Of War Service and Jigsaw Puzzles and what we tell our kids

More of my unchecked weekly ramblings. 

What we tell our kids about ourselves. What we choose to tell them.

Our kids will only ever know us as mum and dad. Unless we choose to tell our offspring, or hey are interested enough to ask, they will never really know those people we were before parenthood.

Of course we do the family history thing – looking through photo albums, watching old family movies. We give our kids anecdotal accounts of our lives and we also give them comparative histories – memories of how it used to be when we were kids, very often to make the point that things are not as good as they used to be. As parents, we’ve all used the same well-worn phrases, and as kids we heard them from our parents : « When I was at school we ….. » or « When I as a boy … » –

It’s not really until we are no longer of this mortal world, that our offspring begin to get the bigger picture. Sifting through those worldy artefcacts and papers that we have left behind and re-assembling our lives like some giant jigsaw puzzle. Of course, all the peices never fit and quite a few of the pieces are missing and there might even be peives of several other puzzles in the same box – like one of those imperfect puzzles you might get from a jumble sale. It doesn’t much matter, our kids make the pieces fit and come up with some kind of version of our lives.

Amidst the current wave of D-Day nostalgia , I’m thinking about the question I never asked my dad : What did you do in the War ?

Dad was born in 1917, and as I look at photos of him, I can’t imagine him charging across a Normandy landing beach under heavy German machine gun fire. At the outbreak of World War Two, dad would have just turned 22 – the right age to be called up to serve his country. Standing at 5 foot 4 inches, and weighing in around seven and a half stone, he would just have been the right size to slip into a Sherman, but dad was born with a heart defect and he was short sighted – hardly prime military materiel. Dad died from a serious stroke in 1971, when I had just turned six years old. As a kid in his formative years, it had never occurred to me to ask dad about his war service. In later years, I asked mum, who each time told us something different. « Your dad was a secretary. In the pay corps » or « Your dad was in the Intelligence Corps » – once mum even told us that dad was working as a code breaker up at Blethchley Park. Finally, mum admitted that she had no clue what dad did in the War because he never talked about it and she never bothered to ask, though shed id know that he had been in the Army. Dad had a good brain and excellent typing and shorthand skills, so I guess he must have had some kind of administrative job.

By now, you have ascertained that dad became a dad quite late in life. He was 47 when I was born. There was a fifteen year age gap between him and mum.

I’m quite proud to be part of an anomaly – having a dad that served in World War Two. I never really bothered much about the fact until my daughter came home from school one day saying that she had to do a family tree for homework. I delved into various files and brought out the birth certificates. Great Grandma born in 1896. Great Grandad born in 1898. My dad born in 1917 and mum born in 1932. It all went down on the family along with cut-out scans of old family photos. The shock from the teacher at school was quite incredible.

« Wow ! Your great grandparents were born in the nineteenth century and your grandpa was in the war. » Most of the other kids had grandparents in their sixties, born in the 1950s and it was their great grandparents who had been around in the War. I suppose the teacher’s gave me a severe age jolt, pretty much equivalent to that I had when I turned up at school the first time to collect my daughter . A 38 year-old dad with a six year old kid – not so uncommon, but all the other parents seemed only to be in their mid-twenties . I felt almost old enough to be their father. Ah yes. Life around the school gate wasn’t easy. I never knew whether to stick with the young parents or the grandparents.

Anyway, here I am going back through my family war history and it is made all the more interesting because we are now an anglo French family, therefore there are two different kinds of war memory. On British side it is those war memories with which we are all fairly familiar – rationing, evacuation, gas masks air raids, and the Blitz (or the Glasgow Blitz in my familiy’s case) Not a German in sight. On the French side though, it is different. Memories of occupation. My wife’s uncle who remembers his family grouped round the radio, listening secretly to the BBC, then one day freezing in fear as he heard the first clamp of German boots as soldiers entered the house and climbed the stairs. My wife’s grandmother who used to tell how she pretended her children all had chicken pox so that German soldiers would not be billeted on her farm. Compare this to my mum’s memories, of being evacuated from central Glasgow to the small village of Gareloch head in Argyllshire, or standing in long queues at the Butcher’s. Not a German in sight.

