Saturday, July 23, 2011

Waiting for war

I have not been so cold since I was a child, or so it seems to me. The drought has broken in many parts of Australia and with it has come a resumption of past weather patterns, the winters of old.

I took out an old yellow lunch box that’s been hidden away in one of the drawers in my study and is full of negatives. I sent them off to be developed. Among the photos that came back I found some surprising treasures.

There is one photo of my father in Indonesia.
Elsewhere there is a photo of my mother in an evening dress. These are the parents I never knew, the parents who existed before I was born, the parents who had not yet travelled to Australia to make a new life with their children.

By 1947 - the calendar on the wall in the photo of my father dates the image - my parents had only two children, two sons and had already lost one daughter.

Elsewhere I have a small photograph wrapped in tissue paper. It has faded with age. The image of my father in the centre is difficult to discern. I use a magnifying glass. My father lounges on top of a bunk bed, a single blanket rolled at its end. He is propped up against the pillow and smokes a cigarette.

Like the photo above this picture was presumably taken by one of his fellow soldiers when my father was stationed in Java, Indonesia.

My mother has told me that only two weeks after Armistice in May 1945 my father was called up for retraining in the army. He then spent two months billeted in the South of Holland in Breda. He came home in June for the birth of his second son then spent another six weeks in Nijmegen in Holland with the expeditionary force preparing to travel to the Dutch East Indies as Indonesia was then called.

My father was caught up in a conflict not of his own making. For nearly three years my mother told me she lived alone while my father took part in what was described as a ‘police action’.

My mother missed the regimental balls she had enjoyed when my father was still an officer training in Holland. She missed his company. Worst of all, she said she hated the silence.

During my father’s absence when he was living on nothing but rice, my mother waited with her two young sons for months ‘in the dark’. There was no mail until the newspapers began to publish the lists of names of those killed in action.

One day, my mother said, my father had led a patrol in which his best sergeant was killed and several soldiers wounded. My father came home unscathed, at least in body. No shell shock. No obvious traumatic effects. Though who is to say?

As a child I pored over the photo albums. The photos of my parents’ life in Holland, the life they led before mine began. A life I could not fathom, especially the war years.

As I have written elsewhere, I spent the best part of my own childhood waiting for world war three or worse still invasion from Indonesia. A childhood fantasy perhaps that the people the Dutch had invaded all those hundreds of years ago would one day turn around and punish us. The fact that my father fought with the Dutch army that opposed Indonesia’s bid for independence has long sat heavily on my shoulders.

In the omnipotent way of small children in my fantasy I see the Indonesian army coming after me and mine for my father’s part in oppressing them. I know it is a fanciful notion and yet it has stayed with me, especially living in Australia so close to Indonesia.

I put it down to my childhood fear of war, which falls like a shadow across my imagination and looms ahead as a future threat.


Penal-Colony said...

What a lovely descriptive piece: the balancing of fear with remembrance and foreboding is well done. Do you think another world war is coming?

Rob-bear said...

An interesting observation: "My father came home unscathed, at least in body. No shell shock. No obvious traumatic effects. Though who is to say?"
One of the things we are learning is the extent to which military personnel are traumatized by combat. It is way more common than we think. And probably more insidious, especially among soldiers who do not appear to have been traumatized.

Elisabeth said...

It's lovely to hear from you again, John. Do I think another world war is coming? I hope not, but then anything is possible.

I'm still reeling from the news coming out of Norway here this morning. That one man can do so much damage, and in many cases to children, is breathtaking.

Thanks Penal Colony.

Elizabeth said...

Your strange and wonderful voice is so apparent here -- the juxtaposition of such seemingly peaceful photos with the ominous "back story" and your own dread is so interesting. I want to read more.

The Weaver of Grass said...

I found this a very poignant story Elizabeth as my first husband was in Shanghai and was taken prisoner by the Japanese in 1941 at the age of sixteen. I think it is wonderful that there was then a generation which grew up missing war more or less (unless one was a 'regular' soldier) - will wars never stop?

who said...

The only thing worse than an unnecessary war and the harm done to those during it, is when it's the children who live with the fear due to elders choices.

It wrong, and I wish more children let their parents know how their wars (the wars of parents) does affect far more than they realize. I do not know who said it, but this is a quote that I think sums up war:

"The first casualty of all wars, is truth"

thank you for writing about topics which may not be easy to discuss. Without places where people can feel safe to communicate, there will never be peace

aguja said...

