In a small Melbourne neighbourhood, there resided an elderly woman who had spent most of her life in the same house. Witnessing families come and go, she had watched as the world changed around her, but now, she was alone. Her husband had passed away many years ago, and her only son had died fighting in a war.
Most of her days were spent on her deck, watching the world go by. With a perfect view of the street, she often saw her neighbours come and go. However, as time passed, her neighbours began to move away, replaced by new families who stayed for a while and then moved on. But the old woman didn’t mind, for she was accustomed to being alone.
One day, she saw her last neighbour pack up their belongings and drive away, which left her feeling a twinge of sadness. Having known them for many years, they had always been kind to her, and she knew that nothing could last forever.
As the sun began to set, a beautiful pink shifted into a warm orange glow. The old woman felt herself slipping away. Knowing that her time was coming to an end, she sat in her chair, feeling tears welling up inside, like a cloudburst threatening on a late summer afternoon. But these tears were different. They were not of sadness but of relief. As the dying sun warmed her deck with a reddish glow, memories of her son flooded her mind, and she felt a sense of peace wash over her.
At such times, she ached with blame and grief. Though when the tears dried, other thoughts stirred in her memory. Her thoughts cleared and a lively figure materialised, she could see her son going off to school in his last year. The excitement when he turned twelve and could join the military cadets! And…
The day her son had left to fight in the war. He had been so young and full of life. She had begged him not to go, but he had insisted. He had wanted to fight for his country and make a difference in the world. When he left, he had promised they’d be back by Christmas. And that she could always write letters to check up on him.
Yet, very few letters were written during those hard times, and in most, little was said of the hardships endured, the dangers faced, or the homesickness conquered. They were cheerful, hopeful letters, full of lively descriptions of camp life, marches, and military news. Only at the end did the writer’s head overflow with longing for life and family at home. ‘I hope our house is full up with borders and the fowls laying,’ he had written from Gallipoli in a letter she received not long before the news that he’d died. He had added that he still hadn’t received any of the letters they’d been sending him from home. ‘Write soon,’ he scrawled at the top of the page, ‘as every letter is welcome here.’
Her heart broke anew whenever she thought of it, yet she couldn’t give in, at least not during daylight. It was at night, lying in bed, that the tears flowed and she was filled with a sense of self-reproach that never quite left her.
If only… If only she had not given in when he pleaded to be allowed to enlist and join the great adventure of the war. If only his father had been accepted when he tried to join up. But he’d been rejected and young Jim said, ‘Nevermind, Dad, I’ll go instead.’ She could hear him now. His voice already broken, the boy so manly in appearance, though he’d just turned 14.
As the old woman slipped away, she knew that she was not truly alone. Her son was with her in spirit, and his memory would live on. She thought of the many young men and women who had fought and died for their country, and she felt a sense of pride. The only powerful positive emotion that truly gave her peace. The past resonates into the present, and with the warm humid air, the old woman felt her son’s presence as if he was there with her on the deck.
A fan of headlights came on, illuminating a glistening golden-red curtain of dust. The lights began to retreat down the driveway, swung around, dimmed, then were gone. This lonely mother died, but in the empire that many before us, including her son, has paved. The sun will never set. As the sun dipped below the horizon, the world continued to turn, and life went on. Though her journey had come to an end, she had found peace in the memories of her son and the sacrifices he made. Her life had been a testament to the strength and resilience of the human spirit, and her story would be passed down for generations to come.
Lest we forget.
Written by Sophia Kong and edited by Isla Wang. Published on 9/7/2023. Art by Felix Yang.