A Gift

I’m bumping this post to the front page for Remembrance Day.

Very occasionally in life an experience will come your way that is so amazing and touching that words seem redundant.

I had no inkling of the journey that lay ahead when I drove to book sale in picturesque Yarragon, in the Gippsland region of Victoria,  Australia.  Like all good book hunters I was hoping to snare a rare title that I could sell at auction and use the proceeds to retire to a small Caribbean island.

I didn’t find a book that brought me lots of money or got me to a tropical paradise, but I did find a book that brought me immense joy, new friends and – eventually – to a farm in Belgium.

Or maybe, just maybe, the book found me?

Jammed into a country hall complete with the requisite picture of Queen Elizabeth nailed up high,  I poured over the spines of the books, selecting those that interested me, or that I knew I could sell for a profit.  I have a thing for old books.  I love the way they look, and if they look well-loved I like them just a bit more.  And that’s why my eye was captured by an old, worn copy of Harriet Beecher Stow’s anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  It was old and a title I had heard of, but had never read, and unless I popped it in my bag and bought it I’d never know if it was a First Edition.  There’s no time to dither or research in the midst of a book sale, just pop it in your bag and hope it’s a winner.  Assessing your catch happens once you’re home and near to a computer.

I re-emerged into the brisk July air and hauled my heavy cargo to the car.  My husband and daughters were nowhere in sight so I dived into my enviro bags, eager to have a good look at my finds.  Some titles were good, and others indicated I’d clearly got a little carried away.  I picked up Uncle Tom’s Cabin and flicked it open to check out when it was published, and the inscription inside brought an immediate lump to my throat:

Tyson Kenneth Bramich
from Mother
Mt Hicks
Oct 1909

Kenneth was killed in
active in France on
Aug 19, 1919 was buried
at “Derry Farms” Wyschaate

The book came home with me, but I never felt it was mine to sell.  It belonged to someone else, or to their family and so it languished in my house for several months until someone asked what was the most interesting thing I had ever found in a used book.  I unearthed the book and contemplated what I should do with it.  Would it be possible to find the family?  Did Tyson Kenneth have descendants?

I don’t have the skills to be a private investigator but I am a fan of ABC-TV’s programme Can We Help? so I sent off an email asking if they could indeed help me.  A researcher contacted me within a couple of days for more information, and called back again the next day to tell me they had located Tyson Kenneth’s nephew!

A few weeks later I had a living room full of TV gear and people, and I had the very real pleasure of handing the book over to Tyson Kenneth’s nephew, called Kenneth in remembrance of his uncle.  Ken had none of his uncle’s belongings and was pretty chuffed to have the book in his hands after its mysterious travels.

The day gave me a warm feeling deep down in my soul.  I had done good.  I had done the right thing and along the way I had made some lovely new friends.

I had my 5 minutes of national TV time, which was odd.  But nice. But odd.

And then life lead me to Europe.

And Belgium.

And to Tyson Kenneth’s grave on a beautiful sunny early-Autumn day.

************************************************************

The fields around Flanders are beautiful.  Green and lush and with a tranquility that belies the bloody horrors they saw during both World Wars.  Every spring and autumn when the fields are plowed, or during building work, the earth here surrenders reminders of the death and destruction it witnessed in the form of old armaments and human remains.

The other prominent reminders are the many Allied war cemetries dotted throughout the landscape.  There are over 100 such cemetries in the region, all easily identifiable by the dignified white headstones and immaculate maintenance carried out by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

The cemetery  is one of the smaller ones, with ‘only’ 163 men buried there, all of whom are identified.  It’s down a narrow country lane on the outskirts of Wytschaete, amidst lush green fields and next to a farm building.

**********************************************************

I have been unable to talk since we left Ypres, and tears are queuing to be shed.

We park and I send a prayer of thanks that my 4 year old is sound asleep in the car.  I need to do this unencumbered.

I have left the piece of paper with the plot number on it in the car, but my husband locates the headstone quickly.  It’s the last headstone in the front row, near a tree that leans towards the grave.

I am here.

The day I have been blessed with is perfect.  Around 20 degrees, a cloudless sky and not even a breath of wind.  Butterflies dance their endless ballet amongst the last of the red roses, who fill the air with their dainty perfume.

Hold your breathe and the only noise you will hear is the distant mooing of a cow.

If I had to choose a burial place for a son killed in a war, this would be it.

********

During the filming of “Can We Help?” I was asked by the producer whether I thought it was destined for me to find that book. I’ve thought about it a lot and I still don’t know.

The chances of someone finding the book were slim. The chances of somebody finding the book and going to the trouble of having the family traced are slimmer. The chances of the person who found the book then finding themselves in Belgium are even slimmer still.

I still don’t know if it is fate, or just chance, but I’m awfully glad I was given this gift.

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33 thoughts on “A Gift

  1. Such a beautiful story! What a wonderful reminder of how small the world is, and how little it takes to bring so much happiness.

    (BTW, if I were you, I’d buy a copy of Uncle Tom’s cabin for your girls and write an inscription in Tyson Kenneth’s memory … just a thought!)

  2. Stunning post K. Stunning. The story appeals to me in all the ways it possibly can. I am in complete awe that you went to such lengths to pursue this, and so happy you did. Thank you so much for sharing.

    I also 2 years ago found an old book with an inscription, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. It was being passed from grandmother to granddaughter, with an inscription dated 1938, indicating it first belonged to the Great Aunt some time in the 1800’s. (The last two digits are no longer intact). The book is still in pretty good condition; a royal blue with a gold Art Nouveau embossing.

