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Testimony to Love

Gwen Steele-Perkins

Nursing, 1915–16

Until that great wrecker of …Victorian and Quaker upbringing burst on the world – the war [of 1914-18] – the writer of this book had never been out alone, unchaperoned, after the hour of sunset – not even to post a letter at the end of the street. Life in its hideousness and nakedness had been carefully screened, hidden and explained away. Life was good to the good, bad only to the bad. No path off the straight, flat, narrow way of silent obedience to the man in authority. For of course it had to be a man to rule the woman. ….

Like my contemporaries, I longed to do my share but my mother was reluctant to let me go. However, I studied at the Red Cross and Home Nursing Classes, and passed my examinations. I was sent to nurse [as a V.A.D., Voluntary Aid Detachment] in Exeter…I was still ignorant of sex …. My innocence protected me. I failed to take in the meanings of vulgar remarks, and the ordinary “Tommy”, ever a gentleman, soon realised he must not say things unfit for my ears. “Hush, here’s Nurse,” would be remarked on my entrance. The men laughed and chatted with me, in big brother fashion.

A Boarding Prep school for John, aged nine

That night I could not sleep. I lay wondering whether all was well with John, and for weeks afterwards kept on waking up and thinking of him, so that my husband chided me. He refused to go to see the boy. “It will only upset you both,” he said. …

The Christmas holidays came at last. I went up to town alone to meet him at Waterloo. A crowd of small boys all alike in long trousers tumbled pell-mell out of the train, but I could not see the fat smiling baby face I knew. Suddenly a boy who had been standing opposite me said, in a disappointed voice: “Mother, don’t you recognise me?” “John,” I said, surprised, “my darling!” As I greeted him I hastily added “You have grown into such a man, I was still looking for a baby boy!”

And I laughed to comfort him, but my heart wept with dismay that I had failed to recognise my son. His face had altered so much with suffering that it was now drawn. …. His father told him all men had to go to school, and described [he rough time he had himself undergone.

[(n the next holidays, after medical advice, they found a better school])

The Vision, 1930, in Hong Kong, recollected

I feel sure, so sure of my vision ... I did not see through the Light because it was so bright and overwhelming that I could see nothing else, but I felt like a blind man feels the living souls around me and heard their voices in the same tones as they used on earth. I did not understand clearly, as when I awoke to earth again it was so hard to remember every detail, but the gist is written here, blinded perhaps on purpose of that ‘Love’ to be recalled after my greatest sorrow, so as to comfort me again. Forewarned enough to make me strive to achieve my purpose because of my belief in the Light and the World to come. Comforted again by the Love afterwards by having my memory refreshed, and allowed to know that all was well with the one I loved on earth and failed to understand.

Medical help, 1930s style

[John had fallen into a bonfire at his secondary boarding school, and had had some weeks in their sick bay, without his parents realising the severity of the damage, even though they had visited him. My father fetched him at the end of term in his small Austin 7].

As I helped him I saw that his bandages were soused in blood and matter from the jolting of the car. He should have had an ambulance. We sent for the local Doctor at once. The Doctor … asked me to unwrap the legs, as he did not wish to touch so septic a wound, having other cases to attend. I scrubbed up … and begged my husband to remain in the room. I thought it was high time he realised how much the lad had suffered and was still suffering instead of always being told “he had no one else to thank” and given work to do and cursed when he failed to do it. ….

The wound had been dressed by using one large piece of lint 3/4 yard by 9 inches wide, smeared with camphor ointment, very heavy and difficult to get off as in places it had stuck. Lifting it tore the very sensitive skin that was trying to heal. … At last the legs were exposed. His father had to go out of the room, feeling and looking completely ill at the sight. The Doctor and I were horrified. It was terribly septic and almost showed the bone at the back of the knee. In fact, we could not make it out if it was bone or puss. …” And they told us, Doctor, he had only a patch the size of the palm of a man’s hand.” “That’s the patch,” said John. “This other leg and the rest of the burns they call scarred, but it hurts like the Dickens, nevertheless.” “Oh, John, why, why did you not tell us?” “I thought you always knew. I thought the Head had told you. Besides, the less I think of it the better I can bear it.” Bravely spoken, yes, but what did it lead to? … The Doctor ordered he go to the hospital at once …

I dressed the wounds twice the next day. Once in the morning when the baby generally slept, but she was awakened by impatient tradesmen …. Being scrubbed up I continued and the baby yelled and tradesmen rang …. It took me nearly two hours to prepare the lint and boil up the scissors and knife, and then to clear away and make his bed and disinfect again. It had to be repeated in the evening.

