Due to their separation in 1930 I didn’t know Harold. We lived with my grandmother in Melbourne when I was a small child, and then she came to live with us in Sydney until I was thirteen. Harold was never talked about much although I was told by Auntie Pat that believing he had an affair with someone at work, my grandmother packed up Harold’s belongings and sent them to his club in a taxi. She told him to never come back. My grandmother held onto her bitterness for the rest of her life, never granting Harold a divorce.
Harold must have tried to regain access to his three children because I was told by Auntie Pat that mum was told to say she wanted to stay with her mother when the court case came up. Both Clive and Bruce, mum’s brothers maintained some contact with their father during their adult lives but sadly my mother, greatly influenced by her mother, missed out.
No doubt missing his children, Harold met someone else, Mary Patricia (also known as Pat) and sought a divorce so they could marry. Because my grandmother refused to grant it Harold had no option but to live unmarried with Pat and together they had two children. I still have the newspaper cutting of my grandmother laughing when, as an old woman and the laws having changed, Harold was finally able to divorce her and marry his Pat.
Growing up I always knew there were other family members out there. After Uncle Clive died in 2008 I discovered Clive had letters written to him by Harold so I was determined to make contact with Harold’s other family. Being a Swedish name, there aren’t too many Lilja’s in Australia. I took a chance and rang Anthony (Tony) Lilja and hence made contact with mum’s half-brother for the first time.
Harold died within six months of his second wife Patricia. They are both interred in Northern Suburbs Crematorium, although Harold is in the war veterans section. As I meandered through the memorial gardens, passing banks of roses, listening to the soughing of the wind in the trees overhead and the lovely afternoon birdsong, I came upon the veteran’s wall where Harold’s ashes now reside.
After all these years, and with great sadness at never knowing my grandfather, I’m glad I have found him. Perhaps he did stray from my grandmother’s side, we will never know for sure the exact circumstances that led to their separation.
What I have surmised is this. That having married each other in 1916 at age 22, with Harold leaving just three weeks later for the Western Front, not returning until 1919, and no doubt with shell shock, or PTSD as it’s now called, after his experiences on the battlefields and having sustained a severe head wound, and then both their mother’s dying around 1922 – all this would have put a great strain on a young family.
No one talked about their battlefield experience, and certainly my grandmother could never have conceived of the horror of those war years on her young husband. Nan, as I called her, always seemed a very straitlaced and strict old lady to me as a young child in her care. She had survived the 1930s depression years without support by taking in boarders and doing ironing, all the while raising three young children. I don’t think she ever came to realise what young Harold must have gone through in Europe during those WWI years. I have read Somme Mud, Passchendaele and Beneath Hill 60 – books that lay out in detail the horrible nature of WWI trench warfare.
Now as I write this I wonder if young Harold, leaving his homeland Australia for the first time, wondered about his own Swedish roots as he arrived in Europe? More about that another time.
Notes: I have since determined by a process of elimination and enquiry that Harold’s club was the Imperial Service Club, formed in 1917 for officers who had seen battlefield experience. The club merged in 1986 with the Royal Automobile Club of Australia.
There are two Patricia Liljas: Harold’s second wife known as Patricia and my Auntie Pat, Bruce Lilja’s wife – Harold’s daughter-in-law.