A soldier’s farewell to his old mother

As long as there have been stories there have been storytellers. Even if the story is just about hunting a bear.

Back in prehistory somebody had to tell the tribe about the bravery of the hunters who faced the fury of a giant animal who could rip you open with a slash of its claws.

I mean to say if the tribe didn’t know how brave the hunter was they probably would have little respect.

Often it wasn’t the hunter who told the story – a bit like blowing your own trumpet – and instead someone who could weave magic with words would present the story in the best light possible.

Basically the same as modern journalists.

The storyteller earns reflected glory depending on how he or she depicts the hunt – which is sometimes told as if the storyteller was there.

Basically the same as modern journalists.

For all we know the same stories are repeated today but with embellishments to suit the age in which they are told.

This is how we get our folk tales; or our fairy stories; or our myths and legends.

Ancient Welsh tales written down in the 12th or 13th century but going back centuries more in oral tradition

Did little people used to live underground? Were they driven away by giants who crossed the sea on foot with the water barely reaching their knees?

Or did a smaller race, more adapted to tougher climes, dig into the ground to make warmer, safer homes with only a roof above ground?

Did a taller group cross the old land bridge from Europe and establish themselves as the new inhabitants.

Or are the two integrated?

That’s the way these stories work, handed down from parent to child and sometimes getting bits added on.

My father had three family stories which he says he was told by his father who was told by his father who got it from his father and . . . . you can imagine.

In fact one story only begins with his father, my grandfather the Rev. Edward Vyrnwy-Pierce.

We were told that Edward was almost born on the banks of the River Vyrnwy (as it was then).

His mother, Margaret, lived at the nearby manse at Meifod SO, with her husband, Rev. David Pierce, a Welsh Presbyterian minister and their large family.

My great grandparents, David and Margaret Pierce, pictured in the late 1850s before David was ordained as a Welsh Presbyterian minister. At this time he was a schoolmaster in Wolverhampton.

She was down by the river – getting some water or washing clothes depending on my father’s memory on the day – when she went into labour and only just managed to get back to the manse before Edward was born.

They named him Edward Vyrnwy Pierce.

Another of my father’s stories was “the murder at the crossroads”.

An ancestor was going home one night and was set upon and killed. Who the ancestor was, or whether he was the killer not the victim, or even if it happened at all I do not know.

The story that really stuck in my memory was the tale of the soldier’s farewell to his mother.

According to the story, told to my father by his father (and he by his father), begins with the family, Elias Pierce (my great great grandfather), his wife, brother and children were seated by the kitchen fire in the family cottage in Machynlleth.

Upstairs the family matriarch lay dying. In her final days she had been pining for her son William, Elias’s older bother, who had always been her favourite. He had joined the army in the early 1800s and fought in France and then went to India.

As the family sat there in the firelight they heard the sound of boots on the cobblestones coming towards their cottage.

Then the sound stopped right outside their door.

They waited with bated breath expecting a knock.

Instead they heard the sound of the boots on the flagstoned floor of the kitchen, passing by them all seated by the fire, then on the stairs and into the bedroom where the old mother lay dying.

Then there was silence.

After a while they heard the old woman cry out and then all was silent.

Elias, his brother and my great grandfather David rushed up the stairs and found the old woman, dead, but she had a smile on her face.

They had heard nothing from William since he left for India but they were sure he had come back to say goodbye to his mother.

My father told this story many times and it rarely changed – except that sometimes the footsteps stopped at the door and sometimes they were said to have kept going without missing a step.

My father knew little of his grandfather’s history, the old man died in 1913 two years before Dad, who was named for him, was born.

He had some old notebooks (all in Welsh and believed to be Rev David Pierce’s notes for sermons and various pieces of poetry he had written) plus some certificates as well as a piece of paper with odds and ends of notes on it.

This included some names and dates; a reference to “Elias Pierce shoemaker”, and a child’s writing (very neat) saying “David, his hand”.

It was much later I took an interest in family history. Dad had loaned the Welsh notebooks to a professor at Bangor University, but he recovered them and gave them to me.

My Welsh was very basic but in going through them I realised one had Rev. David Pierce’s family notes giving his date of birth and his parentage back to a John Pierce who was born in 1727.

The first page of the Rev. David Pierce’s notebook starting with his own birth and basic family details.

On the third page I saw the name “William” with a reference to “filwr” (soldier) and “Ffrainc”(France). There was also a reference to “Madras, India”.

The third page of the notebook referring to “William yn filwr” and “Ffrainc” along with a reference to Madras, India.

Over the page I managed to roughly translate a reference to them all sitting around the kitchen fire when they heard footsteps on the pavement which came into the kitchen and went up the stairs to the loft.

The fourth page of the notebook describing the family sitting by the kitchen fire and hearing footsteps coming down the road to their house.

There it was in David’s own handwriting – the story David had told his son Edward who passed it to his son David who passed it to me.

When your grandparents, or your great aunts or uncles, tell you tales of their childhood and that of their own grandparents don’t dismiss them.

They may have been embellished over the generations but there is often some truth in there.

I have always meant to get the notebook properly translated but we moved around so much I never got around to it.

There’s still time.

Published by Robin

I'm a retired journalist who still has stories to tell. This seems to be a good place to tell them.

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