My grandmother often told us stories of leaving her homeland, evoking the humor and absurdity of an episode of I Love Lucy. I recently found recordings of her telling these stories we loved hearing as kids. She left England to live in America just after World War II on the USS President Tyler. Her journey was filled with twists and surprises that included the ship breaking down mid-Atlantic. Still, her eyes sparkled whenever she recounted the story of meeting my grandfather and eventually moving to America. She wouldn’t face the hardships of a political asylum seeker, but more the longings and struggles of a refugee of love.
At 18, she travelled to London from her hometown, York, with her father who was visiting on business. She invited her older cousin along for the adventure.
Headed by taxi to their hotel from Kings Cross Station, she asked her father, “Are those Americans?” pointing toward a lively group of men crossing the street.
“I wouldn’t know. I’ve never seen one,” he admitted, as if referring to a rare species of bird. “I was in India during World War I.”
He looked up from the papers he shuffled on his lap. “But people are saying that they came to win the war for us.”
“Yep, Americans” confirmed the taxi driver. “They’re all over the place” he nodded as he waved his hand toward the windshield.
Turning to her cousin she grinned, “Oh, well we’ll never talk to one!”
I imagine her winking as she said so.
* * *
On her first night in London, she and her cousin attended a dance at Covent Garden, the Royal Opera House. After struggling to communicate with two Polish men over coffee, they gave up and made a laughter-filled escape for the ladies room.
Upon returning to the crowded dance area she felt someone touch her shoulder. “Would you like to dance?” asked an American soldier in uniform.
“And before I could even turn around, I said yes,” she always told us, grinning ear to ear.
When he tested her knowledge of American vocabulary and culture, she mocked him back with a blunt sarcasm I admired and associated specifically with my English grandmother as a child.
“Do you know what Corn Flakes are?” he quizzed her impishly.
“Sure,” she shot back, feigning ignorance. “Don’t they make an awful noise in your shoes when you walk!”
“Your poor Granddad,” she’d always say, retelling us that story. “Of courseI knew what Corn Flakes were!”
My grandfather was visiting London on a 72-hour leave. After that evening, she saw him on only two other occasions before they would eventually marry. Once, the next day before he returned to Germany, and again, a year later, in London on another leave. On his last visit to London he told her that he wouldn’t see her again until after the war because he would be stationed at a camp in France where he would take part in the final D-Day invasion. They stayed in touch only through writing letters.
In late May of 1945 after the war was over, she received correspondence from him that they had been granted permission to marry and that he would come to York in a week’s time for the ceremony.
As she read this very letter announcing his impending arrival, there was a knock at her door. It was my grandfather. He had already arrived in York. My grandmother, who had not even told her father about her plans to marry, rushed my grandfather out of the house in a frenzy to explain the situation to her father. Her mother, who had died three years earlier of ovarian cancer, was sadly no longer present to weigh in on her dramatic decision.
“Well, you’ve made your bed, now lie in it!” her father chided her for the hastiness of their decision.
“He didn’t have too many objections,” she always reassured us.
* * *
She wore a suit-dress borrowed from a friend that was two sizes too big because the crepe, powder blue two-piece she had chosen during a shopping trip to Leeds wouldn’t be altered in time for her wedding ceremony. My grandfather found a best man that same day. He was the only American available; a tall Texan standing on a York street corner, rare as a flower in the desert. My grandfather somehow convinced him to be their witness.
At the ceremony she waited patiently by her father’s side for the music to begin. She wore a veil, made last minute, by her friends from pink lace with some flowers stuck on top. A tall, elegant woman, her black hair was swept back and pinned into those classic 1940s victory rolls—the name referring to the wartime aerobatic maneuver.
“You know,” warned a wedding officiator, “you’re making the groom nervous having him wait so long like that.”
“We’re still waiting for the music,” she protested.
“Well, did you arrange for music?” the woman asked
“Uh, no,” my grandmother answered, face crinkling as she realized her mistake. “I thought there would be music” she called out, rushing to meet my grandfather.
When she finally reached him, I can’t quite imagine what she felt at that moment, nor is she here any longer so that I can ask. I simply know that at that moment, as she knelt down at the altar, she tore a giant hole through one knee in her stocking.
She spent the day after with her new American husband exploring London, choosing to not pay too much attention to that hole.
“I wish I could buy you a new pair,” lamented my grandfather.
“Don’t worry,” she teased him. “I’ll be fine. Just as long as I don’t sit down all day!”
