A Heart Never Forgets
“We’re off to Europe next month. Would you two like to Nanna-sit for a few weeks?” Our friends took weekend care of a frail aged widowed friend of theirs, a one-time mother-in-law for whom a divorce didn’t impair the fond relationship with her son-in-law. They were good people.
In due course Nanna came to stay on weekends. I didn’t know her name – she was just ‘Nanna’ to everyone. She struggled about on a pair of walking sticks, taking her time in heaving her solid frame out of comfy chairs. We had been living together for about a year and as this elderly lady was in her eighties we assumed she’d be most disapproving of such a ‘modern’ relationship, so we didn’t mention it.
Her curiosity about how we’d met and were we married got the better of her (or the better of me) and I simply told her the truth, dreading a disapproving response.
“Jeez luv – I wish I’d done that. Better than being stuck with a pig in a poke like I was” grinning in conspiratorial glee. I suggested it can’t have been too bad since she’d had eight children with her husband.
With a guilty blush she ducked her head and said “Yes, well – we didn’t have TV in those days.”
She was a very endearing soul and we really enjoyed her company, particularly the stories of her childhood in the early 20th century. One evening as we sat listening to old-time music and enjoying some idle conversation over a cup of tea, she reached for her handbag and retrieved her wallet.
“Can I show you something?” she asked quietly.
From the folds of her wallet she took a yellowed scrap of paper unfolding it tenderly and with surprising delicacy with such gnarled and stubby fingers. It was a corner torn from a sheet of white paper and revealed a few words drawn in faded pencil.
“I love you. P.”
Her eyes glistened and she said, “That’s from the only man I ever really loved – and he wasn’t my husband. His name was Percy.”
Hesitantly, the story came out. She was Dulcie, sixteen years old, the daughter of a country farmer, and with the First World War in full swing a number of young labourers from the city were billeted on their property as workers in an essential industry. Most of them had tried to join the fight for King and Empire but had been deemed too young, and were sent to aid the food effort instead.
Percy had caught her eye from the start; a tall straight-backed young man, she liked the way he carried himself and always looked people in the eye, especially her father who also remarked on his good manners. One of Percy’s jobs was to tend the vegetable garden and bring the produce to the kitchen door. Being a small holding, the band of workers numbered only six or seven men, so their meals were prepared in the farmhouse kitchen, and that’s where they ate. The family ate in the dining room.
As the months went by, it bothered Dulcie that while Percy seemed to have no trouble engaging other people in conversation, with her he was mute – and he never looked her in the eye. Whenever they came into contact, he suddenly found the toes of his boots to be terribly interesting or, if indoors, he was fascinated by the kitchen ceiling or her mother’s taste in furnishings. They never exchanged a word, except perhaps a shy smile of greeting.
One afternoon when Percy brought sacks of potatoes and a big bag of peas to the kitchen door, her mother asked Percy to please come in and give Dulcie a hand shelling the peas for dinner. Several sheets of white butchers paper were spread across the scrubbed boards of the table and the young pair sat down to their task. Their glances were frequent and they giggled as errant peas shot across the table.
Finally, when her mother left the room, Percy tore a corner from the white paper and fished a stub of pencil from his pocket. He wrote something down, folded it carefully, took her hand and pressed the paper into her palm, gently folding her fingers over it before he abruptly got up and bolted from the kitchen. It was the only time they ever touched.
In the privacy of her room Dulcie excitedly opened the present and found – “I love you. P.”
Within days Percy was gone – and she never saw him again.
It was almost Christmas and the farmhands were going on leave to see their families for the holidays – Percy taking the train back to Sydney, though he was to return in two weeks time. Dulcie only heard what had happened to him in passing remarks between her parents, the whole story not being considered to be any business of hers.
