For my parents, like so many others of their generation, World War II was the defining event. My father was relatively old, 28, when he enlisted after Pearl Harbor. He’d graduated from high school in 1933, at the worst part of the Depression, and had spent most of the 1930’s living with his mother and sisters and working as a day laborer on WPA projects and for the state highway department. After the war, he came back to Colfax, WA, and to the highway department, and spent the rest of his working life there.
My mother was living in Hackney, an industrial area of Northeast London, working during the war as a clerk/typist at the General Post Office. It was a particularly
nervous time for Jews in England at the time. Many thought it was only a matter of time before England made a deal with Hitler and agreed to send its Jews to the camps as well, or as many people here and elsewhere thought, Nazi Germany would overrun England and remove all doubt for the Jews.
Because their home was in an area targeted during the Blitz, my mother and her sisters left their home at 18 King Edward Road, Hackney, and moved to Oxford for the duration of the war. She told stories about bomb shelters, about surviving the
various kinds of rationing. She said they had to scrounge a bottle of whisky for the butcher – the currency he preferred — when they needed to get liver for my cousin Daphne, who was anemic. I even remember being here as a 4-year-old in 1953 when rationing was finally ended as part of the celebration of crowning the new queen, Elizabeth.
My dad had been injured pretty badly by a mortar shell during the Normandy invasion, and, after a long stint in a military hospital, had been sent to an Army Air Force base outside Oxford and retrained as a P-38 mechanic. He and my mother met, according to the story, in the line to a movie theater in Oxford.
He endured the result of those wounds in the form of hypertension – shell shock at the time
– and lived with a chunk of German shrapnel in his back. It was a cause of his premature death. My mother endured 35 years in Colfax.
Among her wartime stories – a happier memory – was returning after the war to their home in Hackney and not only finding the house intact but also a big hydrangea blooming in the garden. She attributed its health to the cats who also survived the war. I don’t believe that’s scientifically sound, but she always loved hydrangeas.
And that, finally, brings me to the travel portion of the story.
When we put my mother’s remains in the Edmonds Cemetery earlier this year, Pat and I saved one baggie’s worth to bring with us to London. That hydrangea – if it is still there – is Ground Zero.
We found the house easily and while the neighborhood looks pretty good, the house doesn’t. It apparently has been split into a couple of apartments, and there is a lot of repair needed. I was photographing the front of the house when one of the tenants came out. You can see his photo here, although I didn’t get his name. He said there was no hydrangea.
As you can see, the garden is walled off, and he said he didn’t have access to it. Our earlier thoughts about Pat climbing the wall were abandoned, and instead we chose a garden on the side of the house as the final resting place. At the suggestion of the unnamed tenant, we also walked over to Victoria Park, the big public part of Northeast London, where I had been taken many times as a kid. I had spent a number of summers here, and It was a nice trip back to a second home.