Guest Post – 90 Years of Calm

by Karen

I am so happy that Jill over at Keep Calm and Have a Cosmo is sharing her grandmother’s story with all of you today. We must never forget the history of our family. Never. Jill is the wife of a Naval Aviator and we have ‘known’ each other for quite some time. I enjoy her point of view and reading about her experiences as a Navy wife. And her grandmother sounds like one hell of a lady.

90 Years of Calm

As most of you know, “Keep Calm and Carry On” was a phrase (and poster) intended as a morale booster in England during the second World War.  My grandmother, who is English, has always had a way of gracefully weathering difficult times.  She has epitomized that phrase in my mind.  She also loves martinis – the straight up variety – so the cosmopolitans are more of a reflection of me.  She is the only 90 year old woman I know who can finish two martinis at dinner and still walk out of the restaurant on her own two feet.

We all think we have it hard.  That we live in a more complicated time.  That the “good old days” were in another era.  But when I think of the things that my grandparents have lived through, the challenges they faced so bravely (and at such a young age!), I am so humbled.

So in honor of my amazing grandmother, I am going to tell her story.  Most of this was written as a toast by my uncle.  I have added and subtracted some parts for this blog.

The year is 1921.  The place is England.

The Great War has been over for less than three years.

On July 9, 1921, the truce is declared between what will become the Irish Free State and England.  The colonial secretary who negotiates the truce is Winston Churchill.  A Welshman, David Lloyd George, is Prime Minister.  George the V is King of England.

Many called this time the “magical summer of 1921” because the Empire is at peace for the first time in a generation.  On July 24th of that magical summer 90 years ago, my grandmother was born at Holme Park in Sussex.

Joan’s father, who fought in the Great War, had recently settled in as the head gardener on the magnificent Riverhall Estate.  The family lived in a gardener’s cottage on the estate, and Joan grew up scampering about under huge pink and purple rhododendron.  Her first memories are of being under those flowers.

On to 1934.  Joan is 13 and the depression is imposing its weight even on the grand estates of England and the gardeners at Riverhall are let go.  Her father finds a new job work in the public garden in the village of Braintree in Essex.  The entire family moves to Braintree.

Two years later, on March 7, 1936, Hitler’s armies reoccupy the Rhineland in violation of the Treaty of Versaille and it seems clear, at least to Churchill, that the storm clouds of war are gathering over Europe again.

Joan is now 15 and her childhood is coming to an end; and though it is not yet fully appreciated, the sun is setting on the British Empire.  The unsettling upheaval in the order of nation’s events continues when, on December 10, 1936, Edward VIII becomes the first British Monarch in history to abdicate his throne.  He does it in order to marry the American divorcee, Mrs. Wallace Simpson.

Three years later, on September 1, 1939, Germany invades Poland and two days after that, on September 3, 1939, in accordance with their treaty obligations, England and France declare war on Germany.  Joan is 18 years old.

Less than a year later, in June of 1940, France surrenders to Germany and for the next year and a half Great Britain stands almost alone against the Nazis.  The struggle for air supremacy over England, and the Battle of Britain is fought.  The Germans attempt to bomb the English into submission and civilian casualties in London alone rise to 300-600 per day killed, and 1000-3000 a day wounded.  Despite Charles Lindbergh’s prediction of the sure and rapid defeat of the Royal Air Force, the Battle of Britain is won by the British pilots in what Churchill calls England’s “finest hour”.  Hitler turns his attention to Russia.

The Japanese attack Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, bringing the United States into the war, and creating the Grand Alliance.

Early in 1942, at the age of 20, Joan enlists in the Women’s Royal English Navy, or as we refer to it, the Wrens.  In leaving her former life behind, she decides to change her name from Joan to Jill.  She becomes a radio operator based at the Anglesey Naval Base in Western England.  She keeps radio contact with convoys bringing vital supplies to England from the United States.  The work is difficult because of the complex codes used to avoid being tracked by the U-Boats that were hunting them.

In 1944, an Army Air Corps aviator (my grandfather) arrives in England.

Stan and Jill meet on an evening in September of 1944.  He proposes the first night they meet. She tells him to “ask again tomorrow”.  He does and again she tells him to ask “tomorrow”.  On the third night he doesn’t arrive.  My grandmother, not surprised, decides to forget about the handsome American.  It turns out that he was sent away on a mission and had to leave in the middle of the night.  Several months later he returns and they fall in love.

They were married less than a year later on June 22, 1945.  Jill was 23 years old, Stanley 20.

Within weeks of their marriage, Stan’s squadron begins its journey to the Pacific.  Stan is shipped first to the United States, where is he is granted brief leave.  He is on that leave when the Second World War comes unexpectedly to an end, in August 1945, when the dropping of two atomic bombs forces the surrender of the Japanese.

Late in 1945, Stan returns to England to fetch his bride.  They travel on a Pam American World Airways DC-6.  Jill arrives at LaGuardia Airport in January of 1946, with one suitcase, and enters her new country for the first time.  She is 24 years old.

Apartments are extremely scarce, so Stan and Jill stay with Stan’s parents until they get a small 5th floor walk up in the Bronx.  Jill goes to work for Harper’s Bazaar magazine and Stan attends NYU and drives a cab to pay the bills.

Stan graduates from NYU in 1949 and goes into the Air Force.  They move to Randolph AFB in San Antonio, TX.  Jill takes a 3 day train trip across the United States to Texas and it is only then that she realizes how really big the country is.  The scrublands of Texas look different than the green hills of England.

From Texas they move to Enid, OK where my mother is born.  Then to Ellington AFB in Houston.  Then to Mather AFB in Sacramento.  Then to Davis Monthon AFB in Tuscon where my uncle is born.

My grandfather starts having problems with his security clearance in the Air Force and his career has seemed to stall.  He finds out that because his mother is a “communist sympathizer”, he will probably be denied promotion.  The fact that he is a Jew probably doesn’t help either. Stan leaves the Air Force and joins American Airlines in 1953.  He is the first Jewish pilot hired by a major American airline.

Eventually, they settle together in Westport, Connecticut and live a life full of family, travel, and “extremely good fortune”.

My grandmother’s zest for life is the same today as it was 5 and 50 years ago.  She plugs along, rolling over any obstacle in her path.  In the English fashion, she barely allows any of us to catch of glimpse of what lies behind her stiff upper lip.

Thank you so much for sharing your grandmother’s story, Jill! Please be sure to check out Jill’s blog, Keep Calm and Have a Cosmo. If anything, to check out her adorable children.