I always knew where the table that stands in our lounge, had come from, but never knew much about the person who had given it to my parents. It has great sentimental value.
The table is about half a meter high, half a meter across, square, made of dark wood, with a top and bottom shelf joined by four flat legs, each fluted on the outer face, about ten centimeters in width. It has had a fair amount of wear and tear and is held together by a few remaining nails, which from time to time need to be knocked back into place. If I wanted to be pretentious I would say the table had patina.
My father was never very open about many aspects of his life. When an event in the past had caused him pain he found it easier not to talk about it. However he mellowed in old age. Feeling that family history was important he began to open up.
My mother had died a few years earlier. He was completely lost, lonely and quite helpless, not knowing even the basics of feeding himself. When I once asked him why he was so undomesticated, he answered “ I grew up as the second youngest in a household of several women, who took it for granted that domestic duties fell on their shoulders, so I never had to cook and clean.” He continued, “ I then married your mother, who continued where my mother and sisters had left off. In South Africa we had servants; I guess I was spoiled.”
One day he and I were sitting in the lounge in my home, where, as I have already written, the table stands. Placing his teacup on the table he said, “Henry, do you know why this table is so precious to me?”
“I know it was present from your nephew Leslie” I answered “ but I don’t know much about Leslie”
My father started his narrative. “ Leslie was the son of my eldest brother Maurice, who was about twenty years older than me”.
Leslie was born about a year and a half after my father. “We grew up together; we were like brothers”, he explained. He continued, “ Maurice and his wife Esther lived nearby, so when Leslie and I were kids we played together.”
Growing up together during and after World War I, my father and Leslie had a taste of war and the devastation it brings. The huge loss of life in the trenches, the mental scars, poorly understood in those days, were evident to all, even young children.
Men came back from the war, ill-equipped to return to civilian life.
“We knew that the losses had been great, many young men from the neighborhood didn’t return from war or came back wounded. Gloom was all around.”
My father and Leslie continued their lives. My father left school at fourteen, in order to work, as his family could not support him. Leslie carried on at school, as his father was by then comparatively well off.
“ My brother Maurice did not think of helping me to finish school. He was pretty well established and probably could have helped, but he did have three children of his own and no one in the family expected him to do so.” He paused and then went on, “I have always felt regret that he didn’t help me. I was a very good student and I think I would have made a bloody good lawyer, even a barrister. You know that whenever there is a wedding in the family I’m always asked to make the main speech.”
Leslie was even instrumental in my father meeting my mother. “Your cousin Myra, Leslie’s sister, knew your mother’s youngest sister, Lena.” My father explained. “so a ‘shidduch’ was inevitable.”
“From the start your mother and I fell in love” he said. This statement was surprising, as I had not often heard my father use the L word.
When my parents married in January 1935, Leslie gave them the table for a wedding present.
“He carried the table on the bus, as in those days he couldn’t afford to take a taxi” my father explained. “ I don’t know how much the table cost Leslie, but he wasn’t flush enough to have paid a lot of money.”
“Your mother’s parents, as you know, were fairly well off. We had a very big wedding, as your mother was their eldest daughter, and the first to marry. It went on the whole weekend.”
“The years before the WWII were very tense, your mother and I wanted to go to America, but your maternal grandparents, wouldn’t hear of it.”
“In 1939 after war was declared, the army started recruiting” my father went on.
“I was declared medically unfit to fight and served out the war as an air raid warden, but Leslie was drafted to a London regiment, the Royal Fusiliers”
“The war didn’t really start for the British army until Hitler invaded France. The French had built the Maginot line to stop the Germans, but they invaded Belgium and skirted around the “impregnable” defenses”
“Leslie withdrew with the army to Dunkirk where, as you know, they were rescued by the flotilla of small boats.”
I have always been interested in the history of World War II, so I knew about Churchill’s brilliant idea, which saved most of the Allied soldiers to fight another day.
“Leslie served with the army in Africa and took part in the invasion of Sicily, and then continued on to Italy. It seemed that he was always in the thick of the fighting.”
At this point my father seemed to withdraw into a protective cocoon. He stopped for a while and I thought he would not be able to continue. He recovered after a few minutes.
“On the few occasions that Leslie was able to get back home for leave, we managed to spend some time together.” This time spent by the two young men together was very special to both of them.
“After all that Leslie had survived, we all hoped that he had seen the worst of the fighting and that he would stay out of harm’s way until the war ended.”
The tears started to well up in my father’s eyes, something I had only seen when my mother had died. Even after nearly fifty years, it was painful for him to remember.
“According to the army Leslie was killed in September 1944, during the second battle for Monte Cassino, by an exploding hand grenade. He was just 31 years old.”
By now my father was visibly in tears. I didn’t know how to comfort him. In all the years I don’t think we had ever put our arms around each other to hug. I put my hand on his shoulder and waited for him to regain his composure.
“Leslie is buried in the British military cemetery in Naples, along with about 1,200 of his fellow soldiers, such a waste of young lives.” My father looked straight at me, I could see the tears welling up in his eyes.
“Now you understand why this little table, which has little monetary value is so important to me.”
My father passed on a few years after he told me the story.
I will never get rid of the table. I have told my children the story and asked them to make sure it stays in the family, passing on the story. Knowing their grandfather as the unemotional person that he was, the story aroused great interest. I don’t know if my children will keep the table, or throw it away with all the worthless stuff I’ll probably leave, but I would like to think of the table as a link between the generations.
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