Saturday, May 19, 2007

Too Hot To Bear

Dad was always a lateral thinker. Also, if something could be said in ten words, he wouldn't waste twenty. Okay, so that didn't rub off on the family journalist, as you can see at Authorblog, where Dave often gets a bit wordy-nerdy. Dad would always caution us against ``unproductive activity'' (management training manuals, Chapter One). When he was Traffic Manager of the Calcutta Port Commissioners, he hated long meetings. Because his office was often the venue for the more high-powered conferences, he developed a novel way to keep them mercifully short.

You see, back in the days before central air-conditioning, only bosses had individual a/c units in their offices. So about ten minutes before the others were scheduled to walk in, Dad would switch off his a/c. Worked every time. In the tropical heat, everyone would stick to the agenda and keep it really short.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

A Right Royal Delay

If we're punctual, it's because we inherited that from Dad. Mum had many wonderful attributes, but punctuality was, alas, entirely absent. The year the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh came to Calcutta, Dad had two (highly sought-after) tickets to the special service at St Paul's Cathedral. On this special day, he had Mum organised like never before. Not only was he going to get his wife to the Cathedral on time; he was going to get her there early.
When they got into the car, Dad asked Mum if she had the tickets in her handbag. Mum, possibly miffed at having to hurry in this most unladylike fashion, replied in high dudgeon, asking if he honestly thought she could be so irresponsible as to forget them. Dad held his counsel, drove off - and they arrived with an hour to spare.
At the beautiful, ancient door of the Cathedral, they were asked for their tickets. Mum opened her handbag. Oh, horror. No tickets!
To cut a long story short, Dad drove all the way home, picked up the tickets and returned to the Cathedral - still with several minutes to spare.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Hearts Attack

Dad was one of those people who had a PhD in life. You know what I mean? On one occasion, he was in the UK on a business trip. One weekend he was on a British Rail long-distance train when he noticed a group of locals playing cards.
Dad had eagle eyes and it didn't take him long to work out that they were playing `Find The Lady' - the game that now appears as `Hearts' on most computers. It was a game he had played for years.
Dad feigned interest. More importantly, he also feigned ignorance. The card players explained the rules and Dad pretended to stumble over his comprehension. They invited him to join them, no doubt thinking they'd take some money off a rookie. Dad sat down, deliberately lost a couple of rounds and then cleaned them up good and proper.

Monday, April 30, 2007

The Toddler Who Left On A Jumbo

Our niece Cath, who is now a chemical engineer, was about four and crazy about animals when her attention was caught by - of all things - an elephant and its handler walking down our street. ``I'm going for a ride on the elephant,'' she announced. Mary, the Nepalese maidservant, was aghast.

Scene two. Mary knocks on the door. ``Memsahib,'' she asks of Rosalind, Cath's mother, ``can Catherine go for a ride on an elephant?''

Horrified shriek. ``No!'' comes the agitated reply.

``Memsahib,'' continued Mary, in a voice that was faltering, partly out of uncontrollable mirth and partly out of admiration for the child's undeniable courage. ``Memsahib, it's too late. She's gone on the elephant.''

And she had. My Dad raced downstairs with his camera. He captured for posterity the image of an elephant about half a kilometre down the broad road, with a little figure clad in an orange sari, perched proudly atop the lumbering beast.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Stealing Dad's Thunder

When we were young and impressionable, Dad was without doubt The Great Dissuader. If one of my elder brothers planned an outing, Dad would give a good reason why it couldn't - and shouldn't - be done. The thing was, he always made sense.
Then one day, someone had something planned and Dad said it wouldn't be a good idea. Why? ``Because,'' announced Dad gravely, ``there are floods in Orissa''. Just for the record, Orissa was a whole state away! It's like telling a New Yorker not to do something because there is inclement weather in Toronto.
Another of Dad's great dissuasive techniques was to say gravely, ``There's a depression in the Bay''.
But, as you can see at Authorblog, I honoured my father in my debut novel, the bestselling `Vegemite Vindaloo', published by Penguin Books India. One important chapter is set in a tropical storm caused by (you guessed it) a depression in the Bay. Bless you, Dad. We remember.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Our Mum Had Many Special Gifts

As a parent of three wonderful children, I wish now that I had thought of asking Mum the simplest of questions before she died almost five years ago. You see, Mum started life in an orphanage in Bangalore, south India, before she went to St Mary's Convent in Poona, (now Pune) in the west of the country.

