In June of 1944 my mother crossed the Atlantic in a convoy of ships; a hopeful war bride with a newborn on her way to join my father in England. My parents had met in Calgary, where the British government had sent my father and thousands of other young recruits to learn to fly in airspace safely beyond the range of enemy aircraft. After completing his training, he was transferred to a base in Ontario where he and my mother married and lived for a year before he was assigned to a bomber squadron in England.
The voyage was a thrilling adventure for a twenty-year-old—one who could reasonably be described as wilful—traveling outside her country for the first time. Ignoring the warnings of the crew, she spent much of her time on deck with my six-week-old brother clutched in her arms, seeking respite in the wind and salt-spray from the sea-sickened misery of the other, mostly female, passengers. The convoys that regularly plied the north Atlantic were made up of merchant ships carrying supplies to Britain, troopships, passenger vessels and their naval escorts. She knew about the German U-boats that prowled beneath, but likely had no idea of the magnitude of the threat they represented. Over the course of the North Atlantic battle, some 3,500 Allied ships were lost.
If she was initially charmed by the picturesque setting of her new home, she soon found out what it meant to be living in a country at war. A few weeks after she arrived at my grandparents’ house, thirteen miles from London, Germany began to bombard the capital with V-1 rockets—buzz bombs, so named for their noisy flight. Launched from the French and Dutch coasts at a rate of more than a hundred per day, the radio-guided missiles were intended to wreak both physical damage and psychological trauma, and were notoriously inaccurate.
My grandfather was the village air raid warden, responsible for getting people to the shelters when the air raid sirens sounded. My mother hated the dank and crowded bunkers and after a time, refused to go back. My grandparents were appalled; she took the chance that the bombs wouldn’t fall short of their target, and that it one did, she’d know by its sudden silence to take cover.
It seems odd to me now that she never revealed whether she had been afraid. If she told her stories with some pride in her youthful bravado, it was only because she had survived, along with everyone else in the family. My grandparents, having already lived through the nightmare of World War I and the Blitz of 1940-41, were probably far more fearful of the toll the war might take.
Hearing about my mother’s wartime experiences—my quiet father said far less about what he had seen and done—was like being read a book with thrilling bits where the heroine is up against darkness, but armed with resourcefulness, luck and courage, she prevails. My mother’s real-life adventures became entwined with what I learned in school about the war, and my child’s conclusion was that everyone had learned a crucial lesson and would never make that mistake again. War would never threaten my world.
Although the list of regional, non-Western conflicts since 1945 is a very long one, my assumption wasn’t so naive. It was supported by reality: former enemies signed peace treaties, then trade agreements. Government ministers conferred with their foreign counterparts. Borders opened. Belgian students basked on the beaches of Eastern Bloc countries. The Common Market became the European Union; the League of Nations expanded to become the United Nations. Apologies were made, even if they were slow to come. The Berlin wall fell to human hands and hope. Gorbachev threw open the Iron Curtain.
Peace wasn’t a dream; it was a living thing. Cooperation allowed disparate peoples to travel, exchange, discuss, encourage, educate, benefit, assist, harmonize, understand. It’s hard to pick the single most significant word in that incomplete list.
In Europe, where I have twice lived for the better part of seventeen years, the opportunities were legion. They still are, for now, but doors across the continent are beginning to close. With Brexit looming, the rise of the nationalist right in France, Holland, Hungary and Austria—among others—and the terrifying news that the world’s most powerful country has elected an authoritarian demagogue who will sit at the head of the table with Putin at the other end, we may well be in for it.
Whatever the eventual sources of frustration and disappointment in the bureaucratic workings and decisions of the European Union —and they are numerous— its member countries signed on purposefully as partners in solidarity, joining a real-life experiment in economic and social cohesion. If, like a slo-mo images of an imploding building, the underpinnings of the EU begin to fail with the desertion of its member states, then a war in the West will no longer be unthinkable. Goodwill is not enough; nations need to be obliged to work together in mutually advantageous ways, to commit to the idea that they are stronger together in all ways, not just economic ones.
Inclusive and outward-looking foreign policy can temper tribalism—the source of one of our greatest comforts and some of our worst behaviour—but if populist movements halt or reverse the progress made towards international co-operation, then conflict between Western nations who’ve been doing their best to play nice since the Second World War will not long be unthinkable.
I have always believed that humankind was moving—and wanted to move—towards breaking down barriers in all things. We were able to point to the evidence that ways had been found to accommodate and respect differences, that we preferred partnership over conflict and that the lessons of history continued to remind us of what could happen if we went off course.
Since the American election, I’ve been thinking a lot about my mother and wondering how long it took her to get her head around the fact that she lived in an unsafe world. Months? A week? An instant? Perhaps she did what I have been doing since November 8—uselessly returning in my mind to the day before the lights dimmed.
I never imagined that I would be afraid for the generations to come. My life, like that of much of my boomer cohort, was better in significant ways than my parents’ had been. I was confident that we would continue that course, and make the effort to equalize our society. Instead, our children and grandchildren face not only potentially catastrophic ecological problems, but social and economic ones that raise the possibility of conflict on a large scale.
My mother crossed the Atlantic again seven years later, returning permanently to Canada with my father and my two brothers. She was hopeful about the future, looking forward to its possibilities and promise, and I’m certain she wasn’t disappointed. Did the fact that she had known a global war in her lifetime make her more or less optimistic about the chances of it happening again?
Her stories were a link to a time that we all need to remember, and I can only hope that the memory-keepers among us will help keep the lights on.