In Sydney Percy had caught a bad summer cold but had duly caught the train back to the farm, it being thought the dry country air would do him good. As he got off the train in the nearby country town he had collapsed and was taken to the local hospital. He had pneumonia and died within days. Dulcie’s father then arranged a local funeral and for Percy’s mother to come from Sydney to attend.
Neither Dulcie nor any of her family except her father and the other farmhands were present. It simply wasn’t something a young girl or her mother would be expected to attend, and she dare not utter a word in protest. Months later as she rode with her father in the pony cart up a dry dusty country road, he casually pointed out a cemetery where “that young chap from Sydney is buried.” Again she was silent, and had remained so for over seventy years.
As she finished her story a tear slid down Nanna’s cheek and she said that though she knew she didn’t have much longer to go in this life, her one wish was to find Percy and say a proper goodbye to him. She sniffed, raised her chin defiantly and her thin lips were set with determination.
It was an extraordinarily profound moment – of awkward silence, an intake of breath, unheeded tears on our cheeks and we could do nothing but fold this wonderful woman in our embrace as she cried again for the lost love of her life.
A bottle of bourbon was produced and we all raised a glass to Percy, firming our resolve to find him. Out came large road maps of that same country district and were spread out across the kitchen table. Nanna’s wry comment of “All we need now is half a bushell of peas” had us all in fits of laughter, breaking the tension and turning a sombre sense of loss into one of hope and optimism that we would indeed find him.
I had the feeling Nanna had been doing that her whole life – holding her secrets safe in her heart, while always trying to make the best of any difficult situation.
Nanna had no idea where the cemetery was, what side of town, how far away or in what direction. All she could remember of that ride with her father seventy years earlier was that the cemetery lay behind a stand of huge pine trees along the roadside and she couldn’t recall any sort of church being nearby.
Next weekend we set off, picnic basket and flask of tea stowed away, on our mission impossible. The area we were searching was about an hour and a half’s drive from home but while the farmland was sparsely populated, the township had grown remarkably over the years. We drove about in likely spots for about an hour, the only cemeteries marked on our maps being those adjacent to churches in the township.
Over a cup of tea and sandwich in a park by the river, Nanna tried to soothe our flagging spirits by assuring us that she was thrilled that we’d even try, and that she wasn’t disappointed but glad that she’d shared her secret with us – something her own family knew nothing about.
As we drove down a back road, heading for the highway home, in a paddock by the roadside I suddenly glimpsed the tops of some headstones peeking above the high late-summer grasses, and there on the verge among the tall weeds the grey weathered sawn-off stump of an old tree.
As we peered along the roadside, sure enough, a serried rank of tree stumps among the grasses. Against all odds, we had found the cemetery and the stand of old pines. As one of us took turns in staying with an excited Nanna at the gate, the other waded through the tall grasses keeping a wary eye for snakes, treading the rows of headstones, many broken and leaning at precarious angles, the ground uneven with subsided graves, looking for clues. Nanna didn’t even know his family name or the dates of his birth and death – just “Percy – aged 16 years”.
With one of us on each side of her, we carefully walked her over to the grave, leaving Nanna to say her goodbyes while we retired to a discreet respectful distance away to give her some privacy. In that still country silence her quavering voice carried clearly to us. It wasn’t ‘our’ Nanna’s voice – it was young Dulcie who spoke. She told him of her love and her loss and her sadness, apologising for being unable to attend his burial and she hoped he would understand.
When she had finished and called out that she was ready to go, we went to help her back to the car, but before we left I picked up a small pebble from the gravesite and taking her hand I pressed it into her palm gently folding her fingers around it.
We drove home in complete silence, each alone with our thoughts.
Within days Nanna’s family returned from Europe and within weeks we had moved to another city in another state, so I don’t know what happened to Nanna except we had word that she had passed away not long after. Respecting her privacy, we never mentioned our excursion with Dulcie or ever told our friends what had happened, and I suspect she never told them either, but I know that when Nanna died, the lovely young Dulcie finally joined her handsome Percy, the would-be soldier boy.