Novel Beginnings

Let’s Write Contest Winner: This is the story of a story and why it came to be.

Written by: Gail Gallifant Collins

It’s the story of a quiet, fatherless girl growing up in Germany during World War II. She was bombed twice and walked for three weeks with her mother, following the rail lines to locate relatives and shelter. Some harrowing things happened to her before and after that, but she prefers to remember the kindnesses people showed to her.

It took the girl a long time to tell me any of this though. She is old, and I am growing old. When finally she shared it with me, she said, “It wasn’t a beautiful life.”

I’d waited all of mine to hear it and said, “Your life wasn’t perfect, but your courage in the face of it is beautiful to me.” That girl is my mother.

The story also involves a boy, as the best ones do. He was the youngest male of six siblings and was evacuated from London before, and again during, the Blitz. Such a life is insecure and tumultuous, and as someone said to me recently, not beautiful. And it unflinchingly shapes a child. Instead of clamming up like the girl, this boy acted up.

“A scamp,” said those charmed by the boy’s smile and dancing blue eyes.

“A hellion,” said others who tried to tame him. That boy was my father.

My parents’ story is one I hoped to pen ten years ago, but I was not yet the writer I needed to be. Since then, history has proven it is not captive of who we are or learned to be. And death can shatter ingrained habits.

My father was set to spin his childhood saga for me when he died. He had the recorder, the tapes and a memory laced with imagination. There were plenty of anecdotes. After Victory in Europe Day, Georgie walked three miles from Regent Street to his London home wearing a flag as a cape. His mother flogged him upside the head, fearing for his safety with Italian colors wrapped around him, and then, hugged him, relieved he was alive. Yes, he told me some wonderful stories, but with Dad’s last heartbeat, I’d missed the opportunity to pin down some facts. I prayed I’d know how to begin, and if I still should.

I grieved the loss of my dad and his heritage, but his death offered an opportunity – the release of my mother’s tongue and heart. As the life of the party, my father took up so much room with his humor, songs and verve that there was little place left for her. Instead, my mother stood at the sink washing dishes while all around her surged and sang. With my father gone, there bloomed the breathing space for Mom to finally talk. And with someone to hear her, I prayed she wouldn’t stop.

It has been a bittersweet conversation at times. “I don’t want to tell you about those days,” Mom says, but she can’t stop herself.

I listen, and sometimes, I ask too many questions. Who she was offers a slick of grace for who we are – mother and daughter – and I reassure her, “Your motives for love are clear to me.”

So, armed with faith and some holey, fatherly history, I began to write their story. God said it was time. Suddenly, a hand reached back from the grave and startled me. Our unusual surname had caught a stranger’s attention from Little Gaddesden, England. As a volunteer for Dacorum Heritage Trust, she’d run across letters to London City Council concerning my father as a child. She offered information on him, but she also had questions.

“What happened to the evacuated boy who caused so much trouble in 1941? Did he live a happy life?” the volunteer wrote in an email. And she apologized, “I have no right to ask. It strains against my nature, yet I want to know.”

Tentatively I answered, and in return, she directed me to documents and searches. The stranger became my British research arm. The irony is – if my father had not been a scamp, there would be no records for this woman to wonder over.

The other night in a dream, my father turned to me, crinkles around smiling eyes as blue as the deepest depths and raven hair rakishly falling over his forehead. Vibrancy surrounded him. I gasped and said, “I can’t believe it. How can you be here? You’re dead.”

He said broadly, “Believe it,” and he hugged me as I cried. Deliriously happy, I awoke inspired. He’d come to cheer me on.

There is no doubt my mother has become my novel’s muse and soul – her childish, hay-colored braids tickle me from early morning slumbers to write – but my father dances and entertains within the pages just as he always adored doing.

A year after my father died, my mother asked in all seriousness over a cup of coffee, “Why did I marry him?”

“I’m eternally grateful that you did,” I said, equally serious.

You see, theirs is not a story of great love, but of something more enduring – devotion. Capturing my parents’ lives and choices on paper will answer Mom’s question. Silly me for thinking I waited too long to write. That notion was dead wrong.

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