Tuesday, 14 July 2015

The War Grave Of John Robert McGruther

We Visit Uncle Jock in Assisi
Written by David Bell

The Commonwealth Memorial Cemetery, Assisi, Italy.
On Friday, 15 May, Winnie and I set off on our much anticipated holiday to Europe. It was a combination family history campaign and pleasure trip. We first went to Hong Kong to spend a week with Winnie's relations there and then head off to Holland with her sister and brother-in-law to catch up with her Dutch cousins.

Perhaps I should briefly explain why Winnie has a big group of Chinese relatives in Holland. Many years ago one of Winnie's aunts, Ang Hui Kim, married Kho Keng Tiat, a businessman, and moved from Hong Kong to what was then Dutch New Guinea where they established a very successful enterprise on Biak Island consisting of a trading store, petrol station and a few other things. When Indonesia took over the Dutch half of New Guinea the family, by then with the addition of three children (Frank, Steven and Winnie), left to live in Hong Kong for a short time before moving permanently to Holland where they reestablished themselves and set up prosperous businesses there.

Then, in the 1960's her brother, Raymond, left Hong Kong for Holland to work in one of Kho Keng Tiat's businesses and made a life for himself there. So it was to Holland we set our our sights to visit and connect with our windmill folk, most of whom we have never known. Also,Winnie had not seen her brother for over 30 years so a reuinion was well over due. Visiting family in Europe caused us to think about a stopover in Italy to accomplish one of my lifelong dreams; to visit the grave of Uncle Jock at Assisi.

Four of us (Me, Winnie, and her Hong Kong sister and brother-in-law) left Hong Kong and flew to Rome for a week and visited as many of the ancient sights and monuments as time would allow. Then, on Monday, 25 May we traveled to Assisi, about two hours by train out of Rome. Upon arrival we hired a taxi to the Commonwealth Cemetery which was not far from the train station.

It is at this point in this narrative I hope the reader will forgive me for sharing an experience I should perhaps keep to myself. I have thought a lot about whether or not I should put it in print or keep it private, but in the end decided it no harm to tell and let whoever reads this determine for themselves if they believe as I do.

I was obviously quite thrilled to finally be at a place I had so long wanted to visit and hurried to the entrance. The entrance consisted of a stone gateway leading onto a paved area that displayed the white cross and bronze sword, the symbol for every Commonwealth cemetery.

The Commonwealth Memorial Cross
I had no expectations of anything extraordinary happening. I was simply there to fulfill a family history assignment I had given myself; to be one of the few in the family to have the privilege of standing on the ground where Uncle Jock lies buried. I would touch his headstone, take some photos, enjoy the experience and feeling of accomplishment and carry on with our holiday. What happened next was utterly unexpected.

We walked through the stone entrance and looked across the immaculately trimmed cemetery lawn with its neatly arranged white marble headstones gleaming in the morning sun. I have been to many cemeteries looking up dead relatives and never felt anything more extraordinary than the satisfaction of simply being there. At first it was the same on this occasion, but the moment I walked along the small pathway and stood on the paving in front of the cross I was overwhelmed by the the tingling sensation of Uncle Jock's presence. It was so strong I began to weep; not a blubbering kind of weeping, rather an up-welling from somewhere deep within that couldn't be contained. There was absolutely no sensation of melancholy or sorrow, neither of wild happiness. The best words I can think to describe it are love and joy. Winnie was nearby talking to her sister and I called out to her that something weird was happening. She came over to steady me. Her sister, seeing what was going on said, 'I think your uncle has come to see you'.

That sensation remained with me for the whole time we were at the cemetery. It is an experience I will treasure for the rest of my life. I have always believed our departed loved ones are never far from us and that the veil that separates us is only as thick or thin as we want to make it. I think, for some reason, it became very thin that day.

Before leaving New Zealand I laminated three photographs of Uncle Jock's family and took them with me to Assisi. One was of his maternal grandparents Arthur and Matire Ormsby, and the other two were of his parents John and Daisy McGruther and his siblings Colin and Jean. I pressed them into the loose soil at the foot of his headstone, symbolizing bringing his family to be with him. I get the feeling he appreciated the gesture. I always felt it rather sad that he lay in that foreign land where he fell during the the last months of world War Two.

We stayed at the cemetery for about one hour then said our farewells and headed up the hill to the stunningly beautiful town of Assisi. Winnie remarked, 'If you have to die and be buried in a foreign country, Assisi is a good place for it!'.

Her observation was a good one, the countryside around Assisi is stunningly beautiful; probably the most beautiful place I have ever seen.

The cemetery is wonderfully maintained. When we were there the caretaker was busy tidying around some graves. I think he is employed full time judging by the condition of the place
Uncle Jock's headstone. I placed three photos of his family at the base.

Giving the headstone a clean with a wet-wipe; not that it needed it, all the headstones are shiny white.
The Saint Francis of Assisi Basilica, a beautiful centuries old stone building built to last.
The Saint Francis of Assisi Basilica with the valley and fields spread out below.
Street side Assisi with the valley backdrop. Stunning! And the girl isn't too bad either. 
Winnie and her sister on the wall above the basilica.
Assisi is set on a promontory overlooking an immense fertile valley filled with farms, orchards, vineyards and villages. The huge Saint Francis of Assisi Basilica dominates the hill. The streets and buildings are all made from local stone so the town kind of blends into the natural surroundings giving the whole place an air of peace, harmony and tranquility. The above picture illustrates how beautifully kept the streets and house fronts are.
Sampling some of the local cuisine.
We spent one whole glorious day at Assisi where we visited the cemetery, toured the beautiful basilica, drank in the spectacular view of the Assisi countryside, wandered the immaculate streets, and ate some great Italian food and gelato. All this under the warmth of that Mediterranean sun. We went back to Rome on the late afternoon train. Those things travel at high speed and are super quiet and smooth. After riding the trains around Europe I am convinced I would rather travel by fast rail than by plane wherever possible.

The following day we flew to Amsterdam.

                               The End 

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