When his father returned and said he had failed to get the lad in anywhere, I spoke most seriously: “Do you realise what you’re asking? I am not super-human; I can’t cook, clean a house and care for and feed a baby as well as shop and do for the lad. You must get him somewhere. If you can’t a hospital, well then a home, or get me a nurse; but we have not the gadgets a hospital has and he has suffered too much, curse us for fools.” “But I’ve tried.” “Well you jolly well have got to do something. What is the use of belonging to a family of Doctors if they can’t help you now?”

“I will try Guys.” Many of his family had graduated there and they had a bed. …. John was to go the next day.

1935. Having fallen while running, John is brought home by his father and a Police Sergeant

His face, when I saw him, was pale, ivory white, with purple lips and purple blotches behind his ears and on his forehead where it seemed he had hit the ground. I was anxious to lay him on the hall lounge chair, but his father was nervous Mary might see him and insisted he should be carried up the narrow back stairs and laid on his own bed. So up the back stairs we went. The Sergeant with his feet, I with the weight of his body in my arms. His arm round my neck and held by my hand, my other arm under his seat …. At the narrow twisting corner the Sergeant saw the weight was too much for me, and let go of the feet to try to get round and support me. I nearly fell and with great effort heaved the body up nearer to myself, and I swear to this day that that extra heave shook something in the lad. Perhaps the wee spark of life, as he opened his eyes and seeing me smiled. And I, so delighted to see life, cried: “It’s all right, John, my lad. Mother has got you now. All will be well with you. Don’t worry.” As the smile departed from his lips I saw and felt the flicker of life go.

Telling Mary, whom John had taught about the wonders of God and Heaven

Now I realised no one must tell Mary of John’s passing except as the lad would have wished her to know …, “Mary, darling,” I said, “John has gone to God.” “Oh Mummy,” was the smiling, happy reply, “how happy he will be now.” “Yes” I agreed as I kissed the upturned fair face. Mary sprang up and ran to her toy cupboard. She and John had collected green caterpillars and put them in a 2 lb. jam jar with a cabbage leaf. They had become chrysalises and now as the small child opened the cupboard door the jar was full of fluttering white butterflies. Mother and daughter took them to the window – no word spoken. The pierced lid was lifted and the butterflies soared to Heaven in the sunlight. A dove cooed in the garden hedge. Peace fell on them as mother and child kissed again.

Reflections in the late 1950s after my father’s desertion in 1945 in India. He returned to England in 1949. By this time my mother was earning a living, and for the next few years was pulled this way and that by conflicting emotions

I had the power to trust God for my “Daily Bread”. I would pray for advice and do whatever I felt I was told by it to do. That might be contrary to a solicitor’s advice and yet I would win, and found I had done the right thing. My life was very different to the days when I had to do as my husband wished. I loved to stand on my own feet. I enjoyed my freedom. No chiding. When I had made an error I could sit back and quietly think how to get over it, with no inferiority complex to overcome. It added more fun and thought to life. I had more time for the joys of the children. I had more money to spend and could do what I wished with it. The longer he stayed away the more difficult was it for me to go to him when he asked me. So I failed to go, and wrote to him asking after his health instead. My Spirit rebelled against me. I fought it, crying out I would rather become dust, a nothing any more, and wept most unhappily at my own weakness and fears. Ten years ago I was anxious to forgive and to give, but I had only received rebuffs, and now I was tired and old, wanting only peace. No people. Only the birds, flowers and a faithful loving dog. [She had in the late 1950s acquired a miniature poodle]. No more chiding.