by Nanny Lowe
I read the words on a paper my brother sent to me and I was stunned. I wondered how, at the age of 55 years, I had not known all of this. I knew my Father was a WWII Veteran, having served in the British Royal Navy from September 1939 to 1945. But many things that haunted this quiet man were never disclosed. This information was revealed to my brother as part of an exercise of gathering information for a book being written on the Newfoundland Rangers. My father was Newfoundland Ranger #176. The writers were requesting a short biography of each Ranger, and my brother and I were gathering a few facts for them.
But I was ill prepared for the history of my fathers’ service in the Royal Navy. Father is eighty-three now, and is more willing to speak of those memories that have always stalked him. He must feel the time has come, yet he spares his daughters, and talks to my brother more, probably his way or protecting us. But one strong, kind, hardworking woman, was not spared the heartache of having her son caught in a world of horror and war. That woman was my paternal grandmother.
My father was an only child, and his father died when my father was just two years old, and for a long time it was Grandmother and her much loved son sharing their lives together. Then came the summer of 1939. My father, who grew up in Belloram, traveled to Harbour Breton for a medical appointment. There was a recruitment office there, so with the impulsiveness and invincibility of youth, combined with a longing for adventure, he, like so many others of that time, visited the office and signed up for service in the Royal Navy. Newfoundland was a British Colony then, and the Royal Navy held great promise for travel, adventure, and to be truthful, a better lifestyle than that of life in a Newfoundland outport. He was not quite eighteen years old, and his mother knew nothing of his joining the navy until he began his preparations to leave. It made her fearful, sad, full of worry and questioning her sons’ decision. Nevertheless she came to accept it, as she sadly watched him prepare to sail to far away places. Her tears fell like rain. Any mother can relate to her feelings.
So this young Newfoundland boy joined the Royal Navy in July, 1939, and was overseas by November of that same year. He was swept into the misery of war. The ‘HMS SHOREHAM’, a Royal Navy Sloop, was his home, and he admits it was the best home he had known up to that point. He missed his family, and felt guilty knowing his Mother was distressed beyond consolation.
He then spent time on various other ships. On those ships he sailed to the Mediterranean, the Suez Canal, Persian Gulf, Indian Ocean, and the North and South Atlantic Oceans. Writing letters to Grandmother made him feel better and her relief that he was still alive was joyful. Her heart ached for her son; her life was empty without him.
Then the worst scenario occurred. In 1942 Father was taken as a Prisoner of War in North Africa for a few weeks. Through violence and the will to survive, he and his fellow prisoners escaped. They knew to be captured meant certain death. Consequently they ran by night and hid by day. During this time he was declared ‘Missing in Action’ for eighteen months.
I can only imagine the distress and suffering of my grandmother. Reading the paper I was holding, and realizing now that this had happened, took my mind immediately to Grandmother. Her only child, her handsome son, a boy who she adored was gone. The strong boy who was so active, so kind and caring, was now a man, and she knew not where he was or if he was even alive. She was in Belloram, Newfoundland, her son was gone, and with him went her heart. Day after day, never any news, no updates, no words of comfort and hope, only words of war came from her radio. As the months wore on, she gradually began to lose hope, and she gradually lost her health.
A woman with a broken heart, at the age of forty-five years slowly declined and eventually suffered a stroke. She would never be the same. She sometimes would have preferred death to this lack of health and the loss of her beloved son. While Father sailed the seas and endured some of the worst invasions of a world at war, his mother battled her way back to reasonable health.
The stroke had left her with epilepsy. She suffered frequent convulsions, as medications were not as well advanced for epilepsy as they are today. Her sense of acute loss, combined with illness, made life seem so hopeless. She had been strong, always active and healthy, now she was constantly sad and felt useless. Life as she knew it was over. She was far away from the Invasion of Sicily, but she felt the deep unrelenting pain and sorrow as she fought on, while grieving for her son. Her world was full of suffering, where sorrow reigned, a world that had collapsed while she was in the prime of life. She had hope and faith as she fought her daily battles, as did her son, just in a different way.
As I read, the face of my son was clear in my mind. John with his smiling face, his laughter, and his kindness so like his Poppy Jarvis. Just the thought of losing him brought me to tears. I felt an all-encompassing sadness for ‘Nan’. Her challenge to regain health combined with her sons’ disappearance, drowned her in a sea of sorrow. World War II was her hell too. It is difficult to withstand the severe pain of a broken heart.
Eventually word came that Dick Jarvis was alive. She now knew at least that much, and now she prayed for contact from him, and to see him again. Now there really was hope, and with hope she began to heal. She knew in her heart she would see him again.
Then came 1945, and the end of that horrific war. Father had survived and so had ‘Nan’. It must have been a reunion from heaven itself when he arrived home. The boy that left was gone though, the man that returned was troubled, and it took years to shake the frightening flashbacks. He had burned legs from a bomb blast and an eye that had been affected by gun powder, but he was alive!
I watch the ceremony of remembrance from Ottawa every year, and I am always anxious to know who the Silver Cross Mother is, what her story would reveal. Then I remember my Grandmother, how she loved her rocking chair, adored us all, and still endured those awful seizures.
Nan was quiet, kind, and loving. Recently I looked through our family photo albums. There is a photograph of my tenth birthday party. Nan is standing next to my father and her smile shows how much she loved her son and his family.
Nan is gone now. She raised a wonderful son, and nobody will ever know how much she suffered. This is true for many mothers who experienced the same fears. There are mothers still dealing with that heartache as the world continues to be at war, and terrorism is held over our heads.
On Remembrance Day think of the mothers, sisters, wives, and grandmothers who endured much and gave all. They, who gave their sons and daughters, gave us the freedoms we have today. Those strong women waited and prayed, worried and cried, as their sons and daughters served their country.