A couple of years ago I was introduced to the writing of author Jacqueline Winspear. Although she lives in California now, she was born in Britain. Her parents and grandparents, like mine, endured the terrible World Wars and that time period became the backdrop for Ms Winspear’s amazing series of mystery books featuring Maisie Dobbs.
Because of my own background I became caught up in the series which gave me an appreciation for what my family experienced in those times. I was born in 1948, but as a young child I was very aware of the bomb sites that still existed throughout London, where we lived. “The War” came up in conversation numerous times in a day. Everything was classed “before the War” or “during the War”. Rationing, that had begun with WWII, continued until the summer of 1954. So the effects of “the War” continued for a considerable time beyond “the cessation of hostilities”.
In 1956, however, I was whisked away from all that, when my father took a job with Unesco that posted him to Cambodia. When groups of Westerners got together they would still mention the war, but it was all blessedly remote.
After a few years overseas with my parents, I was sent to boarding school and from that period I never again spent more than a few weeks at a time with them. Maybe that is why I never asked them so many of the questions I thought of later. My older brother said Mum told him not to ask about the war, and I daresay it was something people preferred to forget.
Once they were gone, though, I often wished I had asked my parents about so many things.
In my retirement I have had a lot of time to think. In spite of all that has been written about WWII, it is still hard to imagine what it was like to be in London during the blitz. The concept of bombs raining down nightly, the appalling noise, the utter chaos and disruption, just trying to survive with so many shortages. Not to mention the fact that periodically, any number of your friends or relatives could just suddenly be gone. I think I would have been paralyzed with terror.
In Cambodia, back in 1956, life was challenging in completely different ways. But my mother had been making do for such a long time and she could improvise in any situation. She always seemed so calm, taking everything in her stride. When others would cast about, helplessly, knowing not what to do, she would take over and set it all straight, smiling.
The lady who was hired to help my mother in Cambodia spoke no English and my mother spoke neither Khmer, nor Chinese, nor French. Yet they found a way to work together perfectly. My mother was unfailingly kind to everyone. I am sure her various helpers must really have missed her each time my father was re-posted.
My mother had not asked for a helper. Of course that is not the correct word. I can just never bring myself to call them “servants”. Westerners all had servants. But I think my mother regarded them more as friends and that was certainly how she treated them. I seem to remember them doing chores together.
Mum could never waste a single minute, her fingers were constantly creating, food, clothing, curtains, the list was endless and more often than not, she was making things for someone else. There was always something in the works but she also spent many hours writing letters to family and to her many friends.
My father was a trained artist and photographer. Mum had no formal training at all. She was simply a natural and gifted artist. Her greatest passion was for her garden. Even when she had the poorest soil, the smallest corner to work with, within weeks she could coax many plants to grow. She spent hours digging and weeding and watering. Often, when she was done, she would look up and exclaim “now grow!” Sometimes I thought her garden was afraid not to. Anything that failed to thrive was not tolerated and had to go!
It was well known that my mother was creative and people would often supply her with materials. Once a neighbor produced a big box of plain fabric that had been cut into squares, their intended purpose long since forgotten. On each of those squares Mum hand-embroidered the flowers that she loved and when they were done, she put them all together to create a bed spread. It was exquisite. She did this work in the evening after all her other work was done.
One of those bed spreads would have been an accomplishment, but because everyone loved it so much, she undertook to make many more. I don’t know how she did it. I don’t know how she did so many things.