This piece is so wistful, sad and nostalgic. One can often carry fears and worries for many years, but eventually there comes a time when it is possible to lay them down and walk away in peace. There are many wrongs and always will be. They cannot be forgotten or made samller, but the burden can be unshouldered.
Perhaps finding these beautiful photographic images from the past, will signify this time for you.
Thank you so much for sharing with such empathy.

Theresa Milstein said...

I really enjoyed this post. It's amazing how photos of our parents before we were born draw us in. We want to solve the mystery of who they were outside of being our parents.

Thanks for sharing your story.

jabblog said...

Old photos from a time before we were born have a seductive power and the ability to make us long for the people we knew to become clearer, more comprehensible. Our children and grandchildren will surely look at us in our photos in the same way.

Kirk said...

The last time you wrote about WWII, I think I left a comment about the differences between living in Australia during that conflict and the United States. I forgot your parents were Dutch and not Australian.

After reading today's post, I decided to do a little googling. I wanted to confirm something that I suspected. The Netherlands were occupied by German during World War II! And what was then the Dutch East Indies by the Japanese. So I'm assuming your parents lived under either Nazi or Japanese occupation for a couple of years during the 1940s. Did they ever talk about THAT? I imagine that would have been at least as traumatic as whatever happened to them after the war. But maybe it wasn't. What do I know? I'd be interested if you could shed any light on the subject.

Anthony Duce said...

Thank you for sharing the observations you have made here. Had me thinking of my parents past, and past fears.

Elizabeth Anderson said...

I love the opening to this entry linking the present to the past in a visceral way - of how life like weather patterns repeats itself through our memories. Lovely image of a yellow lunch box the keeper of these treasures.

Jim Murdoch said...

I have only one photo of my father from his time in the Royal Navy, he’s sitting with two shipmates on either side and looks very smart. I forget his rank. He looked after the guns. The oldest photo of my mum is a novelty shot with her sister, the kind where you stick you head through a hole; they were can-can dancers. After that there are a only handful from the mid-fifties. The one that jumps out is a photo of my dad sitting reading in the living room (a paper I think which is rare because he never read newspapers). He’s smoking – I never saw my dad smoke – and his Scottie dog, Butch, is sitting on the arm of the chair beside him. My dad was a dog person, my mum and I, cat people. The thing about the photo of my dad is that is obvious that Butch is his dog. After the dog died he vowed he would never get another and my dad took his vows seriously. He vowed he would never go back home (to Oldham in Lancashire) and never did although I think he may have driven us kids through the place to show us where they came from. Not sure. If he did I would have been about ten so it’s a while ago but that was the only time, bar a rare holiday in Blackpool, that we ever ventured south of the border. What I’ve just realised about the photo of my dad and his dog is that it must have been my mum who took it. It seems obvious but can you believe I’d never thought about that before? There are no photos of me as a baby, nor, that I can think of, my brother and sister. The earliest photo of me would have me about two. I find this odd because my dad used to process his own photos and considering the fact they waited twenty-one years to have me (and had all but given up hope of having children) you would have thought there might have been more.

cheshire wife said...

Lovely to find the old photographs.

After being injured in training my father was asigned to the Special Operations Executive (SOE). What he did was top secret. He never spoke about it and we never knew what he had been up to.

Mim said...

One can gaze and gaze at such photos. What can you imagine about these two, as they were then? What would you wish for them?

I heard a scientist predict famine and war. He hoped for world-wide famine would come first. Maybe then there would be no great war.

Hello from Boston . . .

Jerry said...

Such an enjoyable post. It makes we want to start digging and researching on my heritage.

little hat said...

Very gentle very poignant Elizabeth. So strange that we Australians have such limited connections with our northern and our pacific neighbours. we still yearn for europe.
I'm researching and writing about my family story at resent so your piece resonates with that part of my world. That and the fact that I've been doing some work in Vanuatu this year and the pacific has suddenly come alive for me.

Elisabeth said...

The traumatic after effects of war are there for all those involved, whether directly or indirectly, Rob Bear.

I suspect that despite our almost universal human proclivity for violence there is also a universal revulsion for the same unless one is damaged, most often early in the piece in infancy and childhood but also through later traumas like war.

It's not a happy business, despite the need to recognize those who have fallen.

Thanks Rob bear.

Elisabeth said...

There is so much more to the back story, Elizabeth, much of which I do not know and may never know but I keep exploring.

Thanks, Elizabeth.

Elisabeth said...

I fear that wars will never stop, Pat, though I wish they would.

The effects on your first husband of being interned in Japan as a sixteen year old must have been horrific, even if hidden. Shades of JG Ballard's Empire of the Sun, I expect.

