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U3A Writing: My Mother's War

...My mother's war ended when my brother came home on his demob leave and said he wished to become engaged to a Dutch girl. He hadn't much money and nice rings were scarce, so mother took the engagement ring off her finger and said, "Give her this!"...

Jean Thornley, writing with great good humour, remembers war-time days.

It seemed no time at all after War was declared that busy people were issuing us with ration books, identity cards and gas masks in small cardboard boxes. My mother had made blackout curtains on her little Jones hand sewing machine, my father became Quartermaster in the Home Guard and a large communal air raid shelter was dug in the field at the back of the houses.

Our neighbour, a local surveyor, was in charge of the wardens. He had an invalid wife who was left alone when he was on duty, so he asked Mum if she would take the lady to the shelter when the sirens sounded. This she did, complete with blankets and a flask of tea until we realised there wasn't much threat in our area, so from then on if the siren was heard, she was just brought across to our house until the all clear sounded.

It wasn't long before a well-meaning lady from the church knocked at our door and asked if we would take an evacuee My mother immediately said she would take one girl. She thought a girl could share the second bedroom with me, and my brother could go into the small room until he went into the army.

On the day of arrival, teatime came and went, and it was dark before the well-meaning lady landed at our door with two girls, sisters who didn't wish to be parted, saying that no one else would take them. My mother took one look and agreed, although pointing out that one girl would have to sleep on a camp bed. The well-meaning lady, who wasn't taking any evacuees herself, then said that I could sleep at her house, but Mum said she wasn't turning out her daughter and we would manage.

Thus the two girls, one twelve and one nine, were taken in, seated and given refreshments. Then Mother told them what to expect. "We live by rules in this house, she said. " We keep ourselves clean.” (Cleanliness being the most important word in my mother's language).

“We don’t tell lies, we don’t steal and we help each other.”

She then went into the scullery and had a good cry.

The younger one never really settled. I was told to take them upstairs to the bathroom, give them clean towels and make sure they took a bath. They hadn't had a bathroom or a bath at home, and I remember the young one saying the clean bit would be the easiest! My mother did catch her stealing and telling lies, and when confronted she would have a tantrum which cut no ice with my mother. I think the child eventually decided she would prefer to take her chances with the blitz, rather than carrying on battling with my mum.

However the elder one, Margaret, was so happy with us that when the time came for her to be old enough to work and her parents demanded her home, she ran back to us. Eventually she left to join the Land Army. She continued writing and visiting until mother died. She said Mum had put her feet on the right path and she had tried to follow what mother had taught her throughout her life.

My brother went into the army. As soon as he had disappeared round the corner of the Avenue Mother cleaned his room, washed his clothes and put everything away. This she would do after his every leave, right through the war.

We already had a cat and our dog had recently died. My father arrived home one day with an 'evacuated dog', a great Bull Mastiff with a pedigree better than ours, registered at the Kennel Club as 'Guy of Gisbourne', known to us as just Guy. He came from Corfe in Dorset, his owners having gone into the services.

He was a huge, amiable dog who soon became part of the family and all the others in our vicinity. So much so that after the war when his owners came to take him home they realised that he was too attached to us and would never settle back with them, so they decided to go home and raise babies instead.

To feed Guy my mother would beg marrow bones from the butcher. These would go into a big cast iron pot with a collection of vegetables (my father having turned over some land next to our garden to grow them). She would also add any egg shells from our ration, as calcium for his bones. The mixture would set into a thick jelly, good enough for us to eat. He would get offerings from the neighbours as well.

Meanwhile my brother was getting on with the job of being a soldier out in Africa. He had made a friend whose wife and children were suffering from the buzz bombs in London. My brother wrote asking Mum if they could stay with her for a while for a rest.

Molly duly arrived with two toddlers and a baby. They stayed for six months. Mum juggled with beds, making one for the baby in an extended bathroom chair. She also juggled with rations, making marvellous sponge cakes, puddings and omelettes out of dried eggs and peppermint creams and mintoes out of dried milk as treats. She turned sheets, patched, knitted and darned her way through the war.

Mother had lived through one terrible war as a young girl, when she wrote letters home for soldiers unable to do so and eventually married a wounded one, my father. This must have been constantly on her mind when thinking of my brother, first in Africa and then in France. We didn't know at the time that he landed on the Arromanches beaches on D.2, but through his letters we knew he had gone up through the Falaise Gap, Caan, Ghent and into Holland.

My mother's war ended when my brother came home on his demob leave and said he wished to become engaged to a Dutch girl. He hadn't much money and nice rings were scarce, so mother took the engagement ring off her finger and said, "Give her this!"

She eventually welcomed Wilhelmina into our home, the girl's parents having stipulated that she should live in England for three months to see if she would be happy. (They celebrated their Golden Wedding two years ago). When the time was up our house became Open House as Mum welcomed Wilhelmina's family for the wedding.

She lived by her rules.

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