When I was six my father began giving me his stories. Heavenly stories of cerulean cloud kingdoms that he’d flown through. Stories of jumping out into the stars and sailing down the Milky Way. Stories of secret silk maps sewn into the inside of your jacket to help you find your way to a fairer kingdom. Stories of penguins moving the earth and making a great escape. Sometimes he would read stories about a boy named Christopher Robin or a rabbit named Miffy. But his stories were so much more captivating. When he had told all the stories he could think of, we would revisit my favorites. He gave me these stories at bedtime, on long drives, on quiet evenings. And when I was twelve, he suddenly stopped. At first I thought he’d simply given them all to me. Then I thought that maybe he thought I was too old for stories. The real reason came to me one day in my history class.
I learned that there were Lancaster bombers in those cloud kingdoms. That my father had dropped bombs on cities full of people. That Germans brought my father’s plane down one cold February night and that that was the first and only time he had jumped in his life. That he was a prisoner of war at Stalag Luft III, made infamous by the Great Escape. That penguins are not flightless birds but prisoners with secret panels sewn into their pants so they can discretely dispose of the light-colored subsoil from the escape tunnel they are digging. That a friend beside you may be dying but you cannot comfort them because you are on a forced march. That perhaps luck is actually fate. That even death can be overworked and overwhelmed and might ask God for help. That if there is a God, He is sometimes too busy to notice these details.
When I grew up I would sometimes think of my father when I delivered a baby. Not about the war stories that he had ingeniously crafted into enchanting adventure stories. But about the story of his own birth, how he was born en caul with the amniotic membrane completely intact. About how this rare type of birth was thought to be very lucky. About how my grandmother had saved the amniotic sac, the caul, because whomever kept it would also be lucky. I’ve always wondered when my grandmother told my father about this lucky birth and the caul that she kept in a small brown envelope. If you knew you were lucky, could you go to war unafraid? I do know she held on to that caul like a protective talisman, that my father survived the Second World War, and that they counted that as lucky.
In all the deliveries I have attended only one was en caul. And I’m not so sure that anything about it was at all lucky. It was a twin pregnancy complicated by a twin to twin transfusion that made one twin’s amniotic sac so huge that it forced the pregnancy into a preterm labor. Each twin was born en caul and each was so tiny it could fit entirely in the palm of my hand. Twin A must’ve been in heaven before he was even born because he came out stillborn. Twin B, the slightly larger one, made a couple of gasping movements before joining twin A. I don’t even remember what happened to their cauls; I don’t think anyone in that sad room thought about anything else but why a beautiful first-time mother had to hold her preterm babies only once and say hello and goodbye.
My grandmother, Daisy would’ve been appalled that the cauls weren’t saved. She was already in heaven well before I was born; but from what I’ve heard from my aunt and my cousin, she was deeply religious and superstitious. I don’t know why my father never talked about her. I guess he had grieved her loss in the years before I was born. Sometimes I wonder if the war gave him that ability to just tuck grief neatly away and be done with it. As a child I never wondered about my grandmother. You can’t miss someone you never knew. Until you grow up at least. As adults we always want more.
In my grandmother, Daisy’s case I really don’t have much more. I know of only two other facts of her life besides the caul business and the given of her vital statistics. The first is that she continued to quietly wash the dishes in her Victoria Street home while her husband died two rooms away (source: my Aunt Marie, who sat at his deathbed, morphine in hand). And the second is that she wrote hundreds of letters to my father during the war (source: my father’s reply letters in this box in front of me).
This small box of old letters and things came to be in my possession shortly after my father’s death. The caul is in it, in a small brown envelope on which ‘George’s caul’ is written in faint pencil in Daisy’s hand. After we had sent my father off to heaven, I opened the box with the hope that I would find comfort in it. I thought that the small snippets of my father’s life in these letters and old photographs would somehow be like a soothing hug from the parent I was so missing. Instead, I found that my father was not there at all. Instead, in these old letters I met a boy trying to be brave in a war and a mother desperately missing her son. Instead of this helping me grieve my father, I found myself mourning this grandmother that I had never met, craving more details of her life. I wanted her to tell me how to have this kind of bond with my own son. Did mothers of her generation do a better job of raising their sons to be kind, even though they had guns placed in their hands? I want her to tell me the secret to raising a son to grow up with kindness in his heart.
It’s strange what things we hold on to, both the physical mementos and the memories. Though I suppose that the memories we end up with are not necessarily the ones that we would choose to keep. But in this small box are some of my father’s memories that are allowing me to form a picture of my grandmother Daisy.
