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Bletchley Park; Joan Didion

The hamsters have just arrived at the petstore! Tomorrow I’ll go to choose Eli’s small friend. How will we wrap a hamster in a cage? Carefully. 

I lost my sense of humour briefly today, as have I’m sure many others. This morning I kitted up to ride my bike to the farmer’s market, which was open specially: helmet, warm pants, scarves, huge mitts. And then my bike lock would not work; nothing, including WD40, would open it. I took an Uber down instead and loaded up with eggs, bacon, sausages, 3 lbs of coffee beans, 4 lbs of nuts and more. Was intending to walk home but it was cold and the backpack was heavy; John, my saviour (and a fierce anti-vaxxer), picked me up halfway and drove me home. He counselled a hair dryer to warm up the lock. 

Off to No Frills for many necessities, another heavy pack, and then I wanted to ride to Mark the butcher to pick up the turkey. I simply breathed heavily on the bike lock, and it opened! What I don’t know about high tech. 

By noon, I was bushed. There was a text exchange with my kids about the food for Saturday, and I simply told them what else is needed. Tomorrow, wine and hamster. And bank. My wallet is empty. 

Reading a fascinating library book, Genius at War: Bletchley Park, Colossus, and the Dawn of the Digital Age, by David Price. Again, I marvel that my mother worked at Bletchley for two years, in Hut 8 which dealt with the German submarine and navy Enigma codes, and she never spoke of it. Thousands of workers were sworn to secrecy, told during the war that if the Nazis invaded, their families could be tortured to obtain information. After the war, there was concern about the Russians finding out what the Brits had been up to. And so almost until the end, she never spoke of it. On her resumé for the war years, it says “Foreign office,” which is what they all said their war work was. 

What a story it is – a bunch of brilliant, eccentric Brits, Alan Turing and others, inventing an incredible machine that decrypted German codes, saved the world, and led to our computer age. Over and over, a clash of personalities might have derailed the project but did not. My clever, talented young mother right in the middle of it, and for almost all my life, I knew nothing about it. I did not understand why during my childhood she was restless and often unhappy, why she lived through her children. Now I know she’d had an urgent and important job during the war; after, she worked with refugees in northern Germany. And then she crossed the Atlantic, got married, and had two children, and that was that. 

RIP Joan Didion, a hero to all authors of non-fiction. How many writers are superstars whose death is reported on the national news? She had a tiny, frail body housing a ferocious mind, a probing eye, an indomitable spirit. Almost as soon as her husband dropped dead at their dinner table, she began to chronicle her devastation in beautiful clear prose. An inspiring writer. 

Just looked at my calendar for next week, usually so jammed: almost nothing. Was supposed to see Kathy on Tuesday but her son has just tested positive so she’s in quarantine. I’m going to see a movie with Ken and have dinner with Ruth on NYEve. Otherwise, nada. Hooray!

Usual week. 

My neighbours have decorated their giant spruce again this year. It illuminates my nights. 

May your nights, at this cold, busy, often difficult time of year, be illuminated too.



2 Responses to “Bletchley Park; Joan Didion”

  1. Theresa says:

    Your mother's story is so interesting, Beth. Lucky to have access to the historical record, of which she was a part, and maybe to be able to imagine her into it. Our parents' lives before us– so haunting and intriguing and how we wish we could talk to them openly about those times. I send love and good wishes for the season, in all its complicated phases.

  2. beth says:

    Love back to you, Theresa, the most intent and patient of explorers of your family's past. Always inspiring. Like Joan.

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About Beth

I began keeping a journal at the age of nine. Nearly fifty years later, I started this online journal, sharing reflections, reviews, updates, and the occasional secret.

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