My mother’s cousin was Bill Millin, he was Lord Lovat’s piper, and one of the many heroes of the D Day landings and battles in France.
Bill used to stay in our home town in Scotland but eventually left and settled in the south of England, but he was fond of my mother and visited us often over the following years. As a small boy I would sit and listen to his tales of marching across Pegasus Bridge, bullets whizzing past his head, killing his colleagues, but none hitting him. Various explanations were offered for this, that the German troops were sure he must be crazy so didn’t shoot him, or that the German commander was so impressed by Bill’s bravery that he ordered his men to avoid shooting him. I always liked the latter explanation, that a vestige of honour was maintained even in the midst of madness.
But what I did not discover until fairly recently was the impact the D Day landings had on my mother.
As a young woman in central Scotland, born into a large mining family of 15 children, she found work in a munitions factory, driving a crane. Around this time a cousin from Canada came over with the Allied troops to join in the D Day landings, and along with a group of his fellow Canadians, visited my mum’s family home and spent some time before going off to fight. Sadly her cousin was killed during the Landings and was buried in France.
By this time mum had moved to the Scottish Highlands, asked to come up to look after one of her sister’s family. And it was here that she met my dad, got married and settled down, raising three children. Decades later mum went with my dad to France to visit her cousin’s grave, just one young man amongst an uncountable number who fell in that foreign field. I still have some of the photos mum took of this trip. It was obvious that for some reason this particular event was significant, for reasons other than just the death of a relative, but I never discovered why.
Later in life my dad suffered severe ill health and passed away when only 70 after a miserable retirement punctuated by mental illness, but an illness which revealed many aspects of his life he had kept concealed. Mum gamely carried on and eventually, when in her late 60’s, decided to go alone to Canada to visit the remaining cousins she’d never met, several of whom were older than her and infirm and she wanted to see them before they died. She met up with some in the Saskatchewan plains, and then traveled to the B.C. coast to meet others. She had a great time.
But more than ten years later, and starting to show the early signs of dementia, mum quietly revealed a story she’d concealed for almost 60 years. I’m not sure of her motivation….maybe a sense of her failing mind, the love of ‘the story’, a feeling of guilt, or perhaps and more likely, just closing a circle that had for too long been left unattended….
Biting her lip, a glass of wine in her hand, and her eyes focused somewhere distant, she told me the story of her trip to Canada…….
“I didn’t just go to see the cousins………och…..John it’s a long story…….” and a tear welled up in her eye….“..when the Canadians came I fell in love with one of them……and we got engaged……”
….then…a long silence. Another sip of wine. A tear wiped before it started to obey the inexorable pull of gravity.
“He….well…he…bought me a ring, we were engaged, and I was so happy…. But then he had to go to war, off to fight in Europe, and I went to the railway station to see him and his fellow soldiers off, to wish them well. And then…….(a long regretful sigh)..and then……..my mum, your granny, and one of my big sisters appeared, and they pulled the ring off my finger and shouted at him…..and I just remember them throwing the ring at him, telling him it would never happen between us and the ring CLINK CLINK CLINKing and rolling along the platform towards him, and I was pulled away and he left on the train……….I can still remember his face, so sad, I could see it through my tears as the train left…..and then…..I never saw him again.”
Another silence, thoughts being lined up, emotion swelling and choking……both of us.
“And then I heard nothing more from him, and I moved north and met your dad, and we had a family and…..and….”
A long pensive stare out of the window.
“But I discovered only a short time ago, after your dad died, that my Canadian soldier had written to me, had written many many letters, but they never got to me, your granny or my sisters destroyed them, didn’t forward them to me, never told me he’d persisted trying to get in touch…..and he kept trying and trying….he never forgot me……and…….and……I never forgot him either….”
I’m utterly silent now, transfixed as the story unfolds….
“But I knew roughly where he’d been born in Canada, so when I went to visit the cousins all those years ago what I didn’t tell you or anybody was that I bought a bus ticket and went to the nearest small town to where I knew he came from, hundreds and hundreds of miles from where I should have been going. I didn’t know where to start – it was only a small plains town, a farming centre, but spread out, so I went to the Town Hall where they had a small tourist office and asked. There was a woman at the desk and she smiled and I asked her if she might be able to help me locate someone. “Who is it?” she enquired so I said, just a Canadian soldier I met when he was in Scotland before the D Day landings, he was with my cousin, and I just ….well…wanted to get in touch with him again.”
“What was his name?” she asked, so I told her……”
“She smiled even more broadly. “He was my father-in-law!” she said.”
Mum stood and listened as the woman explained that he’d survived the war, came home to Canada and eventually met his wife, a local girl, and had a family. But, with emotion cracking in her voice continued ….“…..sadly he died…just last year, I’m so sorry.”
A circle closed. Letters written, never received; a love lost against a backdrop of a war that saw the loss of many. But each one had a story, and it took many many years to discover just a fraction of the story of my mother’s experience.
And when my son is old enough I’ll tell him too. About war, about love, and most of all about the importance of stories. About keeping them safe. Then telling them.