The Heirloom Whistle and The Turquoise Thread of Nightmares – Dad’s Drawers Episode 14

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Most people have a box or album of photographs somewhere and that is likely to be the first port of call for most people wanting to rekindle a memory. What I have now realised is that photographs really only play a small part in that rekindling. Going through my dad’s stuff has been a good illustration of how memories can be found in the strangest of places and it has given me a whole new perspective on what makes a memory and also of which things do and don’t hold sentimental value.


There have been a number of my dad’s things that I am very fond of (most of which I have kept) and quite a lot that I am not fond of (most of which I have also kept). However, those that I am fond of are more usually those that were around the house whilst I was growing up and they remind me as much of my childhood as they do of my dad.

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This is one of those objects that was always around when I was growing up.  Some years ago dad gave it to me.  I have no idea where it originated, nor have I ever seen anything like it anywhere else.  It is most likely to be one of those ‘Fonthill-Road-Junkshop-Finds’. 


There were no family heirlooms to speak of in the Plisner household; my dad having left Austria in somewhat of a hurry and my mum coming from a working class, asset-poor family whose ancestors were paupers…. And, there were oh so many paupers. While doing family ancestry research I have come across numerous instances of the family pauper status in census documents. Paupers, more paupers and yet more paupers. Paupers, paupers, paupers, paupers, paupers…I feel a Monty Python song coming on…..  I was absolutely delighted to find one ancestor listed as ‘owner of a mangle’- it being a pleasant break from pauper-dom.


Anyway, I digress; you get the message – no heirlooms. (Well there is the whistle. Can a whistle be an heirloom? I’ll come on to that later).

The absence of heirlooms doesn’t mean that there have been no things of value.  As anyone who is following this story will know, two carrier-bags of lathe catalogues and pair of binoculars, not to mention the ugly fat nude, all proved to be wise hoarding on my dad’s part.  And, I’m sure that there are still a few quid to be had from some of the things that, having been surreptitiously transported from my dad’s house while nobody was looking, are now resident in my own garage.

And, there are also all these interesting documents……..



A note showing my grandmother’s liberation from Gurs Internment camp

Communications via the Red Cross between my grandmother and her daughter Felice in 1943.  My aunt had managed to get to the UK before war had started and lived in Manchester.


But, monetary value bears little resemblance to sentimental value and what I have found is that it is the little scraps of paper that I keep finding that touch me in a way that ‘things’, valuable or otherwise, do not.  Often utilised as book marks, I regularly find shopping lists when I flick open one of dad’s books, and it could only be one of my dad’s lists: figs; Greek yoghurt; prawns; croissants; tahini; German wafers; olives; WD40.  Occasionally, there will also be a doodle, or a scribble with a play on the English language, and then there are those notes that we had to write to communicate when he had mislaid his hearing aids (a frequent occurrence in the later years).



An illustration of communications in that last year when the hearing aids were constantly being misplaced. Problems with the broadband connection; the result of dad clicking on porn pop-ups on his laptop (and my subsequent reparations to clear the visions from his desktop) and his eating of the salmon that mum had saved for her tea!


On a similar theme; I have discovered that memories can also be found in the mundane….. A couple of months ago I decided to tidy, what I optimistically call, my ‘Mending Box’.  I say optimistically because in reality nothing much gets mended in this household; those saved buttons can never be found when needed, there is never the right colour thread and those cut off bits of hem I always saved (in a short family there is always several inches to cut off the bottom of a pair of trousers) have never been put to any use.

However, as a box of memories my mending box is a treasure trove.


A set of letters for a Taylor Hobson engraving machine that still sits in dads’ workshop (it being too heavy for me to bring over here).


As I sorted through the inter-knotted cotton reels, the weirdest collection of colours you might find, each colour brought with it a fond memory (except the turquoise; explanation to come).  There was that particular shade of brown which could only have been used to sew badges onto an 8-year-old girl’s brownie uniform; the scout-shirt green for all those loose buttons and frequent repairs (always required after those overnight hikes); the springtime yellow used for the home-made curtains in that first house from over 30 years ago (when I say home-made I mean home-made by my mum. I just wanted to be clear – I don’t excel at sewing). Then there is THAT bright turquoise.  The thread purchased to hem that ball gown; Hollie’s, not mine.  (I don’t do dresses). The colour still gives me nightmares.

