When I was a small child, at those times when my mother was in her bedroom, sitting on her bed taking care of her household accounts, or perhaps writing a letter, she would allow me to rummage through the bottom right hand drawer of her dresser. The principal content of the drawer comprised receipts, cancelled cheques and necessary papers, all that I regarded as flotsam, but there was also a curious collection on one side of the drawer. It was a wandering spot for stray buttons that had no home, bits of wool without a sweater, and bottles of holy water from the shrines at Lourdes and at Knock. Wrapped in a old silk scarf was my favourite, a little treasure that lived among the oddities. Sometimes I would sit on the end of my parents' bed and Mom might tell me a story evoked by the appearance of this little treasure, a powder compact.
Armistice was declared, and the Second World War ended in Europe, with Victory Day celebrated 8 May 1945, just five days before my mother Mary's 14th birthday. Thankfully, both of her brothers, Anthony and Patrick eventually returned home, apparently unscathed in body, but perhaps emotionally bruised by their experience. For a brief period at least, it seemed to Mary as though life returned to normal in the house on Gordon Street.
It is a odd little object, a triangular-shaped compact covered in snakeskin, with a sticky zipper. It is a relic of times long past. The mirror inside is cracked and mottled. The puff is gone, as is most of the fragrant powder, although bits of it cling to the hinges. The compact was a gift sent from India by a beloved brother, given to remind a little sister of him, in case he did not return from war. It is a marker of the relationship between this young girl named Mary — my mother — and her two beloved brothers Patrick and Anthony, called Paddy and Tony, who were sent to India and the Far East with their British battalions, during the Second World War, while their father and younger siblings waited in Ireland for any word of them. It is a reminder of that war, the fear and the worry which came with it, and things which would never be discussed.
Although my mom shared very little about the military service of her eldest brothers, any details she did share were usually prompted by the appearance of the little powder compact. When that little treasure was taken out of the drawer, Mom would take the compact into her hands and begin to talk about her brothers. As she would run her fingers across the smooth surface of the case, I could see in her eyes that recollections were stirring up in her heart and mind. She would tell me that, although she had always loved the fragrance of the powder, and the softness of the snakeskin which covered the compact, it reminded her of the terrible fear she felt as a young girl over thoughts of what might be happening to Paddy and Tony while they were away at war. The compact evoked feelings in her that the eastern world must be a strange and frightening place, a dark continent from which her brothers might never return.
Mom seemed to know little about the military service of her eldest brother Anthony, only that he went to war as a young man, and returned from it still young in years, but with hair as white as snow. This sea change was thought to be an obvious marker of what he had endured in that place so very far away. Mom had no recollection of Tony ever coming home on leave, but she did remember writing letters to him. After he returned home at the end of the war, Tony never wanted to discuss his time away, and my mother always wondered what had happened to him in the eastern world.
The details of the military service of my mom's brother Paddy were just as scarce; however, while my mom Mary did not recall her brother Anthony being home on leave, she did recall Paddy's returns. The same scene played in her mind about each time Paddy came home on leave. Their father would ask Paddy when he had to return to duty, and Mary would scold her father for even mentioning the fact that her brother had to go back. She would run to the press in the kitchen and reach to the very top of it to find the little packets of cigarettes, two in each one, which she had secreted away there for her brother. All of her pocket money was saved so she could buy cigarettes for Paddy, and then she would hide them to give him when he came home on leave.
There was little else Mary would recall about her brother Paddy's time at home during the war, only that when he was leaving to go back, she would follow Paddy in the street and he would turn and gently tell her she could come not with him. 'Mary go on now, go on home. You can't come with me', he would say, and of course Mary knew that was true. She would stare at him with eyes wide open to stop the tears that might want to stream down her face. She wanted to make sure she would remember her brother exactly as he was, in case he did not return. Mary was always able to recollect the image of him, as he made the turn at the top of Gordon Street, and walked away from home and away from her, his rucksack up on his left shoulder, and his right hand down by his side, with one of those cigarettes held between his fingers.
When we were clearing out my mom's home after she died in May of 2012, I came across the little snakeskin compact. It was still in the same drawer, and still wrapped in the old scarf. Tucked in underneath it at the bottom of the drawer I also found an old parchment envelope with two photographs I had never before seen. Both are dated 1945. One is of Patrick and two fellow soldiers, and the inscription on the back written in Patrick's hand reads, 'Paddy and Pals, India 1945'. The other photo is of Anthony with a large group of soldiers. On the back Anthony had written, 'To Mary from Tony xx 1945'.
|'Paddy & Pals, India 1945': Patrick Ball, far left, with his pals wearing most of their British army 'summer kit'.|
|'To Mary from Tony xx 1945': Anthony 'Tony' Ball is in the second row, and is second from left.|
Mom packed away the little snakeskin compact and kept it for the rest of her life. Finding those images together with the compact makes me believe that locked away with them were most of the memories my mother held of that very difficult time. The memories, the photos, and the little powder compact, altogether they were her secret treasures.