In many marriage ceremonies, the couples swear to stay together “Till Death do us part” – and some manage to fulfil that vow, even though Death may be a long time coming. No similar oaths, that I am aware of, bind parents and their children – in fact it is assumed that, at some point, there will be at least some degree of separation. Nevertheless, particularly in families we call “happy,” there are enduring emotional bonds.
Still, many factors can cause unwilling separations, sometimes for lengthy periods. People may be taken away from each other by work, by school, by illness, even by the Law. But the most powerful, and often tragic, cause forcing the separation of loved ones is WAR.
It was the Second World War which most tellingly divided my own family, and caused my mother, Amelia Brilliant, my sister, and me to be an ocean apart from my father, Victor Brilliant, for more than two years, even though he had already done his military service in the previous World War. He was a British career Civil Servant, and he stayed behind in England, when, in April 1939, my mother took us two children (I was five and my sister three) on what was supposed to be a few months’ holiday, to visit her family in her hometown of Toronto. Because of the War, it became a seven-year absence. For two of those years, we were separated from my father – but the fact that we were already “over here” apparently enabled him to be assigned to a British government position in Washington, D.C. in 1941.
So, my family was reunited, although it was hard for me to get used to this “strange man” again. But we lived together in a Washington apartment until the war was over, coming back to a war-torn England in 1946.
Many other families, I know, have had to endure, and are still going through, far worse experiences of separation, even in these days of air travel and electronic communication. Shakespeare has Juliet say that “Parting is such sweet sorrow” – but the sweetness in such situations lies in the confidence that it will be only for a short time. Nobody thought in those terms, in centuries past, when the beloved was emigrating, and might not be seen again for years. Hence the poignancy of songs like “Danny Boy”:
Oh, Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling
From glen to glen, and down the mountain side.
The summer’s gone, and all the roses falling,
It’s you, it’s you must go and I must bide.
But, on a lighter note, this phenomenon of departure and return perhaps also explains the popularity of the merry-go-round, both for the riding children, and for the waiting parents, who are metaphorically re-enacting the roles of those who must go, and who must bide. And even the playground swing conveys the same message, of going away, and coming back safely.
And classical literature is, of course, replete with tales of separated lovers. According to Homer, Odysseus returns to his wife, Penelope, after twenty years of fighting and wandering, to find her besieged by suitors, whom he manages violently to dispose of, thus recovering his kingdom of Ithaca, and his faithful wife.
An even more affecting separation story, from Greek Mythology, involves the lyrical Orpheus and his beloved Eurydice, whom, after her death, he pursues to the nether-world.
But, if I may bring you back to our own world, and the two lovers who were my own parents, the only tangible record I seem to have of their communication, while apart, are four telegrams, three from Toronto to London, one the other way, all sent, over a period of six months, in 1940. Reading between the brief lines, they indicate how they longed for each other, and, although the war was raging, after a year of separation, they were still considering our returning. My mother wrote in March, “INQUIRING BOATS SAILING APRIL,” to which my lonely father replied, “COME QUICKLY SAFE PLEASANT VOYAGE.” This was totally unrealistic, as the two following telegrams from my mother made clear. The first said “UNWISE RETURNING NOW,” and reported that I had chickenpox. The last, in August, 1940, which would mark their eighth wedding anniversary, sent “LOVING ANNIVERSARY WISHES NEXT YEAR TOGETHER,” but said that my sister’s “MYRNAS TONSILS REMOVED SPLENDIDLY.”
As I’ve told you, next year they were together, and they stayed together until 1972, when my father’s death did them part.