A KISS FROM YPRES, BELGIUM |
- By Veronica Breen Hogle
Christina Fitzpatrick elbows herself up in her brass bed and smoothes out the
puffy squares of the maroon velvet eiderdown. We are upstairs in the big bedroom with
the little fireplace. The room and the ashes are still warm from last night’s coal fire.
“I’d a fairly good night’s sleep,” says my Grandaunt Christina. Her eyes wander
out the window and gaze at the buds on the apple trees quivering in the April breeze.
“I see there’s a sharp wind,” she says, her eyes watching the gray-black smoke
tossing about over Stevenson’s chimney pot. Together, we look up the green fields
dotted with hardy lambs, calves and their mothers. The sloping terrain is alive with yellow
furze bushes. Sparrows carrying bits of worms in their beaks dart under the eaves of our
ivy-covered house to feed their noisy babies.
. The Angelus Bell rings out from Saint Andrew’s Church in the Market Square.
Aunt Christina says the prayers out loud, and blesses herself. She looks at me and asks:
“Can you get me the old chocolate box with the post cards from the wardrobe
drawer?” I know exactly where to find it because she often reads her old love post cards
to me. She takes the box from my hands and unties the green ribbon. There are seventy
one cards in all. She holds up her favorite, the one she always keeps on the top,
and in her wheezy voice reads:
“A Kiss From Ypres, Belgium ......
Dearest, Roll on. When I get back, we’ll pull up for all this time.
Good bye love. Say that prayer for me xxxx
It is one of the mosy beautiful cards her husband sent her when he was fighting in Ypres,
Belgium in World War One ‘A Kiss’ is embroidered in black. ‘From’ is in gold, and
‘Belgium’ is in red. Designed like an envelope, the flap is embroidered with the Belgian,
British and French flags. One word printed in blue says: ‘Remember.’
“These auld cards kept us all goin’ durin’ the great war,” her eyes become dreamy
as she tells me the familiar story.
“Was he shot at?” I ask her.
“Oh, he was, but they didn’t get him. He just has that wheeze from the gas they
used an’ many a fretful night’s sleep ever since.” She’s quiet for a minute.
“His only brother Jack died over there .. in a far-a-way place called Flanders.
He’s buried in a huge cemetery for soldiers ... below miles of small white wood crosses ...
with no names.” Her eyes become teary. She lets them brim over and they dry by
Heavy dark eyebrows arch over her dull eyes. Her thick black and gray hair is
short and held to one side by a large hair clip. Her mouth is crooked since she had her last
little turn. Dr. Farrell says it was more severe than the others. I often look at her
wedding photo on the wall downstairs in the parlor. Her velvet brown eyes and long dark
hair give her the look of a woman from Spain
Christina Fitzpatrick is one of the Walshe girls of The Old Barracks, Kilree Street,
Bagenalstown, in the Country of Carlow. Our lively market and flour mill town is located
on the Barrow River at the heel of the Blackstairs Mountains, 68 miles south of Dublin.
“The Old Barracks is one of the best limestone houses in Bagenalstown with its
four large tri-angle shaped windows jutting out from the roof and chimney pots like turrets
on a castle,” she tells me every time we go there to visit her brother Ned.
“My father was a police sergeant in the Royal Irish Constabulary. After he retired,
the new police barracks was built a few doors away. He bought the Old Barracks and
converted it into a grocery shop and bar.” Ned inherited the house and the business. He
still lives there and does a good grocery trade during the day. The place smells of spirits
and Guinness. Yellow canaries sing in cages and men listen to the hurling match on the
wireless while having drinks on Sunday afternoons.
“When we were under The British Crown, Walshe’s was a favorite place for
soldiers on maneuvers at Eastwood, a barracks three miles outside the town. Men working
at the railway were regulars too,” she says smiling “I met your Daddy Jim when he came
in for a Guinness one night when I was working behind the bar.” Her eyes become soft
and trail back out to the apple trees.
“When the war ended in 1918, Jim Fitzpatrick came back to the town an’ we were
married within months,” looking down at the cards he had sent her. There are photo post
cards of him in soldier’s uniform. “An’ then he fought man-to-man again in our own civil
war in 1922 as well,” she goes on.
Her husband is a tall, kind, generous man with bushy eyebrows arching over
merry blue eyes. He is enveloped in a sweet smell of tobacco, Indian tea and spices from
working as the foreman in the goods’ department of the Bagenalstown Railway Station.
