Sometimes we do our older relatives a disservice in our hurry to get on with our lives. We turn a polite, but deaf ear, to their stories. This character defect became achingly evident when my dad passed away a few years ago — darned if I didn’t wish I’d listened more, jotted down some of his tales, information now lost because of my inattentiveness.
And so now, unbeknownst to my mom, until she sees this column, I sometimes rush home after we’ve had a day out and capture her words on paper. I’d like to say I’m consistent, but I’m not.
I thought about my attempts to recall things she says when a late winter snow day kept many of us indoors. As driving pellets of ice hit the windows, I opened an email with photos from our daughter in Kirkwood. “Wouldn’t Grandma Ivy Be Proud?” the subject line read.
The pictures showed Miles, Reed and Phoebe helping Rebecca make doughnuts, a treat Grandma Ivy frequently made when our little girls visited. As parents and grandparents we never know how the little things we do will impact others.
One of the entries I made about my mom is from Sept. 3, 2012. We were talking on the phone — something we do all the time.
“Seventy-three years ago today, England declared war on Germany,” she said.
Rather than passing on one of Mother’s stories, I decided to pay attention. “And where were you, Mom?”
She said her dad was walking with her to school, which was near his shop — a liquor store in Manchester, England.
“Your life is going to change,” her dad, Jack Preece, told her.
“Little did I know how much it was going to change,” Mom said on the phone.
At 88, Mother’s as sharp as ever. She had the date right, of course. World War II was the defining factor in her life.
Manchester, a large industrial city, was hit hard by the Germans. The government dispensed gas masks, families took refuge in air raid shelters and draped their windows with blackout curtains. It’s hard to imagine living with the terror of not knowing when the Luftwaffe would strike and you’d walk outside to see your neighbor’s house reduced to rubble.
But wartime in England wasn’t all mayhem. Yanks and servicemen from other countries infiltrated the green isle taking the English girls for a twirl, on and off the dance floor. My dad was one of them — as was my Uncle Leo.
They made a pact to return to the farm in Gerald as they’d left, single and unencumbered. So much for promises.
My English aunt and mother didn’t know each other in Great Britain, but in Gerald they became one another’s lifeline, a connection to their home across the sea, to tea, scones, and families who missed them dearly and seldom got to see their grandchildren, nieces and nephews.
Today, with Mom living just a few blocks away, it’s hard for me to imagine how difficult that must have been. But Mother was plucky and brave, only 20 when she bid her parents goodbye to which her dad replied, “You’ll be back.”
And she was a few years later when my grandfather sent enough money to pay for my brother and me, and my dad and mom to travel by ocean liner to England. My aunt and her three children were along on the Queen Elizabeth II.
The grownups had their hands full. My cousin Gerald was the oldest, age 5, and we stairstepped down to my brother, just a baby. Mother said the dining room staff would quake with dread when they saw us coming.
To compound the situation, my poor aunt couldn’t get her head off the pillow, she was so seasick. And we think a road trip with toddlers is taxing.
My mom, dad, brother and I stayed in England for months — we didn’t have the money to get home. Dad drove a truck to earn the passage back. In recent years, I’ve heard about his experiences from an English gent we’ve grown fond of and have visited several times. Kenneth Brooks is Mother’s first cousin, and he has plenty of stories too.
We’ll hear more when we go to Great Britain in June, and I’ll have my listening ears on at his 90th birthday party. How I wish Mother could make that trip with us. But “those days are past,” she says.
So for now it will be suppers out around here, pots of tea with the great-grandchildren, movies with popcorn and endless conversations about the books we’ve read.
Passing along a love of reading is Mother’s lasting gift to me, and being my cheerleader, a role model with plenty of pluck and tales to tell. Hopefully I’ll have many more stories to record.