brother and I were quarreling and he would say mildly, "Quit yer janglin'!" Once when he had nearly severed his thumb in an accident, he came into the house to ask my mother, "Mither, hae ye got a rag?" 

He was born September 25,1875, in a small town in Southern Scotland near the English border.  I have his birth certificate neatly inscribed in ink by the presiding official. He was about 20 when his family emigrated to the United States, the next- to- youngest in a family of  seven siblings, with their parents.  They settled in Southeastern Montana, about as far from bonnie Scotland as can be imagined, but good sheep country and the destination of many Scots, including some of  their relatives.  One of his older brothers had come ahead to scope out the place and prepare things,  and they came as a group, including my grandmother who, according to family lore,  carried her Blue Willow china in a basket the whole way.  One brother stayed behind for several  years to work out the lease on the farm which they had rented from an absentee laird.  None of these farmers owned the land on which they lived.  My father once told me that a family could live on the same farm for 100 years and never own it.  No wonder people emigrated to a land where you could become owner of a 160-acre piece of property just by living on it for a specified time and putting up a building or two!

Except for Uncle "Kemish" (James), who remained a bachelor his entire life, and Tom, who died shortly after their arrival in America, all the brothers and their one sister married and established families.  But not Jack.  He had set his eyes on a vivacious young woman who worked for his sister, Grace, as a "hired girl".  However, he was not ready to pop the question until he had what he considered enough means to support a wife in a proper style.  Whether she got tired of waiting (and I know she was interested because of some letters which I have) or for some other reason, she married someone else and became the mother of two daughters, Thelma, who died at age 22, and my beloved sister, Iris.  In due time, she again became available and my parents were married on July 14, 1918, in Ekalaka, Montana.

I remember my father as always being old.  He was 45 when I was born, and hard work, ill fortune and  bad health took their toll.  He was completely bald at an early age and the rim of hair surrounding his bald pate was snowy white.  He sported a full mustache which he  trimmed with a straight razor,  kept sharp with a strop which hung beside the sink.   I have the razor  as well as the soap-dish and brush with which he lathered his face before shaving.  He had bright blue eyes, the twinkly kind.

He was a Victorian  gentleman in an age when Victorian gentlemen had become mainly extinct.  Even in his later years, we had to stop him from rising from his seat on a bus to offer it to some young girl.  We felt his sense of hospitality bordered on the ridiculous.  He could never, for instance, turn away the itinerant salesmen and  Jehovah's Witnesses who turned up regularly at our door.  He would invite them in as guests and listen patiently to their pitches.  He once told me that in the Scotland of his youth even your worst enemy was safe as a guest under your roof.  (I believe some of the bellicose Highland clans did not extend their hospitality that far, but that is another story.)

He adored my mother.  Whenever they had been out somewhere together, he never failed to say, "Mither, you're the best-lookin' woman I've seen the day."  In return, my mother's friends adored him for his gentlemanly ways, sometimes at odds with the rough local farmers who inhabited our neighborhood.

Despite having grown up in such a different environment, he loved the Montana of those days.  The great open spaces,  "where you knew everybody within a hundred miles by their first names", the freedom of spirit and big-heartedness of it's people.  Even after the many years on the West Coast, he still remembered Montana as his version of God's Country.  He never talked much about Scotland although he remained a staunch Scotsman for his entire life.  I used to play the old Scotch songs for him on the piano, among them a beautiful old Scottish  love ballad called "John Anderson, my jo", which is among my favorites to this day. He would tap his foot and whistle along tunelessly under his breath.

He was christened plain John Anderson, but quite late in life he added the middle name of Beattie  (the maiden name of one of his grandmothers) to distinguish himself from the hundred other John Andersons in the phone book and on the mailing lists of advertisers. But he was known throughout his life as "Jack".

The Scotch are not a very demonstrative people.  They don't much go in for hugging and kissing and big displays of affection.  But I knew I was loved.  My father would often stroke my hair or pat my shoulder, murmuring "Lassie" in his gentle voice.  Who needs hugs and kisses?

He died nearly 70 years ago, but his warmth and quiet strength remain in my memory.  I am lucky to have known him even for the short time of my life that he lived.  Some people leave indelible impressions on your thinking, your character, your view of life.  John Beattie ("Jack")Anderson was such a person.


  1. I love this tribute, you bring your father to life right on the page.