From our house, we can hear the passenger and goods’ trains whistle and hiss out steam
arriving into the station. From our top bedroom window, we can watch the trains sway
along the winding tracks, picking up speed on their way to Dublin and Waterford. The
Barrow River winds its way along the edge of our little flour mill town on its way to the Atlantic
Ocean. Barges glide by carrying grains to the towns and villages in between cites.
“We got this house from the British Government because Jim fought in Ypres,
Belgium, in the first world war,” Aunt Christina tells me as she reads through the box of
cards he sent her. The house is attached to another one that looks the same. It is one of
ten houses in a neighborhood called the ‘Soldier’s Cottages,’ located on a narrow gravel
road at the top of Kilree Street, Bagenalstown. The strange thing is Jim Fitzpatrick never talks about the war. He never mentions Ypres, Begium. But there is one post card of the market place in Ypres. All of the building have been bombed and the windows are gone.
As far back as the family remembers,
Aunt Christina was ‘delicate’ long before she was married. They had no children until I
came to live with them. The three of us live in this two story, five room house with a slate
roof on an acre of land.
Aunt Christina’s best friends are Dolly Nolan, May Doyle and Mrs. Donahue.
They all live on Kilree Street. Mrs. Donahue owns a restaurant and has the lingering smell
of cloves or scallions.
“Dolly Nolan is great at tappin’ an’ readin’ the taps on the Morse Code machine at
the railway station. She knows by the taps what time the trains ‘ill arrive,” Aunt Christina
explains to me. May Doyle works for her brother the saddler. Her skin and clothes are
wrapped in the warm smell of new leather. The friends come to visit every Sunday. When
they go on holidays, they send Aunt Christina cards with holiday views and she keeps
them all in another box.
After I’m sent to bed at night, I sit at the top of the stairs and listen to them talking
down in the parlor. A few times I hear Aunt Christina tell the friends my mother left my
father because of his heavy drinking.
“How old was she when she came to live with you?’ Dolly Nolan wants to know.
“She was only two, that year in 1942 ... an’ I was 52,” Aunt Christina tells her.
She was dressed, ready ta go to St. Joseph’s Home for Children in Kilkenny. She was
sittin’ on the floor, playin’ with the knobs on the cupboard. She was a little dote, with nut
brown curly hair, rosy cheeks, an’ green eyes,” she goes on.
“You were great ta take her, with so may ailments yourself,” says May Doyle.
“Heat, milk an’ food were scarce ‘cause of the war. We’d plenty of everythin’ an’
then some ‘cause of Jim’s job at the Railway. I said we’d take her an’ rear her. We’d
manage somehow. We couldn’t bear for her to grow up in an orphanage.”
As time goes by, life is not easy for Aunt Christina. She does not feel well much
of the time. She says she has a lightness in her head, dizzy spells, and her legs swell up.
She’s had three little turns. Dr. Farrell says asthma is the cause of her wheezing and
“Now that I’m an invalid, I can’t do much,” she says listing all her ailments.
“Before my health failed me, I could make an afternoon tea for 20. Before I lost the use of
my limbs, I could dance all night long,” she repeats sadly.
“I don’t have enough breath to puff out a candle,” is a common remark after she
spends a night hacking, wheezing and spitting up phlegm. When I was small, we all slept
in separate beds in the big room upstairs. I could see her in the amber light of the oil lamp
across the room from my little iron bed. Her silhouette was huge on the wall as she
burned a pungent smelling powder and rocked back and forth gasping for air. The familiar
sounds of the goods’ trains whistling and steaming into the station brought comfort to the
night. Just before the birds in their nests in the eaves above the open window gave their
first solo chirps, she collapsed exhausted back on her feather pillows and sleep gave her
When she is feeling well enough, Aunt Christina gets up around midday when
Daddy Jim comes home to cook for us. She sits in her arm chair at the fire or looking out
the window. In summer, she sits out in the garden by the pink peony roses wearing her
straw hat, talking to the neighbors. She walks slowly with a thick wood cane. When she
goes out visiting, Daddy Jim dresses her, lifts her up like a doll and eases her into her
“I’m not able to get up. I’ve a lightness in my head today,” she often says: Her
sick smell seeps all over the house. Her smell lies hidden under the antiseptic smell of
Dettol, fresh lemons and oranges, or the sweet smells of lilacs, carnations and roses from
our flower garden.
