Monday, June 15, 2009

The Love of Our Life

Roger Sanders,
Born In Battle,
Died, May 27, 2009

The night Ilene’s pregnancy came to its conclusion and Roger’s life began, the Issett women were home alone. Generally, this would create no special difficulties, but in January 1941, London, where the Issetts lived, was the target of nightly bombing raids by the German air force.

Their modest home sat in a working class neighborhood on the outskirts of London. A railyard filled a large space behind the houses on the street, separating the Issetts and their neighbors from many city services. Ilene, the Issett’s adult daughter had moved back in with her family for the last part of her pregnancy after her husband, Arthur Sanders, had gone off to the war in France.

The almost rural character of their city neighborhood worked just fine for Ethel and Arthur Issett and their children. They had a garden in the backyard, raspberries, herbs and flowers sprouting vigourously. A high fence marked the back of the property, cutting off the clang and bustle of the rumbling freight trains. A driveway ran alongside the house to a garage where Arthur stored a car that he regularly maintained, but rarely drove.

Behind the garage stood a tool shed built primarily out of corrugated steel. Arthur, a machinist at a local factory by day, and a gardener, handyman and poet otherwise, referred to the little outbuilding as the “Mark Twain Scrap Iron Shop.”

Another twenty feet or so further, near the back fence, stood Arthur’s workshop. The Issett home was something of a small homestead, but they were hardly self-sufficient. In any case, they had no such goal in mind. They were more than willing to cross the long, narrow, pedestrian bridge that crossed high above the railyard and walk the distance to the grocer or the doctor whenever such a trip was required.

Accordingly, they accepted that when the time came for Ilene to have her baby, she would walk to the women’s hospital in town. That was the plan, and they would stick to it, even during an air raid, if it came to that.

On the night of January 5th, 1941, it did, indeed, come to that. And when it did, Ilene and Ethel left together for town. Audrey’s dad was gone too, pursuing his duties as an air raid warden, so Audrey was home alone.

Soon to be Roger’s aunt (later to be the mother of four, including me), Audrey was fifteen years old when Germany began bombing English cities. Audrey’s stories about the regular bombings are notable for how quickly she and her family adjusted to the attacks.

At first, the noise and glare from explosions, air bursts and burning buildings visible in the distance frightened her. Audrey and her mother spent many nights in a makeshift bomb shelter in the backyard, while her father walked his rounds, knocking on doors, reminding neighbors about the blackout rules, and shepherding people through the streets to public shelters.

As the attacks continued the terror wore off. Audrey and Ethel began spending the nights in the greater comfort of their first floor living room. Eventually, Audrey says, they just stayed in their beds, listening to the bombs and finally sleeping through the raids. But that January night, watching Ilene and Ethel leave for the women’s hospital, Audrey felt a fear similar to that she’d experienced when the Germans first began bombing London, that their neighborhood would be hit, that people would be hurt or killed, most especially her mother and sister.

Audrey watched Ilene and Ethel walk away, heading for the pedestrian bridge over the railyard. Following their progress was difficult in the blacked out night until they reached the bridge. Backlit by bomb flashes they would become suddenly and momentarily visible. To Audrey the two women, small figures on the bridge, seemed terrifyingly vulnerable. As each flash died, they would disappear from sight again, their disappearance seemingly heralded by the thunderous booms trailing each explosion. In the alternating flashes and sudden darkness, Audrey followed their progress, but could no longer see them at all by the time they reached the end of the bridge.

Before dawn, the nighttime air battle concluded. With still no word from her family, Audrey fell asleep. She woke to the news that Roger was born and all were safe.

Though Mom has always told her stories with stereotypical English reserve, it’s easy to imagine the special boost that the new baby brought to their lives. After all, the young men of the family were absent, brothers Pete and Doug served in the British tank corps, and were constantly in harm’s way. By the time Roger was four, Audrey would be serving as a plane-spotter for an anti-aircraft installation on the English coast by 1945. But until then, baby Roger was a respite from war, from lost adolescence, from worries about husbands and brothers and sons.

I only met Roger twice. The first time, in 1956, I was nine, Roger 15. My brother, two sisters and I flew to England with Mom to spend that summer with her parents in her childhood home. Roger was already grown, seemingly twice my size and fully equipped with an unruly shock of curly hair, a ruddy English complexion, and an adolescent air of aloofness. He was, to me, the very essence of an Englishman.

