Happy Birthday, Patricia

Dear Patricia,

May 24th is the date of three anniversaries, two of which provide a nexus for my contemplating our family and the soil from which we grew.

May 24th is your birthdate, Patricia, dear sister, and that of cousin Kathleen, named after our grandmother. It is also the date of Grandmother’s death.

Our maternal grandmother’s name was Kathleen and her origins are lost in the mists of the Emerald Isle. Of her family we know nothing. Had they left her by choice or misfortune, or was it she who had cut the bonds? Her arrival on Earth seems to have occurred with meeting our grandfather on his “sporting” trip to Ireland in 1907. Bewitching she must have been, because he quickly razed his family’s Anglican tradition to make way for a Catholic wedding. He must have been aware that this leveling would not be easily forgiven or forgotten by other family members.

His name was Albert, son of an officer in the colonial army. We know a little of his family. Reasonably prosperous, they appear to have stayed connected. Educated in India, he would have appeared as a gate from the valley of poverty to a young girl from a village in County Cork. She would forsake her homeland for membership in the Protestant society of a small English city. Do you think she had any fears at this time that God would exact retribution for her decision?

By the end of 1909 the first child had arrived. Fred was the hoped for son, a handsome lad. By the summer of 1912 Marguerite (Rita), our mother, had been born and in the ensuing eighteen months a few portraits appear of our grandmother and her children, one only of the whole family. The poses are formal, the tone serious but not overtly joyless.

The Great War came and Grandfather Albert joined the army that had been his father’s pride. A dapper pose in France preserved in print we have seen, but little else tells of the events of this time.

There are seemingly tender notes from father to daughter and words from daughter to father written in an adult hand. Any expressions of love between husband and wife either were unstated or have not been preserved. Ewart, his favorite nephew, who also went to France and left his youthful body among so many others in that tortured landscape, is not mentioned. I feel that Ewart and his namesake are my white shadow and a key to making some sense of our family narrative.

In 1914 the soldiers marched, keeping time to brass bands. They looked like metal toys, so shiny, so colourful, so perfect. The strong young men, so fine, were to protect national interests. They were to cross foreign boundaries with a romantic swagger, flags flying. They were to have returned swiftly victorious with banners still waving and bands still playing.

But gallantry and romantic illusion died in the mud alongside the youth. They became poisoned by the gas, terrorized by the rats, felled by disease. Heroism formerly had been for the few and the fabled. It then became commonplace, losing its magic as the death toll rose. Its charm was amputated without anaesthetic.

Parents and partners wept, grief heightened by incomprehension. So many dead. So many no longer whole in body. So many no longer sound of mind.

They believed that their cause was surely right. The others were surely wrong. Wrong to steal land. Wrong to hurt their loved ones.

So they still saluted, but with less certain hands. They still sang, but with less confident voices. They watched the horses yield to machines which were hardier survivors. Even their corpses refused to rot.

And yet they celebrated the sacrifices made because this had been the war to end all wars. The price was high but not too dear for a chance to live in a world at peace.

There are no commemorative souvenirs in our family records of the hope and joy of the Armistice in 1918. Albert must have returned and shed his uniform because in 1919 Ewart, his lost nephew’s namesake, came into the world. At this birth the fledglings, hope and joy, were torn from the nest and never took flight again.

Our uncle Ewart was born with some form of mental handicap. It does not seem to have been severe but his mother pronounced that it was a curse from God for her having married a Protestant. I believe that she severed sexual ties with our grandfather.

I speculate how the few simple sentiments written in childish words and sent on silk postcards from France might have been expressed when the war in Europe was over and the war at home began. My speculations leave me strangely disquieted.

Within me sounds a voice that I have never heard in life.

You’re Daddy’s girl. I remembered your big brown eyes when I was across the Channel. On dark nights I saw you in your white petticoats. In the worst stench I could smell the talcum powder that made you sneeze. You are sweet innocence, watching the birds, gathering flowers, and sleeping in your cot.