Aunt Christina has many good spells too. On those days, she pats her bed and
“Come over here ta me. We’ll read Curly Wee an’ Gussie Goose together. Let’s
see what the pig an’ the goose are up ta in the farm yard taday. She reads me the daily
cartoon from the Irish Independent newspaper. My eyes follow her finger as she reads the
words under the two windows of the cartoon. Other times she says:
“Com’on! Jump in my boat an’ we’ll go to Bombay!” Her brass bed becomes our
ship and we are explorers looking for silk, spices, and copper wind-chimes at crowded
Indian Bazaars. We see brown-skinned men in turbans sitting cross-legged on the ground
playing high wailing music with bamboo flutes. They coax cobras to uncoil in their
baskets, to shimmy and swoon to the music while incense puffs all over the place. We
head off to Calcutta and sail up the Sacred Ganges River to see the gardens of the Taj
Mahal. We visit the temples in Katmandu. Then we sail home. We drop anchor in Dublin
Harbor just in time for our tea.
“There’s nothin’ like a bit of travel to broaden the mind,” she says at the end of
Even though we all have food ration books, we’ve plenty of vegetables and
lashings of bacon for Sunday dinner. When Daddy Jim sows the vegetables, he throws a
fistful of sweet pea seeds in with the garden peas. They grow up the green pea stalks and
make variegated curtains.
Aunt Christina says. “The colors and fragrances in our garden cheer me no end.”
Apple trees, black currant bushes, rhubarb and strawberries grow on our acre of
land. We’ve plenty to share with the robins swinging on the yellow apples, pecking their
hearts out to get at the worms, as well as the noisy thrushes, parachuting into our garden
for their early morning feasts in our strawberry beds. Our brilliant mahogany-plumed
rooster is at the top of the hen house before six o’clock every morning crowing at the
hissing goods’ trains, reminding them he’s the boss.
“I saw the white hen layin’ another brown egg in the straw near the rhubarb,” says
Aunt Christina. We have a fair number of clockin’ hens strutting around and two ducks
named Daisy and Doreen waddle about.
“Look for the ducks’ nests in the meadow. See how many exquisite aqua-colored
eggs ya can bring home ta me for Sunday’s breakfast,” handing me the egg basket.
She embroiders white linen altar cloths and is embroidering a cushion cover with
shaded lilacs. Her needles and balls of wool can be found everywhere she sits. Mostly she
knits matching skirts, jumpers, knee-socks and mittens for me. She taught me how to
knit plain and purl stitches so I could knit a little scarf for my doll. The fast, rhythmic
clacking of her needles tells us she’s feeling well.
Aunt Christina shows me how to set the table in the parlor for afternoon tea. Her
friends come to visit her most Sundays. They bring dark chocolates, a tart and Mrs.
Donaghue brings her spongy jam roll with dollops of cream in the middle. We enjoy hot
buttered sconces as we sit with the red coals piled high in the grate. On her best days she
“I’ll make black currant jam, or I’ll pickle some red beets and onions. Or maybe
I’ll make a rhubarb tart an’ custard.” In the afternoon, she brushes her hair and says,
“I’ll get dressed up an’ wear my lace blouse an’ green plaid skirt for the visitors.”
On her good days, when the visitors leave after the tea, her dark eyes are soft as
she washes the china painted with blue birds flying over pagodas.
A picture of Saint Theresa of Liseaux, patron saint of the missionaries hangs over
the fireplace in Aunt Christina’s bedroom. The young saint is holding a cross covered in
petal pink roses. It was from this picture Aunt Christina got the notion to have my first
communion dress made in the same shade of pink and a crown of matching pink roses in
my white veil. While the dressmaker fits me, she says she’s never seen anything so lovely.
But on my first communion day, I notice the other girls are wearing all white. I am the
only girl in a petal pink dress. I’m seven years old. I feel different even tho’ everyone
says I’m gorgeous. Mrs. Donoghue owns a camera and takes a photo of me. A few
Sundays later, she brings the picture to show all the Sunday visitors. I see my first
miracle. The dress looks white. But Aunt Christina looks very disappointed and says:
“It’s a pity the petal pink doesn’t show up in the black an’ white photo.”
Soon after making my first communion, Aunt Christina says she’d like me to take
piano lessons with the nun after school. I take to it with great gusto. I pump the peddles
with my feet and thump the mahogany wood with the toes of my leather shoes to make
drum beats. I progress as far as playing the Blue Danube Waltz. Every time I play it, Aunt
Christina calls down from her bed:
“Play it soft-- ly! Play it soft--ly! One - two - three. One - two - three. It’s not
a march! It’s a waltz. One - two - three.
