Sunday, February 5, 2012

One Tough Old Bird

Just watched The King's Speech again.

One of my all time favorite movies. I cannot say enough about the story and the script and the acting and the direction. Its magnificent.

I'm not here to pontificate on the grandness of the film.

As some of you know, my grandmother - my father's mother - was born and raised in Liverpool, England. She was born Florence Hilda Dingwall in the early 1921 as one of the youngest of 9 children. Her father's name was Jack and he was a merchant seaman. He loved his children, but she was his particular favorite. He often told his family that women were the best thing the God ever did.

Nanny (as we call her) hates her given name 'Florence'. She never wanted to be known as 'Flossy' or 'Flo', so she goes by Hilda. She hated being a girl, she wanted to be a boy and go to school.

She talks a lot.

When she was very little, she was playing with a friend from down the street - a young Greek boy who lived in their neighborhood. I have misplaced his name. They were jumping off a small step in her mother's kitchen. At one point, Nanny fell and her friend fell on top of her and she bit clear through her tongue. She was rushed to hospital and it was sown back together and all was well. In later years with the amount of talking she did and has done since then, her father often remarked they could have just left that piece off.

Like everyone of age in Britain at the time of World War II, she was drafted.

A placement test assigned her to the Royal Corps of Signals. Churchill's special pet project that was one of the first employments of what would become radar. There were bunkers sixty feet underground. A huge map of Europe took up the middle of the room, while a line of women on radios encircled it, speaking to friendly pilots who would report the positions of the enemies planes, and the women would relay that information to their COs and other counterparts who would place it all out on the map.

Nanny was one of the women speaking with the pilots.

She always said Americans were the worst. Because of her initials - F.D. - her call sign was Fox Dog. After identifying herself as Fox Dog, the Americans would inevitably reply, "Oh, I bet you are." She always wanted to say something back, but with her CO right behind her she never could.

To this day, because of those bunkers, Nanny is a bit claustrophobic.

There are many stories she tells about the war. When I was growing up, it was a very present part of history. I exist because she met an American soldier who convinced her to marry him.

Before my Granddad died, I remember one Thanksgiving when I was chatting with Nanny about Liverpool. She was telling me again about all the things to do and to see and all that. At one point, Granddad came up behind her, kissed her on the cheek and said, "And they have such pretty girls there!"

It was the only time I ever saw my Nanny speechless.

She didn't want to marry him at first - she had a boyfriend (Fred) who was in the European theater at the time she met Hugh Currie at a dance. From the first time he saw her, he turned to his friend and said, "You stay away from that one, she's mine." He asked her again and again to marry him. He even asked her mother to convince her to marry him, to which her mother very firmly replied, "My children make up their own minds."

Granddad was a plane radio operator, and when Europe was invaded he had to go over with the rest. It was then that Nanny realized how much she missed him.

The first thing she did was write to her boyfriend, Fred, and tell him that she had fallen in love with someone else.

Then she wrote Hugh and said, "If you still want to marry me, ok."

When the war ended they were married. She borrowed a friend's wedding dress that was too big for her. Granddad wore his uniform.

She came over on what she describes as "a big ship full of wives." Granddad met her in New York City, took her out to dinner.

Britain had been rationing food for years.

She ordered the roast beef.

The waiter brought her a huge plate of meat. She was confused. She called the waiter over and asked him if he was going to cut her portion off of the piece that was brought to her, or if she did that. The waiter said, "No, that is all for you."

She promptly burst into tears.

It would have fed her family for a month.

She has never become a US citizen, always saying everything is better in England.

She has always been the matriarch around which my family has gathered. I grew up with the Second World War as a very present piece of history in our household. Growing up I always knew about the mistakes that Neville Chamberlain made, and how wonderful Churchill was. I knew about Nanny's homesickness when she was called up, and how fleeting life could be when the friend who walked her home one evening was blown up in his home that night. About the children who lost their parents - who were so young they often didn't even know what their last name was. About how Nanny was so little that they didn't have a uniform big enough for her, so when she walked up her family's garden path looking quite comical wearing a skirt that just about hit the ground and a jacket with sleeves too big, her father quipped, "Why does England tremble?"

She will be turning 91 in April.

She still lives by herself, and whenever I have an hour to spare (you need at least that much) I call her, and we talk about everything.

I am so lucky to be like her.

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