In England, I have family. They are all dead.
I always wanted to write about my family’s survival during the war in East End, London. Biographical, and perhaps through Grandma Rose’s point of view, because it’s all there: Grandma losing her first love to the Atlantic, the flour bag fight at Cadbury’s Chocolate factory, the falling in love with an American tail gunner over a pint of Guinness, chased by a bomber while clutching Mom in her arms, and the lousy food, the bombed out house, the red tape to a marriage license…even a visit by her dead mother just before she and her daughter stepped onto a crowded boat destined to New York City.
Frankly, it already sounds fictionalized. Who would believe it? Still, I want to write about it, but as always, I think of research first and foremost. Research, as in interviewing Mom for the millionth time to match with specific dates the stories Grandma told her through heavy Cockney accent and idioms. Research, as in news articles, and bombing raid reports, before and after photos of bombed East End wards, pinning down war memorials, bookmarking sites with first account interviews, tracing Grandma’s maiden name Murray back to the very tips of its roots and facts, facts, facts. I am even planning for a two-week visit to London… An actual visit to London and a serious lessening in my savings.
But, should I go for the purpose of writing a book? A very serious question: Is it necessary for a writer to actually visit a place or an event that will be written about, for a setting or to validate for the sake of historical accuracy? Even if I fictionalize Grandma Rose’s story, I would still be compelled to get every stone in its place. Do I go?
Should I travel to London and toss my list of queries, strip out of my writer’s scrutiny and dress in civilian clothes and become a Londoner – a two week resident – and attempt to relive the era that framed Grandma Rose’s young life? I can propel my thoughts back into time and visit the commemorations and memorials and hanging Spitfires and rusting Keep Calm and Carry On signs and take in the unrepaired and left-to-ruin buildings marking remembrance or executing a warning… Hold back the anger, the tears, while paying tribute to those beautiful lives lost to bombs, V2 rockets, and firestorms… Lay a flower on the curb in Columbia Market.
Is it necessary to lay the flower, to deepen compassion and extend connections, all for a story?
Grandma Rose once gave me a piece of the Blarney stone. It was a polished rock of dark bluish gray, and it was stored in a purple felt bag with a yellow tie string. She told me it was for good luck, and that I need to rub it before I make a wish. Of course, only good wishes would be granted… It’s better, too, if I kissed the stone before making that wish. Mom said the stone was most likely bought from the back pages of the National Enquirer, as were many things that came to Grandma Rose’s doorstep. That’s fine. Grandma Rose believed it to be real. I did not need to visit the Blarney stone to know it was real; to feel it in my hands and to make a wish or two. And Mom has said more than once that we don’t need to visit Ireland or Bethnal Green anyway, because “We carry it with us all the time; it’s in our blood.”
Blarney stone, blood, biography, and vast bathymetry aside; there is a war memorial in London with perfectly trimmed English grass where the name Murray is embossed on stones above three neatly laid plots; small, taut Union Jacks stuck behind each stone and probably replaced at the first sign of fading. I can’t help but feel that I have some graves to visit and some plaques to touch; letters to trace with my fingers and a growing wish in my heart that I could have met them somehow, in the flesh.
Their story is written in my blood, and I have to find a way to honor them in black on white. A touch of the English grass might help.
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