The distance between us

When we first moved to England nearly twenty years ago, we settled in a house along the river. After 13 years there, the house flooded and after 18 months of renovation, we left, unable to see the Thames floating by in quite the same way anymore through our PTSD-clouded eyes.

When we moved out, we left a list of things we had loved about the house for the new owners, next to a bottle of champagne. The list was long despite the flood and included cycling to Windsor along the towpath, watching the traditional Swan-Upping along the Thames each July and our dear neighbours Hilary and Phil.

I think of Phil often these days. He lived a fascinating life and loved to talk about it, and it was through him I first got a glimpse into what it was like to live through the second world war.

Growing up in America my exposure to the war was limited and very indirect – generally focused on Pearl Harbor or the unimaginable horrors of the Holocaust. Phil experienced the war first hand – when he was seven years old, he and his older sister Joan were two of the many British children who were removed from the cities to relative safety in the English countryside.

Six months earlier, British children were being sent by ship to America but by the time Phil was evacuated, the Germans were bombing the ships and the children were being killed, so that practice was stopped. Instead, Phil and Joan joined dozens of other children at the train station, carrying their gas masks and wearing “Paddington Bear” style name tags. They said goodbye to their mother and boarded a train.

Phil’s mother didn’t know where the kids were going and had to say goodbye. They only saw her about three times over the next two years.

There are many milestones during a pandemic and often they are numbers so horrifying we no longer can see beyond the data. Like I struggled to comprehend the photos I saw of children’s shoes in piles at Auschwitz, I can’t fathom 5.6 million deaths from Covid. But I have milestones of my own that are far too real. Two years of shielding. Two years without flights, siblings, dinner parties, restaurants, hugs from friends. Six months of living apart from Rich and Maddie. And while of course it’s not the same, I think I have a slightly better understanding of how Phil’s mum might have felt watching her children board that train and not knowing when she might have them back in her care.

3 thoughts on “The distance between us

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