Your mother may have been like you when she was your age. But you will not change. You will love your daddy and he will be happy. You will sleep in his arms and he will be happy. He will be happy.

The family came apart. Uncle Fred went to live with one Aunt, our mother with another and Ewart stayed at home.

Aunt Clare raised our mother in a very strict Victorian manner but provided a private schooling which, when completed, gave an education that was probably better than most girls of her age and position would have received at that time (c. 1928). Nothing is found in family archives to indicate what, if any, contact was maintained with her father. There are a few pictures of her and Fred with Ewart.

I had been told as a child that Ewart had died young. I have found out only recently that this is not true and he might even still be alive. I have tried to follow traces to find out what happened to him. He was the subject of dispute between our mother and her brother, neither wanting to care for him, and he disappeared from their lives and seemingly from the planet about 1945. I assume he was institutionalized but have been unable to find any record. Our mother lied about it to me and her brother refused to speak to our cousin, Kathleen (Uncle Fred’s daughter), about it before his death. Secrets and lies, shame and rejection, the matrix of our sad family.

Our mother met our father at a Catholic young people’s group that they attended prior to the war. Aunt Clare had obviously respected something of her family’s change because our mother had clearly not become Anglican.

Our father was the second oldest of a family of eight. His father, a gardener at Benedictine monastery, was a fairly rough and rude man from what I can gather. Our father, who had wanted to be a commercial artist when he was young, was forced to leave school at 14 to help feed the family. He initially worked in the Monastery garden, then in a munitions factory and joined the Army when war broke out.

I have come to realize later that our father had a clinically depressive personality but such terms were not widely used nor understood then. Some of the experiences must have been very difficult because there was no post-trauma counseling in those days. One of his first jobs before going to Europe was with the Home Guard in Birkenhead during the blitz. He helped recover and identify the bodies of civilians.

In general, I think he enjoyed military service. It seemed to have given him a sense of importance and purpose denied in his upbringing. He and our mother married in 1943.

On May 24, 1944 you were born. You lived for six months. I try to imagine your face that I have never seen. No image of you seems to have been recorded, not even for our absent father. Or did all likenesses disappear with your passing?

Patricia Mary. Mary, named for the virgin, to return blessing to the family. Patricia, you became too soon an angel, entered too readily the realm of unchanging innocence. We could have shared so much had you lived. Or perhaps not. When you escaped the painful chamber of your little body, you probably freed yourself from future suffering too. If the meningitis had diminished your capacity you would have been ranked with Ewart, another curse of an angry God to be endured. Another shame to be concealed. I wonder what they would have seen as the source of God's wrath this time. The very effort to seize a little happiness in this tormented world might have been blamed. Is it possible that you were conceived in joy with hope for the future, rather than in duty to satisfy unfortunate physical imperatives? Was that their sin? Was your illness the seal of doom on their marriage as Ewart's had been on that of your grandparents?

Our mother might have loved and cherished you, but you died anyway. That departure confirmed for her the futility of caring. She saw through her mother's eyes the malediction, a family weakness that would hold the mind in quicksand, making a mockery of any cherished wishes of redemption that we might have vainly held.

At least there are no negative connections between us. You are my sister, a point of light, a source of no harm.

Patricia Mary, you came into the world during another terrible war. No one felt safe then. Families were separated. Our father was fighting in Europe. He was there when you were born, while you were sick and when you died. He returned just in time for your funeral. He never saw his little girl alive.

How did he feel about that? I don't know. He didn't say. Did he tell you?

He never spoke a word of you. Your memory lay buried as deeply within him as your body rested beneath the grass. After the burial no more flowers were brought either to you or him.

After the funeral our father returned to war. Four months later, May 24, 1945, on what would have been your first birthday, our grandmother hanged herself with a weaving that she had been preparing for a “special occasion”. She was found by Ewart who waited with her until our mother returned.

In 1945 the war ended. In 1946 I arrived.

And on May 24 I remember you, Patricia. Happy birthday to the sister that never was but always will be.


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