It’s been a heavy week. The world has felt heavy. The news this week has given us one thing after the other to grieve and lament – people and places torn apart by human action (or inaction), natural disaster and the unrelenting forward movement of time. Yet even while the present has demanded my attention and sympathy, I’ve found myself lost in the grief of a hundred years ago. The fate of historians I suppose. In the midst of working through some details for the not-so-secret manuscript I’m preparing, I found myself surprised by the prevalence of loss and devastation in the lives of my subjects. At the centre of my work is a woman named Lady Julia Parker Drummond. If you’ve ever heard me talk about my work, you’ve undoubtedly heard about Julia. I’ve been writing (and re-writing and re-writing) a section about loss as experienced by mothers.
Julia Parker married her childhood sweetheart at the age of 18. Their families had spent their summers together at Cacouna, a small village on the Lower St. Lawrence River. I know very little about their relationship but they were married very young, even for the time, and he was a clergyman based in Quebec City which meant that she was giving up both her denomination and her hometown through this marriage. He became very unwell in the days surrounding the wedding. The doctor recommended a mild climate. Despite taking respite in the south of France and Spain, he died within the year. She was alone in Europe, 19 years old, a widow.
But she returned to Montreal and stepped into love all over again when she married a much older George Alexander Drummond. He wrote to her:
My darling — my soul doth indeed hold her constant so absolute that I feel as if envious fate must have some rebuff in store — but let us hope that the special provenance which has drawn us together will not desert us in the inevitable storms of life. Your own loving George
She gave birth to her first son, Julian St George in 1885 (a first-born son named after her!) That summer, while at their cottage in Cacouna, Julian died of an unknown cause, what we would call SIDS today. Does the grief of a child dying surpass the grief of a lost lover? Like other mothers of this age, she had her baby boy photographed one last time.
The following summer, again at Cacouna, Julia gave birth to Guy Melfort Drummond. This boy who survived the perils of infancy was raised with every advantage and opportunity – an elite education, travel, and a close-knit family. He was charming and eloquent and very bright. And he was undoubtedly the apple of his mother’s eye. The only image in her book Some Addresses is of the two of them in an endearing and affectionate pose. George A. Drummond, then 80 years old, lived to see Guy graduate from McGill University in 1909 but died the following February. This meant that at the age of 49 Julia was entering widow-hood for a second time. Again she entered the valley of grief, loss, heartache.
Yet it was early in the new century. And there was as yet much optimism about what the new age would bring. Personifying these hopes were young men like Guy Melfort Drummond. Guy was being groomed by the Conservative Party of Canada as a future great leader and those in close quarters believed he would be the Prime Minister of Canada one day. In this capacity, he joined the military after McGill and achieved the rank of Captain in 1912. During that time, he courted the beautiful Mary Hendrie Braithwaite. With all the pomp and circumstance of the day, the couple were married in Montreal in April 1914. Three months later, the declarations of war turned the world upside down. Though he was by then working in Montreal, Guy returned to the military and requested a demotion so that he could serve on the front in Europe.
It was at the second battle of Ypres on 22 April 1915 that a massive gas offensive was used on the battlefield for the first time. Guy was not on the front lines that day, but as the retreating soldiers reached their rear position, he stayed to rally the troops and help his comrades. His reward for that bravery was a bullet in the neck. He died instantly on the outskirts of St. Julien, a small village in Belgium. Julia received the telegram in London, where she was working with the Red Cross. Her beloved son was dead. She kept that telegram her entire life. I felt a sacredness when I held that same telegram for the first time a few years ago.
Two husbands, two sons. Alone in Europe all over again.
Julia stayed in England for the entire duration of the war (minus her top-secret visit to Guy’s grave facilitated by friends in the British military hierarchy). She continued her work with the Red Cross, establishing (and personally funding) an Information Bureau for Canadians – her attempt to keep soldiers connected to their families back home. Perhaps she couldn’t face Montreal without her son. Perhaps her duty to Empire and God held her firm even in the grip of personal devastation and loss. Her contribution in spite of this pain did not go unnoticed. She was awarded the Médaille de Reconnaissance, the British Red Cross Medal, and the Serbian Red Cross Medal.
Julia returned home to Montreal in 1918. Her city was a different place. Not only was her son gone, so were his classmates, his colleagues, her neighbours, her employees, her friends. For death had come not just on the battlefield but also for those on the Lusitania, for those affected by the Spanish Flu epidemic, and for those who had returned from war with shell-shock and just couldn’t live with the sounds and sights and smells that filled their memories.
But hope springs eternal. Waiting for her in Montreal was Guy Melfort Drummond II. Mary had been pregnant on the day Guy left for the front.Though he’d never meet his father, this son of Guy’s would grow up to hear stories about his papa. Mary eventually remarried and gave birth to three siblings for Guy. Julia remained an important part of their family life.
A hundred years doesn’t change grief – it still feels the same, it still devastates the same way, it still pulls us under. We are feeling that same grief today. But a hundred years later, hope also feels the same – the reason we keep stepping forward.