As a child growing up in England, I knew my grandmother’s husband Patrick as ‘grandpa’. But in the family albums I saw pictures of my mother and her sisters with mysterious American cousins, and over time I learnt that my real grandfather was someone else – someone my grandmother clearly didn’t want mentioned.
There were no pictures of him in the albums, and my grandmother was happy to let people think that my mother and aunts were Patrick’s children.
Yet once Patrick died, and my grandmother was approaching the end of her own life, she became more willing to talk to me about my real American grandfather, whose name she told me was Lawrence.
He was an American captain and she had met him while working as a typist at the US Army headquarters in London during the war. Her eyes sparkled as she told me about the excitement she, like so many other young women, had felt at encountering Americans for the first time. After three long years of conflict, with most young, eligible British men off fighting abroad, the Yanks brought with them fun, romance, a ready supply of luxurious gifts such as nylon stockings and chocolate, and, of course, the jitterbug.
Around 70,000 British women, including my grandmother, fell in love with and married GIs, sailing to America to be with them at the end of the war. The voyage itself was a trial, lasting up to two weeks. But once there, the brides faced an even bigger journey as they learnt to fit in with a new family and adapt to a different culture, thousands of miles away from home.
My grandmother found herself in rural Georgia, a place still in the grip of segregation, struggling to keep her husband off the bottle. In the end, it was more than she could cope with and she ran away back to England with her three children.
As I heard about the hardships my grandmother had faced, I became fascinated by this generation of women, who had been willing to give up everything and everyone they knew for their husbands. Six months after my grandmother passed away, I was on a plane to America.
There, I tracked down my long-lost American family, including Lawrence’s sister, now 94. “I am so sorry,” she told me when we first met, still anxious to apologise for the way her brother had behaved almost 70 years ago. In Georgia, I found the house my grandmother and Lawrence had lived in, hearing from the same mysterious cousins in those family photographs what kind of man my real grandfather had been.
I also travelled around the country speaking to other, surviving war brides. While many of their marriages had been happy ones, some had discovered, like my grandmother, that their heroic soldier was a very different man out of uniform. All of them had struggled with intense homesickness, and the difficulties involved in building a new life for themselves, without the support of family and friends. I returned to England with a new respect for my grandmother and women like her.
On my grandmother’s deathbed, I promised her I would write her story. But my book GI Brides became about much more than just her life. It is about all those women who made the brave decision to cross the Atlantic for love.