There is a much loved German children’s song. It starts, ‘Meine Oma fährt im Hühnerstall Motorrad’. Translated freely one gets ‘My Grandma rides her Honda in the henhouse, and the chorus is, ‘My Grandma is a most amazing girl.’ It has other classic verses such as ‘My Grandma has a radio in her molar,’ and ‘My Grandma takes a tank to see the tax man.’
This song reminds me of my grandma. She was a most amazing girl, and her bicycle technique was the talk of the village. The milkman climbed down and calmed his horse when she rode by. There is no record of anything in the henhouse.
My grandmother once described her first radio experience. She called it a wireless to distinguish between a telephone and radio. Suddenly she could have continuous noise, which I’m surprised was a positive, considering the number of children in the house. It was only for an hour a day, as my great-grandmother was unsure how the voice inside the box worked and was worried about its longevity.
A decade before the wireless entered my grandmother’s life, something more important crashed its path through the lives of the young women in that sleepy hamlet, which is now part of the sprawl of London Town. Soldiers! And lots of them and they didn’t come in belligerent, but rather in loving mode. My grandmother never told me how it all worked so I have pieced bits of the story together as best I can. It will have to go down as fiction though, not as historical fact.
All the young men from that hamlet and thousands like it across Europe had been taken off to war, and by 1916 many of them had been taken by the war and were laid to rest, young faces barely old enough to support a whisker, rotting somewhere in Flanders.
My grandfather had a better fate: he survived the war, but he relived the curse of those years forever.
In 1914 he lived in Canada, probably in Montreal and one day was told he was to fight for King and Country, although he could only have had a vague notion about which country. French Canadians feel more attached to France than Britain, although it was GB that had the biggest Empire and that’s why he was put into a commonwealth uniform. He and his chums must have been confused. I’ve deduced that he was in France from 1915 because I can be sure my aunt Joan was born 1916. It is a mystery how he became my grandfather, as Canadian troops suffered terrible losses in some of the stupidest early attacks of the war. But he survived and met my grandma.
He was due leave, but it was several weeks by steamer to get back to Canada and then a long train ride to his hometown. The war was deeply resented by French speakers in Canada so these poor lads were shipped off to England for their holiday, possibly because one knew they’d never get them from Canada a second time.
There was a sleepy hamlet, with a fine country house in its own grounds. That was where the soldiers were billeted for a well-earned rest.
After the soldiers realised that the noise of exploding shells had disappeared, they were able to settle down to the most important task in any man’s life, especially a man who knows he will probably die within the year. He has to get himself laid! He cannot die never having known the touch of a good woman. That would be too cruel.
These young Canadians must have pondered the effect the language barrier would have on their efforts with the local talent. They should not have been concerned. The girls in the hamlet had their share of problems too. Every day, another of their school chums, who would normally have become their beau by then, was listed as missing or killed in action. I imagine the lasses talked among themselves and wondered if there would be a good man left standing in the village. And suddenly a bunch of likely lads from Canada were billeted there!
I know not what they said but language was not the problem. The girls were horny as hell and the lads were shagging as though it were their last chance, which for many, it was.
My grandma got pregnant by one Jean Louis La Pensée – well he agreed to own up to paternity. Whether Joan was his we shall never know nor is it relevant. Maybe he just wanted something left on this earth, which his mum could call “my grandson or granddaughter”. Daughters were more popular as, “they were less likely to get slaughtered in the next insane war that has nothing to do with us and is 3000 miles away”. Of course my great-grandma said that in French.
Grandpa Jean went back to France, survived, returned to Cheam and sometime in mid-summer 1917 my father was conceived. My grandmother said some wicked things to my father from her deathbed – indicating that my grandfather probably wasn’t my grandfather. That I could have guessed. It is unlikely the local lasses would only bestow their favours on one group of Canadian soldiers.
Whatever the paternity, my grandparents were married by 1918. Before the war ended, my grandfather returned by troopship to Canada, presumably in late 1917 or spring 1918. He was no longer fit for purpose because of shell shock, which we know was a problem the rest of his life.
Old Jean Louis took paternity of both children. My grandmother followed him to Canada. She caught the train from London to Liverpool and left Liverpool on 6th June 1918 on the SS Olympic to Nova Scotia. The reason for travel is given as “to join husband, Jean Louis Lapensée; brakeman, CPR.”
We can be certain of this as the records for the shipping line still exist.
Once in Nova Scotia, there followed another train journey to Montreal. A hamlet south of London to Montreal, she did with a three month and a two year old, but with no pampers or other disposables. I have no idea how she did her laundry. She had her 20th birthday three weeks before she left Liverpool. Believe me! That woman could have ridden a Honda in the henhouse!
My grandmother May and grandfather Jean, never had a common language except the language of love or lust or whatever it was. They could only communicate through their children, once their children could talk. The kids were hardly mature enough to translate the nuances of married life and so they translated the strife instead. For example, my grandmother always accused the old man of going to prostitutes (he was Catholic after all). He presumably would have accused her of keeping him short and doubtless let the paternity issue surface a few times. That’s no mean translation task for children not yet in double figures, but my father had fond memories of his Canada years. The old man had a good job with the Canadian Pacific Railway as a brakeman; the kids had a warm apartment, food on the table and shoes for their feet, which was by no means the rule in Canada or England, in working-class families between the wars.
So Jean Louis senior was back in Canada by 1918. What did he hear when the shelling stopped? More exploding shells perhaps, their ripping, screaming, detonating sound indelibly etched upon some part of his brain, ready to haunt him for the rest of his life. What did he hear in the moments when silence returned? A wife in his country, talking a strange language and wondering why a tumble in the hay had left her attached to a good man, but one who could offer her nothing – no companionship, no love that could be expressed, a meal ticket and plenty of misunderstanding.
How did my Grandma know about her mum’s first radio? Her mum sent her a letter complaining how hard life was and how much she missed her daughter. Her daughter wrote back, ‘I’m coming home.’ She arrived in 1926 at Tilbury before her letter, knocked on the door of the tiny terraced house with an 11 and 9 year old and they became numbers 10 to 13 in that house. It must have been hell. My father was permanently damaged and until his death 80 years later, worried he would get something to eat.
Things got better when his uncles, one by one, emigrated to Canada to find work and a place to live where they didn’t have to share a bed with four others.
I remember that radio. It was a beast – the size of a sideboard and the thermionic valves heated the parlour – nothing with molars. But everytime I hear my daughter sing ‘Meine Oma fährt im Hühnerstall Motorrad’ to my grandson, it reminds me that we all have a migrant background.
Image courtesy of nachtSonnen