I pick up an old photograph that is in amongst the war-time letters. Its asymmetric edges have been cropped with not-quite-sharp-enough scissors to make it the exact size of one of these old envelopes. I wonder if the scissors that trimmed it were held in the same hands that had written ‘George’s caul’ on that small brown envelope. At some point on it’s journey through time this black and white photograph had become black and yellow. This makes me think of bees and I wonder if any of the specks above the rose hedge are honey bees, or just long-gone leaves. Like the people in the photograph – all long-gone.
In the photograph my Uncle, Bill stands shoulder to shoulder with his brother, George; the boy who would become my father. They look like twins – same British khaki shorts, shirt collars askew over woolen vests, same height despite their age difference, and same mischievous grins as they wait for the photographer to finish. That is the thing about old photographs – impatience gets caught in the act. I can see it in the blurred hands of a very small Uncle Gerald as he sits criss cross applesauce in front of grandmother Daisy. Daisy is seated, stately and serene, in a high-backed Victorian garden chair. She is smiling under her broad sunhat. My grandfather, Harold, stands tall behind her though I can see how his consumption forced him to lean into the back of her chair. But there they all are – the grandparents I never met and their three sons. A moment caught in time that has traveled through time to sit here in my hands. In that peaceful, sunny, English rose garden they were as blissfully unaware of my eventual existence as they were of the next world war.
What if I could warn them about the next war, I wonder, as I pick up a brittle yellow newspaper clipping dated March 1944, tucked in amongst the old letters. The edges of this are similarly cut with not-sharp-enough scissors and I am sure it was Daisy who did the cutting. More than half of the clipping is a grainy photograph of a teenaged George. He courageously tries to appear larger in his ill-fitting Royal Canadian Air Force uniform. You can tell that he’s puffing out his chest to try and fill the uniform and not in pride because of how set his eyes are. They are looking off to his left, as if he can see the inevitable history he will be flying into. Or perhaps farther still, into the future. As if he can see me. It was a medieval myth that those born en caul had peculiar powers.
The big newsprint above the yellowed, official photograph in the frail newspaper clipping simply states “Now War Prisoner”. The tiny three inches of print below this begins “Mrs. Harold McKiel, 54 Victoria Street, has received word that her son, Flight Officer George D. McKiel, RCAF, who was reported missing after air operations overseas early in March, is a prisoner of war in Germany”.
I desperately want to know how Daisy endured that agony of utter helplessness that fills me as I try to imagine being that mother who cannot protect her child. Did her hands tremble as she held the scissors? Did seeing the black and white newspaper print make her son’s capture so much more a fact than the initial cable-gram from the RCAF casualties office? Or was the clipping of the newspaper article just a mechanical thing, done on auto-pilot? I imagine Harold’s left hand resting on her rounded shoulder, offering what partial comfort it could.
Daisy had been a nurse in the First World War. She and Harold had met over his wounds. She certainly knew war. Perhaps her war had taught her that there’s a small corner next to your heart where you could file this fact of a son in a prison camp in Germany. She could put it in a small brown envelope and label it with pencil “George in Stalag Luft III, March 1944” and file it after her own war horrors. Then she could put helplessness on hold, waiting for the end of her son’s war to know whether she needed to grieve him. Or, as the keeper of that protective caul, did she know then as plainly as I know now that her son, in this old photograph, was already looking out at that future that he would live into? That he was composing the final telegram – it, too, is here in this box – the one he would later send to Daisy:
March 25th, 1945
Need I say more?
Home in one month.
With the outbreak of the Second World War, George joined the air force and learned to fly a plane before he learned to drive a car. After basic RCAF training he was sent to England – first to Yorkshire, then Bournemouth. This is where the unwavering correspondence with his mother begins. “My Dearest Mum,” each letter starts, “Thank you for your letter and news…” He wrote several times each week, just before that night’s mission. He was the navigator on a Lancaster bomber. He would plot their course for that night’s assigned target – some factory critical to the Germans. They would fly across the English Channel under cover of night, drop their bombs in Germany, and George would plot their course back to England. Several missions every week for over a year, the same routine. Several letters every week for over a year, the same routine. Until the night they didn’t make it back across the English Channel.
A bitterly cold night in late February 1944. This I know from the stories George gave me. They had just dropped their bombs on a ball bearing factory and were heading back to England. But on that cold night the Germans were somehow expecting them. They were ambushed from the ground by heavy anti-aircraft fire and from the air by German night-fighter planes.
