In 2011, I only had one grandparent left – my mother’s mother, Margaret. She had always been tight-lipped about her early life, but in her old age she began to open up more – and I was determined to record her story while I still could.
Although I had grown up in England, I knew my real grandfather was an American who my grandmother had been married to briefly when she was very young. There was an unwritten rule in the family that you didn’t bring the subject up – especially in public – since my grandmother was happy letting everyone assume that my adopted grandfather was our blood relative.
But as the tape recorder started running, my grandmother began to tell me her tale. She had met my real grandfather while working as a typist at the US Army HQ in London during World War II. Her eyes grew misty as she remembered those heady days when the handsome American GIs had arrived in Britain in the run-up to D-Day.
She had fallen head over heels in love – not with my grandfather, as it turned out, but with another American, who had broken her heart. She had got together with my grandfather on the rebound, but that careless decision had ended up changing her life forever. By 1944 my grandmother was sailing across the Atlantic, dodging German U-boats along the way, as one of the first ‘GI brides’ of WW2.
Like many war brides, the life that was waiting for her on the other side of the Pond was far from what she had expected. Living in the Deep South proved to be nothing like Gone With The Wind – and she hadn’t counted on a husband with a drinking problem.
The story she told me fascinated and shocked me in equal measure, and I knew that I had found the subject of my next book. My grandmother died in early 2012, but before she passed, I had promised her that I would write her story one day.
A few months later I was on a plane to the States to retrace my grandmother’s journey, and to talk to other former British GI brides all around the country. Their stories, a handful of which also became part of the book, proved as moving and inspiring as my own grandmother’s. Some were romantic, some were harrowing, some were hilarious, but all of them filled me with awe at their brave decision to leave behind everything and everyone they knew for the sake of one man.
The books I write are about real people’s experiences, but they’re written in a novelistic style. I was used to writing in this way about other people’s grandmothers, but I had never written about my own grandmother before. Doing it was a strange experience, but one that helped keep her alive for me, and in a way brought me closer to her than ever.
I hope the book will mean that my grandmother, and her amazing story, won’t be forgotten. I’m just glad I finally got round to asking her, before it was too late.
Nuala Calvia is co-author of GI Brides: The Wartime Girls Who Crossed the Atlantic for Love with Duncan Barrett. Their book is currently available in e-book and paperback wherever books are sold.