I met Roger again, 53 years later, this past January, when Brendan, Marrianne and I visited relatives in Ireland and England. In preparation for the visit, Roger and I exchanged letters, phone calls and e-mails. He was cordial in his greetings and both thorough and efficient when I asked for his help in finding lodgings in York, an older, historic English city, near his home.

But Roger’s reserve also conveyed a wariness that I interpreted as a suspicion that Americans traveling in England were barbarians, and generally unappreciative of England’s many virtues. When I suggested that he might take us on a walking tour of the spots in York he most favored, he responded with a measure of surprise that I would even suggest walking. Americans, he seemed to imply, typically toured England in limousines, strewing fast food wraps and other trash roadside as they went.

We spent parts of two days with Roger and his wife, Susan, a warm and relaxed soul. Roger seemed to recognize right away that Marrianne had somehow acquired a bit of civility herself, but I didn’t detect a thaw toward me until our second day in York.

He weakened, I think, as we toured Yorkminster (England’s second oldest cathedral) and I recited the first ten or so lines of the prologue to Canterbury Tales, which, he said, he could not do himself. He did not add that I had somehow positively distinguished myself from other Americans, but he did note that Susan, back at their hotel at the time, would have been delighted to hear my recitation.

We exchanged e-mails with Roger and Susan after that, sending our thanks for their hospitality and digitized photos of our time together. We didn’t hear from them again until the other day when Susan e-mailed.

“Sad news,” she wrote. “I am very sorry to tell you that Roger died on Wednesday, 27th May after 8 weeks in hospital.

“He was admitted with a severe pneumonia but the doctors were never able to identify the cause of the infection. He was treated with several courses of different antibiotics but despite this, the infection gradually spread throughout his lungs, making breathing extremely difficult for him. Eventually, after 2 months, his heart was exhausted and no longer able to fight.

“Perhaps you could tell your mother personally rather than me telling her over the phone.

“I am so pleased that he had a chance to meet you earlier this year in York. It really was a lovely occasion.

With love and best wishes to you all,
Sue & family”

I did want to be the one to tell Mom, but living in DC, with her in Chicago, I did it by phone, anyway. Fortunately, my sister Dale was in town visiting, and sister Teri and brother Mark live only thirty, or so, miles away. I passed Susan’s e-mail on to Mark and Teri and asked them to check with Mom later in the day, which, of course, they did.

The phone call to Mom was brief. She was resolute, but in telling her I felt Roger’s loss most keenly. The story of the night of his birth returned to me quite vividly and I found myself trying to choke back tears. Mom knew something was wrong, she said, when she didn’t hear from Roger around her most recent birthday.

She didn’t say anything about it at the time. She just wouldn’t mention a thing like that, but it would be on her mind. They had a special affection for each other. I have little doubt that Roger was Mom’s favorite Englishman. She, in return, was by far his favorite American, a bit of a stretch, considering how English she still seems to be.

Teri e-mailed later that Mom was doing well, displaying a reserve quite similar to Roger’s, the same sort of composure that Mom’s American children have always found somewhat baffling. Still, Mom exposed a bit of herself and the hope that Roger brought with him in 1941.

“He was the love of our life,” she said to Teri.


  1. Great Podcast! I most certainly wouldn't give up

  2. Thanks for the "attaboy."

    Let me add here that Audrey has read the piece and approved it, with corrections, of course:

    She was 14 when the bombing began.
    Ilene is spelled this way: "Eileen."
    The railyard ran along the side, not the back, of the house.
    The bridge was a pedestrian and auto bridge. Ordinarily they would take the bus when they needed to get somewhere, but the bus didn't run when the bombings did, so Eileen and Ethel walked.

  3. It made me cry. Beautiful writing, Jeff. Your mother's edits notwithstanding, you painted a picture I walked through with her and your family. Thank you to Marrianne for sharing via FB.

  4. Noreen, thank you. I value your praise.

    I've been telling the story about my mom and the blitz a lot. Relearning it with each repetition, I guess. It became a different story with Roger's death, but when I tell it, I feel closer to my mom than at any other time.

    In general, Marrianne has more Facebook friends than I have readers, so I'm always lobbying here for a mention.

  5. Dear Jeff,

    Condolences on the death of your Mom. I remember her from your parents South Side days as a poised and beautiful woman. I'm glad that her children and grandchildren stayed in close touch with her.

    Andrew Patner -- Chicago

  6. Thanks so much for your good wishes, Andrew. We will be sitting shiva at 1110 N. Lakeshore on Sunday and Monday from 4:00 to 8:00. If you'd like to come by, We would love to see you. There is parking in the building.