My mother in law (90 years old next month) tells some wonderful stories– and granted, some very sad – about her experiences as a nurse with the American Army Nursing Corps in the Second World War. She shipped out on the Queen Mary bound for England in 1942, and didn’t return home for four years. A couple of days ago she had a long telephone conversation with one of her best buddies from that time – as you can imagine, surviving friends are far and few between now, and this lady just happens to be a retired General. In any case, they laughed, as they always do in these not so frequent calls, about times gone by, and my mother-in-law couldn’t wait to tell John, my husband, about one of the memories they were still in stitches about.
Apparently the American medical contingent in England at the time was of great interest to doctors from the United Kingdom, and there was a lot of liaison in terms of medical matters between the Brits and the Yanks. During the Battle of Britain in 1940, we had made great strides forward in the use of plastic surgery for reconstructive work (thanks to a New Zealander, Dr. Sir Archibald McIndoe), and of course the Americans were involved in intense preparations for the invasion of Normandy. Following a couple of days off when she and her friend went to Stratford-upon-Avon, my mother-in-law, who must have been about twenty-three at the time, was given the job of showing some British doctors around the wards on the American base. While taking them around, they asked her if she had seen much of England, so with great enthusiasm told them about her visit to Stratford, so much so that she informed the group that, “That’s where Shakespeare’s from, you know,” and went on and on about the Bard and what he meant to Britain. It was only later that, blushing, she realized she must have sounded really, really silly – going on about British history to the British.
She and the General have barely stopped laughing about it since. Mind you, it doesn’t beat the time they shared a train carriage with a man who introduced himself as Clement Atlee (at the time Deputy Prime Minister, and later Prime Minister), who asked them if they were enjoying England, and then said if they were ever in London again, he would have someone show them around the sights. The two young American nurses put his card away and, after the journey ended, said to each other that he was probably just an old man on the make – that was until they went to the movie theater and watched a news reel with Clement Atlee, and once again my mother-in-law was shrinking into her shoes.
When I listened to that first story yesterday, I started thinking about all the things I’ve said and done that made me want to drop into the nearest hole in the ground. Sometimes they’re little things, such as the time I had a conversation with a hairdresser that led me to think it would be best if I didn’t have her cut my hair anymore.
Hairdresser: “Haven’t seen you for a while, Jackie.”
Me: “Yes, it’s been months – well, you weren’t pregnant then.”
Hairdresser: “And I’m not pregnant now.”
When I was a teenager, and attending a boys’ school (I know, the things you have to do to get the classes you want – seriously, a handful of girls were accepted at a local boys’ private school as an experiment in coeducation. And what a laugh that was!) ... anyway, while attending this school, it was not unusual for our house to be inundated with boys who came round, I am sure, because my parents served the best fry-up suppers anyone ever had. On this one occasion, we were all in front of the TV, plates on laps, because we were supposed to watch a certain science program in preparation for a class. My parents had joined us and we were all cracking jokes because the program was a bit boring. At one point in the show, a scientist began injecting cell samples onto a slide, and of course the slide went under a microscope and all you could see was a moving mass of bacteria.
“Oh look at all those little orgasms,” said my mother.
The room went quiet. I looked sideways at her, in the way that teenagers look when they are horrified. Mum looked at me.
“I don’t think I meant that, did I?” said Mum.
“Um, you meant organisms, Mrs. Winspear,” said one of my friends.
And I blushed red to my roots, knowing I would never live it down at school the next day.
Finally, before I invite you to tell me about the things you’ve said that made you blush (whether a malapropism, a genuine error or perhaps you said something without a thought in the world - until later), here’s one a friend of mine told me years ago, when her kids were teens. She suspected her then seventeen year-old daughter was getting rather too involved with her boyfriend, and that the two of them might be sleeping together (or not sleeping, I should say). She decided that, being a modern mother, she would just sit them down and broach the subject with them rather than creep around it – honesty is the best policy, after all. She called them into the living room so that they could all sit on comfortable chairs for an adult discussion, and put it to them that she knew they were enjoying a greater intimacy than she was comfortable with, and that she wanted to talk to them about it. Her daughter immediately sat up straight and, very grown up, announced, “We’re using condominiums you know!” At which point the mother had to excuse herself so that she didn’t fall about laughing in front of her own daughter and boyfriend when she was supposed to be having a serious talk with them. I imagine that daughter is still blushing to the roots – and hopefully laughing herself – every time she thinks back to the conversation.
So, what have you said that made you want to take a flying leap into the nearest hole in the ground? And in the interests of full disclosure, I have enough of those situations to ensure I glow red for the rest of my life.