Engaging in a little time travel

My daughter and I visited my mother today.  While I helped my Mom with a few things, my daughter ferreted around in my Mom’s bookshelves, and discovered something I didn’t know existed — a book in which my grandmother’s friends at her finishing school in Lausanne, Switzerland, wrote her farewell letters when she graduated and moved back to Belgium in 1913.

As befitted a young woman of her class back in the day before WWI began, my grandmother was multilingual, so the messages in her book were in French, German, Dutch, and English.  The young ladies all included their home addresses — in Belgium, France, Switzerland, Germany, Holland, America, Scotland, England, Wales, Romania, and Persia (Tehran).  Each inscription was written in beautiful copperplate and the girls all drew exquisite little flags reflecting each girl’s country of origin.

Since I, unlike my grandmother (and my parents), am not multilingual, I was able to read only the inscriptions from my grandmother’s English-speaking friends.  I have no word for how charming these little missives were.  An American girl wrote about the irony that she and my grandmother hated each other at first sight, only to become close friends by the end of their time together.  An English girl wrote about the “jolly good times” they had going to concerts with “modern” music consisting of one note, played so low no one could hear it.  Another girl wrote about the disappointment of endless dinners consisting of macaroni and disappointingly watery “chocolate creme.”

The book would have been delightful no matter when it was written, but there was a special poignancy to the fact that these young women were recording the last year before the Great War forever ended the innocence of the 19th century and began the 20th century’s battle with and slide into socialism.  One can so easily imagine them heading out for the day in Lausanne, carrying delicate parasols, wearing their hair plaited and curled under lacy, feathered or flowered hats, and clad in dresses that ended demurely just above their ankles.  For all but the young woman from Persia, the next five years would see their familiar worlds destroyed.  Their brothers, cousins, fathers, husbands, and boyfriends would have marched off to war and, if they returned, they would have carried scars, some visible, some buried deep within.

My grandmother had a hard time of it during WWI, as her German father was sent to prison in Belgium for the duration of the war.  Thankfully, he was a man of so much charm and rectitude that, at war’s end, the stigma attached to imprisonment vanished, and he was quickly able to resume his career as a very wealthy banker. The Belgian Army also conscripted the family’s beloved German Shepherd, Fricki.  When he left, he was a darling dog, who every day delivered to his master the newspaper and a pair of slippers.  When Fricki returned at war’s end, he had been so brutalized by his experiences on the front line that he had to be put down. Humans aren’t the only casualties of war.

I don’t have any pictures of my grandmother at this time, as my mother cherishes them and won’t release them.  Having seen the pictures, though, I can tell you that she my grandmother and her friends would have looked something like this in 1913:

Women's fashions 1913

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  • dustoffmom

    I am a reader of blogs, many of them daily, and mostly of the more ‘political’ variety.  (This much to the chagrin of my daughter most days as she thinks I indulge my interests too heavily. >smile<  )  And I usually enjoy your more political posts immensly but tonight just wanted to say that this post…and others like it you have done…is what always keeps me coming back here.  The slice of life or family historical tales you often weave never fail to touch me and make me smile.  I find you a most enjoyable writer….and just wanted to say so and thank you for tonights offering.

    • http://bookwormroom.com Bookworm

      Dustoffmom: Thank you so much!

      David: Having experienced a sense of my own grandmother’s youth, I know exactly what Spears meant.

  • http://photoncourier.blogspot.com David Foster

    Very nice story. Reminds me of something in the memoirs of General Edward Spears, who among other things was Churchill’s person emissary to France during the campaign of 1940.
    Spears had grown up in France, and after WWII..actually, in the 1960s..he returned to the house he had lived in. There, he found a picnic basket filled with his grandmother’s old letters.
    “The next letters I opened dropped me back two generations into a land of other people’s memories but with an occasional sharp glint as they recalled things I had heard of as a child. They were the letters of a poor sick young woman written to her absent husband whilst she was immobilised awaiting her first and only child, my mother.
    I never imagined my grandmother other than I had known her, white haired, stout, and dignified. The picture painted in these letters of a girl frantic with loneliness and longing, exasperated at the threat of a miscarriage which kept her lying on her back, begging her husband to come to her, all told in the reserved language of that day, filled me with a kind of fond protective amusement. It was so unexpected. Time, so long imprisoned in these boxes, was revealing itself in an entirely new guise, oscillating quite regardless of years from one generation to the next or back again–more, it was taking me, an elderly man in the 1960s, and leading me back to the year 1864, there to watch over, with infinite tenderness, a young woman I had never known, my grandmother as a young wife…”

  • Danny Lemieux

    I recall my French grandmother’s haunting recollection, “after the war (WWI) ended, all the young men were gone”. France lost about 4% of her population, mostly men of military age. In today’s terms for our country, that would mean a loss of about 12 million young men…gone! Compare that to how traumatized our population at home has been by the few thousand deaths suffered in our recent wars and you get a sense of the scale of their personal losses. 
    When I was young, I could not understand why I had so many great aunts that lived out their lives together as spinsters. Later, when I was older, I understood.
    May we as a nation never have to go through what they did.

  • JKB

    This reminded me a story I read in an English paper, the Daily Mail, I think, on one of the WWI anniversaries.  It was different in that it told a story by a woman who was graduating school in England at the end of the war.  It hasn’t left me, what she had to say.  She said before graduation, as the war was ending, the headmistress brought the girls together in an assembly.  The headmistress told them, quite bluntly, “Most of you will never marry.”  The war had taken to many men.  
    It is odd, you can read about battles, about campaigns, with horrific casualty reports, but one small announcement to a group of young ladies is what brings the losses into your senses.  

  • Old Buckeye

    What a wonderful keepsake to have from your grandmother. You might try getting your mom to release some of those photos long enough to get copies made…just in case!

  • http://photoncourier.blogspot.com David Foster

    Danny/JKB…and this devastation of a generation of men happened in ALL the First World War European belligerent countries.
    I discussed the impact of WWI on Western civilization, here.

  • Jose

    What a treasure!
    Recently I was able to scan some photographs of my Grandfather taken when he returned stateside after WW1.  His sister met him at Camp Dix and they did a lot of sight seeing until he was discharged in Philadelphia.  Great photos and I wish I knew the stories behind them.

  • Alix

    Fricki was brought back?!  It is fascinating that the army would be able to manage that after all the chaos of war.  Is there a story behind how the dog was returned?

  • http://bookwormroom.com Bookworm

    An excellent question, Alix, but I don’t know the answer.  That’s been lost in the mists of time.

  • Caped Crusader

    A query from Obama:
    Seems strange to me nothing was written in the Swiss or Austrian language. Wa she not an inclusive type person practicing diversity?

  • http://OgBlog.net Earl

    BW: Two people have mentioned what popped into my mind as soon as you mentioned the photos your mother is keeping…..have them scanned.
    From a high-quality scan, you can make yourself a photograph that is more-or-less indistinguishable from the original…except that the scan will probably be “cleaned up” so that scratches, specks, etc. will have disappeared.
    Before sending my grandfather’s rather large British medical and surgical licenses (from 1920) over to the hospital he founded in Penang, Malaysia, I had them scanned – we now have framed copies instead of originals, but you can’t really tell.  Furthermore, all my siblings and cousins now have electronic copies, which they can use, should they choose, to make their own full-size (or larger or smaller) copies suitable for framing.
    Have them scanned before something happens to them – and so that you can enjoy them right along with your mother.
    GREAT story, by the way….loved it.

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