Thanks, Pat.

Elisabeth said...

I couldn't agree more, Who, "The first casualty of all wars, is truth".

This probably applies to most situations where conflict and vested interests overtake one another in a bid to secure the certainty of one's position against honesty and equality. We are all a prey to it.

Thanks, Dusty Who.

Elisabeth said...

Thanks Aguja. I think it helps to explore these images and thoughts as a means of reaching the point you describe where it might be possible to lay down these griefs, but I'm not there yet, but one day, soon - maybe.

Thanks again for your kind thoughts here, Aguja.

Elisabeth said...

The mystery of our parents before we were born is such a draw card, as you say Theresa. It's one that sucks me in every time and I'm sure I'm not alone in my curiosity however much it's hard to imagine our parents before we joined them.

Thanks Theresa.

Elisabeth said...

My children already look at my wedding photos with some degree of awe and irreverence, Janice. How daggy my husband and I look. He in his 'ice cream' suit and me in my hippy dress.

It's wonderful to reflect on the past through photos that have such significance for us.

Thanks Janice.

Elisabeth said...

My mother talked, and still talks about Holland under German occupation but my father did not, at least not with me.

Two of my aunts lived in Indonesia during Japanese occupation, and they seemed even more traumatised than my parents, as if such comparisons bear thinking about.

Thanks Kirk.

Elisabeth said...

Our parents' past and their fears become ours to some extent, Anthony.

Thanks for your thoughts.

Elisabeth said...

Oh Jim, we are a pair. There are no photos of me as a baby either, none of me nor of my sister one below.

When I was young I used to think that she and I must have been born during that time called The Great Depression. I'd heard of it but never connected the dates.

I figured my parents had no money for cameras or film. Now I realise that it could not have been, but I suspect by the time we two in the middle were born my parents were exhausted.

Photos both in their presence and their absence say so much.

My daughter has just given birth to her second child and although they took heaps of photos of their first there are already fewer of the second, though they have in-laws visiting from overseas and there's far less time and space.

But it seems to me it often happens that way: the first attracts more attention. Though, come to think of it, you were the first. No baby photos of you. That is odd, especially as you say your father took photos for a hobby.

I wish I had a baby photo of me, more than I can say.

I want to see myself as a baby in black and white and not just on my imagination. A silly and thankless wish you might say but nevertheless it's there. I'll have to write about it instead.

Thanks, Jim.

Elisabeth said...

Thanks Elizabeth Andersen. The weather to me is a constant reminder of the past . I'm forever measuring my response to it on how it used to be or at least feel in my memory.

And objects too, like the yellow lunch box, are also such vivid reminders of how things once were.

Thanks for your kind words here, Elizabeth A.

Elisabeth said...

Those top secret duties, Cheshire Wife, the ones certain of our fathers got up to can certainly leave us guessing for the rest of our lives.

I think here of Germiane Greer's memoir: 'Daddy we hardly knew you'. Secrets, and in Greer's father's case lies, and very disturbing for the child who comes after.

Thanks, Cheshire Wife.

Elisabeth said...

Hi Mim from Boston. I agree: we can gaze for hours and wonder at these old photos.

As for the scientist's prediction of war and famine, and his hope that famine comes first, it seems to me it's another of those awful comparisons that cannot bear consideration.

Certainly man's and woman's inhumanity to one another is ghastly but famine would have to be equally so and as indiscriminate.

Thanks Mim.

Elisabeth said...

It's such a rewarding activity, Jerry: researching your heritage.

It's amazing what you might find about your ancestors that can lend layers of understanding to yourself.

Thanks, Jerry.

Elisabeth said...

The Pacific is on our doorstep, Little Hat, and yet we continue to hanker for Europe.

For me it's understandable given my ancestry but even so it's interesting how blind I/we can be to the fascination of other places closer to home in Australia.

Thanks, Little Hat.

Robert the Skeptic said...

My father-in-law was a civilian contractor during WWII, stationed in Australia and New Guinea as an aircraft mechanic freshly trained out of high school.

He also was an amateur photographer and took lots of pictures while in the South Pacific. He had to learn how to adjust the development chemicals to work properly in the tropical heat.

He had boxes full of curling and fading photos, and stories he told repeatedly. I finally convinced him to write a book which I collaborated with him on. In his book "Contract Military Air Transport From the Ground Up" are published a lot of the photos he had taken during your dad's era during the war.

Most of the WWII generation is dying or are already gone, photos and books like these preserve the history.