    • Little Women is my all time favourite book. And that edition sounds beautiful. Quite an early edition, too, as it was first published in 1868.

      I don’t think I went to any lengths for this book. It never felt like I was going out of my way, just doing what needed to be done. As far as Ken knows, no-one had ever been to visit Tyson’s (he was always called Kenneth, apparently, but I call him Tyson to avoid confusion with his nephew!) grave, so I consider it an absolute privilege to have carried out that honour. And I got to share it with Miss 8, who really appreciated and respected the experience.

  3. Kel….you are an awesome writer …. That recount moved me to tears….I could see, smell & hear what you described.
    I think that piece of “history coming to life from a past too awful to describe” needs to be sent to a publishing mob.. A magazine… The War Memorial….

    You captured so many emotions for me then.
    You can share it with others.

    My Dad loved that program .. He probably saw you!
    My Dad’s Dad fought in France & was an Ambulance Driver.
    Eventually mustard gas saw him evacuated to Britain where he met my grandmother….

    Gallipoli is historic & burned into our sense of who we are as Aussies…. But France, the bloodbath in Flanders Fields where the poppies grew ….is my place to see one day .. One day!

    • Thank you, Denyse. I trained as a secondary school History teacher, and my particular interest was narrative history – history told through/about people, not of dates and battles. So the book captured my 2 big interests: books and ‘living’ history.

      Flanders. *sigh* I would travel there again tomorrow, if I could. The town of Ypres got right under my skin (and my husbands), one of those places I felt immediately “at home”. I did wonder if it was the amount of Australian blood soaked into the soil?

      Bizarrely, I had no relatives on either side who fought in the Great War, I think they must have not been the right age. But Tyson was one of four brothers. Three served in France. Two died (within 3 months of each other) and Alden’s body was never found and he is remembered on the Menin Gate. Ken’s father had his thumb blown off (and reattached in a field hospital!).

      Their poor, poor mother. Losing 2 sons within months of each other and another badly wounded. And then her husband died about a year later. *shudder*

  4. Beautiful story. I love the idea of the book being “returned”. I wonder what it’s journey was in between?

    • I know myself and the whole Bramich clan have wondered that. Ken was the only one to leave Tassie for the mainland and he had never seen the book. After his grandmother died (the ‘mother’ in the inscription) everything was divided, so who knows how it got to country Victoria? Fascinating.

  5. That was so beautiful. It’s put a big smile on my dial. I LOVE stories like that. You have a wonderful way with words too.

  6. Wow! An incredible story. I definitely think it was something you were meant to do. Most people would have just thought it was a nice inscription and held on to it. Something made you not do that.

    I am also a lover of old books but I’m yet to find an inscription as interesting as that!

    • Thanks so much, Erica.

      I did have a very strong sense of the book reaching out to me, asking me not to ignore it. I doubt that without the assistance of ABC-TV I would have managed to return it, though. Not that their investigations were tricky – they called Bramich’s from the phone book who still lived in that area of Tasmania!

  7. I do love this story.

    It makes my heart feel all warm and fuzzy 🙂

    And my vote is that you were meant to find this book. It’s kind of in your blood isn’t it?

    A

  8. Wow. Just wow. Beautiful story. Beautifully written. I’m not a reader. I don’t have the gene that allows one to switch down to become involved in a book without distraction but I love to hold old books. For some reason, books seem to hold a lot of emotional residual energy and it’s almost like holding the hand of the past when you pick up an old much loved book. Thanks for sharing this with me.

  9. Pingback: Stories of Me | Our Big Expat Adventure

  10. KJ I absolutely loved reading this story. Were you destined to find this book – yep, I think you were!! Such a wonderful gesture to find the family and be able to return the book to them. Even though the events were very sad for Tyson’s family, it is a definite feel good story!!

  11. This is one of those stories that gives me goosebumps and puts a tear in my eye. Many family historians have had similar serendipitous experiences, but few write about them so beautifully.

  12. As a genealogist, this holds irnse interest to me and l would have done the same.
    I love it when there are dpecial people like you who bothered to care, and just didnt see a name , but saw a hero, and a family and reunited them together.

  13. I have just found this story….must have missed it on the ABC though I did watch most. What a wonderful thing to do and your recounting is also wonderful. Thank you.

  14. My dad Lyle Harrison Bramich was the 4th brother and he was born in 1901 so was too young to enlist. The fact that Alden was never found is born out in a remarkable coincidence that happened at Smithton in the 1940’s when my older brother Alden who was named after Uncle Alden was at the pictures one night. He was outside having a smoke during the interval when a chap came up to him and told him that he looked like Alden Bramich. My brother told him that he was Alden Bramich to which the bloke said “I mean Alden Bramich who was killed during the first world war”.He then went on to tell my brother that Uncle Alden was sitting in a shell hole playing cards with some other soldiers when another shell landed on them and that none of them were ever found. I have just phoned my brother Alden who is now 82 and he verified that that was what happened and that he told dad about it when he got home that night.

    • I am thrilled you commented, Cyril. Thank you for sharing that amazing story about Alden. What a remarkable coincidence! Although it didn’t change Alden’s fate it would have been nice for the family to learn of his fate. When we were in Ypres visiting Tyson Kenneth’s grave we also put a poppy next to Alden’s name on the Menin Gate.

      This whole experience with the book and meeting your cousin Ken and enjoying piecing together a little of the history prompted me to return to uni where I’m studying history, so I am incredibly grateful for all that TK Bramich has brought to my life.

      Lest we forget.

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