And that’s nearly all I know about the last day they spent together before being reunited in America.
* * *
In preparation for her journey to America, my grandmother was stationed at an American army transit camp in Tidworth. She would wait there for weeks with hundreds of other British War Brides being processed to board ships that would leave from Southampton and ferry the women and their children to New York. My grandmother would become part of an estimated group of 70,000 British war brides who arrived in America between the years of 1945 and 1950 in a mass migration called “Operation War Bride.”
A natural talker, she said she did her best to follow regulation and resist the temptation to speak to the German prisoners of war who cleaned and served food on the ship. “We were allowed to eat as many eggs as we wanted,” she recalled, contrasting her situation on the ship with the wartime rationing of food she’d experienced back at home.
I’ve since read historical accounts of babies not surviving the harsh conditions of these sea journeys and about women feeling terrified by invasive medical checkups at the transit camp. My grandmother didn’t mention any of these stories, though she recalled how the ship broke down at sea and that the extra time needed for repairs lengthened the journey, depleting supplies. The passengers were consequently forced to drink filtered seawater.
“The taste was disgusting!” she remembered. “We tried not to drink too much.”
I don’t know if she felt she was in danger or if she was scared, she only once simply stated: “We managed to survive.”
* * *
“We arrived in New York two weeks later,” she told us. “On April first, 1946.” Officers called our names and we searched the faces in the crowd for our husbands on the gangplank. “There was a lot of giggling among us. You could hear women saying, ‘Oh, there’s my husband! and Oh! He looks funny in his civvies!” Many women, including my grandmother had never even seen their husbands in civilian clothing.
“You can imagine my shock and surprise,” she recalled “when I found your grandfather, waiting there for me on crutches, his leg completely bandaged! I knew he wasn’t injured in the war because we had married two weeks after it ended.”
“I think it was fate,” she reasoned, “that our ship broke down and I was late arriving in New York because he’d spent two weeks in the hospital after an accident chopping down trees with an ax on his uncle’s farm.” In this way, with her appreciation for absurdist humor and serendipity, she would talk about her seemingly precarious sea travel to a land on which she had never set foot, as if to her there weren’t a doubt in her mind about whether or not she should have made that fateful journey.
* * *
I was recently surprised to learn from my mom, that shortly before my grandmother passed, she revealed to my mom that a few years after starting a family and settling in to her new life in America, she experienced what her doctor called a “nervous breakdown.” Her diagnosis: she was homesick. The doctor sent her back to England for three months with her children so she could rest and heal herself through the comforts and familiarities of home.A few years after starting a family and settling in to her new life in America, she experienced what her doctor called a 'nervous breakdown.' Click To Tweet
She didn’t explain her ambivalence at the time to anyone else, not even to my mom when she became an adult. Who of us could have understood, having never experienced the vulnerability that is inherent to the migration experience? At the time, I knew nothing about the myriad ways a person might self-protect from the feeling that the safety goggles have been removed. What happens when so much of what you’ve been taught by your culture of origin is suddenly not so certain?
My grandmother’s story of her voluntary migration, indelibly etched into our family tree, might be seen as some comic fiasco, a great slapstick caper. She appeared to leave her entire world behind all in one sitcom episode that allowed me the privilege and freedom to not think twice about doing the same thing some 60 years later.
A few days before I moved to Rome from Boston to marry and start a family with an Italian at the age of 31, I visited my grandmother in her nursing home in Connecticut to say goodbye.
She pressed a small silver horseshoe into my palm.
Good luck it read on its reverse.
“My aunt gave this to me before I left England to be with granddad.” I gingerly placed the horseshoe in a small zippered compartment of my wallet to ensure that I’d carry it with me always, just as she had.
* * *
Almost ten years have passed since I made the choice to leave my own country. Sometimes I can feel myself too eagerly rejecting my deeply ingrained American ideals in order to make way for the conflicting realities presented by my new culture. In other moments, I refocus my effort to preserve the cherished aspects of my cultural identity now that I’ve had the distance to actually see what they are. Constantly questioning my cultural defaults can be exhausting one moment, and exhilarating the next. It is a dance of rejection and acceptance, all in the name of self-preservation. Only now can I read between the comic punch lines of my grandmother’s stories to truly understand the necessary losses and adjustments, often disguised by us humans in mysterious ways, that accompany the exquisite transformation attained through replanting oneself in a foreign soil.
– Carolyn Rathjen