In winter, the visitors come after tea and play cards. They are shrouded in the
blue-gray smoke from the Sweet Afton cigarettes and pipe smoke. Aunt Christina has a
cigarette between her fingers as well. Mrs. Donaghue shouts, “Up The Republic!” when
she slaps down the trump card. They talk a mile a minute. Their loud whispers and
currents of laughter stuff every corner of the house and float into my ears as I sit at the top
of the stairs. Aunt Christina says,
“She said to me the other day, Why don’t the Stevenson’s have a picture of the
Sacred Heart above the mantelpiece? They’ve no picture with a little red lamp in front of
it. Why is that?”
“Oh, What did ya tell her?” asks the voice of May Doyle.
“I told her it was ‘cause the family are Protestants. An’ then she asked me is that
why they’ve no pictures of saints ‘round the house either?”
“An’ what did ya say ta that one?” May Doyle asks again.
“I told her not ta say a word ‘bout the saints or anything religious. Then she tells
me they’ve no crucifix - no holy water font -- an no picture a the Pope a ‘tall. Aunt
Christina has a bout of coughing and no one talks. When the bout is over, she says,
“The Stephenson’s is one of the most respectable families in the Soldier’s
Cottages. But Lord, she’s gettin’ bold with her questions,” Aunt Christina goes on.
“An’ the other day, she asked me where people went to mass durin’ the stone
“What did you say ta that?” asks Dolly Nolan.
“I didn’t know what ta say. I never thought of it myself.”
Some Sunday nights when the friends visit, they decide not to play cards, just have
tea and scones at the fire in the parlor, and sing songs around the piano. May Doyle
brings a jug of her homemade dandelion wine. After she drinks a few glasses, she says the
heat of the fire makes her feel weepy, and her thick glasses steam up.
She warbles in high notes about what she would do if she was a blackbird...
she’d whistle an’ sing...
she’d folla the ship
that her true love sails in ...
an’ in the top riggin’ ...
she’d build her nest ...
and bury her head
in his lilly white chest."
Waves of laughter bounce from the parlor up each step of the stairs,
land in my ears and make me laugh
at the picture of May Doyle as a blackbird
with thick horn-rim glasses.
“Come on Christina, play us a few tunes on the piano! Tickle the ivories like ya
used ta do,” Mrs. Donahue often coaxes her. Sometimes, she does. She jauntily begins
with "The Days of the Kerry Dances." Her other favorites are: "When You Were Sweet
Sixteen" and "Over the Waves." She always ends with her favorite tune: "Nora."
"The violets were scentin’ the woods, Nora, displayin’ their charm to the bees,
when I first said I loved only you Nora, an’ you said you loved only me."
Aunt Christina plays a stanza without voices. Then they all sing together:
"The chestnut blooms gleamed through the glade Nora, A robin sang loud from a
tree, when I first said I loved only you, Nora, an’ you said you loved only me."
As time goes on, Aunt Christina does not play the piano at all. She complains
more about the lightness in her head. She says she is so tired she couldn’t puff out a
match. She has a new pain in her back. She complains if Daddy Jim stops at the pub after
he gets paid on Thursdays. She sits waiting for him by the window, watching the clock, a
forlorn look on her face.
She prays a lot. She says rosaries alone during the day. We all say the rosary
together at night. Every May, she makes an altar beside her bed to Blessed Mary. She
decorates it with her embroidered linens and bouquets of plump lilacs. She prays to Mary
to get well. She prays for a miracle. And she prays that I’ll be a good little girl. She prays
to Saint Theresa that I’ll become a nun and go to Africa and India with the missionaries.
The priest comes to the house often. So does Doctor Farrell. She cries when he says that
he fears she has a little shadow on her lung.
St. Andrew’s Church bell is ringing out the six o’clock Angelus. It’s a Tuesday
in late August, 1954. Aunt Christina is sitting in her chair by the fire. Her head starts to
tremble and falls backward. She stares at the ceiling, her mouth moves but no sounds
come out. Daddy Jim asks me to run and get a neighbor who cycles to get Dr. Farrell.
He comes right away and arranges for the ambulance to take her to the hospital down the
Royal Oak Road.
The next morning I am walking the mile and a half to the hospital by myself to
see her. In the distance, I see Daddy Jim in his navy railway uniform and cap. He is
peddling his bike back up the road towards the town. His face is the color of putty and his
eyes have a strange look. He stares at me and says:
“Don’t bother goin’ ta see her! She’s gone,” peddling past me.