A French granny living her war in occupied France and a Scottish Granny living in Glasgow. Neither Granny was ever especially forthcoming about their wartime childhood, one day though, I sat down with both my daughter’s grans to talk about the war. French gran talked about memories of a bombing raid. Scottish Gran put a hand on French gran’s shoulder and said it was terrible being bombed by the Germans – she still remebered the shies around Glasgow lighting up in the Glasgow blitz –«  you could see it for miles » she reminisced. French gran gave Scottish gran a sideways look. « We weren’t being bombed by the Germans. We were being bombed by the British. » A moment of stunned silence from mum. She suddenly saw the war from another angle – and we never mentioned the war again.

I would relate more parental war anecdotes, but like dad, mum never talked about the war. Her overriding Memory was the day war broke out, standing in the doorway of a block of flats in Oban, sheltering from the rain. In one ground floor flat, the window is open and the wireless is on. In his plummy voice, Neville Chamberlain declares was on Nazi Germany.

« How did you feel ? » I ask mum.

« I was freezing cold and soaking wet and I just wanted to get home. »

Well, I’ve decided to write to those archivists responsible for that type of thing and try to get a copy of dad’s war record. I know he wasn’t a hero and so when I find out what he really did, I won’t be disappointed. I just want this one piece to complete the family jigsaw puzzles, though lord knows I hate jigsaw puzzles.

And now I have started on a trip down Memory lane, I might as well explain why I loathe jigsaw puzzles.

Imperfect Puzzle

There are those obvious lies or non-truths that we tell as parents. However, there are also those things we say or never say about ourselves. Your kids will only ever know about you what you choose to tell them. They will only ever know you as a parent and not as a full person. We are mum or dad. We occasionally feed our kids selected anecdotes of our pre-parental past, to satisfy their curiosity, but we never give them the full picture, and, when we are no longer here to answer the questions they might have, our kids are left to piece together the picture like some kind of giant, but imperfect jigsaw puzzle. They have parental anecdotes, family memories, photos, letters and such like. They try to assemble the pieces to make up some kind of picture. And If the pieces don’t quite fit? Well, seriously, were you really expecting to faithfully reproduce the happy family picture on the lid?

Why I Loathe Jigsaw Puzzles

I’ve always loathed jigsaw puzzles. It dates from the day at nursery school, when I tried my first puzzle.

My puzzle incident happened during my brief spell at a nursery school in Hampton Wick , to the west of London and just down river from Teddington. The school was of red brick, late Victorian construction. It was a dark and grimy place, all creaking wood floors and a strong odour of cabbage, poo,urine, and sweaty bodies, all accentuated by a very powerful pong of institutional disinfectant. The kind of disinfectant supposed to mask bad smells. It burns your nostrils. It stings your eyes. The cleaners slosh it round the nursery by the bucket load and, instead of hiding the heady cacophony of everyday nursery stink, it only serves to make the smell even worse. I attended the Hampton Wick nursery for a couple of terms, whilst mum was doing her teacher training at Maria Grey College, situated somewhere near Strawberry Hill.

I remember it like it was Thursday (because it was) It’s time of the morning that all the kids sit down to do an activity. One of the “nursery ladies” sat me down at the puzzle table and handed me a box of bits that would (if I put them together properly) make up a picture of a sailing boat. All around me, the other kids were eagerly piecing bits together. It seemed that they were actually having fun, emitting squeals of delight as they “reconstituted” the picture on the lid of the box. As I sat toying with my pieces and trying desperately to make them fit together, I wondered how anyone might actually derive ant sense of fun from this tedious and difficult activity. And what was the point? Jigsaw puzzles are a pretty twisted invention – you take a perfectly good picture, cut it into the smallest pieces possible and then give it to someone to put back together. So, I lost interest in the puzzle, put the pieces back in the box and then drifted over to the painting table. Even if my skills as an artist are almost as bad as my jigsaw skills, the idea of sloshing paint down on paper is far more appealing than reassembling a perfectly good image that someone has taken so much care to “destroy”. And as I was happily splodging away at the painting table, the lady from the puzzle table came and dragged me away, telling me that I should finish what I had started and it was bad manners to leave the puzzle table without asking her.

