Tag Archives: WWI

“My Grandmother and Myself”…A Short Story From WWI.

Two years ago, our son was booked to go on a European history tour with his school, which included visiting the battlefields of WWI, and spending ANZAC Day at Villers-Bretonneaux. Wanting him to know what our family members had gone through, I started researching my Great Great Uncle, Jack Quealey, and my husband’s Great Uncle Ralph French who was Killed in Action at the Battle of Mont St Quentin.

It was all supposed to be fairly quick, and nothing more than an overview. However, it was me doing the research, and after covid hit and his trip was cancelled, unravelling and understanding their WWI experiences dramatically expanded to become “My Covid Project”, especially as lockdowns and self-isolation continue. Once again, my passionate curiosity had led me astray.

As it turned out, there were some interesting twists to their stories. Uncle Jack’s parents were Irish, and the “Bill” Uncle Ralph mentioned in his diary might’ve been born in Tasmania, but his parents and siblings were German-born. While the Irish initially supported the Empire and got behind the war effort, the 1916 Uprising and the brutal English response, reignited longstanding animosity and called for independence. I’m Australian and we weren’t taught any Irish history at school or university and I just grew up with some scant reference to the potato famine. I had no idea parts of the family had come out more recently, and what had gone on. Ireland was simply the land of green grass and Guinness. Clearly, I’ve been on a steep upward curve trying to make sense of it all, and it’s no wonder I’ve ended up in an Irish mist so much of the time.

Anyway, this brings me to this short story I wanted to share with you. Of course, it will mean a lot more to people with Irish heritage, but I really enjoyed it as a story and was also intrigued by the grandmother who can’t see, but has incredible vision- very much like a close friend of mine.

My Grandmother And Myself 

By Mary Synon 

ILLUSTRATIONS BY BOARDMAN ROBINSON 

My grandmother was at the basement window, peering into the street as if she were watching for someone, when I came home from school. “Is that you, John?” she asked me as I stood in the hall stamping the snow from my boots. “Sure,” I called to her. “Who’d you think I was? A spirit?” 

She laughed a little as I went into the room and flung down my books. My grandmother hasn’t seen any one in ten years, though she sits day after day looking out on the street as if a parade were passing; but she knows the thump of my books on the table as well as she knows the turning of my father’s key in the lock of the door. “‘Tis a lively spirit you’d make, Shauneen,” she said with that chuckle she saves for me. “No, ’twas your father I thought was coming.” 

“What’d he be doing home at this time?”

“These are queer days,” she said, “and there are queer doings in them.”

“There’s nothing queer that I can see,” I told her. 

“I’m an old, blind woman,” she said, “but sometimes I see more than do they who have the sight of their two eyes.” 

She said it so solemnly, folding her hands one over the other as she drew herself up in her chair, that I felt a little thrill creeping up my spine. ”What do you mean?” I asked her.

“Time’ll tell you,” she said. 

My mother came in from the kitchen then. “Norah forgot to order bacon for the morning,” she said. “Will you go to the market, John, before you do anything else?” 

“Oh, I’m going skating,” I protested. 

“It won’t take you five minutes,” said my mother. She seemed tired and worried. The look in her eyes made me feel that there was trouble hanging over the house. My mother isn’t like my grandmother. When things go wrong, my grandmother stands up straight, and throws back her shoulders, and fronts ahead as if she were a general giving orders for attack; but my mother wilts like a hurt flower. She was drooping then while she stood in the room, so I said: “All right, I’ll go,” though I’d promised the fellows to come to the park before four o’clock. 

“And look in at the shop as you go by,” my grandmother said, “and see if your father’s there now.” 

“Why shouldn’t he be?” my mother asked. 

There was a queer sound in her voice that urged me around past my father’s shop. My father was there in the little office, going over blue-prints with Joe Krebs’s uncle and Mattie Kleiner’s father and a big man I’d never seen before. I told my grandmother when I went home. “I knew it,” she said. “I knew it. And I dreamed last night of my cousin Michael who died trying to escape from Van Diemen’s Land.” 

“You knew what?” I asked her, for again that strange way of hers sent shivery cold over me. 

“Go to your skating,” she bade me. 

There wasn’t much skating at Tompkins Square, though, when I found the crowd. The sun had come out strong in the afternoon and the ice was melting. “Ground-hog must have seen his shadow last week,” Bennie Curtis said. All the fellows—Joe Carey and Jim Dean and Frank Belden and Joe Krebs and Mattie Kleiner and Fred Wendell and the rest of them—had taken off their skates and were starting a tug of war in the slush. Mattie Kleiner was the captain on one side and Frank Belden the captain on the other. Mattie had chosen Joe Krebs and Jim Dean and Joe Carey on his side. Just as I came along he shouted that he chose me. Frank Belden yelled that it was his choice and that he’d take me.

“He don’t want to be on your side!” Mattie cried. “He’s with the Germans!” 

“Well, I guess not,” I said, “any more than I’m with the English. I’m an American.” 

“You can’t be just an American in this battle,” Frank Belden said. 

“Then I’ll stay out of it,” I told him. 

They all started to yell ” Neutral!” and “‘Fraid cat!” and “Oh, you dove of peace!” at me. I got tired of it after a while, and I went after Mattie hard. When I’d finished with him he bawled at me: “Wait till your father knows, he’ll fix you!” 

“What for?” I jeered.

“For going against his principles, that’s what,” Mattie Kleiner roared. 

“I’d like to know what you know about my father’s principles,” I laughed at him. 

“Well, I ought to know,” he cried. “I heard him take the oath.” 

“What oath?” we all demanded, but Mattie went off in surly silence. Joe Krebs and Joe Carey trailed after him. I stayed with the other fellows until it was dark. Then I started for home. 

Joe Carey was waiting for me at the corner. “Do you believe him, John?” he asked me. “Do you believe Mattie about the oath?” 

“How’s that?” I parried. I seemed to remember having heard a man who’d been at the house a fortnight before whispering something about an oath, and I knew that I’d heard my mother say to my grandmother: “I pray to God he’ll get in no trouble with any oaths or promises.” I kept wondering if Mattie Kleiner’s father and Joe Krebs’s uncle and the big man with the blue-prints who’d been in my father’s shop had anything to do with it.

“Oh, Mattie’s talking in his sleep,” I said. 

“Well, maybe,” said Joe Carey; “but he wasn’t sleeping the night they had the meeting in his house. He was on the stairs going up to the top floor, and he kept the door open a little way and he heard everything they said, and nobody at all knew he was there.” 

Joe Carey’s eyes were almost popping out of his head, and so I knew that Mattie had been telling him a long story.

“I guess he didn’t hear very much,” I said. 

“You bet he did,” Joe declared. “He heard them reading the letters telling people not to go on the ships because they were going to be sunk, and he heard them talking about bombs and munition factories. He says that he heard your father say that he’d gladly lay down his life for the sake of Ireland.” 

“But Ireland’s not in this war!” 

“Sure it is! Mattie says the Germans are going to free Ireland if they beat England. That’s why the Irish ought to be with the Germans. Mattie says your father’ll be awful ashamed that you wouldn’t go on his side. Mattie says your father…” 

“I don’t give a whoop what Mattie says about my father,” I told him. “I guess I can take my own part.” 

“I guess you’ll have to,” said Joe. 

As I went up the street toward our house I had that queer feeling that comes sometimes after I’ve been away for a while, a fear that something terrible has happened while I’ve been gone and that I’ll be blamed for it. It was dark on the street, for people hadn’t lighted the lamps in the basement dining-rooms, and I was hurrying along when suddenly a man’s voice came over my shoulder. I hadn’t heard his step behind me at all, and I jumped when he spoke.

“Where does Mr. John Sutton live?” he asked me. 

“Right there.” I pointed to our house. 

“Do you know him?” he asked. Through the dark I could see that he was a tall man with sharp eyes. I knew that I had never seen him before, and that he didn’t look like any of the men who came to my father’s machine-shop. “Don’t you know Mr. Sutton?” he repeated. 

“Yes, sir.” 

“Know him well, sonny?” 

“Yes, sir.” 

“How well?” 

“He’s my father.” 

He whistled softly, then laughed, turned on his heel, and strode down the street. I watched him to see if he’d take the turn toward the shop, but he turned the other way at the corner. I thought that I’d tell my grandmother about him, but my mother was with her in the dark when I went in. They were talking very low, as if someone were dead in the house, but I heard my mother say, “If I only knew how far he’s gone in this!” and my grandmother mutter: “Sure, the farther he goes in, the farther back he’ll have to come.” I stumbled over a chair as I went into the room with them, and they both stopped talking. 

I could hear the little hissing whisper my grandmother always makes while she says the rosary, but I could hear no sound from my mother at all until she rose with a sigh and lighted the gas-lamp. She looked at me as if she hadn’t known I’d been there. “Have you any homework to do to-night, John?” she asked me. 

“No, ma’am,” I said. “It’s Friday.”

“Then I want you to come to church with me after your dinner,” she said.

“Oh, I don’t want to go to church,” I’d said before my grandmother spoke. 

“‘Twill be a queer thing to me as long as I live,” she said, “that those who have don’t want what they have and that those who haven’t keep wanting.” 

The telephone bell rang just then up in the room that my father uses for an office, and I raced up to answer it. A man’s voice, younger than that of the man who’d spoken to me, came over the wire. “Say, is this John Sutton’s residence?” it asked. “And is he home? And, if he isn’t, who are you?” 

“What do you want?” I called. 

“Information. This is The World. We hear that there’s to be a meeting of the clans to-night, and we want to know where it’s to be held.” 

“I don’t know,” I said. 

“Can you find out?” 

“No,” I lied. “There’s nobody home.” 

“Won’t your father be home for dinner?” 

Even then I could hear his key turning in the lock, could hear him passing on his way up to his bedroom, but a queer kind of caution was being born in me. “No, sir,” I said. (pg227)

“Who was that?” my grandmother asked me when I went down. 

I told her of the call, told her, too, of the man who had stopped me on the street. Her rosary slipped through her fingers. “I feared it,” she said. Then the whisper of her praying began again. 

At dinner my father was strangely silent. Usually he talks a great deal, all about politics, and the newspapers, and the trouble with the schools, and woman-suffrage, and war. But he said nothing at all except to ask me if the skating were good. My mother was just as quiet as he, and I would have been afraid to open my mouth if my grandmother hadn’t started in to tell about New York in the days she’d come here, more than sixty-five years ago. She talked and talked about how different everything had been then, with no tall buildings and no big bridges and no subways and no elevateds. “Faith, you can be proud of your native town, John,” she said to my father. 

“I wish I’d been born in Ireland,” he said. 

She laughed. “And if I’d stayed in Ireland, I’d have starved,” she said, “and little chance you’d have had of being born anywhere.” 

“It might have been just as well,” he said bitterly.

“Oh, no,” she said; “there’s Shauneen.” 

He rose from the table, flinging down his napkin. “I won’t be home till very late,” he said to my mother. 

She stood up beside him. “Do you have to go, John?” she asked him. 

“Yes,” he said. 

“Oh, John,” she said, “I’m afraid.” 

