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The Life and Times of Bridget Forbes Burnett

The Life and Times of Bridget Forbes Burnett by Mark Burnett Palumbo


Bridgett Forbes Burnett

Growing up in Scotland with her family, Bridgett was the youngest. She had another sister, Nesta, who died at an early age before Bridgett was born.

My mom remembers her father, Tom Burnett, taking her out to see the Gypsies living on his estate (Ardbrecknish House on Loch Ore).  My grandfather was a free spirit. He befriended the Gypsies and allowed them to stay on his property. Harry Lauder, a Scot, who later became a famous music hall, Vaudevillian theater singer and comedian traveled with the Gypsies. Mom remembers a time when her dad took her down to visit the gypsies and she heard Harry Lauder sing.

On both ends of Lock Ore, there were Kilchurn (Campbell clan) castle ruins. It was the closest castle to their house. My mom and my grandfather used to take a boat over to the island to give the Gypsy lady, Kate, tea, cheese and bones for her dogs. Kate was living in the ruins of Kilchurn. I have an old postcard with a picture of smoke curling out of the courtyard of the ruins.

There was a long hill before their estate, Ardbreknish.  My grandfather would turn off his car at the top of the hill, let the dogs out, and coast down the hill with the dogs giving chase.

My mom, the youngest, was occasionally by herself. Her siblings, John (the oldest), Patricia, and Hazel, one by one went off to boarding school. Eventually, her parents thought the best thing for her would be to send her off to her Aunt Leddie’s (otherwise known as Mother Burnett) boarding school outside London. Leddie was a nun and the headmistress of Roehampton. There she was, one of the youngest kids at the school, trying to find her niche in life. Before she was sent off on the train to the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Roehampton, England, by herself, she looked over at her dad and said “I’m afraid.” Her dad replied, “You have a tongue in your head, so use it.” Not only did she go to school with Joe Kennedy’s daughters, Patricia, Kathleen, and Eunice, as it so happened, there were twin German princesses, Hilda, and Gabriele, there. They were the daughters of King Rupert and Queen Antonia of Bavaria. My mom told me Hitler was not pleased about that. The fact that Hitler was concerned might be true or not.

She was a rabble-rouser who liked to have fun as a kid. The story goes that while at Roehampton, Bridgett hid in a closet at the front of the classroom. As the teacher was lecturing, my mother swung the doors open, stood behind her teacher and made faces, entertaining her classmates.

Of course the bombing of London caused the evacuation of the school to different locations. She ended up at Stanford Hall, a large estate outside of London. That’s where she met her lifelong friend, Ann Woolworth, who was my Godmother. When the holidays came around, instead of going up north to Argyle, she would go home with her friend Ann. She went home to Ann’s family’s house. It was like a second home for her. Ann was very much like a sister. My mother told me she and Ann would go downstairs to the loo and her father would come down with a gun thinking there were German spies in the house. They were shocked. German spies were being dropped into England at that time.

I remember listening to stories about the air raids. Bridgett was in London in a hospital to have her appendix taken out. She remembered seeing the barrage balloons, very large blimps tethered to the ground with long cables. They were meant to destroy low flying aircraft. She talked about being in the London underground when her friends went off to the Loo and never returned. She said she lost friends in London during the bombing.

At the age of 16 or 17, Bridget trained horses at a big estate outside of London, before being sent to Spain in the employment of a wealthy Spanish family as an English tutor. While there, she saw Francisco Franco in a car in a parade. Eventually, she had to flee the country.

Aunt Leddie sent Bridgett to the US to visit her sister Patricia. She traveled on the Mauretania 2 (Cunard Lines). Her sister, who married a Yank during WWll, lived on the coast of New Jersey in Atlantic Highlands. Bridgett had a blind date with Michael John Palumbo. Eventually they eloped. My Italian grandfather was totally opposed to the marriage. Sergeant Michael Palumbo served in Korea during the Korean War.

My grandfather died of a stroke when he was 54. My mother was 12. School didn’t do anything for her. She was dyslexic. There was no word for it at that time.

When we were kids, my parents took us to New York City to see a Scottish gathering with bagpipes-a military, Black Watch regiment. They did motorcycle stunts. There were marching bands. To all our surprise, my mother liberated the Union Jack. Now it’s hanging up in my studio in Hubbarton, Vermont.

My parents raised all us boys with dedication and finally my mother got the chance to do the things she really wanted to do later in life. She traveled to Asia, China and Hong Kong, as well as New Zealand, Australia, and Spain. She visited her brother, John, niece, and nephews, in New Zealand and Australia. She had no qualms about travel and walked part of the Great Wall of China. She spent the entire winter in Kenya working with the orphans-cooking and cleaning. She independently raised funds for a water tower and school roof.

I remember meeting finally meeting my Aunt Hazel for the first time. It was a magical moment. I was probably in my late twenties. She, to my surprise, called my mom Tigs. It was a childhood name rooted in my mother’s red hair. We were in the English town of Whitstable, an old Roman seaport town near Canterbury. Words can’t describe what it was like meeting Aunt Hazel. It was like going back in time because of the surroundings.

Bridgett went out to dinner with Joseph Kennedy’s family when she was 12 years old and a student at Roehampton. The Kennedy’s were good friends with Aunt Lettie Burnett. The invitation was for an Indian restaurant. They were kind to Bridgett, inviting her and other students to one of the Kennedy daughter’s birthday party. At the end of the party, when all was said and done, they gave my mom the Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs ornaments from the birthday cake. When I was 13, my parents chaperoned a class trip to Chicago. We went to an opening at an art museum. Eunice Shriver was there, recognized Bridgett, called her by name and made introductions.

Anastasia Noble was a top deerhound breeder in Scotland.  She was a renowned breeder of deerhounds and hackney horses, and also one of the most remarkable characters in Argyll. She scorned the comforts she could easily have afforded and embodied the forthrightness and frugality of her Scottish-Canadian grandmother. She never owned a car but cheerfully exploited those who did. For shorter distances, she rode a bicycle, often using it to exercise her deerhounds along the main road. She inspired my mother to show dogs. After purchasing two of Anastasia’s deerhounds, (Noble and Fiona), my parents became top breeders of deerhounds in the states.

Later on in her life, my mom was an extra in the movies-Icebreaker, Killer Flood and Landslide. She loved fun. She’s looking down at us smiling.