Grandad's Letters

24 April 2013 Andy Drewitt

Grandad's Letters

Andy Drewitt, Ed#405, April 2012

War changes people. It can take time to understand this.

The photograph of my grandfather sat on a shelf in my bedroom, but I ignored it. I didn’t even know him – he died before I was born – and I’d tried to forget what I did know about him.

The only reason I kept his black-and-white portrait was that I was going through a vintage phase and it tied the room together. My dad had given it to me a few years earlier. Because of the way he’d handed it to me, slow and ceremoniously, I knew it was meant to mean something: the handing down of family memories, generation to generation – that sort of thing.

The few times I’d picked up the chipped-enamel frame and stared into my grandad’s squint, I felt nothing. It was just a picture of a man, Ellis Drewitt, and, from what I’d heard growing up, not a particularly good man. My nanna, Terry, rarely spoke of him and the few times I overheard hushed conversations that I was too young to understand, her tone – bristling with bitterness – told me more than her words. But as I grew older I sifted facts from the anger: he had manned an anti-aircraft gun in New Guinea during World War II; he had a thing for beer; he had violent outbursts.

When my dad talked about his father, sometimes he had to clear his throat for the words to come out: “He came home one night, sat down to dinner, balanced his plate on his fingertips and flung it at the wall.” As a kid I thought a lot about this story, wondering what it must have been like to grow up amid all that unpredictability.

Dad waited until I was older before telling me how his father withheld half his wages for beer and gambling, forcing his mum to take up work as a cleaner to put food on the table. And how sometimes Dad had watched helplessly as his father pushed his mother around the house.

Remembering back, I know Dad told me good things about him too, about happier times, but they were hard to remember amongst the plate-smashing and shoving.

So when, in 2001, Dad presented me with two scuffed suitcases stuffed with letters that Grandad had written to Nanna while they were courting during the war, I stashed them deep in my wardrobe beside shoes I never wore. I knew enough to know that I didn’t want to know him.

Years later, I was culling possessions to move house when I unearthed the dusty cases. I laid them side by side on the bed. More baggage, I wondered.

The clasps were furred with rust and they squealed as I opened them. I lifted the lids and they breathed out a cramped stink of dust and old paper. Inside were hundreds of letters knotted with red ribbon; it seemed Nanna had packed them to be stored away, not handled and read.

I pinched out an envelope, the paper jaundiced and whispery as old skin. Inside, I read:

My only sweetheart, Ever since the day, Darling, that I have been parted from you I have felt lost…

I blinked at the page.

I opened another: I love you because you are the only decent thing there is in this world…

Another: I would give anything just to hold you in my arms and look at you again for just five minutes darling.

The words didn’t match what I thought I knew about my grandfather.

I closed the cases and stood looking at them for a long time, eventually jamming them into a removalist’s box. 

Two weeks later, I wandered around my new home with a case in each hand before stashing them in a wardrobe in the spare room. I unpacked the portrait but its vintage vibe didn’t match the decor, so I laid it face down on the suitcases and shut it in the dark.

 

On a sun-drenched morning a few weeks later I sat sipping coffee with my dad in a laneway cafe outside Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Market.

“I read some of Grandad’s letters,” I said.

Dad looked at me.

“They don’t fit with what I heard about him growing up,” I explained. “They’re romantic, sentimental.”

Dad frowned and stared along the lane, squinting and blinking like he was having trouble focusing in all that light, the sun glancing and stabbing off aluminium tables and chairs. He churned his teaspoon through his coffee.

“The war didn’t do him any good,” he said at last. “He was too sensitive. From what I can gather, he came back a different person.”

At the end of the lane a market worker stood slashing cardboard boxes into a red plastic bin. Pigeons whirred back and forth, more flap than flight.

Then Dad said, “I was conscripted to Vietnam, you know.”

I’d heard the story many times, about how he went to court and pleaded conscientious objection to military service, the magistrate granting an exemption. The story usually finished there, but today Dad kept talking.

“Your nanna wasn’t sure how he’d take the news – he might have thought I was trying to shirk my duty,” he said, clearing his throat again and again. “So that night she told me to wait in my room until he got home, and that she’d tell him. So when he came home, they were talking in the kitchen and then the bedroom door opened and he was standing there and I thought . . . I thought that I was going to get it,” Dad said, his face breaking, sitting there in all that sunshine with his arms slumped on the stainless steel table and his palms up to the sky like he was giving blood.