“Of what?” 

“Of what may happen you.” 

“Nothing’ll happen me,” he said. 

I wanted to tell him of the strange man who had halted me on the street, and of the telephone call, but my father’s anger was rising and I feared to fan it to flame. My grandmother said nothing until after my father had gone. Then she spoke to my mother. 

“Don’t you know better,” she asked her, “and you eighteen years married to him, than to ask John not to do something you don’t want him to do?” 

My mother began to cry as we heard the banging of the outer door after my father. “Well, if you can do nothing else,” my grandmother said, “you’d better be off to church. Keep your eyes open, Shauneen,” she warned me, while my mother was getting her hat and coat. 

It was a grand night, with the evening star low in the sky, like a lamp, and the big yellow moon just rising in the east. The wind blew sharp and salt off the water, but there was a promise of spring in the air, saying that it must be almost baseball time. We went over to the Jesuit church, walking slowly all the way. There we knelt in the dark until I was stiff. As we came out my mother stopped at the holy-water font. “John,” she said, “will you promise me that if you ever marry you’ll never set any cause but God’s above your wife?” 

“No, ma’am, I won’t,” I said, vaguely understanding that my father had hurt my mother by his refusal to stay at home, and wondering what cause he had set above her. As we walked toward the car line I remembered what Joe Carey had told me of Mattie Kleiner’s speech about my father. “Do you have to go to Ireland to die for Ireland?” I asked her. She clutched my hand. “My grandfather died for Ireland,” she said, “and he wasn’t the first of his line to die for her. But I pray God that he may have been the last.” She said no more till we came into our own house. 

My grandmother was still at the window of the dining-room. There was no light, and my mother did not make one. “There was another telephone call,” my grandmother said. “Norah answered it. ‘Twas the newspaper calling again for John to ask about the meeting. She said she knew nothing about it and that no one was here to answer.” 

“Do you suppose,” I said, “it was detectives?” 

They said nothing, and I could feel a big lump coming up my throat. I thought they might not have heard me until my grandmother said: “Do you know, Kate, where the meeting is?” 

“I don’t know, and I don’t want to know,” my mother cried. She turned to me sharply. “Go to bed, John,” she said. 

“I know where the meetings are,” (pg 228) I blurted out, eager enough for any excuse to put off the hateful order. “They’re at Mattie Kleiner’s house, because he hides on the stairs when they come, and he heard them take the oath.” 

“Is that Matthew Kleiner’s boy?” my grandmother asked, so quietly that I thought she had not realized the importance of my news. 

“Yes, ma’am.” 

“Go to bed, Shauneen.” She repeated my mother’s order. 

I went up-stairs, leaving the two of them silent in the dark. I whistled while I undressed, but I shivered after I had turned out the light and jumped between the sheets. I was going to lie awake waiting for my father’s return, but I must have dozed, for I thought that it was in the middle of the night that something woke me. I knew, as soon as I woke, that someone was in my room. I could feel him groping. I tried to speak, but my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth. Then I heard a faint whisper. “Shauneen,” it said. 

So far away it seemed that I thought it might be a ghost until my grandmother spoke again. “Your mother’s in bed now,” she said. “Put on your clothes as quick as you can.” 

“What is it?” I whispered. 

“We’re going to Matthew Kleiner’s, you and I,” she said. “I’d go alone if I could see.” 

“What time is it?” 

“Between ten and eleven.” 

I pulled my clothes on as fast as I could. Then stealthily as thieves we crept out from my room and down the stairs. I held my grandmother’s hand and wondered at its steadiness. When we had come outside the basement-door she halted me. “Look down the street for the tall man,” she bade me. There was no one in sight, however, and we walked along sturdily, turning corners until we came to Kleiner’s. 

It was a red-brick house in a row, not a basement house like ours, but with a cellar below and an attic above its two main floors. There was no light on the first floor, but I thought that I saw a stream behind the drawn curtains upstairs. I found the bell and pushed on it hard. No one came for a long time. I rang again. I could see shadows back of the shades before Mattie Kleiner’s mother came.

“What is it?” she demanded before she opened the door. 

“Tell her that your mother’s sick, and that you’ve come for your father,” my grandmother ordered me.

I repeated what she’d said.

Mrs. Kleiner opened the door. “Oh,” she cried, “it is Mrs. Sutton and little John. Oh, you did frighten me. Is the mother very sick? I shall call the father.” 

“Let me go to him,” my grandmother said. We were inside the hall then, and I put her hand on the railing of the stairway. She had started up before Mrs. Kleiner tried to stop her. “I’ve a message for him,” said my grandmother. Mrs. Kleiner and I followed her. At the top of the stairs I turned her toward the front room, for I could hear the murmur of voices. I passed a door and wondered if Mattie Kleiner were hiding behind it. “Oh, we must not go in,” Mrs. Kleiner pleaded. “The men will not want us to go in.” She tried to stop us, but my grandmother turned, looking at her as if she could see her. “I’ve always followed my own conscience, ma’am,” she said, “not my husband’s, nor my son’s, nor any other man’s.” 

From within the front room came the sound of the voices, growing louder and louder as we stood there, my grandmother alert, Mrs. Kleiner appalled, I myself a thrill. I could hear my father’s voice, short, sharp. “It’s our great opportunity,” he was saying. “We have only to strike the blow at England’s empire, and the empire itself will arise to aid us. Twenty thousand men flung into Canada will turn the trick. French Quebec is disaffected. What if soldiers are there? We can fight them! We may die, but what if we do? We will have started the avalanche that will destroy Carthage!” 

There were cries of “Right!” to him. Then a man began to talk in German. His voice rang out harshly. From the murmurs that came out to us we knew that the men were applauding his words, but we had no idea of what the words were. Mrs. Kleiner stood wringing her hands. “Who’s in there?” my grandmother asked her. 

“I do not know,” she insisted. 

Pg 229

“Joe Krebs’s uncle is there,” I said. “I know his cough. And Mr. Winngart who keeps the delicatessen shop. And Frank Benner’s father; and that’s Mr. Carey’s voice.” 

“They just meet for fun,” groaned Mrs. Kleiner. 

“Sure, I saw that kind of fun before,” said my grandmother, “when the Fenians went after the Queen’s Own.” 

My father’s voice rose again. “We are ready to fire the torch? We are ready to send out the word tonight for the mobilization of our sympathizers? We are ready to stand together to the bitter end?” 

“We are ready!” came the shout. Then my grandmother opened the door. 

Through the haze of their tobacco smoke they looked up, the dozen men crowded into the Kleiners’ front bedroom, to see my grandmother standing before them, a bent old woman in her black dress and shawl, her little jet bonnet nodding valiantly from its perch on her thin white hair. She looked around as if she could see every one of them. My father had sprung forward at her coming, and, as if to hold him off, she put up one hand. 

“Is it yourself, John Sutton, who’s talking here of plots, and plans, and war?” she said. Her voice went up to a sharp edge. She flung back her head as if she defied them to answer her. All of them, my father and Joe Krebs’s uncle and Mattie Kleiner’s father and Mr. Carey and Mr. Winngart and the big man who’d had the blue-prints in the shop, and the others, stared at her as if she were a ghost. No one of them moved as she spoke.

“‘Tis a fine lot you are to be sitting here thinking ways to bring trouble on yourselves, and your wives, and your children, and your country. Who are there here of you? Is it yourself, Benedict Krebs, who’s going out to fight for Germany when your own father came to this very street to get away from Prussia? Is it you, Matthew Kleiner, who gives roof to them who plot against America, you, who came here to earn a living that you couldn’t earn at home? Is it you, Michael Carey, who’s helping them hurt the land that’s making you a rich man? Shame on you; shame on you all!” 

“Why shouldn’t we fight England?” Joe Carey’s father said with a growl. “You’d be the last one, Mrs. Sutton, that I’d think’d set yourself against that.” 

“‘Tis not England,” said my grandmother, “that you fight with your plots. ‘Tis America you strike when you strike here. And, as long as you stay here, be Americans and not traitors!” 

They began to murmur at that, and my father said: “You don’t know what you’re talking about, mother. You’d better take John home. This is no place for either of you.” 

“No more than it’s a place for you,” she said. “Will you be coming home with me now?” 

“I will not,” my father said. 

“Faith, and you’ll all be wishing you had,” she told them, “when the jails’ll be holding you in the morning.” 

“The jails!” The big man who had held the blue-prints came closer to us. “What is it you say of jails? You have told the police, then?” 

“I didn’t need to,” my grandmother said. “The government men have been watching this long time. ‘Twill be at midnight that they’ll come here. But ’tis not myself they’ll be finding.”

I saw the men’s glances flash around the room through the smoky haze before she called: “Come, Shauneen.”

I took her hand again and led her out of the room. Just before the door closed after us I saw that my father’s face had grown very white and that Mattie Kleiner’s father had dropped his pipe on the floor. 

Outside the house I spoke to my grandmother tremblingly. “Do the police really know?” I asked her.

She gave her dry little chuckle. “If they don’t, they should,” she answered; “but I was born an O’Brien, and I’ve never known one of them yet that ever told the police anything. No, Shauneen,” she laughed, “’twas the high hill I shot at, but I’m thinking that the shot struck. We’ll watch.” 

We crossed the street and waited in the shadow of the house at the corner. For a little while all was quiet at Kleiner’s. Then I saw the tall man come out with Joe Krebs’s uncle. After a time my father came out with Mr. Winngart and Mr. Carey. They walked to the other (Pg 230) corner and stood there a moment before they separated.

“Shall we go home now?” I asked my grandmother after I had told her what I had seen. 

“Not yet,” she said. “I’ve one more errand to do this night.”

I thought it might have something to do with the tall man who’d spoken to me or with the telephone call, and I wondered when she sighed. “I’m a very old woman,” she seemed to be saying to herself. “I’ll be ninety-one years come Michaelmas Day. Some of the world I’ve seen, and much of life. Out of it all I’ve brought but a few things. I’d thought to give these to my son. But—” She paused. “How old are you, Shauneen?” she asked me. 

“Fourteen,” I said. 

“Old enough,” she nodded. She turned her head as if she were looking for something or someone. Then: “Do you know your way to the Battery?” she asked me. 

“Sure,” I told her. “Are you going there?” 

“We are.” 

It had been quiet enough in our part of town. It was quieter yet when we came to Bowling Green and walked across to the Battery. Down there, past the high buildings and the warehouses, we seemed to have come into the heart of a hush. To the north of us the sky was afire with the golden glow from the uptown lights. In front of us ran the East River and the North River. Out on Bedloe’s Island I could see the shining of the Goddess of Liberty’s torch. Every little while a ferry-boat, all yellow with lights, would shoot out on the water. A sailing-vessel moved slowly after its puffing tug. The little oyster-boats were coming in from the bay. A steamer glided along past it as I walked with my grandmother out toward the old Castle Garden. 

On the Saturday before Joe Carey and I had come down to the piers, prowling all afternoon on the docks, watching the men bringing in the queer crates and boxes and bags while we told each other of the places from where the fruits and spices and coffee and wines had come. There were thousands and thousands of ships out there in the dark, I knew, and I began to tell my grandmother what some of the sailors had told us of how the trade of the world was crowding into New York, with the ships all pressing the docks for room.