The English nuns there took her under their wing and Mum never returned to the orphanage. The boarding school was her home. When the other kids went home for their holidays, Mum had nowhere to go. I once asked her, after I became a father for the first time, if she missed not having a family while she was a child.

She just looked at me with those gentle eyes and said: ``I did have a family. The nuns were my family.''

But there was one more question I should have asked her, before Alzheimer's started destroying that amazing brain and eroding that astounding intellect. The question was so simple. I should have asked her how old she was when she received her first present - and if she remembered what it was.

For someone who had so little when she was growing up, she gave us so much. Us, our sons; and hundreds of other children who were not related to her. So, so much. So much understanding. And oh, so much love.
For more details, see We Bring Ye Gifts.

To Coin A Phrase

Our eldest brother Keith was doing a science experiment relating to chlorophyll. He had to place coins on a series of leaves in the garden - and check them every morning to see how the green pigmentation was fading under the coins.
Around the same time, Brian (five years younger than Keith) asked Mum if she could buy him something and Mum asked him if he thought money grew on trees. Quick as a flash, he replied: ``Yes, it does. Keith collects it every day.''

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Ship Happens

Dad was the figure of authority in our household. There was no mucking around with him. You didn't take liberties with Dad. But on his birthday one year, he opened a card from our eldest brother, Keith, who was sailing at the time and had posted the card from some exotic faraway port.
There was Dad, guffawing with laughter. It was the perfect card for someone who had spent all his working life in the shipping industry - and someone who loved to slightly embellish a good story.
The card Keith sent had these words on the front page: ``To the greatest bull shipper I know.''

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Mum And The Toffee

When Mum first met Dad and his younger brothers, Jack, Les and Len, it didn't take her long to figure out that the ``Mac boys'', as she called them, were pretty fond of anything that had ``dessert'' written on it. Cakes, puddings, cupcakes - they all went down fairly quick.
Whatever my grandmother - known to all and sundry as Granny Mac - made, her four boys would demolish at a great rate of knots. And Mum, being fairly astute, realised the brothers would quickly pick out the largest portions. So she and a friend made some toffee, and mixed mild laxative in the largest sections.
She offered the toffee to Dad and his brothers. Yep, they scorned the small bits. The huge portions disappeared quickly, with predictable results.

The McMahons, On Home Turf

This photograph has been scanned from a family album. To the best of my knowledge, it is the first shot of us as a family unit, taken in the huge garden of our home, 3 Dumayne Avenue in Calcutta. That's Dad on the left, me as a two-month-old infant in the gentle arms of Keith (15 years old) with my Mum beside us and Uncle Les to her side. Standing in front are Mike (left, 12) and Brian (10). When I was born on 27 October 1956, my brothers were all at boarding school in Sherwood College, Naini Tal.

The hand-written caption for the picture just says ``Dave, 2 months'' so it would have been very close to Christmas Day, 1956. It was definitely not Christmas itself, or else the family would have been in suits. Strangely enough, I know of only one other picture taken with all four of us brothers and our parents - and I'm trying to track it down.

Now have a look at the shot below. It is actually a cropped version of the same photograph, and I've used digital imaging technology to sharpen the image. Compare the two and you'll see a huge difference in the sharpness and clarity. We'll save this one for posterity.

In October 2003, I took my own family back to India on holiday and we had our photograph taken in almost the same spot. Our mother's ashes are buried near the base of a huge Bengal mast tree, about ten metres from where this picture was taken. As an orphan who was brought up by English nuns in the Convent of St Mary the Virgin in Poona (now Pune, western India) our
mother's only home was the school where she lived. But 3 Dumayne Avenue, where this picture was taken, was the home where she raised us, her four boys. It was only fitting that her remains were reverently buried here, in the garden she loved so dearly.

Present Tense (Very Tense)

The year of The Great Christmas Surprise came without warning when I was about five or six years old. I woke before dawn, jumped out of bed and went to where I had left my stocking (well, all right, it was actually the biggest pillowcase I could find) and stuck my hand in.

Strange. The present up the top wasn't wrapped. And judging by the shape, Santa had made a terrible mistake. I hadn't asked for a soccer ball. I was horrified when I pulled it out and realised from its clammy feel that it was a fresh lettuce. Next up was a cauliflower. Then carrots. And oranges, with that unmistakable fragrance. The deeper I delved into the stocking, the quicker grew the panic.

