Birdsongs and Violets


Even as a young boy growing up in the little village in Wales where our family lived, I knew my father was different. The main occupation of the male population there was digging coal at the local mine. Their lives were very much the same as their fathers’ before them—working down the mine during the day and spending their evenings at the local bar playing a few games and drinking beer.

Because of the menial nature of their work and the lack of money, the miners’ clothes were often rather shabby. Most of them did have a suit to wear to chapel on Sunday and their shoes were shined up a bit, but their everyday clothes lacked a lot in neatness. Not so with my father. He was always neatly dressed.

My father was of medium height, broad through the chest, and very strong. His dark hair was always well-combed and his neatly-clipped mustache enhanced his appearance. He had his suits made by a tailor. Never would he go down the hill to the village unless he was dressed properly. His shoes were shined and from his garden he would pluck a flower for his lapel.

From this description one might get the impression that he thought he was better than his fellow workers, but this was not so. He had a friendly smile and a kindly attitude toward all.

As a young man he was a gardener and worked several years for rich people with big gardens. The last man he worked for had prize grape vines. They had been neglected, had grown wild and ragged, and the grapes were of poor quality. Father was asked by his employer to care for the vines and to restore them so they would bear good fruit again. Being a skilled gardener, he cut off the bad growth down to the thick stems. When the land owner, who knew nothing about the culture of grapes, saw what his gardener had done, he became very angry and Father lost his job.

So Father gave up gardening and moved to the coalfield. There he started to work as a laborer, keeping the railroad tracks in good repair. After a year or so, the company recognized him as an outstanding worker and made him a supervisor.

Father’s garden was the envy of the village. There was never a weed to be seen. His vegetable crops stood in straight rows like little soldiers. He always had Mam [Mother] save the soapy water on laundry days. This he would pour over his growing vegetables. In later years I learned it was the lye in the soap that killed the bugs.

He loved his family, and instead of visiting the bars he would spend the evenings entertaining the family with his accordion and teaching us to sing and dance.

After his conversion to the Church, Sunday morning was always a special occasion. Following Sunday School and while Mam was preparing dinner, he took us children for a walk up into the hills. Here he taught us about nature and history. We would stop by an old stone wall built in the days of the Romans, and he would tell us of the greatness of the Roman Empire. He would help us imagine the gladiators showing their skill in the arena as the crowds cheered. He also explained to us the destruction of this once great nation.

Father would make the study of nature interesting for us. Once he picked a violet from beneath a hedge and called us children to his side. “It’s just a tiny flower,” he said, “but it contains many elements given by God—a lovely perfume and petals softer than the finest velvet—and all of this comes out of the soil of the earth and the rays of the sun.”

There was a time when on one of our walks I found a hedgehog. He was hiding under some bushes and peering out at us with his little beady eyes. I wanted to poke him with a stick but Father stopped me. “Why hurt the little creature? He has trouble enough with dogs and foxes, so let’s not bother him.”

Once he stopped and signaled us to be quiet. Then he pointed to a dark spot up in the sky. “Listen,” he said quietly, “and hear the voice of God.” We stopped and heard the song of a bird as it soared into the sky. I didn’t hear the voice of God, but years later I learned what he meant.

One evening when it was raining, the family sat around the fireside when suddenly a thought came to me. “Father,” I said, a bit boldly for a young boy, “tell us about our grandparents on your side of the family. We have seen our grandparents on Mam’s side but we have not heard anything about our other grandparents.”

Father stared into the fire for a few moments before answering. “Thomas,” he said, “that’s a good question, but I don’t know much about my father. My mother, who died a few years ago, told me that he died just after I was born, and I have never visited his grave. Someday I must do that.” Sometime later Father announced he was taking a day to go visiting out in the country. There was nothing unusual about this as he had relatives who lived in a little cottage in a village a few kilometers away.

When he returned home that night, we could tell by his actions that something was wrong. A few days later, he called the family together and told us what he had learned.

He had visited an old church in a village called Llanviangel and there he had found the record of his father and of his own birth. This was the story that our father told us:

In a little coal mining village up the valley a girl was born to his grandparents. They named her Rhonwen. When she was sixteen years old, she was sent to work as a servant for a rich family. Before a year had passed, she returned home expecting a baby. Her wealthy employer had taken advantage of her innocence. When he found she was pregnant he paid her two months’ salary and sent her home.

Rhonwen married one of the young men of the village before the baby was born. She failed to have him christened or his birth recorded, and he grew up with the name of Rhonwen’s husband who was killed in a coal mine disaster just after the child was born.

The discovery of the circumstances of his birth, which had later been recorded by the minister of the church, changed our father’s life. He lost interest in his garden and in his personal appearance. Instead of being his happy self, he became morose and moody.

Then one day, Mam, who normally was as gentle as an angel, made Father sit down in his favorite chair. Her gentleness was gone and in her eyes there was a bit of fire. “Gwyllam [William],” she said, “you are acting like a fool. Just because a wicked man took advantage of a young girl and a child was born, you are cursing yourself and putting the curse on all your family. It was God that gave you birth and I saw in you a fine man whom I loved dearly and married.”

The fire was still in her eyes as she spoke again. “Now I will not stand by and see you destroy yourself and us.”

She put her arms around his neck and in a voice that was now touched with love she said, “Oh my Gwyllam, we cannot live in the past. We have each other, our children and our love. Someone sinned but it was not you. Besides, we have the gospel and you hold the priesthood of God. Can we ask for more?”

It was then the agony in his heart burst forth and the tears came—tears that washed away the bitterness and cleansed his mind. From that day on he became our beloved father again. We resumed our walks in the hills and he tended his garden and flowers.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Robert T. Barrett