Every Remembrance Day, I am reminded of my own family mystery (in addition to thoughts on war). The tale of my mom’s first husband wasn’t fully revealed until very recently. My mother was a product of her Irish parents’ habit of secrecy. (I say “was” here because dementia has changed all the rules.) You didn’t tell anyone a story unless you wanted all the neighbours to know. Thus skeletons remained firmly in their closets.
Mysteries were rarely solved. It seems ironic that I am a mystery writer now, going about solving all the puzzles.
When I was ten, my sixteen-year-old cousin told me that my father was not my dad. Of course at ten, a girl’s daddy is her hero, so I was wounded to the core. Pat showed me proof: a small, faded black-and-white photograph that featured a woman in a wedding dress with a man in a uniform. The only thing clear was my mother’s smiling face. Proof indeed.
That night, I flung myself onto my mother’s lap, sobbing, and through my tears managed to ask her if Dad was my real father. A trace of anger flashed in her eyes; she had to have figured out who the tattler was. But she reassured me that the timing was wrong: I would have to be sixteen, not ten, to be her first husband’s child. He had died in “the war”, she explained, and they’d had no children.
The only thing I knew about “the war” was that we got Remembrance Day off and my father and his brothers always paraded. Dad told us that, when Hitler found out he was coming, the dictator gave up and ended the battle. I even believed this tale when I was really young. So my real father was never sent overseas, unlike some of my uncles.
For many years, I forgot about the man my mother first loved. It was only when my sisters and I were packing her belongings for a move to a retirement residence that I discovered the photograph. This one was much larger than the copy Pat had shown me. It was an 8 by 10, sepia coloured, and very clear. This time, I could see that the man she had married was black.
In the 2000’s interracial marriage is not a big deal. In 1944, it probably was. I know this because I, a white Canadian, married a black Canadian in 1973 and it was a big deal then. In Canada we like to pretend we’re not prejudiced, but I could disabuse you of that notion by telling you my story – however, that’s not the point here. There’s also the issue of whether or not mom’s husband was in a segregated unit or not. He may have been “allowed” to fight alongside the whites by that time because enlistments were low.
The point is, my mother never told me. She never shared a thing about her first marriage, other than that they weren’t together very long before he was shipped overseas. However, the reality of his death had finally hit me, just as my mother’s memory was fractured by dementia.
I sent for the marriage certificate. His name was Lesley Darby. Now I could do some online research. Their union began on April 22, 1944, and poor Lesley Darby was dead by February 8, 1945. That was about all I knew. A young, handsome man, by the look of his picture, he lost his life on a nameless foreign shore.
I began to pay a bit more attention to Remembrance Day celebrations, though. It feels odd to give thanks to a man for dying, not only for my freedom but also for my very existence.
A few years later, the Director of the retirement residence (Mom had moved on to long term care), contacted me and said my mother had left a package behind, one that gave the history of a Lesley Darby. She’d been sent the pictures of the cemetery because she was a sponsor in the past. Another secret…
Lesley died in the “battles of the Rhineland”, his body left cold and alone until moved to the Groesbeek cemetery in March of 1945, when all the dead were moved and buried in “friendly territory”. He was a member of the Calgary Highlanders, who held the front line at the beginning of December 1944.
When I looked up the places on the map, they must have been at the border between The Netherlands and Germany. The strip where they fought and patrolled, mostly at night, was referred to as no-man’s-land. There’s a black-and-white, grainy picture of The Calgary Highlanders patrolling on December 4, 1944. The area looks bleak and bitter. “Accounts tell of mine fields and booby traps, mud and rain, frost and snow, dead and wounded.”
Did my mother write him letters to keep him warm? I guess I’ll never know. Nor will we know exactly where he died, though the articles I have seem to imply that he was killed inside the German border and was brought back to Groesbeek (The Netherlands) for burial.
We have a coloured picture of his burial plot, and the directions to find it. Perhaps some day I’ll go there and visit. I’ll tell Lesley Darby how odd it feels to be thanking him for his sacrifice, since I am not only grateful for freedom, but for life.