“If you could only see it!” I said to her.

“I can see more than that,” she said. Then: “Take me to the edge of the waters,” she bade me. 

Wondering and a little frightened, obeyed her, trying to solve the while the mystery of her whim to bring me to the deserted park in the middle of the night.

“Is Castle Garden over there?” she pointed. “Then, I’ve my bearings now.” 

She stood alone, a little way off from me, staring seaward as if she counted the shadowy ships. The wind blew her thin white hair from under her bonnet and raised the folds of her shawl. There in the lateness of the night, alone at the edge of the Battery, she didn’t seem to be my grandmother at all, but some stranger. I remembered the story I’d read somewhere of an old woman who’d brought a pile of books to a King of Rome, books that she threw away, one by one, as he refused them, until there was but one book left. When he’d bought that one from her he’d found that it was the book of the future of the empire and that he’d lost all the rest through his folly. As I looked at my grandmother I thought she must be like the old woman of the story. Even her voice sounded strange and deep when she turned to me. 

“It was sixty-five years ago the seventh of November that I first stood on this soil,” she said. “‘Tis a long lifetime, and, thank God, a useful one I’ve had. Burdens I’ve had, but never did I lack the strength to bear them. Looking back, I’m sorry for many a word and many a deed, but I’ve never sorrowed that I came here.” 

I would have thought that she had forgotten me if she hadn’t touched my arm. “You’ve heard tell of the famine, Shauneen,” she went on, “the great famine that fell on Ireland, blighting even the potatoes in the ground? We’d a little place in Connaught then, a bit of land my father was tilling. We hadn’t much, even for the place, but we were happy enough, God knows, with our singing and dancing and the fairs and the patterns. Then, little by little, we grew poorer and poorer. I was the oldest of the seven of us. My (pg 231) Mother and myself’d be planning and scraping to find food for the rest of them. Everyday we’d see them growing thinner and thinner. Oh, mavrone, the pity of it! And they looking at us betimes as if we were cheating them of their bit of a sup! Sometimes now in the dark I see them come to my bed, with their soft eyes begging for bread, and we having naught to give them. Brigid—she was the youngest of them all—died. Then my father went. 

“I used to go down to the sea and hunt the wrack for bits of food. There by the shore I would look over here to America and pray, day after day, that the Lord would send to us some help before my mother should go. You don’t know what it is to pray, Shauneen. Your father cannot teach you and your mother hopes you’ll never learn. For prayer is born in agony, avick (my son), and grief and loss and sorrow. But because you are the son of my soul I pray for you that life may teach you prayer. For when you come to the end of the road, Shauneen, you’ll know that ’tis not the smoothness of the way, but the height of it and the depth of it, that measures your travelling. Far, far down in the depths I went when I prayed over there on the bleak coast of Connaught. 

“God answered my prayer. There came from America food to us. There came, too, the chance for me to come here with the promise of work to do. ‘Twas a drear day when I left home. How I cursed England as I looked back on the hills of Cork harbor, all green and smiling as if never a blight had cast its shadow behind them! 

“‘Twas a long, dreary sailing. Nine weeks we were in the crossing. A lifetime I thought it was between the day I looked on the western sea from the Connaught mountains and the day when I stood here looking back toward home. Sure life is full of lifetimes like those.” 

She paused a moment, but I felt as if I were under a spell that I must not break by word of mine. A cloud came over the moon and all around us grew shadowy. The big throb that the city always beats at night kept sounding like the thrumming of an orchestra waiting for the violin solo to start. 

“I’d plenty of them before many years.” My grandmother’s voice came like the sound for which the thrumming had waited. “Did you ever think what it means to the poor souls who come here alone for their living? When you’ve a house of your own, Shauneen, with men servants and maid servants, don’t forget that your father’s mother worked out for someone. They were kind people, too, who took me to their homes. Don’t forget that either. For ’tis my first memory of America. Kind they were, and just. They helped me save what I earned and they showed me ways of helping my folks at home. I’d brought out Danny and James and Ellen and Mary before the war. I met each one of them right here at Castle Garden. That’s why I always think of this place as the gateway through which the Irish have come to America. Sure Ellis Island’s been for the Italians and the Jews and the Greeks. We didn’t wait outside the door. We came straight in,” she chuckled. 

“My mother wouldn’t come from the old place. Long I grieved over her there in the little house where my father and Brigid had died, but after a while I knew she was happier so. Sometimes, Shauneen, I think of Ireland as an old woman, like my mother, sitting home alone in the old places, grieving, mourning, with her children out over the world, living the dreams of her nights by the fire. ‘Twas here we found the freedom the Irish had been fighting for. ‘Twas here, away from landlords and landholding, away from famine and persecution, that we found that life need not be a thing of sorrow. ‘Twas here I met your grandfather. 

“I’d nothing of my own, and your grandfather had but a trifle more when we married. I suppose ’tis brave that people would call us now. We didn’t think that we were. We were young and strong and we loved each other. And we were getting along fairly well—we’d started the payments on a bit of a house of our own after your father was born— when the war came down on us. 

“Your grandfather went with the brigade. Not twice did we think whether or not he should go. We knew that he owed his first duty to the country that (pg 232)had called him, and sheltered him, and given him work and hope and freedom. For he was a boy from home as I was a girl from home. I stood on the curbstone the day he marched by, with your father in my arms, and I cheered for the flag. ‘Sure he’ll be walking to meet you when you come back!’ I called, lifting up the child. Your grandfather never came back. He fell at Marye’s Heights.” 

When she spoke again her voice had changed more to her every-day tone. “Well, I raised your father,” she said, “and I thought I was raising him well. My arms were strong. I worked at the wash-tub morning, noon, and night. It wasn’t long till I had a laundry of my own. I thought to give my son all that I’d ever wanted for myself. Perhaps that was where I made my mistake. I thought too much of the things that money can buy in those years when money was so hard to earn. Perhaps ’twas myself and no other who taught your father the cold, hard things of life, though, God knows, I’d no thought to do it. He’s a good man in many ways, but he’s not the man I want you to be. He’s a good hater but he’s not a good lover. And, faith, what’s there in life but love?” 

I moved a little then, and my grandmother swung me around, with her two hands on my shoulders, and, blind as she is, stared at me as if she were looking right down into my heart. “Shauneen,” she said, “I have prayed, day and night, that your father might be to America the good citizen his father was. I have prayed that if America should ever need him he would stand ready for her call. I have prayed that he’d love America as I have loved America. I love Ireland, mavrone. Always in my heart do I see her hills as they looked on the morning I looked back on them from the sea. But I love America, too, and I wanted my son to love her even more than I do. I’ve wanted him to love this land as my fathers and their fathers loved Ireland. ‘Twas not that I wanted him to forget my land; when he was a lad like you, I’d tell him tales of Ireland’s glory and of Ireland’s woe. How was I to know that all it would do for him was to rouse the black hate for England? I taught him love for Ireland, but never did I teach him to set my land above his own. 

“For ’twas America gave us our chance, Shauneen, when we’d no other place on earth to seek. Hard days we’ve known here, too, days when even the children jeered at us, but we’ve never felt the hand of the oppressor upon us since we touched our feet on these shores. We’ve been free and we’ve prospered. Fine houses we have and fine clothes; and ’tis a long day since I knew the pinch of hunger. This is our debt. Tell me again, Shauneen, what you see out there?” 

I told her of the shining lights, of the funnels of the steamers, of the piled piers, of the little oyster-boats, of the great liners waiting the word for their sailing. 

“‘Twould be a fine sight,” she sighed. “Do you think me a madwoman to bring you here?” she went on, as if she had read my thought. “Perhaps I am that. Perhaps I’m not. For you’ll remember this night when you’ve forgotten many another time, just as I remember the day when my mother took me to the shrine at Knock. For this is the shrine of your country, Shauneen, this old Castle Garden, where your people set foot in the land that’s given them liberty. Here it was that I told my brothers and my sisters of the future before them. Here it is that I’m telling you that your country will be the greatest nation of all the world if only you lads stay true to her. That’s why I’ve brought you here to-night, Shauneen. I’m an old, old woman. I’ve not long for this earth. But I’ve this message for you; it’s yours; this duty that your father shirks when he plots with black traitors who’d drag us into wars that are not of our choosing. Raise your hand, Shauneen. Say after me: ‘As long as I live, God helping me, I shall keep my country first in my heart and, after God, first in my soul!” 

Through the misty moonlight there came to me the memory of my mother’s plea at the door of the church, my mother’s cry: “Promise me that you’ll set no cause but God’s before your wife!” Some battle of spirit struggled within me. For an instant I was silent. Then, suddenly, as if the moon had ridden above the cloud, I saw the right. “Since all (pg 233) true causes come from God, it is right to set my own country above anything else that may ever come. I said the words after my grandmother. She took my face between her hands and kissed me. “God keep you, Shauneen, for the woman who’ll love you, and the children you’ll teach, come.” Then through a sleeping city my grandmother and I went home. 

……

There’s a lot to absorb and process in this story, but I wanted to share it with you first.

What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear from you and get a bit of discussion going.

Best wishes,

Rowena

Where To From Here?

“It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.” Lewis Carroll

I wonder if there is truly anyone whose life is exactly how it was back on New Year’s Eve 2019 we entered into 2020? I remember that night so well watching the Sydney fireworks on TV at a friend’s party. We had such high hopes for 2020. After all, it was meant to be the year of perfect vision – not the beginnings of a terrifying global pandemic which is still haunting us two years later.

Indeed, that also leads to the next question about whether we have changed. Or, to be more precise how much have we changed both as individuals and communities in all sorts of ways since covid first appeared?

There’s been a lot of talk about how vaccines are changing our DNA. However, I haven’t heard anyone mention how we might be reprogramming our own brains through the various covid or lockdown projects many of us are undertaking, and how the very structure of our brains could well be altered as a result – again in good and bad ways.

My world has been affected more than many because I wasn’t in paid employment when Covid hit due my lingering health issues, but I was more or less at a point where I was considering looking for some part time work. Before lockdown, I’m been beavering away on my blog and had various attempts at writing books, and have been trying to find my thing. With our son booked to go on a six week history tour of Europe and visiting the battlefields of France where his Great Great Uncle paid the ultimate sacrifice just three months before the end of WWI, I started retracing his steps and putting together his story. I also picked up on my Great Great Uncle Jack Quealey who I knew very little about and I had so much trouble nutting his story out, that I had to reach him through the letters and diaries of other soldiers. Before I knew it, researching our family members had expanded into a massive, obsessive research project. I saw no problem in that. Only good. Covid was the enemy, and I was going to have something concrete to show for it. Indeed, as lockdown continued, and it was still unsafe for me to venture out, and lockdown started up again, this project had totally overgrown it’s boundaries and it had become all consuming. While my friends were out there exercising with equal zeal, I was researching, writing, transcribing letters for hours and hours, days, months. Indeed, I didn’t mean this to happen, but along the way, I stopped playing my violin, my keyboard and even writing my blog. I also kept putting off exercise. Well, exercise is hardly my best friend, and it is a bit like swallowing that vile teaspoon of cod liver oil, especially before I get out there and actually see the roses and our stunning local beaches and coast.

