Remembrance Sunday always makes me think of one of the two Grandfathers I never knew – Albert Baker. He snuck himself into World War One, signing up underage and getting shellshocked for his trouble. He was sadly young enough to go to war again in WW2, getting shellshocked again and in 1944, when my Mum was born, was pretty much an invalid.
He was a gentle, quiet, self-assured man, who loathed fascism and racism and in the limited time he had with my Mum in between extended visits to the hospital for treatment for his gassed lungs and his shellshocked mentalness, taught her about nature and flowers and trees. What possessed him to go to war, that gentle, gentleman I have no idea. He died, leaving a massive hole in the hearts of those who loved him, when Mum was 10.
My Grandma, his wife, had to cope with a mostly invalid husband, a child, a full time job and her mum who lived with them all. She was not easy, my grandmother, and no wonder, given what life had thrown at her. She ran a hat shop – hats, gloves, accessories successfully for years. She was deeply flawed, deeply loved. In her much later years when she has dementia and I went to visit, she thought I was her sister Dolly and we had a conversation where I talked about a shop I had never seen, sales I had never rung up, customers I had never met; before she begged me “get me out of here Dolly, I hate it”; and I, constrained only by not having a place of my own, very nearly did.
My aunt-by-sort-of-marriage, Joan, and her soon-to-be-not-quite-husband-as-he-was-married-to-someone-else Fred met during the war. I have mentioned her before, a pretty, intelligent, happy woman who kept her own counsel, so much so that her family only found out after she died that she and Fred had not ever been married.
I caught her out, inadvertently, not on the marriage thing (I knew that bit already) but as I have mentioned previously, when I came across a set of photos of Joan and Fred on a picnic. In Occupied France. The pictures I have of both of them in front of me now were taken in 1945 in Blankenberge, a small town in Flanders. A demobilisation existed there in 1945, indicating again that both of them had been overseas during the War. So many secrets and so much bravery.
My true great-Aunt Dolly, was in London during WW2. It was she who was on a bus one day when the air raid sirens went. Against general consensus, she and a few others slipped out of the bus and ran into the nearest underground station for shelter. The majority of people remained on the bus, thinking it was safer. It wasn’t and when she emerged, most of her fellow travellers were dead.
Dolly was General Patten’s secretary and travelled all over the world with him. She collected spoons as tokens of remembrance and those spoons were gifted to my Mum by Dolly and by my Mum to me. When my Mum lay dying, she urged me to take them, before anyone else “got their grubby hands on them”. I listened and they now reside with me. I take them out every now and again and look up the places Dolly went.
Dolly was to go on to meet her future husband, fall in love, get married and when he was posted to the Far East, follow him out there; only to find that he had in short order replaced her. Not one to play the helpless woman card, she promptly upped sticks back to her home town in South Africa, bringing with her the most gorgeous Chinese furniture and artifacts. She too died sadly too young, around about the same time as Mum and my grandmother lost their Dad and husband.
My grandma Millie’s second husband, Len, was a glazier and spent WW2 repairing windows and houses. Another gentle man, although not averse to a bit of fun (my cousin recollected that she never left his house sober), he was simply lovely. We watched Sunday afternoon movies, ate cookies, drank sherry and I smoked up a storm in his back room, years after the war, chewing the fat and solving the problems of the world.
He also spent time in the back room in the early 1940s, living alone by then, his first wife having left (we never understood why, he and my Grandmother were very happily married for years afterwards) watching the bombs fall on Croydon and wondering whether his house would be next.
Nowadays, in that sort of situation, people would be eligible for trauma therapy. In those days, they simply went sadly home or sat at home. Or just got on with living.
My Dad, at that time evacuated with his school to Cornwall, remembers a schoolfriend being told that his father was dead. His friend ran into the woods around Tintagel and stayed away all day. A search party was eventually put together and they found him and brought him back. Treated with appropriate levels of gruff love, he melded back into school routine.
It is hard to imagine what it must have been like, back then … living in fear, living with grief, living not knowing who you will lose next or whether the war would eventually be won.
How ordinary men and women were heroes because they had to be … it is hard to imagine 60 years later, in our world’s “gotta have, gotta buy, gotta consume, gotta recognise” culture.
They all stood up for what they believed, silently, bravely, stoically, soldiers and civilians … stood by their choices, stood by their actions and lived their lives quietly afterwards … I remember them often but always, always, always on 11 November.