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Six years of my childhood in England were overshadowed by a war. Bombs and rockets were falling, sometimes daily and sometimes too close to my suburban home. And now children have suddenly found their lives dramatically changed by what is described as a war against a virus.
I’m wondering if my great granddaughters will come out of this war with some childhood memories that mirror Granny’s? Britain during the Second World War was fighting to keep the enemy away from our shores while making massive preparations to end its power: physical distancing and finding a vaccine are perhaps the equivalents in the war against COVID-19.
Children’s lives are subject to adult priorities, including the preservation of health, home and family life. Back then, the obsession was not with keeping distance but with maintaining darkness at night. Those bomb-carrying enemy planes could find our homes and factories, our hospitals and cars, by the blaze of light from uncovered windows or the beams of headlights. Police weren’t handing out tickets for too much fun in the park but air-raid wardens were coming to our front doors to warn of dangerous gaps in the curtains. We didn’t hear today’s ubiquitous commands to “stay home, stay safe,” but we were constantly bombarded with exhortations to ask ourselves, “is your journey really necessary?” The results were much the same; children’s lives were limited. We stayed close to home.
War always highlights gaps in preparedness for the battle. That old war did not start with desperate searches for ventilators but my father, who was in charge of procurement for a large London teaching hospital, had to find blackout material for hundreds of enormous windows in a few days.
In spite of all our attempts at distancing and the blackout, the virus still finds us as the bombs found us then. My father went back to work most nights to spend time on the flat roof of the maternity ward shovelling fire bombs into buckets of water.
Adults and children all become aware in wartime just who it is that are the essential front-line workers in the conflict. In the 1940s, children were focused on our armed services and the glamorous Americans who handed out gum: they were our heroes. And we had to be told not to swallow the gum. Many of our friends’ fathers were away for years and some never came home. I think that today’s children are learning that it’s not only the doctors and nurses who are the front-line heroes but also supermarket staff and bus drivers. And they’re being encouraged to say thank you. It was only as I grew up that I realized that my father’s part in the war was as essential as his brother’s service in the Air Force and often just as dangerous: that maternity ward suffered a direct hit one night and all the mums and babies were saved. But at the time I was annoyed that Daddy was rarely at home for the bedtime story. My great nieces’ mother and father are doctors in England, now working extra shifts: their daughters’ lament is just the same.
Young children’s lives are self-centred. School, home, food, play and, with luck, the presence of loving parents provide their horizons. School now is interrupted; teachers and parents face the challenge of maintaining lessons and entertainment for home-imprisoned children. We went to school with our gas masks slung around our necks. But our lessons were interrupted by the sound of Moaning Minnie, the warning siren that sent children and teachers to the air-raid shelter. Teachers’ popularity depended on whether they passed that dangerous time with chants of the times tables or with cheerful sing-a-longs. Confined at home, today’s children miss their peers but don’t fear that their home may be destroyed.
My sister and brother and I knew we were fortunate children because we had a Morrison shelter in our dining room. It was designed to withstand the weight of a house collapsing on it during a bombing raid. Every night we slept in this iron and steel cage, joined by our parents during really bad raids. It replaced the dining room table. But it also served as cave, den, secret meeting place and dance floor. Fortunate children are allowed to dance on the dining room table with their shoes on; and we were doubly fortunate because our house, unlike those of some of our friends, was never damaged. My great granddaughter is lucky, too; she is happy to find both parents at home all day, every day, and they are even willing to relax some of the rules around screen time.
Food is, or should be, a joy for children. And I don’t think that the war against the virus is causing the widespread changes in the possibility of joy that food rationing did back then. But there were treats. Our eggs, from Granny’s orchard-dwelling hens, were delivered by the postman. It sounds unlikely but it was indeed possible. The ritual opening of the carefully wrapped parcel, feeling for each egg in its nest of crumpled newspaper and the triumph if none were broken is a vivid memory. So much better than that disgusting dried egg, a product of nationwide rationing. Rationing now is imposed by stores that are challenged by supply chain problems and shelf-clearing panic buying. It is the task of parents, then as now, to find and prepare the food that young children take for granted and, then as now, children enjoy, complain about and messily help with preparing what is offered. I really hope that any difficulties caused by COVID-19 don’t last as long as that wartime rationing. I was four years old when it started, 18 when it finally ended.
So, yes, a war will bring changes to the normal lives of children and some children, tragically, will be the victims of war. But children are resilient, especially when, in the middle of their challenging adult concerns, parents maintain the familiar rituals and patterns of daily life that children cherish and rely on. And years later the young children in my life who lived through the coronavirus crisis may insist on sharing their gentle memories of daily life rather than stories of great trauma. That is my hope for them.
Gillian Sandeman lives in Peterborough, Ont.