Well, if you know anything about neuroplasticity, you know that the wiring in our brains isn’t set in stone. It is fluid – ever-changing. So the more you do something, your brain responds by building bigger fibres…whether these are good, bad, or indifferent habits. It’s part of the reason why practice makes perfect. It’s also the same with emotions. If you keep getting angry, the angry cable in your brain will just keep getting bigger and bigger unless you start bringing your anger in line.

This is all very simplistic. I’m not trying to be a neuroscientist. I’m just trying to give you the general gist.

Anyway, just before Christmas the penny finally dropped. Sydney had just completed an incredible four month lockdown and with my auto-immune disease and acute lung complications, I had to stay low. Moreover, after our fearless Prime Minister and his cohort, our new NSW Premier, decided to “let it rip” to save the economy, I burrowed deeply underground hoping the storm would pass by overhead and leave us alone. However, that hasn’t happened and now to quote a friend “it’s EVERYWHERE!!” Omicron is like the common cold on steriods. I’ve also decided it’s the fulfillment of all my grandmother’s most vivid nightmares of germs…germs on the toilet seat, germs on the public phone. She would’ve been beside herself through this covid crisis and her handbag which always seemed to have a bag of lollies (for herself as much as for us), dainty hankies which were useless when she cried in Church, she’d now be armed with industrial strength Spray & Wipe. The sort of stuff that dissolves the surface of your benchtop, your toilet seat, as well as a layer of skin.

To be perfectly honest I’ve found it much easier to hide than deal with all of that.

However, after two years of hiding, and after two years of fighting for the needs of vulnerable people with disabilities and chronic health conditions to be acknowledged and safeguarded and two years of detailed, obsessive but incredibly fascinating and productive research, I am not who I was before. I know I am seriously out of kilter, and all sense of balance has gone.

The other aspect to all this hiding away is that my social life is all but dead. For the hardcore introvert, that could be a blessed relief. However, as a fairly extroverted extrovert it has fairly major ramifications. I don’t know what it is to go our for dinner with friends anymore, and I’m glad I managed to get out for dinner with Geoff a few times before omicron flared up. I’ve become a prisoner inside my own body let alone the house.

After spending so much of the last two years reading, writing and researching and very little time socialising, exercising, or even doing such basic things as catching the train and using cash, I know I’m nothing like who I was before. I don’t know if I can or choose to go back to sit on the same seat on the bus I was occupying before. Or, if I want to get off. Or, Indeed, in so many ways I know I already have.

Of course, I know I’m far from alone in all of this. That many of you who are in the same boat, and you’re also asking: “Where to from here?”

The honest answer for me, is that I just don’t know.

My daughter goes back to school next week, but of more immediate concern, it seems covid has snuck under the front door and I’m not feeling well. Our son went to youth camp and we pretty much expected him to bring it home. I did try to get him tested before he came back, but that fell through. I tried to usher him straight into his room, but he was full of stories and so full of life. Meanwhile, our daughter’s best friend was also positive and just about everyone we know aside from my mum and dad has it or has been exposed. Dad is waging his own war on covid and he he won’t catch it, and it won’t catch him. A true introvert, he’s determined.

“When I used to read fairy tales, I fancied that kind of thing never happened, and now here I am in the middle of one!”  – Lewis Carroll

So, where to from here? In the immediate sense I’m off to make a cup of decaf tea before heading to bed. Anything more than that, will have to wait until tomorrow.

Meanwhile, I’d love to hear your thoughts about what lies ahead and I should just mention that the first quote from Lewis Carroll comes from a book I’ve just started reading: Tea & Honesty with Jules Sebastian – wife of international singer and musician Guy Sebastian and now an author in her own right.

Best wishes,

Rowena

Christmas 1921 with Ethel Turner and the Sunbeamers

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities.

After providing a brief sketch of the state of play during Christmas 1921 in my previous post, we’re now going to spend Christmas 1921 with famous English-Australian author, Ethel Turner, whose first novel: Seven Little Australians placed her up on the international literary stage. However, she also wrote 39 other novels, and of more relevance to us, she edited a string of children’s pages in various publications, and it’s here where we’ll be touching down.

Born on the 24th January, 1870, Ethel Turner was 51 years old in 1921, and a year younger than I am now. She was married to Judge Herbert Curlewis and they were living at their home in Avenel, Mosman, Sydney although they spent Christmas 1921 at Palm Beach. Daughter, Jean,  was twenty-three, and son Adrian was twenty and studying Law at Sydney University. By Christmas 1921, Ethel Turner had had 22 of her handwritten  novels published, and King Anne was her offering for the year. She was famous.

However, for Ethel Turner it wasn’t the empty fame of celebrity. Rather, there was a strong sense of purpose and a desire to make a difference, and do good. While I can be dangerous to interpret Three Little Maids as being purely biographical, there is also much truth and Dolly (who is said to be Ethel) made this statement about becoming an author: “One night…I felt I must do something. I felt I couldn’t just go on doing little things always,-staying at home and helping, and going to dances, and playing tennis. I used to think I should like to go as a missionary, – not to China, of course, only somewhere here where people were very poor and miserable. But that night I didn’t seem to want anything but to write books that people would love to read, and that might do them some good.[1]

This aspect of Ethel Turner is often lost….the visionary, the world-changer, the woman who had experienced financial hardship as a child and relocated across the world for a better life, worked hard and overcome. She’s simply viewed through the lens of Seven Little Australians as though she were a one book wonder. However, it appears that the massive difference she made to the lives of children through the series of children’s pages she edited has been forgotten, along with how she nurtured the artistic and literary abilities of younger generations through these pages. She was such an inspiration!

The trouble is that it’s very hard to condense an inspiration into a few lines or words to satisfy those who don’t want to immerse themselves more fully into the longer story. However, in this instance, can I caution you to sit down. Make yourself a cup of tea, and in the words of the great Molly Meldrum: “Do yourselves a favour!”

We’re going to pick up with Ethel Turner on the 20th November 1921.  Sunbeams had only been launched on the 9th October, 1921, and just over a month old, and still in the nest. Yet, that didn’t stop Ethel Turner from launching an ambitious plan to make a difference that Christmas:

“FROM A CHAIR IN THE SUN

ABOUT SUN FAIRIES

Dear Young People, — One of the many tastes we have in common, you and I, Is our love for conjuring tricks. Here is one I particularly want you to try. Take a child with the corners of its mouth right down and its eyes running over with tears (there are any amount of them in the hospitals and crowded back streets, alas). Go up close to it, and with a quick sleight-of-hand slip into its fingers a tiny doll as pretty as a fairy. In less than half a minute the eyes will dry and the mouth corners go up. This trick has never been known to fail. So now then, let us do it together. Your part is to buy a tiny celluloid doll or kewpie, dross it in something very fairylike — gay and pretty, or comical as an elf — put it in a, tiny box, and post or hand it in to “Sunbeams.” My part will be to find the children in the hospitals and back streets about Christmas time. I shall also examine the dolls carefully — we will call them Sun Fairies— and give three prizes of half-a-crown each to the three most attractive ones, and six “Sun” honor cards. You need send no coupon with this competition, as the doll will cost you anything from twopence to sixpence. Send December 1st.

Yours ever,

Ethel Turner[2]

Ethel Turner received an enthusiastic and touching response to her call for contributions. On the 11th December, 1921, she wrote:

“THE SUN FAIRIES

ROOMFUL OF WONDERFUL DOLLS DAME MARGARET DAVIDSON’S WINNERS

The response to the “Sun” fairies competition was splendid and many little “Sunbeams” will be cheered by the really wonderful little dolls sent in… It was a lovely spirit which prompted the competitors to send in the dolls — they were not concerned with winning prizes, but with doing something with their own hands which would give pleasure to children, to whom dainty dolls are a rare and precious luxury. Many of the children marked their entries: “Not sent in for a prize,” and pinned to almost every doll was a pretty little greeting to the recipient. They sat about all over the floor and the chairs and tables rather impatient in their boxes, just as trapped butterflies might be; they were eager to be gone upon their task of carrying sunshine. They were dressed in silk and spangles, in little frilly skirts of lace, in bridal gowns; in elf costumes; there were little mother fairies with tiny children around them, father fairies, fussy and important, fairies with opera cloaks on, and carrying bags; baby fairies, red riding hood fairies; one or two arrived with their beds and bedding, a few with suit-cases for the week-end and complete wardrobes. Wendy came, together with John and Michael, and Peter Pan. And wands! There were enough wands to have enchanted all Sydney and turned it to happy ways had they been held up. And no one, not any one, had forgotten the pretty little card with “From one Sunbeam to another” and other affectionate greetings. Dorothy Makin’s box of dolls, which won first prize, lacked only the bride groom to make the wedding party complete. But then it is so difficult to make a fairy-like creature of a man who should be dressed strictly in black. It was a rainbow wedding, and the bride chose ivory satin for her gown. She also had an overskirt of lace, and trimmed her whole frock with pearls. She wore the usual wreath and veil, and carried a bouquet of white blossoms and a fan. Her maids were frocked in rose, mauve, coral and eau-de-nil silk net, and wore quaint filets round their heads. Just by way of being different, they all carried fans instead of bouquets. Five little fairies, in five little boxes with five little Christmas cards, were sent by Betty Blake, who was second prize-winner. Betty dressed her fairies in white lace, showing beribboned petticoats. Glinting beads of gold and silver shone like spangles on the little dolls which will gladden the hearts of sick children on Christmas Day. Betty Grimm’s Sunbeamer was dressed in her party frock of rose-colored silk net, and she carried a lovely curling white feather fan. (But even fairies cannot live in party frocks all the time, so Betty sent along a box full of neatly made clothes for everyday wear, and did not forgot even a tiny tin of powder to powder her nose.[3]

Of course, this touching story of generosity and human kindness is not complete without hearing about the sun fairies final destinations:

THE SUN FAIRIES: How The Kiddies Loved Them”

I know that all of you who made a “Sun” Fairy will be delighted to hear how much joy they gave to the children who received them. Here are two letters which tell you all about them:–A.I.F. Wives and Children’s Holiday Association.

