Four years ago, in a blue Italian taxi, I approached the entry of a war cemetery on the outskirts of Ravenna. Travelling on my own, I’d negotiated a local taxi driver to take me out there, instructed by the patient lady at the hotel desk. He was to drive me out there and wait, in the middle of the countryside, while I searched for the grave of my Grandfather’s brother. Raymond Willard Evans. We exchanged various hand gestures to confirm this understanding … the prospect of being stranded in the middle of Northeast Italy on my own wasn’t particularly appealing. Some of the money I used to travel to the UK on my OE was from my Grandad’s inheritance. My partner at the time had returned to London, his home, and I was desperate to join him. I was furiously trying to save enough in a short timeframe to qualify for a work visa. With that enabling my travels, as well as Dad’s reminders about how lucky I was to travel all over Europe, I had a strong appreciation of what a privilege it was, and always will be, to choose to travel. This vastly differs from the circumstances of my own Grandfather and his brother, who travelled through Egypt, Greece and Italy during World War Two. In my haste to visit Ray’s burial site, I didn’t pause to consider how exactly I might find it in amongst 954 other graves at the Ravenna War Cemetery. Most buried here are Canadians; others Indians, New Zealanders and Palestinians. What followed was a frantic run through each of the cemetery’s aisles, and after putting out a plea to the universe, locating at first a group of New Zealand graves, and eventually, his own. The gentle whisper of wind through the lonely cemetery, in which I was the only visitor, felt fitting.
It wasn’t until our Grandad passed away in 2004 that we discovered that the first husband of our Grandma, Gaylene, was in fact Raymond. Ray never returned from the war, and consequently Gaylene remarried Bob, Ray’s brother – our Grandfather. It seems that this arrangement was not uncommon at the time. My reflection in the eleven years since is that this was a generation of sacrifice. My Grandmother, my Grandfather, and my Grandfather’s brother. Fast forward to today and we are a generation with almost too much choice. Freedom to travel, to decide where we live, work and play. Freedom to choose who we will love, and marry – which takes on new significance when reflecting on the marriage of my grandparents. Ray was 24 when to our understanding, he died of tuberculosis whilst in the war. He wasn’t killed in action, unlike many. But I wonder whether either is really any worse. I was 28 when I visited. What truly breaks my heart is that I was the first Evans to visit Ray in his resting place. A lonely cemetery in the Northeast Italian countryside, which could not be further from home. But a reassuring place of peace and calm. I can’t talk for my Grandma’s experience, but I can only imagine the pain of knowing your beloved will never return home from the place he fell on the other side of the world. And that nor will you have the opportunity to stand in that place of the earth which has since held him.
It is deeply emotional to stand in a place where your Grandmother and Grandfather should have first stood. To be the bridge between generations and to attempt in some way to acknowledge their loss. To be the first direct descendant, I believe, to ever have stood at this my forebear’s resting place. To introduce myself, and to offer my humble thanks to Ray for my life, and that of my sister and father. It’s a strange thing to fathom that this tragic loss resulted in our own family coming into being. I wonder what he would have thought to have me there, one of the Evans’s that came after his time. One of only two granddaughters of his beloved wife. What a privilege to visit on behalf of my family, one that wouldn’t exist in its current form were it not for WWII. May we always remember, acknowledge and respect those who sacrificed so much. May we always have the humility to reflect on our freedom, and the privilege of having the choices we do today. May peace always prevail over war.