I run to my mother’s house. She says I am going to live with her because Daddy
Jim isn’t able to take care of me by himself. She goes up to his house and gets my clothes.
It’s three months after my fourteenth birthday. I’m leaving the home where I was happy
living with Aunt Christina and him since I was two years old.
During the three-day funeral, Daddy Jim cries every time anyone says Aunt
Christina’s name. He won’t leave her alone at night. He just sits looking at her. She is laid
out in her light blue Child of Mary Cloak with a white veil over her face and shoulders.
“Look at her Jim, she’s beautiful,” my grandmother says, trying to calm him.
“She’s with the Lord now. No more sufferin’. No more tryin’ ta catch her breath. She’s
I stand beside her oak coffin and gaze at her. Her long dark lashes are like little
paint brushes. Her face is soft and lovely. There is a tiny smile around the mouth that is
not crooked now. She looks like she did in her wedding photo hanging on the parlor wall.
A few weeks after she was buried in the cemetery two miles outside the town, I
go back to the Soldier’s Cottages to visit Daddy Jim. He has moved into the bedroom
downstairs that was mine since I was six years old. It has started to pelt rain and the wind
is razor sharp. Aunt Christina’s empty armchair is in its place beside the fire in the kitchen.
There is no red glow in the black range. He said he was sorting through her things in the
wardrobe and found her old chocolate box.. He picks up the top card and reads:
“A Kiss from Ypres, Belgium....”
Dearest, Roll on. When I get back, we’ll pull up for all this time.
Good bye love, say that prayer for me... “
His eyes mist over. He lights a Sweet Afton, looks up and stares out at the dark
clouds suspended in the sky. The only sounds are the ticking of the wind-up alarm clock,
the rain galloping off the roof and gurgling into the rain barrel outside the scullery
window. He lights another cigarette from the butt between his fingers and coughs to
clears his throat. He pulls himself up in his chair and his large hand sifts through the box of
the other love cards he sent her from the trenches of Ypres, Belgium.
"Glad you’re having a great time at the sea side in Tramore," he reads to me.
Oh, she loved ta be beside the sea, he says.
"Hope you’ve recovered from the St. Patrick’s Day Celebrations.
Heard you had on your dancing shoes."
She was as light as a feather on her feet, he chuckles.
"Hope the water from Lourdes will help."
That was after her first little turn, before we were married, he says shuffling the cards.
He brightens up and says to me:
“Your Aunt Christina would want ya ta have this box of auld cards. Your mother
‘ill keep ‘em safe for ya. Ya will have a little somethin’ ta remember the woman who was
more than a second mother ta ya,” he says putting the lid on the box.
“She taught ya how ta read before ya went ta school ya know,” looking at me and
my head nods in agreement.
His own life continued for a short time. Within two years, he was buried with her
in the Bagenalstown Cemetery.
Decades flew by. More wars broke out in the world. I moved two continents
When I sleep in my grandchildren’s home in Tonawanda, New York, I hear the
hitch-pitched bellows of the goods’ trains piercing the night as the trains slow down
approaching the cross roads. The sounds transport me back to Aunt Christina’s home in
the Soldier’s Cottages, to the little flour mill and railway town on the Barrow River.
When I meet a person who has asthma or had a stroke, her face comes before me.
When I see knitting needles stuck in a ball of wool, I hear the rhythmic clacking of
her steel needles, like castanets on the fingers of a Spanish dancer.
When I hear a woman jauntily playing a piano, I see her hands moving lightly up
and down the keyboard - with just the right touch for a waltz.
When I notice someone reading cartoons in the newspaper, I remember her finger
inching under the words.
I open the drawer where I keep my old school records. For the first time I notice
my best marks were in geography. Imaginary childhood voyages to exotic India float
around in my head. As I rummage through the drawer, I rearrange all Aunt Christina's old linens.
At the bottom of the drawer, I find her old chocolate box of love post cards.
There are still seventy one cards in all.
The floodgates to my sleeping childhood memories swing open.
Aunt Christina Walshe Fitzpatrick is propped up in her brass bed reading her love
cards. Clasped in her hands is her favorite love card of all. It’s the one embroidered with
the colors of the Belgian, British and French flags, with the word ‘Remember’ in blue.
Note: This story appeared in the Carlow Nationalist, Ireland, in a three part-segment in February 2007. A condensed version appeared in The Buffalo News, NY, Ireland's Own Magazine, Ireland also in 2007. This story is also in the November December. 2007 issue of Celtic Heritage Magazine, Nova Scotia, Canada.