The Woman at the Door by Barry Smith
There was a quiet knock at the front door of 23 Sedcole Street, Pahiatua. Edith Lena Smith stopped what she was doing in 1918 and opened the door. Before her was an older woman, well-dressed in a predominance of black.
It had been a few months since the black-edged letter had arrived and Edith was still grieving for her brother, Charles. He’d died on a foreign field near Ypres in Belgium, very soon after arriving on the Western front.
Charles Gomer, her younger brother, had preceded Edith and her husband James to New Zealand by some three years and had written back in such glowing terms about the new country that they had followed him there.
On the back of a photo Charles had sent home to Wales of his place at Makuri, he had commented on the fresh supply of firewood on the recently felled bush on the hill behind his house and his organ box to one side of the house. “… This is a grand country with a grand climate,” he’d written. James and Edith settled in Pahiatua not far from where Charles Gomer was teaching at the time at Makuri.
Charles later moved south to Featherston and taught there. But then World War 1 had started and he had eventually been conscripted.
Despite being certified as being unfit for military service by his local doctor he had been processed into the army as part of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade.
After some months of training he’d travelled to the United Kingdom and then to the Western Front.
On reaching the front he had survived for less than two weeks before being killed in action. Within that time he had asked for and been given demotion twice, from sergeant to lance-Corporal.
Therein lies room for speculation.
When the news came of his death in action Edith had taken it hard.
She had always mothered Charles, her younger brother by eight years.
It was now 1918 and WW1 had ended.
The two women looked at one another.
The stranger was first to speak. She introduced herself as Mrs Jenkins, Edith’s maiden name, and to Edith’s enormous surprise, as the wife of her recently deceased brother. There was a moment’s silence as Edith considered the facts.
No, she explained, there must have been some mistake – she had been close to her brother and if he had married before leaving for war she, Edith, would certainly have known about it.
There was little else said.
The visitor had been summarily dismissed and the family never heard from her again.
This family story had been passed on to me on more than one occasion. In 2007, almost ninety years later, I requested Charles Gomer’s military record and to my amazement there she was, his wife, Juliet Rachel Pawson. They had been married at St Augustine’s Church in Napier two months before he departed for Europe.
I was appalled.
What if she had had his child?
She had been shunned by her husband’s family.
It sounded like shoddy family behaviour to me. Here is her story.
In 1860 Juliet was born as Juliet Rachel Nash at O’Kains Bay on Banks Peninsula. She grew up and at the age of 22 married William Pawson. Pawson was a widower of 52 whose wife Catherine Breitmeyer had died five years previously, in 1877. They had thirteen children. Some were old enough to be independent, but Juliet and William eventually shifted to Eketahuna with three of his children and they had three more of their own. William died in 1903 at the age of 75 leaving her with their remaining children to raise.
I suspect that Charles Gomer met Juliet during his teaching of the youngest of her children. Eventually they married, two months before he departed to serve in World War 1. He was 30 and she was 57!
Juliet had married a widower thirty years her senior with thirteen children and later, as a widow, married a man almost thirty years her junior with no children.
Still dismayed by the thought that she had been disowned by the Smith family, I followed her history further.
It was little wonder that Edith Lena had been sceptical of her claims.
She would not have expected a woman twenty years her senior to be the wife of her brother, who was younger by eight years!
There had been no children from their union, as you might expect, given Julia’s age, and she died in Levin in 1945 at the age of 85.
Charles Gomer and Juliet had been married for about nine months when he died overseas and for less than two months of that time they had been together. Charles had also written jokingly on the back of the photo he sent home about a notice in the window behind him that said something about ‘Wife wanted.’
Women were in short supply in those days. So were men after the war.
This story would be one of thousands drawn from over the years we have been fighting other peoples' wars. Each ANZAC Day we might remember the sacrifices made by our families but with circumspection.