“But soon we shall die and all memory (of others) will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning”Thornton Wilder, The Bridge at San Luis Rey
And there always was love. Even behind the serious faces of the black and white photographs that we call the past.
There was once a beautiful, dark haired lady named Kate Campbell and, in 1910, she came from Scotland to this windswept, lonesome town clinging to the western edge of a great, dry island continent. She was my great aunt. At the end of the first decade of the 20th Century my little town boasted a population of less than seven hundred people. That is, if you didn’t count the local Ingaada people, and no one did.
Kate had come half way around the world to be with her sister, Georgina, who was left with a baby girl to raise after the drowning of her husband in 1907. And as one sister fought to survive the loss of love, the other found it. In July 1911, on the afternoon of a mild winter’s Wednesday, Kate married a young blue-eyed, brown haired shire clerk who was a popular player in the local football team. He had flat feet and a scar on his left hand. His name was Charlie Lee and he loved her.
The little Congregational church was full and above the door the boys from the footy club had created a banner that read “God bless our comrade Charlie Lee and his bride.” The organist, Miss Wheelock, began playing O Love Divine and Tender as the bride and groom entered the church. Outside a quiet breeze blew off the Indian Ocean; there was a faint smell of salt and dust and camel dung in the dirt streets. Kate held onto a piece of white heather, a token of her homeland, and a spray of fresh orange blossom. She wore a gown of cream crepe de chine.
Miss Wheelock’s sister, Jessie, walked behind as bridesmaid and Kate’s little niece, my grandmother, stood close by with mauve ribbons in her hair. She was four and her name was Sheila.
Afterwards everyone returned to Georgina’s house and danced to the music of the local band of which Charlie was also a performer. Later, he presented his wife with a gold bangle. It was early morning on Thursday before the crowd dispersed to lives now unknown and gone and dust.
But we do know this: that Charlie and Kate moved to the city 600 miles south and in 1914 she died giving birth to stillborn twins. Where does love go and where is the bridge to love when love is gone?
A few months later, in March 1915 Charlie, by now a stockman, signed up for World War One. War is a good place to be when you have nothing else to lose. Charlie carried Kate’s memory to Alexandria and then to Marseilles and that bloody battle for Ypres in Belgium. Does the loss of love make us fearless or does it make us reckless? It earned Charlie Lee the Military Medal for bravery. Did he care too much or care too little as he drove his truck through a hail of enemy shells over and over again until the road became impassable?
Then he came home. He never remarried and like so many of his fellow soldiers he lived out a life of silent dignity. He left no child to remember him. But I will.
When the little girl with the mauve ribbons grew up and married, Charlie was there to give her away. So perhaps it is true, that the bridge really is love, the only survival and the only meaning.