Memories of Sandra F. Matson
I considered my mother my best friend, but that was not always the case. We were not without our differences and we experienced the separation that growing up frequently brings to a mother-daughter relationship. Fortunately, we cultivated our relationship until it grew into a loving, close and enjoyable friendship between two adults. She amazed me with her stories of living through World War II and I encouraged her to share them often so I could commit them to memory.
Born Isabel Emily Offord, an only child in Essex just outside of London she claimed they were not wealthy, but not poor either. She attended private schools and by the time she set out for Teachers College she had traveled throughout Europe. She had completed her first year at college and was home on break when World War II broke out in Great Britain. She recalled one
particular day that she was volunteering at the local hospital when someone mistakenly sounded the air raid sirens. No shelters had been built yet and she laughed as she described, “everyone running about in all directions.”
She laced many of her stories and accounts of the war with humor and exemplified the resolve and strength the English used to cope with life while war erupted in their back yards. “We were right in the protective circle around London,” she explained. “The British had a particularly large gun a couple of miles from our house, every time it let loose the entire house would rattle and shake. Actually, believe it or not, I found it to be a rather comforting sound. We’d say there goes Big Bertha again.”
Each family constructed shelters of metal panels underground in their back yards. I cherish the photograph of my mother and her mother sitting on top of their shelter spotting German planes. Mother explained they had a heavy-duty cord running from the house to the shelter for light and most importantly to fire up the electric teakettle. “War or no war, we couldn’t do without our tea,” she would say with a chuckle.
Her mother served as an air raid warden and she assisted her in distributing gas masks to everyone in the neighborhood. Her father had joined the special constabulary and one of his jobs was patrolling around some nearby tank farms. He was off duty the night the Germans bombed one of the towers and killed a couple of his co-workers. She said that was the night 11 incendiary bombs hit their house and about two-dozen more landed in the yard. The bombs had heavy steel noses filled with phosphorous so that they would penetrate buildings and ignite on impact. “It was like sticky black tar after they burned and we had it all over the place.”
She would laugh as she recalled one hitting a large shelf of canned goods in an upstairs room. “It scattered gooseberries, raspberries, blackberries, you name it,” she laughed. On one occasion, she said that she ran downstairs as her father warned of an air raid. She had just changed clothes and had left her pajamas on her bed. The bomb penetrated the roof and landed in her room. Later when they cleaned up they found tiny pieces of her pajamas embedded in the walls. A shiver always ran through my mother when she told that story.
Because of its location close to the Thames River, the Germans heavily bombed the Grays area where she lived. “One could try to black out everything, but when it was a bomber’s moon we couldn’t black out the river” she explained. Hearing the German buzz bombs fly over toward London became commonplace. “The first night they came over my father and I saw one,” she recalled. “It had a little light on it and sounded like a cross between an airplane in trouble and a motorcycle. At first we couldn’t figure out what it was.” She said everything was all right as long as you could hear one, but when the motor stopped that indicated the bombs release and she remembered everyone would freeze and hold their breath in anticipation of the blast that would inevitably follow.
Toward the end of the war the rockets came and one landed in the school in Barking where she taught. She said, “You figured if a bomb had your name on it you would die, if it didn’t you would live.” She remembered, “You didn’t know from one day to the next if you would live through it.” She believed that sometimes they just had to find the humor in a situation and learn to laugh.
She preferred to remember the lighter moments and remembered one evening after a bombing the firemen standing in water in their house and apologizing for spilling some tea. She particularly enjoyed telling the story of the friend on air raid duty that could not remember what to do. “He had a whistle to blow to signal the raid had started, a rattle to rattle if gas was suspected, and a bell to ring when it was all over, problem was he couldn’t remember what meant what, so he ran down the street blowing the whistle, ringing the bell and rattling the rattle.”
Mother said “the British sense of humor stood us in good stead during that mess.” That epitomized my mother’s response to life and its unpredictable vicissitudes. She could calmly react to most emergencies, unless it involved blood and one of her children. Her outlook on life taught me some valuable tools to guide me through times not half as harrowing as those she experienced. I miss her and her stories, mostly her telling of them and the wonderful sound of her unrestrained laughter as she reminisced about gooseberry walls and air raid wardens running down the road whistling, rattling and ringing.