6/05/2006

Nanny: The Short Version

Were I ever to write a book, I have two people in my life who would make the perfect subjects. One is my Nanny, my mom's mom and the other is my Opa, my mother-in-law's dad. Since this post is intended for Glenda's upcoming issue of the Standard, and since I don't have much time to write, I will only wrote about my Nanny for now.

Where should I begin with the story of my Nanny? Marjorie Whitehand grew up in England and did not come to Canada until my mother was 16 (I am not sure how old she would have been at that point). Her story is one that took a long time to develop; it reached it's climax only six years ago, the year before my older sister was married. Nanny will be 81 this year. The events that would make her who she is today began a long time ago.
Nanny came from a fairly large family. To the best of my knowledge, there were at least 6 or 8 children. As far as I have been told, her mother died giving birth when Nanny was 9. Her father, unable to cope, abandoned the children to the local orphanage in Warwick. Fortunately, the orphanage had the good sense to keep all of the children together.
For those of you who are unaware, England still labours under its class system. This was even more the case pre-World War II. Being an orphan, or a "home kid" as it was called, immediately put you into a lower class of people. Kids then, as now, made fun of anyone who was different or of a lower class. Home kids were no exception and bore the brunt of what I can only assume was some very unkind teasing. Nanny and her brother Tommy looked out for the younger ones. The girls would enter service in their early teens (ie: they were maids). I am not certain what the boys did.
In 1939, England declared war on Germany. My Nanny lied about her age and joined the WRENS, the Women's Royal English Navy. I doubt very much that she did this as soon as war was declared, as she would only have been 14. I do know that she did lie in order to get in. As she tells it, there was a certain excitement to the war. Handsome soldiers were always milling about. She met a man, whose name no one knows but her, and had my mom's brother Peter. Towards the end of the war she met Ed Harlick, the man who would eventually be my Grandad.
Despite the excitement of World War 2, there was also tragedy. She experienced the bombing of London. Her brother Tommy joined the airforce in 1943 and was shot down only a year later. To this day she still remembers the circumstances under which she received the telegram. My mother keeps a copy of it with some old photographs of Nanny, Tommy and some family members who have since passed on.
After the war ended, Nanny and my Grandad moved to Portsmouth. My Grandad continued to serve in the Navy until the early 60's. My Grandad was not from England strictly speaking, but from Newfoundland. When his term of service ended, he decided to move his family back to Canada. Instead of Newfoundland, they moved to Toronto. My mother would eventually meet my father and get married. Nanny and Grandad later moved out to St. John's, Newfoundland only to move back to Toronto again.
At this point, Nanny's story took a bend that would have unforeseen consequences. On the move back, the moving company lost all of Grandad's service records and they were never recovered. There is no way to recover this lost information, as up until the mid 70's, England would give their servicemen and women all of their information upon leaving the Army, Navy or Airforce. This policy has since been changed.
Nanny also decided to cut all contact with her remaining family in England. Up until this time, she regularly (or at least irregularly) wrote to relatives. What made her decide to stop has never been explained, but it is something she deeply regrets. Over the next 30 years, she would have no communication with her family at all. She decided that it was a chapter in her life that was now closed. She would never be able to go back to England. Better to carry on as best as she possibly could.
One day, about 6 or 7 years ago, sometime after my Grandad died, my uncle Martin began looking on the web for some information on the Whitehand's. He came across a site that had a list of Whitehand relatives and where they were living. Two people were of particular interest: a John who was living in Australia, and Mary who was living in the Warwick area in England. Nanny plucked up the courage, which must have been considerably difficult, and called Mary.
It was her sister.
I can only imagine the tears that must have flowed between them. Only a year before, their sister Violet had died. Nanny deeply regrets that she did not find Mary earlier, in time to see Violet. Both women were widowers. Uncertain as to whether or not John was indeed a relative, it appeared that they were the only two left.
That year, Nanny made a trip to England to visit Mary. It was the first time she had been back since coming to Canada... a space of forty years. She visited the orphanage she grew up in, went to the little house on Mallins Rd in Portsmouth that was her home for so many years. I have no doubt that she must have battled many ghosts from her past.
My mother went back to England for a visit, also her first visit since coming to Canada. The next year, Mary came to visit. Then Nanny visited. Then I and my sister visited. Then Mary visited again. It seems likely that there will be more visits in the future. As for my Nanny, I can only say that at the end of your life, it must be good to have some closure.

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