My father died nearly twenty years ago now and he himself had very few memories of his parents who were killed during the war. He would have been about nine when they died, but never knew them very well, as he was evacuated to Cornwall at the age of six and before that had been in and out of hospital.
I was never even quite sure of my grandparents’ names and the only photo we have is of my grandfather. I must admit that one of the main reasons for going to visit my aunt was to see if I could find out a little bit more about the family before it was too late.
Well, my aunt excelled herself. Not only was she full of memories and anecdotes about her parents – she is two years older than my father which made all the difference memory-wise – but she also had a treasured photo album, full of pictures of her parents, pictures of herself and my father as children and even pictures of my father as a baby.
And so for the first time I came face to face with my grandmother. Facially we don’t look very alike, but I have her eyes and for the first time can see where my tendency to plumpness and ample bosomage comes from. The above is the earliest and most formal photo my aunt has of her. The others show a very jolly-looking woman whom I wish I’d known.
I am now full of questions. How come she didn’t have her children until she was 39 and 41 respectively? How did she manage to nab herself a handsome toyboy 11 years her junior? (The Husband is 7 years younger than me, so running after young boys is clearly a congenital proclivity.) And what was it like to have your six-year old son and eight-year old daughter evacuated and hardly see them for years? Using the new information I have I was able to find her on the 1901 census. She and her sisters are there, living with their Welsh parents in a grocer’s shop in London. I appear to come from a long line of shopkeepers, so it’s nice to know that in other ways I’m keeping up the family tradition.
The end of her story is a tragic one. My grandparents moved from London to Cheltenham, presumably to be closer to their children, and, according to their ID cards, both worked in an aircraft factory there. They were killed by German bombing in Weston-super-Mare – the family story is that they were on their way to see the children in Cornwall. When I Googled for their names on the off-chance, the first thing that came up is the Weston-super-Mare Blitz War Memorial, an online list of everyone who lost their lives due to enemy action in the town. It is somehow nice to know that their names will live online for posterity.
My aunt believed that her parents were killed by a freak accident, by a German plane discharging unused bombs on its way home. The reality is more sobering. The same lovely person who researched the War Memorial has discovered that in fact heavy bombing of Weston-super-Mare was a reprisal for the bombing of Bremen, because they thought Winston Churchill was in the area after returning from the US.
My father hardly knew his parents, my aunt still misses them even now and I never got to meet my jolly-looking grandmother. Who knew that the bombing of Bremen would have such profound and tragic consequences for us all? As I look at the photos of the grandparents I never knew, the politics of the war have finally become personal and I’m finding it all both intensely moving and very sad.