My grandfather returned from the war somewhat broken. He arrived home to a battered country and to a four year old daughter who didn’t recognise him. After years of suffering, at a time when you didn’t speak about mental health, their doctor felt a warmer, sunnier climate might improve my grandfather’s state of mind. It sounds archaic writing it now – as sensible as sending Beethoven to the country to improve his hearing.
Australia wasn’t a completely foreign idea to them. My grandfather’s sister had already moved there and raved about the place. She became their guarantor and offered them a place to stay until they were settled. ‘Ten pound tourists’ they called them, probably to imply you were taking some kind of holiday. A one-way adventure.
My grandmother had extraordinary resilience. Whatever the obstacle she just seemed to suck it up, carry on and not look back. Grandad would follow. I often believed the move was harder for him because he was the sentimental one, he kept mementos and hoarded objects because he saw potential in everything. My mum was too young to comprehend the significance or permanency of the voyage but has often remarked in hindsight how brave they were to emigrate. They made the best of it, raised their family, forged life-long friendships and by the time us grandchildren came along, the beginning of their adventure seemed long ago.
Grandma and Grandad spoke fondly of England. They talked about the area they grew up, where they played and their favourite haunts. Without a telephone Grandma kept up a constant stream of letters to her siblings. She still wrote weekly while I was growing up – no internet, no skype, no email – and rang sometimes on a Sunday at precisely 8:30pm to get the cheapest call rates. They returned to England twice, once in ’72 and again in ’83.
They were my grandparents and I loved them dearly. I’d only ever known them as they were, with their quirky humour and funny accents. They never expressed any sadness to me. I knew it must have been difficult for them but it wasn’t until we travelled to England that I truly saw the enormity of this choice – we visited all the places they spoke of, we caught up with extended family and we met Grandma’s sister.
I have one particular photograph of Grandma and her sister I adore. It’s from their 1983 trip and they’re grinning, standing out the front of a house wearing exactly the same dress. They’d gone shopping at Marks & Spencer and both wanted the same outfit. Grandma had laughed when she relayed the story to me years ago, and my great aunt laughed when we spoke of it last year during our UK holiday. As our laughter faded, a sadness crossed her face, “When she got on that bus, I knew. She said she’d see me again but I knew it was the last time.”
She was so much like Grandma – thick as thieves those two – even for all their years apart they were still so close.
I was so privileged to know my grandparents and grow up with my aunts and uncles and form really close friendships with them. My mum (and her siblings) grew up without those connections and while they found a good life here in Australia, that’s what was lost.
My great aunt passed away this week, in her 101st year and I’m so glad I had the chance to meet her. Grandma will undoubtedly greet her with a twinkle in her eye and say, “I told you I’d see you again.”
She was cheeky like that.