“But my father, he was in tears,” he continued, “and he said to me, ‘I’m just so glad that you don’t have to go through what I went through’.”

I couldn’t speak.

Behind us, two women sat on milk crates smoking cigarettes and laughing. Seagulls shifted from foot to foot.

“What happened to him?” I asked. “Did he talk about it?”

Dad shook his head, shrugged.

“Not until he was much older, a few years before he died, but even then he didn’t say much. He kept it to himself – which is what they did. No one really understood him, except probably his army mates at the pub.”

I’d never really thought about Grandad’s life. I’d always dwelt on how hard he’d made it for other people.

That evening, I lifted the cases from the wardrobe and opened them for the second time. I untied the ribbons and counted 648 letters, written between 1942 and 1946, the first few traversing only a few suburbs from where Ellis, then aged 21, was billeted at an army camp at Footscray to where his “Dearest Terry” was boarding at Essendon.

I sat down to read.

They are like love notes from an awkward teenager: Darling I hope you always remain the same girl that you are. I want you to still do your hair that same way and smile like you do and please don’t lose those beautiful teeth.

In one gushy note he refers to her as “Darling” 101 times. Another is signed off with 45 “x” kisses goodbye.

They brim with promises large and small – to take her to a show next week, to become a better dancer, to love her for the rest of his life. Often the only reminder that he’s a soldier is his identification number penned neatly at the top of each letter: v.501159.

But then he’s shipped to the Pacific and the war becomes real: I left (Melbourne) at 7 o’clock last night dear and I was very sick at heart because I just couldn’t help thinking of you.

In his next letter he talks about heat and mud and how it’s best to measure rain “in yards, not inches”.

He’s in New Guinea.

But despite being involved in one of the deadliest conflicts in history his letters read like postcards: I went on a trip today to see how the famed Fuzzy Wuzzies mode of life runs. What really amazed me about them was the little kids about four or five years of age would rush up to you and ask for cigarettes and they get very hostile about it when you give them one and not the whole packet.

He mentions the enemy on only one occasion: We have had a few raids darling. But his real enemy, it seems, is back in Melbourne: Dearest I hope you don’t fall for this guy that danced all night with you because I would be terribly miserable if you did.

Terry makes matters worse by listing the names of boys she’s danced with: Bob, Wally, Keith, Ray, George, Bluey, Johnny, Allan, Robert, Harold, Russell and Peter. Jealousy festers and he seeks to settle the score, but with no women in camp he capitalises with the next best thing: Dearest there is quite an argument going on about pin up girls. I can’t concentrate too well, so I will have to say so long for now.

In 1944 he earns some breathing space by suggesting they marry, and he is happier discussing home decor than scolding her for waltzing with every man in Melbourne: Of course I like blue bedrooms, and all your other ideas too.

But then Terry has second thoughts about marriage. Soldiers return home on leave and she is shaken by how the war has changed them. She is startled when her brother, a sergeant, returns from New Guinea depressed and withdrawn, and launches into a three-day, booze-fuelled bender. And then a work friend admits that her soldier boyfriend is beating her. 

Ellis assures her that war won’t affect him the same way: Darling please don’t ever think that I’ll be like Mandy’s boyfriend. You don’t have to worry about me changing in any way.

It’s a mantra he repeats again and again, but despite his assurances he begins to sound depressed and even mails her his stash of chewing gum because he “can’t be bothered chewing them”.

He concedes that his nerves are taking a beating and complains of “jitters and shakes”, his words rising and falling as he apologises for his poor handwriting. And then nightmares set in: I think I had the horrors or something in my sleep for when I awoke this morning I found myself on the ground outside the tent.

He shrugs it off, but then his worst fear arrives in a beige envelope: Terry confesses she’s been seeing another man.

Ellis is distraught: It tortures me darling to think of you in someone else’s arms. You have darling, nearly broken my heart. I feel so miserable and very unhappy.

He launches a long-distance investigation: who, what, when, where and – most importantly – why: Please darling, you do still love me as much as you used to, don’t you?

