Friday, March 5, 2010

Margaret Egerton: The Great War

I met Margaret at Kimball Library about a year ago, but I had been hearing about her for years. Margaret is the graceful and athletic 99-year-old we often see driving around Randolph on her way to water aerobics class at Shape or bridge at the Senior Center or a discussion of Ecclesiastes at St. Johns. In her youth, she won tennis tournaments and danced up a storm—hers has been a life on the move. When I asked her one day if she could tell me the secret to a long and happy life, she thought for a moment and then said, "To love." Her memoir-in-progress is a reflection on both present and past. The following is an excerpt from an early chapter. Margaret was a six-year-old on her way to England to visit relatives when the German blockade made her return to America impossible. She and her mother and brother spent the years of "the Great War" in England, while her father remained behind in Cleveland. The photograph is from a later period, but I chose it for its awesome quality—it suggests to me why the German zeppelins of that time were so greatly feared, as Margaret's memoir attests:

For many years now my thoughts are filled with a sense of gratitude. Living so long has created a sense of wonder at my good fortune and a feeling of deep thankfulness. I am surrounded with beauty and loving relationships with family and friends. Also I have a feeling of being so close to the edge of the mystery of my life.

I was born in 1910. My father was a groundskeeper and chauffeur for a rich Clevelander, who had a walled estate at the top of a hill that became known as Cleveland Heights, which was a fast-growing suburb east of downtown Cleveland. My mother hated her exile from England and finally convinced my father to return. We sold our home and purchased tickets for the crossing. Unfortunately, these plans were made without any forethought about the war until after the sinking of a passenger ship caught in the German blockade surrounding the British Isles. My father was still an English citizen, and as soon as he reached England he would have been drafted into the army and taken into the trenches in France. He therefore canceled his ticket, and in 1915 mother, my brother, and I sailed for “home.”
My memories of living in England are vivid but fragmentary. Adult discussions about the danger from the enemies were pervasive. The huge German airships known as zeppelins were invented during the war to carry bombs to English cities, and during the frequent air-raid warnings we would scamper into hallways and safe havens away from windows and shattering glass. I remember sitting in a movie looking at time-lapsed photography of beautiful flowers with their petals opening up when the words “Air Raid Take Cover” flashed on the screen.

During the blackout, shops used blinds to keep light from shining out. I remember seeing the small OPEN sign in a shop window as we walked by. That was one of the first words I learned to spell.

I remember the war bond rallies in Trafalgar Square, where Red Cross ambulances that had rescued the wounded from the trenches were on display, parked around the lions. The trucks were tattered, with bullet holes and bloodstains.

Dad wrote to us faithfully but his letters were censored and only a few were delivered. He often sent me the “funny page.” I remember Mother reading “Mutt and Jeff” and “Dolly Dimples” to me from a U.S. newspaper.

I remember standing with her in a building and talking to refugees from Belgium. Talk about atrocities committed by the invaders of that hapless country created great fear of the enemy and much prejudice of the “Huns.” I remember visiting my grandmother, who was living in Chelsea with her daughter, my aunt Nellie. My grandmother, Caroline Annie Purkis, lived to be almost one hundred. At the time we visited she resided in a big feather bed with a canopy and a footstool, which I climbed when I visited her. She wore a little white flannel cap on her head with her straight hair parted in the middle. The strings of the cap could be tied under her chin, but when I saw her they were loose and on top of her cap. I remember saying to her that she looked like a German wearing his helmet shaped with a metal point on top. My grandmother was a gentle old lady who gave me lots of hugs, but she was very angry with me when I called her a German Hun.

As soon as the German blockade was lifted, ships began taking shell-shocked American soldiers back to the United States. We sailed home with the soldiers, who entertained me and the only other little girl on the ship. It was a lark to be so spoiled with attention. I remember eating half an orange with great relish, as it was the first time I had enjoyed fresh fruit since leaving the States.
What delight I had in celebrating the Armistice on November 18, 1918, waving my American flag and ringing the bell attached to the handlebars of my tricycle as I pedaled up and down Amesbury Avenue. It was an exciting and happy time. 
But living in a war torn society had left lasting impressions. My mother had suffered too long the anxiety of separation from my father and had severe headaches from which she never fully recovered. I must have absorbed a lot of her anxiety. I had trouble going to bed alone in the dark. A lighted candle was beside my bed, but frequently it was extinguished, and when I awoke in the dark I remember pleading with my parents to let me join them at the foot of their bed. It was many years before I overcame my fear of sleeping in the dark, and now I use a nightlight.


Anonymous said...

Wonderful, wonderful. Margaret is able to present her memories as though she is still a child. That's hard to do, but so effective.

Anonymous said...

"Its stories like this that would keep kids interested in history in our
schools. Margaret is a lovely lady. I knew her when I was going to St.
--Cindy Smith Loomis

Jessamyn said...

Not only was Margaret a joy to have in my computer classes, she wrote possibly the nicest thank you letter ever to my boss about what a nice person I was. I love seeing her around town. Thanks to you both for sharing more of Margaret.