Sometimes, when I speak to my siblings about events from our childhood, I wonder if we grew up in the same family. There is almost ten years difference between the first and last child, and that spread of ages surely changes the way that we perceive events. And then there are assumptions we make from the “facts” that we grew up with. It was only recently that I found out that Dad did not get his PhD from Cambridge, but from University College, London. He just completed it in Cambridge. The daughter of Dads best friend sent us a link to his dissertation that is now available in its intact original typed format online. I wonder if Mom typed it. They had four kids so she was busy, but they also did not have much money. The cover page said University College, London. I was born in Cambridge while my Dad completed his doctorate, and of course I assumed that he had done his studies there. Why not, it seemed logical to me. Older siblings told me that the whole family had moved from London to Cambridge in 1956 on the strength of a part time teaching contract there, it might even have been a night class. (My siblings will correct me again if I am wrong). This news kind of rocked my world! My memory was a myth, and yet my self image, or self story, is based on what I believed to be who my parents family were, and the stories that I knew about them. When something like this comes along the whole structure of the stories has to shift a bit to accommodate the new information.
Mom and Dad rarely talked about their young adulthood which was during World War 2. Mom was nineteen when it began, and Dad 17, Mom in Toronto, and Dad in Hexham, or was is Prudhoe, north east England. Did they agree never to talk about the past? I have no idea. Or were they just too busy being parents to five children and it no longer seemed important or relevant.
Mom was an adventurous woman. She went to Washington during the war and worked for the British Army there. I went to Washington a few years ago and found the apartment building Mom had lived in, even managed to see inside the apartment. How strange it was to know I had ridden the same elevator as she had, and looked out the same windows. At the end of the war Mom sailed to England. The family story is that it was to marry a man called Peter, but changed her mind when she got there. When I spoke to my Aunt about this she said, no, Mom just wanted to go to England, she never really intended to marry him. So who knows. She did use her sisters wedding dress when she married my Dad. I always imagined that she brought it with her, it was just after Shirley got married, but now I wonder if my Grandmother brought it when she came for the wedding. An unsolved, and unsolvable mystery. Just as well it is not very important.
Dad enlisted right out of high school. That way he got to choose which branch he joined. He chose the Air Force, and I am sure because of his love of maps he trained to become a navigator. He would have been a navigator on a bomber. My myth: that Dad did not want to drop bombs on people so said he was air sick so couldn’t fly. Reality: Yes, he said, some of that was true, but also, and more importantly, bomber crews did not have a great survival rate, and he wanted to survive the war. Another reality shift for me. There was a bomber commander called Bomber Harris that Dad said was known as Butcher Harris because he seemed reckless with mens’ lives. Dad spent the war in the map room. Traveled across north Africa and was in Italy when the war ended.
When I visited home after moving to Canada, and if Dad and I were in London together we would have a day out. Once we went to see Westminster Abbey only to find that it was closed for a private event or some such thing. So we wandered around that area. Looked at the Houses of Parliament. Across the road from the house is a statue of Boudica on her chariot with horses rearing. A magnificent sight. She was the Queen of the Britains who fought the Romans when Nero was Emperor. I went to look for a postcard of the statue, and there was not one to be found. Lots of postcards of young men with coloured mohawks, but not Boudica. Dad and I then walked along the south embankment of the Thames and he told me the whole story of the early days of our family. How he had studied while Mom worked, then the kids came along. I dearly wish I had written it all down when it was fresh in my mind because now I don’t remember the details. But I do remember asking where Dad had proposed to Mom because I knew it was on the embankment. He pointed across the river to Cleopatra’s Needle. I asked what she said, and her reply had been “I wish you had not asked me that”. OK, that does not sound promising. Apparently she had been saving to return to Canada. I can’t say I blame her. She lived with her Aunt in a house with no heating except an open fireplace, the country was still on rations and would be for many more years, it was cold and damp and she was a long way from close family. But, obviously, she said yes.
When I was thinking of writing this posting (I really don’t like the word blog!), the above is not what was on my mind. Now I understand why novelists say that characters they have created start taking on a life of their own and the authors have to work around that. I was going to weave stories around our family Christmas photographs which my parents sent as Christmas cards. There are hardly any pictures of our childhoods. Mom and Dad were not photographers, I don’t even remember a camera. But once a year there was a photo session, one was chosen and mailed out. Often the clothes were only ever worn that day, especially in the early years, and Mom tried to make us beautiful or maybe just presentable, by cutting our hair and sometimes curling it. Yikes. Here is a selection. If I was tech savvy it would be a slide show…..
I am child number 4. When I look at this picture I always first think I am Jane who is holding Sally.
All the best of the season, and for 2019. Yes, 19 years since the Millenium!