In the Absence of the Other

Winter SunsetIt is after four in the afternoon and cloudy. In spite of this, twilight lingers. Beyond the bare trees the sky is tinged purple and pink. The streetlights are lit. I have snacked on chocolate and green tea. This is not, strictly speaking, a proper English tea, but it will do. I wonder, will we have time for high tea in India or Hong Kong?

My father was stationed in rural Northeastern England during my early grade school years. This was in the early 1950’s, and England had not yet recovered from World War Two. When we visited London, we drove through mile upon mile of blocks burned during the Blitz. There was rubble, rubble everywhere.

We lived in a mock Victorian mansion surrounded by an enormous quantity of grazing land.  At the bottom of the hill upon which stood the manor, was a wood, from which appeared to have grown a thatched roof house where my best friend lived with her Mum and Grandmum. In their parlor stood an enormous old radio, upon which we listed to BBC children’s programing after school. In the adjacent walk-in pantry were shelves lined with pastries, both sweet and savory, the perfect tea time feast. I spent many happy hours there,

A bit further toward the village, and on the other side of the road, lived another friend. His family included a father, and farmed a small acreage that had, apparently, been in the family since the 15th Century, and included a house and barn that were, in part, sod. The hogs that were the primary livestock, along with a couple of cows and the mandatory chickens, lived in the earthen, thatched roofed barn attached to the house.

In winter, in the 50’s, Northeastern England had frequent snowstorms and the road to school would be blocked for days, and once, weeks, on end. As we walked to school, this meant prolonged vacations during which I made my way down to the cottage in the wood, roamed the forest, and explored the immensity of the Manor grounds.

During these jaunts I was sure to meet one of the officers and enlisted men who lived in the manor, the occasional farm worker, or the game warden. Should I make it all the way into the village, I would visit the few small shops and chat with the shopkeepers. Somehow I never noticed these men were all late middle-aged or elderly.

Many years ago, while taking a train to London from a conference I had attended in the south, I had a telling conversation with a woman with whom I had developed a friendship at  the conference. At the time we were both in our forties. Somehow the topic of the war came up, and my companion, a woman who developed programming for the BBC, began to talk about growing up in the absence of men. I had no clue what she was talking about, so she explained that most of Britain’s young men, including her father, had died in the war. As a result, many young women of that period were never able to marry or remarry.

To make the situation more complex, any number of liaisons, and children, had resulted from this lack, and the stationing of young men from the U.S. and Canada in England. The vast majority of these children and their mothers had been left behind when the servicemen returned home. My companion went on to explain that her mother, and the other young women, had resorted to an informal system of sharing the few available men.

Other riders in our booth concurred with my companion’s assessment of the post-war man shortage. My companion then began to explore the effects of growing up with no father, wondering aloud whether his absence had contributed to her life-long difficulty relating intimately to men. This conversation was cut short, as the train arrived in London, and I changed trains to visit the village in the Northeast where I had lived.

Only long after this conversation did I begin to piece together the implications of my childhood experiences in England. Later still, I remembered hearing stories of Native woman sharing men during the colonial wars. There were also stories of First Nations men sharing women in some depleted bands, or raiding settler villages to secure women.

War has lasting, often hidden impacts on those who survive, even the victors. Difficult choices are made in the aftermath of violent conflict. This has always been so. The stories we tell about wars, tales of heroism, valor, and the reentry difficulties encountered by those who fought, seem to leave little room for acknowledging the challenges faced by, and quiet determination of,  the women, children, and elders who construct lives in war’s aftermath.

Darkness has fallen. The cat and I sit on the sofa before the fire. Outside, the snow lies deep. I write,  intent on the stories spoken by the hearth, stories that evoke more, and other stories, generations of experience. We like to believe humanity evolves, but perhaps it does not. The cat, the fire, and war stories are an ancient constellation, alive in the winter night.

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