Furlough House, Narrabeen. Dear Sunbeams, — The dear little sun fairies arrived quite safely, and as fresh as when’ they left the designers’ hands. I am sure if the little donors could have seen the pleasure they afforded when received on Christmas Day they would be delighted to know they were indeed sun fairies in so much as they made radiance shine from each receiver’s face. With all good wishes to the Sunbeams from all the soldiers’ children at “Furlough House,” Yours sincerely, Ruby Fowle, Matron The second letter comes from Mrs Lyster Ormsby, who in the crowded streets of the city has for years sought to bring joy and sunlight into the lives of the little children there. Soup Kitchen for Little Children, 40 Burton-street, Darlinghurst. Dear Little Sunbeams,— I want to thank you for the dainty little ladies, fairies and babies the came to the Soup Kitchen during Christmas week. They came all neatly tucked away in a box, and was told they were to be given to some of the poor little’ girlies that I know as presents from “one Sunbeam to another. Well it happened that some of my little pals were hanging round when I unpacked your box and if you could have heard the “O-o-ohs” and “A-a-ahs” of admiration that came from them as I drew each dolly out of the box, you would have felt that you had sent a real sunbeam along. I gave your dollies away in many different quarters, and I feel sure you will be glad to know that each and every one received a warm and loving welcome from the new mistress. Among my little Soup Kitchen Girlies was one who has just left school and so felt too big for a doll. She always has a real live baby in mind-but still I could tell by the look in her face that she was just envying all the smaller girls; so I picked out a tiny kewpie doll that had been so prettily dressed in baby frills and I said: “I know you’re fourteen, Alice, and too big for dolls — (she thinks she is, you know) – but this is a Kewpie for luck and it goes on the rail of your bedstead. Would you like it?” She just loved it, and rushed off home to put it on her bed right away, “Good-bye, little Sunbeams, and a happy new year to you all from Inys Ormsby.[4]

And now we’ll back peddle just a little, and read Ethel Turner’s Christmas Day letter to her Sunbeamers:

A VERY MERRY XMAS FROM A CHAIR IN THE SUN

Christmas Day

Dear Young People,—

Do you know Anna? What Anna? Merry Christmas anna happy New Year. Yes, I know this is the seventh time you have been asked this same joke, but that is the best about Christmas Day, isn’t it, there is such a rosy, kindly light everywhere, that you are ready to smile seven times at anything and everything. I hope that you are, every one of you, as happy as larks to-day: the boy with the sixpenny humming top, as well as the one with the expensive aeroplane. Happiness, real lark-like happiness, isn’t a thing to be bought with money; it is a thing right inside you. There is really an amazing amount of it lying about free in a sunshiny land like this; believe me it is not shut up in those expensive toyshops, pleasant though those places are. Happiness is just a little light, bubbling thing that you make for yourself, just as the lark makes its song. Good-bye till next week. Do you know Anna?

The Sunbeamer[5]

I hope you have been each to absorb each of these letters word by word, and truly absorb an Ethel Turner who might appear idealistic, utopian and off with the very fairies she was passing on. However, aim low has never had much of a ring to it, has it?!! I personally found her sentiments so heart-warming and encouraging, and way too good to be lost for eternity in a bunch of newsprint.

So, I hope you and yours are managing to find some of that lark-like happiness this Christmas and carry it into the New Year as well.

Best wishes,

Rowena Curtin


[1] Ethel Turner, `Three Little Maids, pp 302-303.

[2] Sun (Sydney, NSW : 1910 – 1954), Sunday 20 November 1921, page 2

[3] Sun (Sydney, NSW : 1910 – 1954), Sunday 11 December 1921, page 2

[4] Sun (Sydney, NSW : 1910 – 1954), Sunday 15 January 1922, page 2

[5] (Sydney, NSW : 1910 – 1954), Sunday 25 December 1921, page 22

Weekend Coffee Share – 6th June, 2021.

Welcome to Another Weekend Coffee Share!

I don’t know whether I should be apologizing for taking an extended blogging break, or whether you’ve all been grateful for a reprieve. Only so many hours in a day and all that. I get it. Truly, I do. Indeed, that’s why I’ve been missing in action for awhile and have been blogging much more intermittently this year. Real life has overtaken me, and I’m also striving towards what must be a writer’s Holy Grail…finishing a book and getting it published (or indeed, self-publishing).

My contribution to the the great libraries of the world, book shops, op shops, and no doubt recycling bins; is a compilation of short biographies of Australian soldiers who served in WWI and fusing family background, battle details, letters home and diaries where available with a focus on the psychological aspects of war and the inner man. How did they survive physically and mentally? Of course, so many didn’t make it and instead “went West” as the saying went. So, death and dying is also a significant aspect. I’ve been working on this for about 18 months now, especially since the horrendous Australian bushfires and their choking smoke forced me underground, only for Covid to send me back into my bunker not much later. Indeed, I’ve been calling this my “Covid Project.

Meanwhile, there’s been a lot going on.

On Monday, I attended my dear friend, Lisa’s funeral. We’ve only been friends for just over six months, and yet we connected very deeply and neither of us thought our friendship was going to be that short. Lisa’s been fighting a very aggressive form of breast cancer for eight years. She’d had three brain surgeries, and after the cancer started eating through her spine, there was more surgery and she had a rod put in her spine. She was married with three boys, and the youngest was only two when she was diagnosed and he’s now eleven. Sometimes, people turn to survivors like Lisa, and be inspired by their strength. After all, they’re a personification of the miraculous. They can also became what my mother calls “a case” where they suddenly become the pet project and helping them out seems to become more about people gaining Kudos that actually helping the person themselves. You can also feel sorry for them. However, when we first met Lisa, she looked relatively well and she had the most beautiful smile. We went on picnics, kayaked, saw in the New Year, the visual overrode the intellectual knowledge that she was already on borrowed time, although I was somewhat prepared to lose her. I made a conscious decision to love her, be close without holding back, even though I knew it was going to hurt like hell. However, we both needed each other and I’m glad I was there to help lift up the last six months and help her feel loved. Indeed, when a friend went to see her, she said she felt “overwhelmed by love”. A friend and I spoke at her funeral, and although we didn’t know her for long, we knew her well. At least, the Lisa she was then which is after marriage, kids, cancer…quite a lot of life.

Have you found that it’s hard to know quite what to do and where to turn after the funeral is over? That’s what I felt last week. There was a part of me which thought going back in time to before we met would be the answer. However, you can’t do that and I don’t want to wipe out our friendship or forget her. I’ve put her photo in a frame. That’s a start. I wrote a song, a poem. I think about her much of the time, and I baked her boys a cake. I can’t change the world, and as Benjamin Franklin and other before him in various variations wrote: “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes”.

Anyway, dealing with my grief took me to my usual haunt…the op shops. Never knock a bit of retail therapy. As long as it doesn’t take you too far into debt, it can work miracles and if you’re going round the second-hand charity stores like me, you can save a small fortune (not that you’d be able to afford all of this stuff new.) I am particularly thrilled with my new to me fleecy-lined, purple jacket. I also managed to get my mum a beautiful designer top for her birthday.

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By the way, I almost forgot to mention that we had to buy our son his first suit to wear to the funeral. I had hope to buy him something smart from the op shop. However, he insisted on something new, and who doesn’t feel fabulous in something special that’s new? He looked incredibly handsome, and I was so proud of him, especially because he’s spent his whole life with his own serious ill mother, and the parallels to our situation were obvious. Why not me? I wouldn’t say I have survivor’s guilt. It’s more a case of survivor’s question marks.

Yesterday, Geoff and I went for a walk. Naturally, I needed to lighten my mood and walking is a true-blue healer. Moreover, we went for a bushwalk where there are some absolutely breath-taking coastal views. So, we were immersed in nature. The sun was shining, although being Winter here, it was a little chilly, but we certainly weren’t rugged up. Indeed, I think it was about 16-18 degrees Celsius. Not bad for Winter, hey?!! One of the highlights was finding a flannel flower, and it looks like there’ll be a carpet of them in about a month’s time. So, I’ll have to keep an eye out. While you’d think I’d be back at this spot at least once a week given it’s alluring beauty, I usually only get here a few times a year. As usual, life gets in the way.

Flannel Flowers

I should mention that I have two dogs up on my lap- Lady and Zac. Nothing like a drop in temperature to attract the dogs to a warm lap, and having my keyboard perched on their backs doesn’t seem to bother them – or the constant clicking. They’re also keepin me toasty warm.

How have you been? I hope you’ve been well. I look forward to hearing from you and catching up.

This has been another contribution to the Weekend Coffee Share hosted by Natalie the Explorer at https://natalietheexplorer.home.blog/

Best wishes,

Rowena

Positive Thinking Be Damned – An Aussie Voice From the Spanish Flu Pandemic 1919.

I wonder how many people have taken on a project throughout Covid… Something to give them an enhanced sense of purpose and hope when everything around us is at best weird and completely unrecognizable (even your nearest and dearest behind the cursed mask), or for those who are losing precious loved ones one after another, there’s tragedy and grief.

Three out of the four of us trying on glasses at Specsavers last week when part of Sydney was under lockdown and we were playing it safe.

I’d got stuck into my project before covid. That’s because I was already in iso at home literally struggling to breathe during the Australian bushfire crisis. I have 50% lung capacity and was confined to our loungeroom or bed with the air-conditioning on. On bad days, I couldn’t leave these rooms. It was absolutely terrifying, and seriously life-threatening. Yet, at the same time, I was quite safe in my hidey-hole.

This is when doing some background research on family members who’d served in France during WWI really took off, turning into multiple projects of epic proportions. It is only a short jump from WWI to the 1919 Spanish Flu Epidemic. Indeed, tonight while I was researching some Australian war artists, I came across a rather impassioned letter to the editor of Smith’s Weekly talking about all the trials and tribulations they’d been through what with the drought, followed by the war and then the Spanish Flu. They go on to describe living conditions and restrictions at the time, and I thought it made for pretty good reading, and decided to share it with you.

By the way, before you read it, it might help you to understand the Australian context by reading a verse of Dorothea MacKellar’s famous poem, My Country, which eulogizes the trails and tribulations of living in Australia, and provides a background to the letter:

“I love a sunburnt country,

A land of sweeping plains

Of ragged mountain ranges

Of droughts and flooding rains”

-Dorothea MacKeller, My Country.

AUSTRALIA’S TROBLES

Australia is a land of troubles! First, a thrice-barrelled drought squats down on our Sunny Land and burns her up like cinder. Then, Noah-like floods of varying horse-power and dampness smites your essential industries, pastoral, agricultural, etc,, one where they feel it. Then we have the war and its toll of precious life. Then, for a change, we are visited by the Spanish visitation. People walk around gagged and masked as if they belonged to the Secret Council of Ten or the Clutching Hand Gang. The Tax Collector then takes it into his head to camp on our front doorsteps. To escape him, we jump on a passing tram and go into town. “Please don’t sneeze!” “Please don’t cough!” “Please don’t spit!” “Please don’t cross your legs!” “Please don’t blow your nose in the car; do it outside!” “Please don’t spread yourself out. You don’t own the tram. Squeeze up and make room for others!”

These are a few of the “Please don’t” “By orders” we encounter. In despair, we seek the theatre. Alas! “Closed till further notice on account of influenza epidemic!” stares at us with baleful eyes. Then, horror of horrors, we have the politician! Our last trouble as usual, is the worst of all! What Australia has done to be inflicted with the political pests and poltroons that infest our fair land. Heaven alone knows! O.B.U. and Bolshevik orators, bulb-eyed editors, clerical hum-bugs, business profiteers, wobbly poetic Post-misses, and catch-as-catch-can Premiers and State Governors form a formidable list enough to drive a man into the bush for the rest of his days. Truly, Australia is a land of trials and troubles. Anybody any remedy for all these ills?

— H.

