Monday, 4 August 2014

One hundred years ago Germany invaded Belgium causing Britain to declare war on Germany. I have been moved by the tributes to 'those who gave their today for our tomorrow'. I also reflected on those who lived with the devastation it created, both personally and globally.

My wonderful paternal grandfather, Robert Francis Croft (left, standing in his WWII uniform) lost his eldest brother, Alexander in WW1. As a Desert Rat 'fighting Rommel' during WW2 himself, he had more idea than many of what his eldest brother may have gone through and was understandably proud of him. I always felt this pride in his big brother was what enabled him to cope with and to a certain extent justify his death.

As a young child I spent LOTS of time with my paternal grandparents especially during summer holidays when my parents were working. My grandad would meet me off the bus and we would saunter back to my grandparent's house. En route he would sing me silly songs, make up poems and often call into the bookies to put a bet on. I loved it when he chattered his false teeth, which my grandma hated. In between my grandmother teaching me to knit, sew and bake we would 'go out for days' locally. Some days were more exciting than others, or so it seemed back then. Retrospectively, TIME, was the most important factor and in my memories it isn't what I perceived as the exciting days that I hold close to my heart but the 'normal' days, visiting family and cleaning gravestones!

Every summer we would wander across town to the cemetary, my grandma armed with an array of cleaning equipment, to attack the weathering of her parents final resting place. It was very cathartic really, I played hopscotch on the surrounding dead's stones, my grandmother scrubbed while my granddad fetched water and told stories. Sadly, I can't remember many of them and now they are gone and unable to re tell them.

I could not locate my grandmother's parents in the cemetary by memory but I can locate my grandfather's brother, Alexander, for his name is etched on a memorial plaque on the walls of Chester Cathedral amongst those who died in the first Great War. When we visited the cathedral my grandad always made a point of finding it and we would survey it proudly together.

His recount of active service was anecdotal. I never learned of the horror of war but of how he asked the cook 'are those raisins in that porridge?' 'No' says the cook 'they're flies' to which my grandad replied 'oh that's good, I can't stand raisins'. Another favourite story was of how they couldn't afford a wedding ring for him when they married. My grandmother saved while he was at war, bought the ring, hid it in a bar of soap and posted it to him in the Middle East. Matthew, my cousin, now wears it. They remained devoted to each other throughout life and weathered many a storm including the loss of their son, my father. An eternally painful memory of my dad's death was my grandad's reaction to it. Amidst disbelief and unbearable grief, he quietly and reverently asked 'Dear Lord, why him and not me?' They were a testament to all that is family, and unconditional love.

Of previous generations it is said they were 'stoic', 'took life on the chin' and had 'a stiff upper lip'. To use my children's vernacular they were 'well hard'. They lived, loved and laughed, in spite of reasons for many tears.

Last year I was fortunate to join my great aunt Delia, my maternal grandmother's youngest sister to celebrate her 100th birthday in Ireland. Delia is a 'mighty' woman and had a hard life in rural Ireland. She worked hard physically, on the farm and raised four children with little money or family support. She hadn't the luxuries or conveniences we rely on today. In spite of her age and frailty she is still great 'craic'. Spirited at times with a wicked sense of humour and a magical twinkle in her dark brown eyes. She once remarked when I moaned about life and 'bold' children, that if I'd had to live her life I wouldn't have survived it! I agreed and quipped had I her life I'm not sure I'd have wanted to!

As a generation they gave much and expected little. They accepted their circumstances and the hand fate dealt them. They readily counted their blessings and were thankful for them. They had a lust for life in a way many of us wouldn't be capable of mustering. They fought for peace and freedom and against injustice. Whilst you'd never find me first in the queue if they were handing out tin hats, I hope I inherited some of their other qualities.

The world has changed greatly in a 100 years but in many ways people haven't. The world is still at war, it's just fought differently. Sadly innocent people continue to lose their lives in conflict and suffer great personal tragedy, which prompts the question a century later, what have we learnt? Some might say very little but people continue, rightly or wrongly to fight for what they believe in. In this age of communication, we are better appraised of world affairs and the world is to an extent a smaller place in that it is more accessible to the masses. Ironically it would appear that our ability to peacefully negotiate has not evolved at the same rate as technology.