I remember tiny hands resting on a casket – two little girls in a newspaper photo. It was during the war in Afghanistan – another Canadian soldier killed. Their father.
I have often wondered about the girls in the photo – their life trajectory without a father – one family’s devastation that epitomizes the trauma of war, today defined by hostages and tiny white body bags. These untold stories elicit thoughts of my mother, 11 at the time when she, along with her siblings, learned that their father wasn’t coming home. A family altered; lives rewritten with a telegram in 1944. I decided to unpack my grandfather’s letters sent home during the Second World War if only to reread about the past — and note how I still feel an irrational but persistent longing for a different ending.
“If Mummy won’t write, you must, won’t you?” my grandfather writes to his nine-year-old daughter, (my mother), shortly after leaving for basic training in 1942. She became his sole link to his immediate family for a time because his wife (my grandmother) opposed his decision to join the war.
My grandfather’s strong “call to duty” outweighed his wife’s resistance not only because he held patriotic ties to his native England, but also because he believed that he could be just as easily killed working in the mines for a dollar day as on the battlefield – better to die for your country – the story goes.
After a few months, my grandmother softened and mailed her husband cigarettes, a strategic move that allowed her to maintain her pride, an olive branch disguised in tobacco. My grandfather politely pleaded for more “ciggs,” in future letters, perhaps, a symbolic request in return, to generate further communication with his wounded wife. It worked. My grandmother’s strike ended, and the love letters began to flow.
Early on, my grandfather optimistically wrote about the day-to-day challenges he faced as a soldier, justification likely meant to convince his wife and, maybe even himself, that his decision to serve was reasonable. I can almost see the six stubborn boils on his neck, the houseflies by the millions, “spits” flying overhead and the mustache he began to grow on D-Day.
I discover aspects of my grandfather’s personality as a father and husband. Describing the wonderment of “ … gazing into the sky as the searchlights look for planes in the dark,” was meant to impress his children, yet I sense that he’s struck by the effect as well. The mild discipline from afar when word reaches him that his sons are misbehaving, “Now be good for Mummy,” he implores. I can hear the worry in his voice when he learns his eldest son is now fishing alone along the riverbank and that his daughter wants to attend the local country dances. “I hope she will still be a little girl when I return,” he writes my grandmother. An overabundance of enthusiasm masks his loneliness as he wishes her, “the best Christmas ever.” He describes the army’s 24-inch beds and contemplates whether they both could fit. “I should like to be home for my next birthday – what a present that would be.” I can sense his satisfaction when he succeeded in sending flowers to his wife on their anniversary because a telegram would have signified the worst.
I notice as my grandfather’s Sherbrooke Fusiliers Regiment edged toward the front that his letters to my grandmother now contain doubts and appeals for reassurance. “Are you proud of me? Do you dream of me? Do you miss me?” He writes that his lifelong ambition of serving on the front has been achieved, how his mail is now marked “front lines,” and that it “makes a fellow feel good.” No longer did he sign off, “Cheerio,” or “All my love.” It became, “Keep writing and believing in me,” almost as if his wife’s prayers could protect him, keep him alive.
When the telegram arrived, a piece of my grandmother died that day, too. Unable to recover fully from the devastating loss, she concealed her hurt but an unrequited longing for a family that included her husband could not be veiled. Her glassy eyes always a reminder especially during the national anthem on Remembrance Day.
My mother, on that fateful October day, recalls her teacher’s friendly face stricken pale upon returning from a brief meeting outside and requested my mother and her siblings follow her to where their uncle waited. Five children are forced to grow up far too quickly.
I pack up the tattered letters, grateful for the reflection my grandparents and mother continue to inspire. They have involuntarily fostered a multi-generational transcendence of loss that seeps into your soul. In 2003, my mother and I finally had a chance to visit her father’s grave in Holland. After an emotional day, she pulled out a few blooms with roots from the shrub hugging her father’s grave for the trip home to Canada where a long-distance connection to him could be nurtured.
The blooms didn’t thrive as we’d hoped and my 90-year-old mother will always be that nine-year-old girl when she last saw her father and like all children, especially those now in Ukraine, Israel and Palestine, will continue to bear the cost of war. In my grandfather’s last letter to his wife, sent four days before he died and after sleeping outside for three months, often under his Sherman tank, he wrote, “I want to live very peacefully from now on.”
Trooper John McGuire fought from Normandy on D-Day, through France, Belgium and into Holland. If only his wish could be granted, an echo from the past, to live in peace, especially for the children – tiny hands abducted, buried in rubble or resting on a soldier’s casket.
Cassie Connolly lives in Toronto.