To explain.  When we bought the dress, the shop offered a hemming service for £25.00.

“That’s very expensive” I said.

“How hard can it be?”

“It’s only a hem. I can do a hem”.

One hem, maybe……………



One of my favourite finds.  A silver snuff-box (the top part of the body opens).  This had been around the house for years and it was the one thing I was actively looking for when I started the clearing process.  I think the eyes are small opals. 


When we got the dress home it revealed several under-layers; to be precise, four slippery, silky under-layers.  After a considerable time of visual assessment I abandoned the idea of sellotape (it probably wouldn’t look very good), glue (unlikely to stick), and staples (too sharp) and set to work on the miles of taffeta and satin.  It took me about two weeks to finish, required expert advice from a very able neighbour (and that was just to get the pins in) and was accompanied at frequent intervals by a selection of expletives.  What resulted were some very crooked layers, which had an almost-intended scalloped look.  However, I needn’t have worried too much on the quality of my workmanship, as on the one and only wearing of said dress, Hollie put the heel of her shoe through all layers, adding a rather attractive black hole.


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Another unknown object.  It is about the size of a side plate, it looks and feels like brass. Smooth on the back apart from a circular groove in the same position as the outer circle on the front.  No screw thread in the holes, so I am not sure how it would have been fixed to anything.  If there are any experts out there on Asian script would love to have a translation of the text.


Anyway, to continue with the Mending Box of Memories….

There is a tin of name tapes for each of my children (who haven’t been children for quite a while) that I cannot bear to throw away.  But what do you do with them? They can’t be expected to wear sewn-in name tapes aged 20 and 26; even though it would be most practical, as maturity in years does not seem to equate with a better sense of keeping track of one’s clothing.




The two items above relate to dad’s passage from Spain to Palestine in 1944 on the Portuguese ship Nyassa. This passage was funded by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which during the war became a clandestine organisation to help Jewish refugees in transit. The name Alfred Bresnor was the name that dad had used during the war. His mother and he regularly corresponded under pseudonyms to avoid detection. Note that he also listed himself as British.


Alongside the children’s name tapes are also some that bear my dad’s name.  No fond memories of those at all, indeed some painful ones.  As if it wasn’t bad enough that we had to admit defeat when dad went into the care home, I found having to label his clothes like a child one of the most degrading things we had to do, which added insult to the already-sustained injury.  It didn’t stop him choosing to wear that soft cashmere cardigan that had the name ‘Vera’ carefully sewn into the collar, or those ‘much-cosier-than-his’ sheepskin slippers of Ralph’s, but I supposed it helped the staff sort out the laundry.  All these redundant name tapes now sit in another memory; an old tobacco tin, that was once home to the Old Holborn tobacco that my granddad used to smoke. (I can smell that sweet aroma of his roll-ups as I write this).



Ironically, given that dad was refused British Citizenship on a number of occasions (even after marrying a British National and having a child), he was issued with a British Passport while he was working for the Government of Palestine.


There are also numerous spare buttons from treasured clothing long gone. Buttons from my late nan’s button tin. Buttons that I have cut from clothing before throwing away ‘just in case’ and who can throw buttons away anyway?  There are two needle cases; one made of felt that my late mother-in-law bought me at a Christmas bazaar and another denim version that my daughter made in one of her textile lessons at school (glad to see those school fees didn’t go completely to waste).


School Report from Manchester Jews’ School which dad attended aged 10/11. The family re-located from Vienna to Manchester where my grandfather ran a grocer’s shop at 127 Elizabeth Street.


Then there is the black indelible marker, a key part of any sewing box.  Useful for colouring a child’s leg when there is a hole in tights/trousers, for changing a brown pair of shorts into black (admittedly that did take a lot of time, but it saved me buying a new pair and was fine until it rained. Indelible my ****) and for filling in those white bleach spots on clothing which always seemed to appear from nowhere.

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As with any collection of bits there are also numerous items that have no ‘memory value’. I have no idea what the kilt pin is doing in my box. I’m not sure if I am ever going to have any use for a chocolate-brown, 10-inch zip or a 4-inch orange one. There are 6 measuring tapes all from Christmas crackers when I hardly have use for one.  There is a box of twist pins – what are they even for and how did they come to be in my box?

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Any ideas?