Smith’s Weekly (Sydney, NSW : 1919 – 1950), Saturday 26 April 1919, page 9

You have to have a bit of sympathy for poor H. these days now, don’t you?! Mind you, from where I sit, H. was living it up by getting out and about. I haven’t caught a train since February last year when I caught up with a friend in Sydney, and we went out for dinner. I’m so pleased we did. That meal’s now starting to look like the Last Supper!

Not that I feel like I’m missing out most of the time. That’s the good thing about being into history. You know it goes round in cycles like the lands at the top of Enid Blyton’s Magic Faraway Tree. The landscape keeps changing, and you just need to wait for something else, and hopefully better, to come along.

Meanwhile, climate change is starting to make it back on the news. I would tend to call this unprecedented, but I am not even a speck of dust when it comes to the length of breadth of history which spans infinity. I really don’t know.

Anyway, its good food for thought. Any comments?

I’d love to hear from you!

Best wishes,

Rowena

PS You can read more about the impact of the Spanish Flu Epidemic on Sydney here: https://home.dictionaryofsydney.org/ah-chew-sniffle-sniffle-the-pneumonic-influenza-pandemic-of-1919/

Weekend Coffee Share – 2nd November, 2020.

Welcome to Another Weekend Coffee Share!

Before you get too comfortable, we’ll need to duck down to the supermarket because I just saw these irresistible Apple & Ricotta Fritters with Cinnamon Sugar on TV. I’ve never made anything like this myself before. However, I’ve been getting quite adventurous lately and really want to give them a whirl. Here’s the link: https://www.farmtofork.com.au/recipe-index/apple-and-ricotta-fritters-with-cinnamon-sugar

Are you tempted as well?

Humph…

Anyway, were you almost shocked like me that it’s now November and another year has almost gone up in smoke? I know this year is 2020, and it’s a year we’d all like to accelerate through, destroy, blow up, delete or all of the above. However, a year is still a year, and good things have happened in 2020. My cousin and his wife had a baby last week and friends got married and we’ve even been to a few parties lately. Of course, we’re rather shielded from the full impact of the virus and also extensive lockdowns here, but I’ve also been researching WWI intensively this year and that puts 2020 into perspective.

Last week was a bit clunky around here. There’s been the ongoing saga of our son’s subject choices for his last year at school and trying to keep him there for another year when he doesn’t need it to go into sound engineering. I’ve been doing my research which is very slow and I must admit I’ve been doing a lot of avoidance. I find it all confusing, and since I went down the university path and that was over 30 years ago, a lot has changed and I’m starting to feel like I’m from the era of the horse and cart (or is that actually his impression of me?) Not much has been said for a few days and he was home sick today. I can’t help wondering if I lie low and don’t say anything, he’ll accidentally get through Year 12 and he’ll at least have that under his belt before he heads off to TAFE to get a trade certificate to get into the sound engineering course he wants to do. However, this is probably too much to hope for and more stress is just around the corner.

Meanwhile, my research is progressing well. I’m still beavering away on my WWI research. I posted yesterday a South Australian farmer I’m researching, Herbert A Stewart who found close to 200 messages in bottles washed up on the beach near his home in Rendelsham , South Australia. He forwarded the letters onto their intended destinations with a cover letter, and there was one day where he found 47 bottles. So, at times he was really under the pump and while this would seem a unconventional way of supporting the war effort, it would’ve made such a difference to the families and friends of these men. I was also surprised to find that some of the messages in bottles thrown overboard in the Great Australian Bight were found in New Zealand. That’s extraordinary. I’ve also found it rather calming and reassuring to think about the ocean currents circulating around the world regardless of everything else that’s going on just like the sunrise and the sunset. There’s that continuity. At least, there was before cllimate change.

This afternoon, I went for a quick walk along the beach. Even though it’s almost Summer here, a cold wind was blowing and so I just did my walk and didn’t hang about. Not unsurprisingly, I almost expecting to find piles of bottles scattered across the beach after doing all my research. However, there wasn’t much to see on our beach today….just a jellyfish.

Meanwhile, it’s getting quite late. So, I’m going to head off.

So, what’s been going on for you? I hope you’re okay and keeping safe.

This has been another contribution to the Weekend Coffee Share hosted by Eclectic Ali: https://eclecticali.wordpress.com/

Best wishes,

Rowena

My Research Quest: the South Australian Farmer and Soldiers’ Messages in Bottles WWI.

“Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”
-Ralph Waldo Emerson

I’m not sure whether you can help me, but I’m hopeful.

After all, one of the things I appreciate about blogging, is how you can write and share your ideas before you’ve fully nutted them out. You can test the waters, and even hook up with others interested in the same area and collaborate in a more low-key environment. This is particularly good, too, when your nearest and dearest in terms of love, relationships and DNA, doesn’t share your research interest. Indeed, many of us would be better off talking to the dog, or trading in the cat.

However, by heading online too soon, you risk making mistakes, and there’s a definite safety in holding back until you’ve dotted the i’s crossed the t’s. Possible wisdom in staying offline perfecting your manuscript and seeing it published in print, even if your scribblings might be set in stone.

Of course, operating within the university context can provide the ideal nursery environment to safely nurture your research project and receive much needed mentoring support. However, there’s still that sense that you need to have your “shit” together before you put it out there, even as a concept. Indeed, embarking into the realms of professional research is very daunting. After all, “thou shalt not make a mistake” is its first commandment, but we’re only human. Even if it’s only a comma out of place, it’s still a mistake, and at the very least, you have to live with your own censure.

My personal journey along the serious research path is even lonelier than most. While research has been part and parcel of my writing and I have an honours degree in history, my current interests have been fuelled by the events of late 1999 and 2020. Firstly, I was forced inside by thick, suffocating bushfire smoke when I simply couldn’t breathe for weeks at a time, and I depended on our air-conditioner. After a brief intermission, I was back inside self-isolating from the coronavirus, which turned into lockdown, back to self-isolation. All I can say about that, is thank goodness for my research. It’s been a lifeline this year.

So, after keeping virtually all this research offline, I’ve decided to cast a line out into the world wide web. Moreover, just like anybody going fishing, I’m optimistic my efforts won’t return with an empty hook, and I’ll find a great big fish dangling at the end of the line,

Lieutenant Roy Mandeville Lenton wrote one of the messages found by Herbert A Stewart in 1916.

The blog has come through for me before, and I’m hoping it will deliver once again, even if this approach does seem equally random as the very messages I’m chasing. They were written by Australian and New Zealand troops and sealed inside bottles and often thrown overboard as they crossed the Great Australian Bight with a hope they’d eventually find their intended destination.

Map showing roughly where Herbert A Stewart found the messages in bottles SE of Rivoli Bay, South Australia.

However, my primary focus isn’t on the troops themselves, but on a South Australian farmer who found almost 200 messages in bottles near Rivoli Bay on the Limestone Coast. Not only that, Herbert A Stewart of “Bleakfield”, Rendelsham forwarded the messages to their intended destinations with a cover letter, and he even went to the trouble of forwarding letters written by NZ troops on to New Zealand.

While you would think that forwarding messages in bottles doesn’t make much of a difference to the war effort, when you look at it on this scale, it takes on a different slant. Indeed, I’m incredibly inspired by Herbert’s dedication, hard work, love and compassion for the soldiers and their families. Indeed, I’d love to be more like him.

Bottle housed in the Australian War Memorial.

By the way, it’s worth putting Herbert’s efforts into some kind of context. While it wasn’t unusual for soldiers to throw messages in bottles overboard in transit, so far I haven’t come across anyone else finding the sheer number of messages Herbert found. As far as I can tell, he found at least 180 bottles, and on the 31st August, 1916, he found a record 47 messages. The closest I’ve come across is Harbour Master, Ned Carrison, of Port McDonnell, South Australia who found 10 bottles on the 16th July, 1916 not far from Herbert’s stomping ground.

At the moment, I’ve only been able to identify 22 of the messages found by Herbert Stewart, and this is clearly only the tip of the iceberg. It looks like Herbert kept a record of all the messages he’d found, and I’m hoping that’s somehow been preserved. I’d also imagine that there are families out there who still know the story of how an ancestor or loved one’s message was forwarded to them by Herbert A Stewart of Bleakfield, Rendelsheim, South Australia. I would love to hear from you.

I’m also interested in the WWI messages in bottles in general. So, I’d love to hear from you if that’s of interest.

An empty chair is often used to represent a loved one who has passed away…

While researching messages in bottles might seem quirky and eccentric, the reality is that each bottle is a time capsule preserving a fragment of a much larger journey of a soldier, or group of soldiers heading across the ocean to the front. Moreover, they also tell a story about the person who finds the bottle. Who were they, and what were they do on the beach? They often had to work hard to salvage the scrap of paper which had been floating adrift at the mercy of the sea. I’ve read about bottles turning up covered in seaweed and barnacles. Messages which are wet and barely legible but the finder is just able to pick out an address, a name, a detail and the message has been printed in a newspaper. There was a message written by an Australian soldier which was found by a Maori man on the beach in New Zealand, Herbert Stewart also found a letter by a Maori man from the 1st Maori Continent which was found near Rivoli Bay, South Australia. Indeed, there’s something rather touching about the currents carrying these bottles across boarders and boundaries, especially when I’ve been conducting my research during Covid where we have boundaries on boundaries on boundaries, and we can’t even hug a friend. The ocean, on the other hand, knows no boundaries and these messages in bottles rose from the deep, and went where they went until they were found, retrieved and passed on. Sadly, some of these messages took years to research their destination and by that time, some of their scribes had inevitably died…killed in action, died of wounds, casualties of a foreign war.

Anyway, if you have any information to share or would like to pick my brains, please leave a message. I’d love to hear from you.

Best wishes,

Rowena Curtin

Being There For Each Other…An ANZAC Day Tribute.

These days, it seems that ANZAC Day – the 25th April – is the only day almost universally held sacred and respected throughout Australia. ANZAC Day commemorates when the Australian and New Zealand forces first set foot at ANZAC Cove, Gallipoli on the 25th April, 1915. However, it’s come to represent all Australians who’ve served in armed conflicts, because as we’ve unfortunately come to find out, the Great War wasn’t “the war to end all wars”.

Kids at the cenotaph

As Scouts, one or both of our kids have participated in the local ANZAC Day march for almost the last 10 years. In particular, they’ve marched in memory of Geoff’s Great Uncle Private Ralph French who was killed in action near Mont St Quentin 4th September, 1918.

Robert Ralph french Photo

Geoff’s Uncle, Private  Ralph French 

However, Geoff also had his Uncle Jim who served at Gallipoli and Beersheeba with the lighthorse  and his brother Daniel served in the Sinai campaign in addition to Uncle Angus who he never met and Uncle Len. His grandmother also had one of the those embroidered French postcards from her cousin Jack Burke. Not so many served on my side of the family. There was my Great Great Uncle Jack Quealey and the two Gordon brothers, Roland and Frank. That was WWI. Geoff’s Uncle Ralph and Uncle Walter both  served in New Guinea during WWII along with my Great Uncle, Jack Gordon. More recently, Geoff’s brother Terry was on the last ship to Vietnam and as a medic, nursed the injured returning home and at least one cousin served in the Gulf War.