The first hit to their Lancaster took out one engine and the mid-section gunner was killed instantly. In a hot panic the pilot announced they could not make it all the way back to England with their port engine gone. George re-plotted a course to Switzerland, that fairer kingdom. He hoped they could get to neutral ground before coming down. Suddenly, they were hit a second time. The plane began a dive. The pilot ordered them all to jump. George had to push the terrified co-pilot, frozen with fear, out so the rest of them could jump out into the stars.
A bitterly cold night in late February 1944 with very high winds. As they abandoned their burning plane they were all scattered by the wind. George sailed down a Milky Way obscured by smoke and flames and spent the rest of that first night in a tree with his tangled parachute and the bitter cold. Later, he managed to steal a bicycle and spent nearly a week on the run, consulting the secret silk maps and trying to get to the Swiss border. Hiding during the day, traveling at night. On the day of his capture he was sleeping in a hayloft. The farmer had seen a boot sticking out of the hay and had called the guard. George was awakened by rifles prodding his chest and their bayonet-like tips pointed at his throat.
He became one of the thousands of prisoners of war. It was a full two months at the Stalag Luft III camp before his fellow prisoners told him about the escape plans. He was astounded by how secretive the enormous operation was, especially as the entrance to the main tunnel was a mere few meters from his bunk. He was quietly assigned the role of ‘penguin’ – he filled the inside of his trousers with the sandy subsoil from the tunnel digging. He then would walk outside the hut, carefully releasing tiny amounts of the lighter subsoil and scuffing it in to the dark surface soil, right under the eyes of the German guards and the noses of the guard dogs. In their hunger they even captured one of those dogs; smothered it and ate it. I don’t know if he ever told Daisy about that detail.
I am surprised to find two letters in this box that were sent from prison camp. Both have clearly been opened and inspected by the Germans. And both are clearly in response to letters from Daisy that somehow reached him in prison camp, as these reply letters begin with “My dearest Mum, thank you for your letter and news. Yesterday we also received a parcel from the Red Cross…”
The luxury of going through this box of letters and things needs to be put on hold. My son has just come home from school, bringing with him questions that I am not sure I will ever have answers to. He is learning about the Second World War in his history class. I make him some tea and a snack. But he is hungry for the details about what his Grampie George did during the war. He doesn’t understand why he was supposed to bomb a factory. This one is easy; I can answer it and he sees how that action could’ve helped in crippling Germany’s war efforts.
What I struggle with is the next question, the real one, “How did they drop the bombs, Momma?” His eyes are looking at me so intently that I know he means how could they. My son’s eyes look like my father’s eyes; “Didn’t that hurt the people on the ground?” he asks.
My mind is racing for the right answer and I so want to know what Daisy would’ve said to her son. I imagine George had asked her unanswerable questions about the First World War, “I don’t know,” I reply quietly while his eyes continue to study me; “I only know that there are things you cannot imagine doing until you are faced with them. I only know that he was protecting the people he loved.”
It’s Christmas time and my son is excited about the break from school. He is hoping for snow, of course. After the noise of Christmas itself, he quietly shows me a news article he has just come across.
CBC News Dec 25, 2016 –
Thousands of people in the southern German city of Augsburg left Christmas presents and decorations behind after they were forced from their homes while authorities disarmed a large Second World War aerial bomb on Sunday.
The bomb was uncovered last week during construction work in the city’s historic central district. Police said Christmas Day was the best time to defuse it because there is less traffic and it is more likely people can stay with relatives.
Finding Second World War bombs is not unusual in Germany. Much of Augsburg’s historic centre was destroyed on Feb. 25-26, 1944, when hundreds of British and U.S. bombers attacked the city.
My father, who art in heaven, I think quietly after reading this news, was one of those hundreds of bombers. I am brought back to the stories about a young George in prison camp, writing to his mother. Then my mind suddenly leaps to the old man he became; he went back and visited the site of that prison camp on the 60th anniversary of The Great Escape. I had wanted to go with him, but I was too pregnant with my son. But I remember being so surprised by what had stood out the most for him.
“The trees,” he had said with a faraway look, “The whole area is covered by huge, sixty year old trees, a whole forest where the camp was”. I wonder now if it is perhaps nature and not time that heals. I must’ve had a faraway look on my face, because my son quietly gave me a hug. A simple action that makes me realize that I do have that kind of bond with my son, the one that Daisy and George had. And in the arc of his hug I can reach over and touch the kindness that is forming in his heart. In the arc of his hug I think about how connected we all are. How heavenly cerulean kingdoms can connect heaven and earth despite time. I think about the wide arc of the universe, and how it touches itself in so many places in time and space.