His letters are bleak, but then he writes to say he still loves her and that the deal is still on: I am more hurt than angry darling over what happened, but please Terry don’t ever think that I would dream of thinking for one moment that you are not worth marrying.

Months tick over. Every day he sends a letter, sometimes three. There’s still no talk of war – it’s all her, her, her – but in 1945 he deviates from devotion to make a prediction: I do not think precious that this war will go much further, between their atomic bombs and Russia, dearest.

And he’s right – Japan surrenders within a few days.

He’s made it through WWII unscathed – physically, that is. During a drunken celebration in camp he writes that he can’t stop thinking about two mates who died in battle and others that “simply went missing”.

After two years of promising that the war won’t change him, he admits otherwise: Sometimes I think back before it all began, and it just does not seem right that those chaps who I knew then are no more to be seen. I feel so hollow inside, as if I had no heart.

But as soon as he starts talking he shuts down, telling her that the subject of war is now off limits: You were saying darling that I will probably be telling you all the tales about the place, well darling, I know that it will be the reverse.

He begins the journey home to Melbourne, shunted from depot to depot. From Sydney he writes excitedly that within two days he’ll be holding her for the first time in more than two years. He signs off: We have so much to look forward to, Your Everloving Husband To Be.

 

I stand holding the final letter, postmarked October 1946, written almost a year after his return. It’s addressed to Mrs T Drewitt. They are newlyweds.

I’m expecting another love note, but it’s the saddest letter of them all.

Ellis and Terry are separated: he is living in Caulfield and she is in Essendon. Well dearest, I hope you miss me as much as I do you. I don’t suppose that you believe that though, do you? Remember I do love you, even if sometimes you think I do not.

With no more letters I can only guess how Ellis coped in those years after the war. He and Terry obviously sorted out their differences enough to start a family, but I wonder how he managed when his life changed abruptly from witnessing mates die in battle to working in a bank, from loading artillery shells to holding newborn sons. I can only guess at the frustration he experienced carrying the ache and throb of war, bottling it up, doing what was expected, moving on. And when memories crept up on him, taking the cap off a less complicated bottle, sitting at the bar with his army mates, the only people who had seen the same things, done the same things. Later, stumbling home to his girl, Terry, who didn’t know, who didn’t understand. And then crawling out of bed the next morning and living it all again.

I phone my dad to tell him I’ve finished the letters. He tells me that when he was a teenager his father became so depressed he had to be committed to the Royal Park psychiatric hospital.

Dad fills in some of the blanks for the years afterwards: how his father returned from the hospital in a better frame of mind and began talking about the war; how he mellowed after the birth of grandsons – my two older brothers – before collapsing of a stroke two years before I was born.

Dad said, “The morning of his stroke, Mum ran to him, leaned over to help, and he kissed her. She felt in her heart that he had kissed her goodbye.”

I loop the red ribbons around the letters and pack them back into their cases. There are no letters from Terry to Ellis; he told her once he had a routine of burning them every few weeks, as he didn’t have space for them in his kit-bag. It has taken me six months to read Grandad’s letters. There were times when I couldn’t face the task, when it felt like digging for a splinter in a 66-year-old wound.

The way my grandfather treated his family wasn’t right, but now I understand: he wasn’t just a bad man, as I’d thought; it wasn’t as simple as that. He entered the war as a romantic, a sentimentalist, bristling with youth and plans and life and hope; a man who returned home with his body intact but his heart on a stretcher. A man who had so much to look forward to, but spent the rest of his life looking back. One of thousands of soldiers still fighting after the war ended, their ears still ringing from the bullets and bombs that killed their friends.

I carry the cases back to the wardrobe. As I clear a space among my old shoes I find his portrait lying face down on the carpet. I pick dust from the frame and stand there sobbing at his squint.

It was harder than I’d imagined watching gunner V.501159, my grandad, stand on the slope of WWII and see him slip, letter by letter, to become the man he had promised never to be. I wish life had been different for him.

I place the cases in the wardrobe.

Then I carry his portrait to the bookcase and place it on the shelf.

» Andy Drewitt is a Melbourne-based writer and photographer. 

This article appeared in Ed#405 of The Big Issue magazine.

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