Poppies Geoff Amelia Jonathon

Geoff and the kids find Uncle Ralph at the Australian War Memorial

So, as you could imagine, ANZAC Day weighs heavily on our hearts and we’ve done our utmost best to ensure our kids know what it’s about. WWI and almost WWII are drifting beyond living memory. So, it’s no longer a scenario of “lest we forget”. We need to pass on the stories and sow the seeds. Ensure the younger generations know what happened, the sacrifices and the importance of maintaining the peace, though not always at any cost.

Robert Ralph French cenotaph

This year, our don was supposed to be commemorating ANZAC Day at the dawn service at Villers Bretonneaux on the battlefields of France. I went into overdrive researching what our family members went through over there, so he wouldn’t be standing there like a dingaling not knowing what had happened. However, thanks to the coronavirus, his excursion was obviously cancelled along with ANZAC Day marches throughout Australia. It is a solemn time, and it’s quite significant that we can’t do ANZAC Day in the usual way. Indeed, we couldn’t even watch the march on TV, although no doubt the Dawn Service was televised and hopefully we can watch that again later tonight. We didn’t get up to light candles and stand at the end of the driveway. I don’t know if many people did it around here, but it didn’t feel the same and I thought I’d rather do something on my blog.

Jack Quealy WWI

My Great Great Uncle Jack Quealey

Anyway, while we were watching the ANZAC Day coverage on TV today, I heard this incredible poem describing a soldier’s dependence on “mateship”. I don’t know why I’ve never heard this poem before, because it’s a poem every Australian should know right alongside Waltzing Matilda and the Man From Snowy River. Indeed, even more so, because what it refers to as the male bond of “mateship” could just as easily be represented by words such as:  “friendship”, “trust”, “Compassion” and “love”. Values which are just as important at home, as on the battle field, and we have much to learn from the brave and selfless men and women who have served our people. Moreover, we can add to them, our brave fire fighters and the front line warriors battling the coronavirus along with the teachers caring for their children in our schools. From our home to yours, we thank you.

major-james-norbert-griffin

Geoff’s Great Uncle, Major James Griffin.

So, after all that “Blah, blah, blah” (as my daughter would say), here’s the poem, followed by an actual story which lived out these lines in the trenches of WWI France.

MATES 

Duncan Harold Butler 1906-1987

I’ve traveled down some dusty roads, both crooked tracks and straight,
and I have learnt life’s noblest creed summed up in one word, “Mate”.
I’m thinkin’ back across the years, a thing I do of late
and these words stick between me ears “You gotta have a mate.”

Someone who’ll take you as you are regardless of your state
and stand as firm as Ayers Rock because he is your mate.
Me mind goes back to ’43 to slavery and hate
when man’s one chance to stay alive depended on his mate.

With bamboo for a billy-can and bamboo for a plate,
A bamboo paradise for bugs was bed for me and mate.
You’d slip and slither through the mud and curse your rotten fate
But then you’d hear a quiet word – “Don’t drop your bundle, mate.”

And though it’s all so long ago this truth I have to state,
A man don’t know what lonely means ’til he has lost his mate.
If there’s a life that follers this, if there’s a Golden Gate,
The welcome that I wanna hear is just “Goodonya mate”.

And so to all who ask us why we keep these special dates,
Like ANZAC Day, I tell ’em “Why? We’re thinkin’ of our mates.”
And when I’ve left the driver’s seat and ‘anded in me plates
I’ll tell Ol’ Peter at the door “I’ve come to join me mates.”

…..

From your soldier boy

Embroidered French Card.

As I mentioned, I wanted to share a story which exemplified the incredible bonds of mateship outlined in this poem. I stumbled across this story during my WWI research.

Coincidentally, two newspaper men crossed each other’s paths in training camp at Kiama (South of Sydney) before they left for the front. They were George Washington Brownhill journalist and proprietor of the Forbes Advocate, and Sergeant Ray Colwell, a journalist with the Daily Telegraph. While in training in the UK, Brownhill sustained a football injury to his leg, which effectively put him out of action. However, fortunately, he saw just enough service to write a series of informative articles and letters home. Indeed, in his case, the pen was certainly mightier than the sword and I am most grateful for that. Unfortunately Sergeant Ray Colwell, was killed in action on the 7th June, 1917 at Messines. Although he wasn’t with him at the time, George Brownhill wrote a glowing letter outlining their friendship to Ray’s parents:

LATE SERGT. RAY COLWELL

The following letter has been received by Chaplain Colwell from Sergeant-Major Brownhill, who was Sergeant Ray Colwell’s great friend from the time he entered camp at Kiama until his death at the front: — What would it be possible for me to write in any way to lessen your sorrow?

However, it may be a comfort to you to hear from me, who was your dear son’s constant companion and friend for almost the whole of the time that he was in the uniform of his King and country.

Something in me claimed him as a chum the first time I saw him at Kiama, and it pleases me to think that he responded. I liked and admired him, and thought of him almost as a brother. He was one of the whitest, straightest, and sweetest natured men I have ever known, or expect ever to know, and possessed many intellectual qualities that made his friendship a privilege. I never heard him express a wrong sentiment, and believe that he never harboured one.’ He was kind and thoughtful to a degree in his dealings with his fellow-men and soldiers, and every member of the reinforcements of which he and I were members loved and admired him.

To me personally he was tender when he might have been harsh, thoughtful and patient when he might have been any thing else, and always a clean-thinking, clean-living, honest fellow, whose companionship I delighted in.

Ray left England for France a little earlier than I did, but I joined up with him at Bapaume, got apportioned to the same section and tent, and together, side by side, we marched into our battalion’s share in the great engagements at Bullecourt. There we were in the trenches for two days and the best part of three nights, during which time we were subjected to heavy enemy shelling, and the worst elements of snow and rain. We shared the same dug-out, helped one another in our work, kept together for protection against the cold, and exchanged confidences in the long watches of the night. When our platoon was relieved I was in a rather broken-down condition, and it was largely by Ray’s help that I got away from the danger zone.  The enemy seemed to guess our movements, and poured in a shower of shells as we crept away into the darkness. That was the time of all times when a man might have thought of himself first.

Ray, being strong and well, could have been one of the first out of the shell area, but his place was in the rear, helping his almost helpless friend, and cheering me on with words and actions of encouragement. He was a man all through the episode, and I will never forget how good he was to me, and how self-sacrificing.

Afterwards I was in hospital for a fortnight but then rejoined the battalion, and our comradeship was resumed in all its warmth, save that while he strong and buoyant, was out on parade each day, I remained on the sick list and in quarters. When the battalion was moved up to ‘the region of Messines I was sent back to hospital, and finally reached Le Havre; where a Medical Board declared me unfit for further active service, and I am now engaged in clerical work in our base depot office. It was thus that the ties of our mateship were severed, and thus that I was not with Ray at Messines.

Will it be any consolation to you to know that the end was instantaneous, and the agony of a lingering death was spared him? He died from wounds in the head, and he died as a soldier and a man, as brave, as kindly, and as good a fellow as ever wore the uniform’ of his country. And if he had had time for one last thought, it would have centred around the father and mother, his brothers and sisters, who were the all in all of his love and affection. An arm of aid to the weak, A friendly hand to the friendless; Kind words — So short to speak, But whose echo is endless. The world is wide— these things are so small — They may be nothing, but they are all.  Methodist (Sydney, NSW : 1892 – 1954), Saturday 29 September 1917, page 7

Surely, there’s little doubt that everyone would love to have a friend like Ray!

Lest we forget!

Best wishes,

Rowena

 

Weekend Coffee Share from the Bunker.

Welcome to Another Weekend Coffee Share!

How do you like my photo this week? I was looking for a cafe scene but couldn’t resist the pink flamingo. I hope it lifts your spirits at this challenging time.

Well, I guess I ought to ask you if you’ve managed to get out of your pyjamas today, and do you actually have enough changed of PJs to get you through the working week in social isolation at home? Fortunately, i have been somewhat prepared. Thanks to my health issues where I can spend long stretches sick at home, I’ve indulged in a few pairs of Peter Alexander Pyjamas so I can feel creatively colourful while bunkered in at home. Today’s pair is covered in colourful tea cups, which is very appropriate and quite a coincidence for our weekend coffee share.

So, how are you? What is the state of play with the Coronavirus where you live? I live just North of Sydney, Australia. Australia has 4093 cases of coronavirus and here in NSW we have the most with 1,918 cases. I had hoped it had mostly stayed in Sydney, but local cases are starting to increase to 90 cases. Most of these have apparently come from overseas. These infections largely focus on the cruise ships and in particular, the Ruby Princess which has now been re-cast as a vile super-spreader of the virus with almost 2,700 passengers disembarking in Sydney without health checks, despite passengers showing symptoms. It was an absolute debacle and quite culpable under the circumstances. Around 130 passengers are known to have contracted the virus. However, as usual those responsible are passing the buck, the ship’s still parked in Sydney Harbour with 1700 crew members on board. Three crew members were taken off the ship to hospital today. Needless to say, that ship will be going through a major re-branding exercise after this. It’s currently perceived as the plague ship. 

Before I move on from the Coronavirus, I wanted to share a link with you  through to Australian aid worker and Mr Compassion Australian himself, Tim Costello, who talks about the social impact and how to respond the the level of community grief. Here’s the link.

family zoom

The Family

Well, during the last week, our home has become and office, school, hospital, ball and stick throwing centre for dogs and in about 30 minutes, the kitchen will be metamorphosing into a dance studio right during dinner time, which is going to be interesting. While it’s all very well to be flexible and adaptable, it’s also a lot to process and it’s not easy to juggle with so many balls in the air. Our son is in year 11 at the pointy end of his education, so we’re at least trying to get that right, but right now it’s very tempting to just let all those balls crash down to earth and let them smash like raw eggs on the pavement. As long as we don’t get the virus, especially me with my acute lung issues, the rest doesn’t matter. We’ll get to it when the cloud has lifted.

Meanwhile, my WWI research continues and I wanted to share something absolutely horrific that I only just came across. Perhaps, you have already heard about the British soldiers who were executed for desertion and other causes during WWI. However, for me it only rang a very faint bell and it was only when I heard about the case of Private Jack Sweeney that the full of horror of this practice was revealed. Jack Sweeney was born in Emu Bay Tasmania and later moved to Lietinna near Scottsdale in the North-East where my husband and his mother’s family were born and bred. So, this story wasn’t about some stranger. It was about somebody who lived alongside Geoff’s two Great Uncles who served in France…Ralph French who was killed in Action in 1918 and Len Brooker who returned home. However, because he was working in New Zealand when war broke out, he enlisted with the New Zealand Army, which made a big difference to his future on two fronts. Firstly, the New Zealand government concurred with the British government and allowed deserters to be court-marshalled and shot. Secondly, it took Jack away from his Tasmanian social and family network where he could well have found greater support for the ravages of war he experienced, including shell shock. I was horrified to find out that this could happen and so silently and swept almost under the carpet. Yes, indeed There’s been a cover-up and I was quite shocked the New Zealand which is generally known for it’s compassion and progressive policy-making could be so barbaric and take such a different road to the Australian government. It’s probably the most gut-wrenching stories I’ve come across in the 9 months I’ve been doing this research and that says something. By the way, I should also add that Jack had a daughter, Doris who was about 11 years old who was left with her dad and in 1925 his father committed suicide after telling family “I’m a broken-hearted man”. As you would expect, this is a story I’m pursuing further.

