It took a war for my grandparents to meet.
I’m sure I’m not unique in this regard. Who knows how many untold thousands had parents, grandparents and great-grandparents meet as a result of the upheaval faced by those whose lives were marked by not one, but two World Wars.
In a world before commercial air-flight, traversing the more than 10,000 miles between Scotland and Sydney would have been unheard of. Without a war, two teenagers, born only days apart but half a world away would never have met, fallen in love, and started a family linage which today includes three daughters, nine grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.
The HMS Anson pulled into Sydney Harbour on a wet and cloudy Sunday morning in July 1945, carrying my grandfather into the city he would soon love almost as much as the young woman he was about to meet.
The 19 year old Aussie girl from the Eastern Suburbs had no idea that night when she arrived for her volunteer shift at the British Centre near Hyde Park that her life was about to change forever. I wish I could ask her to tell her side of the story, how she felt when she laid eyes on the strapping young man, or heard his Scottish lilt for the first time. I’d love to know what crossed her mind when she took this young Royal Navy Sailor home to meet her family – (only several hours after meeting him herself!). Or how she passed the long months after his ship left Sydney, sailing for Hong Kong, then Tokyo, then back to the UK where, once the war was ended, he waited for his turn to return back to his new home, with his new love.
I can only imagine her side of the story. She’s no longer here to tell it to me. But in my Poppa’s memories, I see her through his eyes.
On my first Saturday night ashore, I has a meal, served by a lovely dark-haired girl behind the counter. I went back for some apple pie, as well as to flirt with the lass. After a while I plucked up the courage to ask if she was staying for the dance.
“Yes,” she said.
I met her after her serving duties were over and we danced all night until 11pm when she had to go home.
“Where do you live?” I asked.
“Clovelly,” she said, although I had no idea where that was.
“How do you get there?” I asked.
“On the tram.”
She steered me through Hyde Park towards a street I would later learn was called Elizabeth Street. The tram stopped just outside St James Station.
Australian trams were strange. No corridors, just hard seats. We bounced along with it as it ground and squealed along the tracks. The trip seemed to take an age, through a dark area of factories (now known as Moore Park), and finally to the stop at the end of her street.
Despite the late hour it seemed the whole family was still awake. I met them all, a blur of faces and names at the time. But most importantly, I had learned her name. Merle.
I’d arranged to meet Merle the next day after her shift near St James Station. As the time drew near I realised – in sheer panic – that there were dozens of young girls, all leaving work, standing around, hurrying to their tram or down to the train station, and lots of them meeting sailors.
And I had forgotten what she looked like!
All the girls had the same hairdo, all of them were pretty, all of them wore nice clothes. What was I to do?
Suddenly, there was a tap on my shoulder. I spun around.
There she was. Smiling, pretty, Merle. Of course I remembered how she looked!
I never told her about this.
I wonder what my Nanna would have said if he had told her. I’d like to think she’d have the same wry sense of humour I have. I’m sure she would laugh at Poppa, and then pat him on the arm in comfort, saying “Well it all turned out right in the end,” or something like that.
And it did turn out alright. In the end they were married for almost 35 years. Only death had the power to separate them.
I can’t imagine the pain of war. I can imagine the grief for those who lost loved-ones. But I can be thankful that in my little corner of the world, in my grandparents’ experience, out of war came love, and life and a family. And me.