Back at the puzzle, try as I could, the pieces wouldn’t fit the way I wanted them to and as a “punishment” for leaving the puzzle table without permission, I was made to say in at breaktime and finish. An impossible endeavour that carried on in the afternoon – made to miss afternoon break and storytime so I could finish the puzzle. I didn’t so much mind missing the story as it was always the same old lady who read to us and half the time she would doze off in the middle. What really p’eed me off was missing afternoon break. Me and my mates were busy digging a hole to Australia in the sandpit and we reckoned that we had almost got there (Ah, the rubbish we tell kids). So, come the end of the day, it was obvious I’d never finish, so the puzzle was left aside especially so that I could finish it the next day. See why I hate puzzles.

John Spilsbury

The gentleman who invented the jigsaw puzzle was one John Spilsbury – a cartographer by trade and not to be confused with John Spilsbury the 17th century Baptist Minister or John Spilsbury the right arm fast-medium bowler and right-handed batsman who played for Worcestershire. Our John Spilsbury invented the jigsaw in 1767, when, he glued a map of the world to a piece of wood and then cut out each country, the idea being that teachers could use the puzzle to teach geography. Ah yes, how could something ever invented for educational purposes be fun.

With mum training to be a teacher, you might have thought that our house would have been full of educational toys such as jigsaws, but mum never wanted to be a teacher. After giving up journalism, she just wanted a “nice” job with convenient hours and long holidays, that would enable her to bring up two kids. Dad was a Reuters correspondent, working up in the press gallery at the House of Commons. He kept pretty irregular hours that weren’t really family friendly. He used to take us to school every morning because he never started work much before lunchtime.

So, there wasn’t a single jigsaw puzzle in the house. Come to think of it, we didn’t have board games either. I guess we never had them because mum loathed them because as a kid … what she didn’t like, she never forced on us. When well-meaning relatives gave us puzzles and games at Christmas or birthdays, they were normally put in a cupboard, then re-wrapped and given to other kids when we were invited to birthday parties.

Corners and Edges

Nowadays, I’m not too bad at jigsaw puzzles. I can do the corners and I can just about manage to do the edges. Filling in the middle is still the problem. I once successfully completed a 49 piece jigsaw with my daughter, though it took us an entire afternoon. As for those epic 500 piece plus puzzles – we just stare blankly at the box. What’s the point in putting together the picture on the box? We know what it’s like, we can see it. Just don’t open the box, and the puzzle will do as a present when you get invited to a birthday party.

Perfect Families

Jigsaws, like board games have, for me, always been symbolic of real families. Conventional families – mum, dad, 2 kids and meat an’ two veg families (if they still exist). I know people who love jigsaws to the point, that when they have completed their 10,000 piece epic, they will then proceed to glue it down piece by piece to a board and then display it on the wall like some work of art – I admire these people. They have life worked out. All the pieces fit and nothing is missing. When you grow up with no dad, that’s just the way it is and you don’t bother that a major piece of your life puzzle is missing until someone tells you so. Delving into the pieces of mum’s life puzzle, and at the same time, trying to assemble my own – I would say that we are like the puzzle you might buy at a jumble sale – there are bits missing, but you’ll manage to more or less make the big picture like it is on the box. I’ve never aspired to have my life reproduce exactly what is on the lid of the box – but there are those who do. I reckon that as long as I have the edges and the corners right, the rest should more or less fall into place.

Life in a box

Of course life doesn’t come in a box, although it finishes in one. Into this world we come, filled up with what our parents have given us, all those bits and pieces that make up who we are. There are those parents who let kids get on with life and form their own picture and there are those parents who absolutely want their kids to be faithful reproductions of the lid on the family puzzle.