….and I’m not sure I will ever have use for those 15 hotel ‘freebie’ sewing kits of varying quality, that I have accumulated from hotels of equally varying quality. (And, I know that still won’t stop me from bringing another home from the next hotel I stay in – it must be that inherited magpie trait).


I can’t remember if I have mentioned the ‘Plisner Whistle’ in my blog before.  I’m of the age where the memory section of the brain is now reaching full capacity.  For anything to stick, something else has to be ditched.  There being no apparent filtering mechanism; seemingly useless information remains (I can faultlessly recite lyrics to most 1970’s pop songs), while more useful information, like where I put down my glasses five minutes ago, makes one attempt to squeeze into that already-overflowing container before fluttering off into the atmosphere.


As I have been writing this blog for a few years now and do them so infrequently, I’ve lost track of what I have and haven’t written about and while scanning through the blog I can easily see which photos have already been posted, but as I have a natural aversion to re-reading words that I have written, it would be too painful for me to go back and check everything I have written about.

That was a long-winded way of apologising in advance for any repetition on my part.

So, repetition or not, back to the whistle.



Provisional ID papers from the early days in France.  Dad would have been 19.  His nationality listed as ‘Ex-Austrian’.


The Plisner family, being short-changed when the inches were being handed out, has had to come up with several ways to meet the challenges of reduced height.  For example, I used to carry a pack-of-four beer cans with me to music concerts; as well as being very convenient refreshment-wise, these would serve as a step to elevate me to normal height so I could see the band.  We have also been known to sneak a booster cushion or two from the pile in cinemas and theatres.


However, ever since I can remember, dad had a signature ‘calling’ whistle “Fwio, fwio, fwiooooo”. (As I write this I am whistling away to myself to see if a whistle can indeed be described accurately in text – the jury is still out, but I’m not optimistic). The whistle was mainly used in large stores when, not tall enough to see each other over the display shelves, it would help the Plisner family locate each other.  If the whistle was getting louder, you knew you were getting closer.  This was transferable to large events where we would usually be swamped by tall people (normal sized people, but tall to us) and for beckoning in long gardens.

The whistle was used by dad throughout his life and has for many years now been used by myself and my family in similar circumstances.  Though not being very good at whistling my version is more of a “Shfwio, shfwio shfwioooo” and Hollie when she was small just used to shout “Terwoot, terwoot, terwooooo” at the top of her voice which served much the same purpose.

So, if a whistle can be an heirloom, that one’s mine.

Just an aside, while we are on the subject. My better half often uses ‘The Whistle’ to beckon me from the end of the garden; I usually amble back to find a welcoming cup of tea or coffee.  Imagine my disappointment on the occasion when I responded to the whistle to hear these words: “I thought you might like to know the royal baby has been born and it’s a girl”.  To this day I do not know what possessed him to relay this information to me, neither he nor I having any interest whatsoever in the Royal Family; but to add salt to the wound (the wasted walk from the end of the garden) there was a marked absence of any liquid refreshment to accompany this redundant message.  In my mind, a clear case of whistle abuse!


I always wondered how relatives tracked each other down after the war.  Some searches brought good news…………


………….and others not so good



I leave you with this little story that just goes to show that you can’t guess which things have that ‘sentimental’ ability to make you smile or shed a tear.

A few weeks ago I was helping my mum clear out some cupboards and brought home (amongst other things) an old cheap Casio watch of my dad’s. For a week or two it sat in a box with other random items en route to the charity shop. Initially when I heard an alarm go off I thought it was my washing machine (it making a similar noise when it finishes its cycle).  It took me a while to establish that it was the alarm on the Casio watch, set to go off each day at the same time.  I am not sure what dad needed to be reminded of at 11.39 am (12.39 during the summer) every morning, but now every time I hear it I am reminded of him ……and I smile.

Needless to say, the watch didn’t make it to the charity shop.

Christmas Candle

The 2016 ‘Dad’s Drawers’ Christmas Card





This entry was posted in Collections, Dad, dads, Gurs Internment Camp, Living History, photgraphs, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Heirloom Whistle and The Turquoise Thread of Nightmares – Dad’s Drawers Episode 14

  1. nisijane says:

    I hope all these posts will be made into a book someday. I’d buy it.


  2. Maybe one day! Haven’t quite thought how best to present it all as a book yet.


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