Elisabeth said...

Thanks for the link, Robert. It looks to me like a fascinating book, and all those photographs are a veritable archive of the times.

What a coincidence that as a young man your father travelled all the way over here, while my father travelled all the way from Europe in a similar direction though then not as far as Australia. It was only well after the war that he came here.
Thanks, Robert.

A Cuban In London said...

What a fascinating post. I love how you write about your family. There's a purposeful elliptical note in your biographical accounts. As if you were trying to fill in the gaps left by those elusive "...".

Many thanks.

Greetings from London.

Judy Croome | @judy_croome said...

Elisabeth, this is a moving post on so many levels.

There is the fascination I have with old photos - I prefer the old sepia and black and white so much more than the crisp colourful photos of today. There's so much more truth in old snapshots. Perhaps some of the fascination with a new(ish) technology rubbed off on the subjects,imprinting a mystique on those faded photos.

As to war, well, it'll be with us until we find an individual peace within each of ourselves, for how can the external world around us reflect something that does not exist within us?

There's so much more in this great post...but I've rambled on long enough! :)
Judy, South Africa

Shaista said...

Perhaps it is impossible to not imagine a war into which we are personally drawn... there are so many just across the borders. We breathe images into our souls every day of past and present trauma, but the greatest fears still and always involve those we love.
I cannot imagine not knowing my parents as easily and equally as I do. I cannot imagine coming across a photograph that would reveal unknown worlds. But then I ask a host of questions right now, while I can :)

Elisabeth said...

I agree, Judy, the old faded black and white and sepia photos have a quality that speaks of a certain simplicity and honesty not so apparent in contemporary colour photographs. Perhaps the absence of colour forces us to reflect more, to use other senses, to look a little deeper. Or maybe I'm just idealising the past. Even so, my husband who likes to take photographs today often prefers to take black and white photos for the different quality they offer.

I'm afraid you may be right too about the endlessness of external wars. If all of us could find a true inner peace that also allowed for others we might get closer to world peace but I can't see that happening, certainly not in my life time.

Thanks, Judy.

Elisabeth said...

I spend a lot of time trying to imagine my way into those gaps, Cuban, often without success, but it helps to try. At least it helps me. These photos therefore offer 'evidence' that some things existed, in ways I have imagined.

Thanks, Cuban.

Elisabeth said...

War has become such an powerful element in our present lives, Shaista if not directly for some, then through the media, through the images others see daily on TVs and movies, voices on the radio.

And yet for me the wars once fought in my childhood and even immediately before I was born - those that my parents were forced to endure - feature almost more heavily than present day conflicts, at least for the child in me.

I hope you get the answers to some of those questions of yours parents, Shaista, now, as you say while you can.


Sarah Laurence said...

What an interesting glimpse into the past from found negatives. Maybe one day a descendent of yours will find your blog and be similarly fascinated. I love your profile image particularly now that I know it's you with a sculpture and not Photoshopped. It seems to symbolize the little fragments one glimpses of people online. So nice to connect with you through A Cuban in London!

Christine said...

It's a hard one to look at a forbear's subjectivity and stance in events which were, at the time, part of a larger and inconclusive struggle - particularly when one just cannot accept the code behind it - now. It is part of our formation, nevertheless. Your father's position may well have been backed by a cultural time where notions of colonial right and scientific racism were woven into the fabric of everyday European life. One is also unconscious of the social- the things that frame our place.
These days my Indonesian friends speak of a fond exchange with Holland at government and professional levels - an association that harks back to colonial rule. And then there were the Spanish...

Momo Luna S!gnals said...

Such wondeerful post. Your words always brings emotions, memories etc. Your words bring so much nostalgia, so much wondering of who we are....
Tnx Elisabeth for another great post.

Elisabeth said...

Lovely to see you here, Sarah. One of my daughter's created my profile with the intention as you suggest of reflecting back glimpses of a person who consists of multiple dimensions, and one whom you can best see only in glimpses.

Thanks, Sarah.

Elisabeth said...

You're right of course, Christine, it's dangerous to judge the past by present standards. From here today we view so much that we can only glimpse of the past through a faulty lens that of the present, but somehow I still think it's important to try as long as we recognise that 'the past is a foreign country.

Thanks Christine. I'm glad that your Indonesian friends feel well disposed towards the Dutch of their memory.

Elisabeth said...

Again, Momo it's great to see you here again, and thank you for your generous comments.

Our ancestors travelled across the same stretches of land though we now live some distance from one another. In our Dutch origins we could almost be kin.