This week, I visited my grandmother, and she shared this story.

Here’s Renee, my gran.

Renee (that’s my gran) was a young woman during the war, and she was living and working in a small town near Manchester in England, where her family and my grandfather’s had lived for generations. My grandfather was taken prisoner of war of the Japanese in Southeast Asia, and became quite fluent in Japanese and Malay. After the war, my grandfather went to Singapore for work, and after he had settled there, he sent for my grandmother and my 5-month-old aunt, Maggie.

At this point, Renee had never been farther from home than about 10 miles. She was a young woman with a child, and she had to make her way across the country to the port where a ship would take her to Singapore. She bundled up herself, her baby, and all their baggage, and found her way to the ship for the several-month-long trip. She was completely alone – none of her family accompanied her, and her husband was thousands of miles away waiting for her.

Albert, my grandfather, sent word that when the ship stopped in Cairo, she was to make her way to a certain store, where he had arranged for her to outfit herself and the baby with more appropriate attire for the climate. Renee walked into the shop, wearing her old winter clothing from England, and big clunking winter boots. She had never bought any clothing before – England after the war was rationing things and she’d never been able to afford new clothes anyway, as her family was decidedly working class. This was the first time she had ever had a chance to go shopping, and my grandfather had given her carte blanche to buy whatever she thought necessary.

Renee had absolutely no idea where to begin. She stood in the shop and gaped, and was quite incapable of thinking of what to buy. She, of course, had no idea what Singapore was going to be like, and had never experienced anything like its climate. The shopkeepers took over and assured her that they would make sure she had everything she needed.

“Let’s start with evening clothes,” the shopkeeper said, and brought out the most beautiful gown Renee had ever seen in her life. It was loose and flowing, soft and sensual. She felt like Cinderella, and declared that she could imagine herself dancing in it for hours. “Oh no,” the shopkeeper cried out in shock. “This is a nightgown! It is only for sleeping!” Gran was mortified, and kept her opinions to herself after that as the shopkeeper brought out dress after dress for herself and the baby. She left that day with trunks full of such splendours as she had never imagined in England.

And then, to arrive in Singapore and find that Albert had employed a whole family of servants, as was the custom for British families in the colony! Renee was struck with such culture shock by the whole experience. She still has a brooch, given to her by the shopkeeper in Cairo, to remind her of it. She wanted to bring it to lunch at her nursing home in a fairly small remote town here in Canada. But then, the people here are like she was as a young woman – they’ve never been more than 50km from the small town they’ve grown up in, and don’t have the faintest idea how to imagine places or stories like she describes.

But I appreciated her story, and thought it deserved to be written down and shared with people who understand.

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