DSC_9030

This dog is a good lookalike for  our Lady, but I left our dogs at home to keep my walk simple and uncomplicated. 

Not much else has been going on. I’ve been on two walks along the local beach. Even this simple, ordinary activity had been impacted by the virus. I’m an uber-social extrovert so the whole idea of avoiding people in case they’d been infected by the plague, felt very unnatural. If anyone looked like coming near me, and I’m talking 4-6 metres away, I flinched like I’d developed some kind of allergy to people. Dogs don’t catch the virus, but their fur is just like any other surface so patting dogs down there was also off limits, although I could still photograph them from a safe distance. I also happened to witness a rather nasty dog fight involving 3 dogs and it took about 5 people to separate them, and then there was a clash between the owners. That’s not exceptional at the beach, but with concerns about social distancing and my own vulnerability to the virus, I felt like shouting out to them to step back. Of course, I didn’t. Instead, I tried to remain invisible. This was not the time to play the hero.

Rowena Victory

I will leave you with an uplifting photo of myself at the beach a few years ago looking triumphant. Something to focus on during these difficult times.

How are things going where you live? I hope and pray you and yours are okay and are able to steer clear of this horrible blight. If you are struggling, please share with me in the comments. A trouble shared, is a problem halved.

Lastly, are you taking up the A-Z April Blogging Challenge? I’m intending to do it, but had trouble signing up yesterday, which I need to look into. If so, what is your theme? Mine will be something along the lines of Australians serving in France during WWI with some kind of twist. I have a gazillion stories to inspire me, even if time’s rapidly evaporating.

This has been another contribution to the Weekend Coffee Share hosted by  Eclectic Ali. We’d love you to come and join us for a virtual coffee.

Love & best wishes,

Rowena

Maitland Thomas Butler WWI – The Brother Who Missed The Boat.

The research road continues today as we meet up with Maitland Thomas Butler, Maud Butler’s older brother. I introduced you to Maud Butler in a previous post: Jack and Maud.

As you may recall, my Great Great Uncle Jack Quealy served in France during WWI and a few months ago I set out to gain a better understanding of what he went through. A sense of moderate urgency was given to the project, because our son will be visiting Europe in a few months’ time on a school history excursion. They’ll be spending ANZAC Day at Villers Bretonneau and I wanted him to be fully informed about our family members who’d served. There were quite a few, especially Geoff’s Great Uncle Ralph French who was killed in action and he is also part of this project.

Jack Quealy WWI

Great Great Uncle Jack Quealy

My attention initially honed onto an entry in GG Uncle Jack’s service records, which showed he was wounded in action in France on the 28th August, 1916. No further details were given and naturally I wanted to know where he was. This seemed relatively simple at the time with all the resources of the World Wide Web at my fingertips.

However, working this out was a lot harder than I’d expected. The information captured in service records is very scant, and doesn’t include the more detailed information a researcher like myself desperately craves. I wanted to know exactly where he was. Find that X marks the spot imprinted the very spot where it happened. To my way of thinking, I also assumed he had to be injured in a battle, and I wanted to know more about that too, along with who he was with and finding tales from or about his mates. The old adage “somewhere in France” simply wasn’t enough. I had to know more. Not getting terribly far, I widened my search and soon found myself swimming well out to sea without a paddle. However, finally, all this research is starting to develop some perimeters, and is taking shape.

Maud Butler AWM Robert Fletcher

Maud Butler in uniform on board the Suevic 1915.

It was this wider search which introduced me to an entire cast of fascinating characters,  including  ship stowaway, Maud Butler, who I’ve already explored in previous posts. On 22nd December, 1915 she stowed away on board HMAT A26 Suevic dressed as a soldier as a desperate effort to get to  the front and serve as a nurse.  I’d hoped GG Uncle Jack had caught the same ship. However, as I’ve already explained, he’d already left on board the Aeneas two days before…another detail which wasn’t easy to come by via the route I used. Much to my disappointment, Maud and Jack weren’t even two ships passing in the night.

While Maud Butler’s story is gripping and also has a complexity which draws me in, I was going to put her to one side and continue my research into the troops themselves. However, not wanting to leave a stone unturned, I wanted to check out her brother’s service records. You never know. I thought he could also have a story to tell.

Indeed, when you read accounts of Maud’s “adventure”, her brother is almost pivotal to the story. Private Les Spriggs mentioned them both in a letter dated 25th January, 1916 from the Aerodrome Camp, Heliopolis, which was published on Wednesday 22 March 1916 in the Wyalong Advocate and Mining, Agricultural and Pastoral Gazette :

“…The first day out at sea there was a girl discovered on board dressed in a uniform. She was trying to get to Egypt to see her brother who was wounded in a hospital. She was put off on to a passing steamer[1].

Maud’s brother was also mentioned in a message in a bottle, which was thrown overboard from the Suevic on the way to the front. The following message was written by Mr. Ted Blakey, of Manly, to his mother and found off the Victorian coast.

“At sea, Saturday, December 25, 1915, 4 p.m. My dear Mum,—I am sending this note by bottle from the Victorian coast. I hope you will get this O.K. We have just finished our Christmas dinner—turkey and pork. Everyone on board is O.K. A girl was found on board dressed as a soldier; she was going to fight with her brother at Gallipoli, Oh, well, good-bye for the present.—I am, your loving son, Ted.[2]

Maud openly denied she was simply going to the front to see her brother. Rather, she spoke about her plans to serve as a nurse after her valiant attempts to sign up with the Red Cross and at Victoria Barracks failed due to inexperience. However, she mentions that her brother is at the front:

“It is not correct that I joined the ship just in sport, to see my brother who is at the front,” said Miss Maud Butler. “My object was to do what I could to help. I wanted to join the Red Cross, and I tried very hard to get accepted. When I failed I bought a khaki suit and stowed away…In fact, it was before my brother went away at all,” continued Miss Butler, who was seen yesterday at the rooms of the Young Women’s Christian Association, “that I wanted to go. He has been at the front for six months.[3]

However, as it turns out, Maud Butler’s brother, Maitland Thomas Butler, was nowhere near the front in December, 1915. While I can’t be sure of his exact whereabouts, I suspect he was living at home with Mum and Dad in Cessnock and working as a miner locally. Born 10th June, 1897 at Coen, Far North Queensland, he was only 18 years old at the time and underage. The legal enlistment age was 21 and men needed to be 19 years of age to go overseas. However, they could get parental consent.

Fast-forwarding to 11th April, 1917, Maitland Thomas Butler enlisted, putting up his age to 21 years one month and also incorrectly stated that “Weston NSW” was his place of birth. However, on 12th April he was “discharged underage” from the Sydney Showgrounds. The stated cause was “letter written by mother”. It looks like his mother had hotfooted it down to Sydney and submitted a statutory declaration stating that “my son Maitland Butler is only 18 years of age. He will be 19 years of age on the 10th June 1917.” It seems a bit rough that a letter from Mum could end the dreams of  a grown man. However, having had her young daughter try to flee overseas to the front, Mrs Rose Butler was clearly putting her foot down. Getting her own troops back in order. As a parent of teenagers myself, I have a great deal of empathy for Rose and Thomas Butler and I can’t help sensing the same iron will and determination in the mother, which was found in the kids.

However, just like sister Maud who didn’t give up on her first attempt and boarded a second troopship in uniform, Maitland Butler didn’t give up on his dream of getting to the front either. On 19th September, 1917 he enlisted again. This time he was more inventive and signed up as “Frank Emerson” at West Maitland. On 19th December, 1917 he embarked for the front onboard A38 Ulysses from Sydney and disembarked on the 13th February, 1918 at Southampton, England.  On 7th July, 1918 he was taken on strength in France by the 2nd Battalion from the 26th reinforcements.

During his time with the 2nd Battalion, Maitland participated in the Allies’ own offensive, launched to the east of Amiens on 8 August 1918. This advance by British and Empire troops was the greatest success in a single day on the Western Front, one that German General Erich Ludendorff described as “the black day of the German Army in this war”. In Mid-September they fought around Menin Road, Belgium which formed part of the wider Third Battle of Ypres. Maitland Butler was later gassed on the 25th September, 1918 rejoining his company on 1st October, 1918. I will expand on his war service at a later date.

Up until this point, you could probably say that Maitland Butler’s service record, while not without its moments, fell inside what you could call the range of “normal soldier behaviour” (a variation on what the kids’ high school refers to as “normal teenage behaviour”). However, not unlike his famous sister and her voyage leaving Australia, Maitland Butler landed in hot water coming home.

ss_euripides_lsOn 6th September, 1919 Maitland Butler embarked for Sydney onboard the Euripides. All went well until he went on shore leave in Durban,  South Africa and failed to return at the end of shore leave on the 1st October. A day later, he was reported AWOL when his ship sailed for Australia at 1318. Almost two weeks later, on 13th October, 1919 he reported to the AIF Office and was charged with:

Charge 1. Neglected to obey troopship orders in that he was not on board HT Euripides at 1318 2.10.19 when she sailed for Australia.

2.AWL from 2200 1.10.19 to 1130 13.10.19 to 1130 13.10.19

He was awarded 168 hours detention & forfeit 28 days pay AA.46.2d by Lt Beveridge in Durban. However, he escaped from escort while being taken to civil gaol for safe custody 1200 and was captured a day later and charged with gambling by the civil police. 12th November, 1919 he embarked in Arrest on S.S. “Chepatow Castle” for Cape Town and four days later he disembaked ex CHEPSTOW CASTLE CAPETOWN & reported to the AIF Depot. Finally, on 20th November, 1919 Maitland Butler embarked onboard HT Nestor for continuation of voyage to Australia & demobilisation.

He was home at last.

After touching base with Maud and Maitland Butler to some extent while out on Research Road, I couldn’t help but parallel their contrasting experiences of travelling to and from the front. Maud went to very great lengths to stowaway on board HMAT 26 Suevic masquerading as a man in soldier’s uniform. Then, there’s her older brother, Maitland Butler, going to equally great lengths to avoid getting onto his ship in Durban and coming home. Either way, the two of them no doubt gave their parents some hefty headaches and they could’ve used a Bex and a good lie down. Or, at the very least, a very strong cup of tea.

Best wishes,

Rowena Curtin

References

[1] Wyalong Advocate and Mining, Agricultural and Pastoral Gazette (NSW : 1900 – 1928), Wednesday 22 March 1916, page 2

[2] Koroit Sentinel and Tower Hill Advocate (Vic. : 1914 – 1918), Saturday 22 January 1916, page 2

[3] Bendigo Independent (Vic. : 1891 – 1918), Wednesday 29 December 1915, page 5

Services records Maitland Thomas Butler.

Wikipaedia.