– a Balancing Act
During my journey to the hospital to see Winnie in January 1984, Dad retold the story of the birth of my brothers in Britain during the Blitz. I listened intently to this family story! Dad was remembering life with Winnie – all the significant milestones.
“The rapid fire shots from the Messerschmidt sniper overhead were deafening. Ahead of us the lorries, carrying military supplies for the army camps, were swerving and weaving under the attack from the Luftwaffe. Winnie was 9 months pregnant and scared for her life and that of our unborn child.
Winnie had sunk lower into her seat as I swiftly maneuvered the taxi cab into the ditch beside the road and drove under a concrete culvert for safety. Winnie was then under attack from within – her waters had broken and labor had begun. Being strafed by an enemy plane in Britain during the Blitz was catastrophic for anyone, let alone a heavily pregnant woman with three wild eyed young children in the back of the car.”
Cecil stopped speaking for a minute and blew his nose. I glanced from the steering wheel to his face to check on him. His breath was a little labored today – his voice a little shaky, but he continued with his story.
“All around us the deafening noise of the aeroplane engines invaded our ears, the sniper bullets hit the bridge above us and the smell of smoke invaded our nostrils.”
Winnie’s groans were soft and low! Her face contorted with each contraction. I watched the children as their faces crumpled in terror of what was happening outside and inside the car. Their crying adding to the cacophony of sound around us. Oh God, Something has to be done!
This, on top of enduring many weeks of horror as the Blitz began in London, was just too much and at that moment, I doubted the wisdom of my decision to escape. I had underestimated the dangers of travelling in the countryside north of London whilst the Germans continued to attack. We had packed the cab with suitcases and provisions and we had been on the road for two hours when the sniper attacked.
Cecil, what a fool you were; by following the supply lorries we were in mortal danger.
“Cecil, get us out of here”, Winnie shouted above the din. “I will not give birth here in this hell hole”.
Winnie does not usually shout! My knuckles were white from gripping the steering wheel, and her shouts got me going.
As soon as it was safe, I drove across country lanes to reach the village nearby. I drove right up to the cottages on the edge of the village, leapt out of the drivers seat and called out for help. A huddle of women were gathered together – fearfully watching the skies. I remember thinking at the time, they looked a bit foreign. Their heads were covered in patterned scarves and they wore dark dresses with white aprons tied around their waists. From the midst of this small group, one tall imposing older lady came forward – speaking in broken English – understanding immediately the sound of despair in my voice.
“I am Madam Baryshnikov. How can we help?” she said. She looked into the taxi and noted Winnie in the grip of another strong contraction. She opened the rear doors of the taxi and calmly guided the children into her home. “Give them milk and biscuits”, she called out to her sisters in the house. “We have work to do today. Their mother is giving birth.”
I noticed that she had gathered a few medical provisions from the house and watched as I rushed back to the taxi and drove it out of sight.
“What happened next” I asked. Knowing the answer already, but keeping his mind occupied in reflection, I continued to press for the story.
“We were most fortunate to have been cared for by these village women. The twins owe their lives to their midwifery skills. You see, we did not know that there were two babies. Brian was the first born. What a squalling there was when he took his first breath. I could hear it from the kitchen of Madam Baryshnikov’s house. They had scooped us into the kitchen, me, Pamela, Patricia and John. Pat was just five years old. She was crying and very scared. John, he was wide eyed and quiet as a mouse. Most unusual for this young man. Pam, she was a bit older; had volunteered to help out with the birthing. I was nervously pacing the floor.
Pam came back into the kitchen to announce that Brian was born. Then some minutes later was back again to announce that Michael was born. Twins! I had not imagined that at all. I was in shock. Heaven knows how Winnie was doing.”
The village women had gathered several items for the twins, as we had packed only enough for one child. We were invited to stay in the village while Win recovered and the boys got stronger. We were farmed out to the houses in pairs. Pam and Pat went to the next door neighbor and John and I stayed on in the Baryshnikov house. The date of their birth is imprinted on my brain – 15th September 1940.”
By the end of his story, Cecil was exhausted. We had also reached the hospital, and it was time to visit Winnie. Her dementia denied her the recognition of her daughter and I was crushed.
My mother had a turbulent pregnancy in Britain during the second world war – my peaceful arrival in 1945, at the end of it, was welcomed.