The Evacuee

I have a poppy. I get one every year. Sometimes I get more than one because I tend to lose them or actually, they often fall off during the week before Remembrance Sunday. Sometimes, when I come across them, I might get a white poppy as well. But I always buy a red one.

imageFlickr via Mary and her camera

They also can help nudge some of the conversation and memories of the people that I see in my day to day work. It really does help to create a sense of solidarity across generations as I enter the properties of those who fought in and were affected dramatically by the Second World War. London felt it profoundly.

So last week, I went to see a woman who had been newly allocated to me. The doctors had more or less established a diagnosis and treatment plan. I was part of that treatment plan. There were lots of things to get to grips with but my first role as usual was about building a relationship.

She saw my poppy and she smiled. She told me she had wanted one. She got one every year – but this year, she had not been able to get out and about. That’s the other way that I sometimes ‘lose’ poppies. I left her my slightly rain-soiled poppy and in exchange she told me a story.

She explained how she had been young when the war started and with her brothers and sisters had been evacuated to Wales.

She told me about the separations that ensued  and about the cruelty she was confronted with on a daily basis by this extrinsically ‘respectable’ family and how she was virtually starved and constantly blamed just for being a Londoner.  She told me that she still remembers the hunger – in fact, it has affected her relationship with food throughout her life.

The story, while ending not entirely happily, did end with her ‘escaping’ this particular placement . She returned as a young child to London to see out the rest of the war and the Blitz with her mother.

Her brother and her sister, who were happily placed with a kind and thoughtful family with many children of their own, both ended up staying in Wales after the war. Her sister married one of the children of the couple and the family still live there.

But for her, that period of abandonment ordained by the state, although it was for a relatively brief part of her youth, remains an absolutely defining part of her subsequent life.

There must be thousands of stories, if not millions, that are retold within families, my own family has an ‘evacuation tale’ within it. The people who suffered are far broader than those who went to fight.

These stories and the stories that I have heard over the years, allow me to build a virtual patchwork quilt of stories of the war as it affected different people at different stages of their lives across London and across the world.

I remember the man I visited in the care home who had fought with the Polish Free Army, the elderly woman who recalls her stories of her time in the WAAF and the old Italian man who tells me with a tragic earnestness of the duplicity of Mussolini who promised them the world and delivered extreme poverty.

As the woman related her evacuation story to  me, I recalled all the victims created by the war and by wars more generally.  The soldiers, the conscripts and the children displaced by warfare and politics.

I see people who live the war every day and have for decades and it is for them, and the people who never were able to return, that I have the poppy.

I think back on the epitaph on the Kohima Memorial

“When You Go Home, Tell Them Of Us And Say,
For Their Tomorrow, We Gave Our Today”

Some, those who did return and those who suffered at home, gave their tomorrows as well. We shouldn’t forget those who continue to live vastly changed and marked lives as well as those who never returned.

image foxypar4 at Flickr

5 thoughts on “The Evacuee

  1. Dear Fighting Monsters,

    Thank you for this wonderful post. In my workplace we have been recalling stories of the war service of our predecessors in the then District Audit Service.

    Find out about them is humbling and has prompted us to reflect on what we owe them and the many hundreds of thousands of people like them.

    We have captured these stories in an article that grows each year as we find out more. There’s a link to it here if you want to learn more.

    Thank you again and best wishes

    Mike Newbury

  2. Interesting that you mention the white poppy. I heard of them for the first time in Canada this year. They interested me, as I’ve always been uncertain about wearing a red one. I like that you wear both – that never occured to me to do.
    Also interesting to see that your poppies look quite different than the ones sold by the Royal Canadian Legion.

  3. Michael – that’s a fantastic idea and resource – thanks for sharing it 🙂

    Nectarine – One happy year, I spent early November is Canada and I loved that you have different poppies. (I’m easily pleased – and your ones – if I remember rightly, didn’t fall off as easily as ours do!)

  4. Oh trust me, they fall off frequently! But does this not sound like a book in the making. The evacuation stories from World War II. It would be great.

  5. Attending a huge Remembrance service on Sunday gave me pause for thought. When working as a Hospital social worker I often thought many of our older patients still bore scars from the second world war, whether through having served in the armed forces, suffered in bombing raids or been evacuated or a combination. Many had not talked about what they went through and I think this had caused problems for some of them in later life. People now who were relatively young at the time and have survived seem more open to talking and proud of what they went through – I think more attend services and events and wear poppies now than in the 70s and 80s. They did just get on with it by and large and this deserves to be acknowledged and respected. And of course the suffering goes on still in Aghanistan and Iraq in the armed forces and amongst civilians (although we do not hear as much about that). Like you I wear both red and white poppies – we have to admit that the 20th century was the bloodiest in history and the 21st is going no better. Being against war does not mean not supporting and respecting the bravery of those who are caught up in it so I wear my poppies in tribute and in the hope that one day war will cease.

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