I guess we must have been a patriotic lot in London in 1945. I was only 4 and a half but I think I had picked up on my mother’s terror, the bombs, the constant need of escape and the lack of food. Her sister in law’s new house in the suburbs was bombed and she went to try and comfort her. We lived in our grandmother’s house whose methodist beliefs, her own background and kindly disposition meant she often took in people affected by the bombing. Sometimes the house seemed full of strangers.
After the war many women who had lost their husbands were left to bring up children on their own. There was rationing and lack of housing but despite poverty most people helped each other out.
I came across a tiny folder of pictures of Balmore Street’s VE party the other day. They were tucked in a little leather folder that grandma kept with her even in a nursing home at the end of her life.
Grandpa worked part time as he had been gassed and shell shocked in the Great War and had spent two years in hospital. He loved to tell us he was the only sane person in the family because he had a certificate to prove it. I think both grandparents had barely recovered from the full impact of the Great War before the Second World War was upon them, their son called up, their eldest daughter doing war work. My mother was the youngest and worked in a factory making gas masks, where she met my father before he joined the Royal Signals and was sent abroad.
I had something to celebrate in 1945. I had made it into the world with a cleft palate in the middle of the Blitz in 1940. A leading plastic surgeon working with burned soldiers offered to mend my mouth, but my mother had to keep me from crying as it could affect the chance of a successful operation. I had to be fed from a spoon. The other day I found the card my mother was given with the name of the surgeon on it and a slip of paper the receipt for 12 shillings for my keep. This was the army allowance for one child and there was no National Health Service. Many years later there was speech therapy for children with this condition but we just muddled through.
On a warm sunny Sunday she slipped from her mother’s womb,
greeted by the crash of bombs.
London in the middle of a war, a baby with blue eyes
and a cleft palate.
But her smile soothed the souls of burned and bandaged soldiers,
talking only with their eyes.
Her mother sought lodgings in Wales
near father’s barracks, alien territory, to say goodbye
before his active service overseas
In forlorn kitchens on grimy stoves she heated milk.
her baby coughed and choked as her mother poured warm
waves of milk from a tiny spoon.
Poor mother, a girl caught on tenuous threads of life.
Later, curled up together, their mutual dependency
slumbered in the silence of the night.
My grandmother often talked about the war damage to the house which continued to cause endless problems over the years. My mother told me about her war experiences when I was about thirty I think she had been too busy living life to reflect on the past.
But young mothers had had a pretty tough time. We stayed in London for most of the war, my sister, 11 months younger than me, was always traumatised as an adult by firework night, picking up on my mother’s fear of buzz bombs during the war.
A wall in our house in Dartmouth Park Hill, opposite Balmore Street, partially collapsed during an air raid. It damaged grandmother’s back as she tired to escape to the shelter. She had to wear a huge ungainly corset for the rest of her life.
Push open the door and enter her room
with heavy beige wallpaper
and brown gloss paint.
Grandma, propped up with pillows,
crisp white sheet,
pure silk eiderdown,
raises a frail hand in greeting.
Time to cram her into her corset,
I stagger from chair to bed
with the well washed cotton contraption.
I am eight and grown up.
I fasten the buckles, thread tapes,
tug at cords, clip on suspenders,
under her orderly instructions.
I help her into her flowery frock,
brush her hair, dab on some powder,
pass her a mirror for her approval.
A bomb damaged Grandma’s back
but mother says she is indomitable.
She glides downstairs ready
to organise the rest of the house.
Whilst, sadly, many men and women did not come back from the war, those who did were often irrevocably changed. I remember my mother once saying that my father went away a boy and came back a man she barely knew.
What he and many others had experienced had been horrific, but after the jubilation that it was over, many found the world they returned to was no picnic. Many people don’t realise that rationing went on until 1953 and even when there were sweets in the shops many could not afford them.
Grandma put these flags across the house on VE day!
The flags were never abandoned just pushed into a bag and have gone from one member of the family to another.
A young mother on VE Day
Emotions ripple like a flag in the wind
red white and blue can it be true
relief floats past like a parachute
drifting into a safer environment
anticipation creamy sweet like biting
into a long forgotten block of chocolate.
excitement bouncing like brightly
Note – sorry original post had several typos.
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