Not a single "real" present. Just fruit and vegetables. Wonderful produce, I admit now, but when you're a little fella, the only place for that sort of stuff is in a salad bowl on the dining table - not in a Christmas stocking. Santa had gone bananas - literally and metaphorically.

I didn't burst into tears, but I must have been teetering on the brink. I didn't panic, but I'll admit I was bloody close to having coronary failure. So I did the next best thing and woke my mother.

She just shook her head and said something along the lines of: "That's just a prank by your brothers''. Yep, my three elder siblings had - as we say in the trade - got me good.

They had waited for me to fall asleep. They had waited for the stocking to be filled with all the things on my list to Santa. Then, under cover of darkness, they had removed each present and hidden them under my bed, substituting them with the best, greenest, freshest produce from the dahlis (dollies, the Anglo-Indian families called them). After a few minutes, I could see the funny side, but I knew I'd never become a greengrocer.

To read the rest of this feature article, go to The Great Christmas Surprise.

Weighty Matters

When Mike's wife Linda was expecting their first child, she had a major (but very brief) scare. Having represented India at basketball, she was pretty fit, but even she didn't see this hurdle coming. She and Mike had dropped our eldest brother Keith to Begumpet airport and while they were waiting for Keith to check in for his flight, Linda decided it was time for a weigh-in.

So she gracefully stepped on the scales - and promptly got the shock of her life. Her weight had practically doubled in the space of a week. She was about to step off the scales hurriedly, when she realised Keith was convulsed with laughter.

Yep, he'd put one foot on the scale as well.

Harry And The Pope

Posted by David McMahon, Melbourne, Australia

An ancestor of ours, Harry Verney, had an interesting connection with the Roman Catholic faith. He was rather a well-heeled member of the gentry, and was on horseback somewhere in Europe. During his journey, he found a priest huddled beside a path. He stopped to see if the priest needed any assistance - and realised that he was actually critically ill.

Harry called a temporary halt to his journey and stayed beside the priest to nurse him back to health. The story has a wonderful ending. The priest recovered fully and never forgot how Harry had stopped to save his life. He became a Cardinal and eventually became the Pope. In true Christian tradition, he invited an honoured guest to the Vatican.

The guest's name was - you guessed it - Harry Verney.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Horse Whisperer (Sort Of)

Our Dad, who always answered to the name Colin, fancied himself as a judge of horseflesh. Dad and his younger brother Jack used to work for the Calcutta Port Trust, with Dad as traffic manager and Uncle Jack as docks manager. Every Monday, Dad would come home and regale us with yarns of how his fellow workers used to praise him for his astute judgement of how his race tips were always so accurate.

But, hey, that was Dad's version.

Uncle Jack would just sit there, throwing his head back and chortling in that wonderful way of his. He was torn between a) fierce family loyalty and b) the supreme urge to tell the truth.
The way he told it, Dad would always have at least one big fan at work each week.

His theory was that Dad gave out so many (different) race tips that he was always bound to pass on one winner. And for every winner on a Monday morning, there were a dozen blokes who had done their dough.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The Four Musketeers

Dave, Mike, Brian and Keith McMahon, Adelaide, Dec 2006

This weblog is a concerted attempt by four brothers (above) to document our family history. Keith, Michael, Brian and David McMahon all live in different cities, hence the decision to start a blog. Instead of each one of us emailing information and photographs to the others, we've decided to use the internet to pool our resources. The creation of this blog will give each of us access to an evolving project.

Not only do we want to document what we know of our family history; we also want to research and record the stories of our ancestors.

We are the sons of Phyllis Mary (nee Reade) and Alfred Percy Collins McMahon. This picture was taken in Adelaide in December last year, at a family wedding. And this is the first step in a project that all four of us are about to undertake. Watch this space as we chronicle the clan.

Vital statistics

This is the start of a family database, to which we'll all add information. We thought we'd start with the dates of birth of our parents and ourselves.

Alfred Percy Collins McMahon 28.11.1910, Calcutta, India

Phyllis Mary Reade 13.09.1912, Bangalore, India

Keith McMahon 03.07.1941, Calcutta, India

Michael McMahon 27.09.1944, Calcutta, India

Brian McMahon 25.09. 1946, Calcutta, India

David McMahon 27.10.1956, Calcutta, India