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The Blackbird and the Silver Brooch

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This all happened over fifty years ago, when a little girl went to visit her grandmother.

May didn't have any brothers or sisters and she was three and a half years old.
She had never been to visit her grandmother before ( they lived far apart) and she couldn't remember the last time they had met. One thing she did know was that she had the same name as her Grannie - May - and that her grandmother loved children. In fact she had once been a Nanny in one of the grand houses in London - just like the nannies in some of May's story books.

So May was really looking forward to her holiday - and the journey was exciting for she and her mother had to travel on a bus and two trains to get to Grannie's house. They even slept in the first train as it travelled the whole length of England and when they woke up they were in London and they ate breakfast in the restaurant in the station. May hadn't been in many restaurants before. It was all very strange and exciting - but not as exciting as meeting Grannie. May knew straight away that she and Grannie were going to be the best of friends as she had brown eyes that twinkled especially when she smiled.

And Grannie's house was exciting - it had a garden that seemed huge to May ( May and her Mum lived in a little upstairs flat - or apartment - for her Dad was a sailor and was hardly ever at home). So a garden was a real treat to May - and Grannie had been brought up on a farm and knew everything there was to know about gardening and growing flowers and vegetables and fruit. May noticed that Grannie always answered her string of questions with a smile and not a sigh as some grown ups did! They were both early risers and so every morning had shared a magical hour together before anyone else was up and about. Grannie had a paraffin stove which boiled a kettle for a cup of milky tea and toasted their toes at the same time. Grannie's house also had lovely soft feather beds - and a big tin tub for bathing in in front of the fire!

So the first few days passed with May finding out all sorts of things like why beans grow so tall ( so that the long pods each had an equal share of the sunlight!), and where to find the best raspberries (under the leaves!). She watched the ants build a nest and work so hard....and she learnt that the two toads could generally be found in the cool under the ferns by the wall. She learnt which herb to pick for Grannie when she was helping Great Aunt Harriet with the cooking - and May generally picked much too large a bunch. But her Grannie always said "Why, thank you, dear!" and took the tiny sprig she needed and put the rest in a jar of water on the window sill! (Great Aunt Harriet who had been the cook in that grand London house would sniff and make tutting noises!)

Of course there were lots of birds in the garden but one morning May couldn't understand why she could hear a hear a bird singing - and not see it. That was until she realised that the noise was coming from the next door garden where Grannie's old friend Mr. Gatland lived. And he was there pulling out some weeds. He stopped and the bird song stopped and he looked at May and said "Did you hear the bird singing?" "Yes", said May, "but I can't see it!" Then the most amazing thing happened, Mr Gatland put his lips together and whistled - and that was the bird song May had heard. "Oh do it again, please!" said May. And Mr Gatland did - not only that he whistled other, different bird songs and during that holiday, he taught May to tell the difference between some of them. May's favourite was the Blackbird's song which had been the first one she heard.

In fact one day they even played a trick on May's mother with Mr Gatland whistling outside and May saying: "Oh, do you hear the blackbird singing?"and when her Mum said "Oh, yes!" May laughed and said, "No, it isn't, it's Mr Gatland!"

It was a exciting holiday, but as all holidays do it came to an end. Just time for one last walk round to Mr Gatland's house. He was sad to see May leave and she was sad to say goodbye. He gave her a little package. May ran back to Grannie's and her mother gasped when she saw what was inside for there was a gold locket and a silver brooch. Straight back round to Mr Gatland's they went for there had to be some kind of mistake - three year olds are not given valuable jewellery like that every day. But Mr Gatland said: "There is no mistake. That locket and brooch belonged to my wife and I have no family to pass them on to. I want May to have them because of the pleasure I have had watching her explore her grandmother's garden - and teaching her the bird songs."

And so May went home with gold locket and the silver brooch packed in her little suitcase. And as she grew older she was sometimes allowed to wear one or other of them on a special occasion. She never met Mr Gatland again and he never realised the wonderful legacy he had given her, for, by teaching her to recognised a blackbird's song, he opened up the whole world of birds to May and watching birds and studying them became a lifelong pleasure which she passed on to her own children.

Of course May is a grandmother herself now and does not have to ask permission to wear either the locket or the brooch but she never picks them up without remembering a kindly old gentleman who had the patience to share his knowledge with a small child. And when she is working in her garden and a blackbird starts to sing its wonderful trilling song, she pauses for a moment, smiles and then continues with the weeding.

Mr Gatland thought that no-one would ever remember him but May does - and we just have, haven't we?............
In fact his story is now known world wide!

In case you haven't guessed by now, this is a true story.......for I was that little girl....you see, my full name is Elizabeth May......and if you look at the photograph on our "Farewell" page, you will see that I am wearing the silver brooch.

Oh, and all those questions about plants that my Grandmother answered? Well, now I , too, look after the garden and in fact call many of the plants by the old country names that she used and taught me.



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Click to hear the Blackbird's Song!
My purpose in writing this story was firstly fulfilling a promise made to one
of my daughters several years ago to "write the story of the locket and the brooch down"!
And secondly as a plea to all adults - parents, grandparents or whoever -
to take time with children.
To answer those endless questions......to share those seemingly irrelevant skills ...
...for we have no idea just what might spark a child's imagination....
....or exactly where that knowledge could lead.
"It only takes a spark to set a fire going!"
Nor should we think that a child is ever too young and three year olds
are like little sponges when it comes to absorbing information!

And if the above is true about ordinary everyday skills,
how much more true about the Good News of the Gospel!


Copyright (c) Elizabeth Tolson 1999



When your children ask in time to come, 'What do those stones mean to you?'
then you shall tell them...'
Joshua 4: 6&7a


A site where you can find out more about British birds!

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds



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