Wartime Headscarves

by Sheila Hutton from Fredericton, NB
Aug 23, 14

My sister and I were born in Somerset, England and enjoyed a carefree childhood, until the Second World War broke out. That was when our mother decided we would be better off living in America. Families in the States were offering safe haven for English children for the duration of the war and she figured we would only be gone a year at the most. I was seven years old. My sister was a few years older.

A few months later we boarded an ocean liner, along with about three hundred other evacuated children, leaving all we knew and loved behind, looking ahead to a strange new world. My sister and I were sent to live with a family in Newton, Massachusetts. They cared for and looked after us for the next six years. We became part of their family, and as time went on it was harder and harder for me to believe that one day I would return to a country I couldn’t remember, and to a mother who would be a complete stranger to me.

I was thirteen when the war came to an end. It was 1946 and time for me to go back to England. This time I would be travelling alone. My sister was in college and wouldn’t be returning to England for a few more months. Shortly before I left my American family, my mother sent me a small parcel. I opened it and found a triangular piece of material. It was navy blue and had a pattern of small white polka dots. I had no idea why she had sent it until I read the note. The note said that the piece of material had originally been a square, and that my mother had cut the square into two triangles. When she met the boat at Southampton, she wrote, she would be wearing her half of the square as a headscarf. She would like me to wear the other half. This way we would recognize each other when the boat docked.

My mother, in her infinite wisdom, had realized that I was no longer the little blonde seven year old she had said goodbye to all those years ago! She was obviously as nervous about our meeting as I was. Six years was a long time for a mother and daughter to be apart. There was no email or Skype or any of the other technologies we can use today when people are apart.

I sailed back to England on the Queen Mary, a magnificent ocean liner that had been used as a troop ship during the war. This was her first voyage home as a passenger liner. I was put in the care of a young couple who had just been married and as luck would have it, they were much more interested in each other than in me! That meant for the five day crossing I had the freedom to wander wherever I wanted.

The days passed happily enough, with wonderful food and lots of decks to explore. In the evenings I’d go to the ship’s lounge and watch movies, staying up way past my official bedtime. Finally however, the boat docked in Southampton. Finally the moment of truth. 

I decided I wouldn’t wear the headscarf. I wanted to see my mother, before she saw me. 

So, bareheaded I went on deck and looked over the railing searching for her, amongst the throng of excited parents on the dock who were waiting for their children to disembark. It only took a couple of minutes for me to spot her in the crowd. She was wearing the scarf. I started waving and calling to her, forgetting I had no scarf on my head. But she was waving to someone further down the deck. It didn’t matter. She was my mother and all the love and longing I had suppressed for six years came flooding to the surface. I couldn’t wait to disembark and run to her.

I watched her realize her mistake, and then I watched her searching through the throng of smiling young children until she finally saw me for who I was – a teenager with a big wide grin, slightly darker hair and a wave that could only be meant for her.

A few weeks later, after I was safely settled at home, she told me what it was like for her when she saw the Queen Mary dock and all the children waving and calling out to their families. She told me that she had completely forgotten she was looking for a teenage girl wearing a navy blue headscarf. She told me in her joy and relief, she had been waving to a little bare-headed blonde girl who must have been about seven or eight years old! In that moment the six long years of waiting had melted away – her little one was safely and miraculously returned to her!

We put the scarves away after that. They hadn’t been needed then nor were they ever needed again.