By Sarah Biddlecombe
16 Aug 2016
It’s part of the human condition to seek out advice during the difficult moments in life. Comfort and guidance can often be found in the written word - a treasured line of poetry, scribbled hastily on a scrap of paper, or a favourite moment from a children’s book, plucked from the plot and stored deep in the vaults of our memory.
But the most profound wisdom we will ever hear can come from listening to the stories of ordinary people with extraordinary experiences. Here, a group of women who lived through World War II have shared their invaluable life lessons with stylist.co.uk.
These are survivors who have learned to let go of daily worries, both big and small, and always find the joy in life, no matter what the circumstances.
Violet Martin (above), 90, grew up amidst bombings and Anderson shelters in Ruislip. She lost her father when she was 10 and was raised, along with her two elder brothers, by their mother, who taught them the importance of being strong for their family. A former medical secretary, she has two daughters and four grandchildren.
I don’t think there’s anything I would do differently with my life. Over time I’ve come to accept both the good and the bad things. And this is the way you have to be: don’t keep looking for things that are unobtainable, but just be thankful for what you have.
Growing up during the war was obviously scary and we had far more hardships than young people today. For example, in those days girls never wore trousers, so I would have to borrow my brothers’ at night to go down to the bomb shelter. We had it quite rough when my father died and my mother couldn’t afford to pay for things like my school lunches. But you just had to get used to things like that, and I’m a stronger person now.
“ Don’t keep looking for things that are unobtainable, but just be thankful for what you have. ”
I was married to my husband for 56 years and I miss him but, as you look back on your life, you realise you’ve got to keep your memories alive as they’re the most important things that have happened to you. Remember to keep talking to the people you have lost in life. You can keep them alive in your mind - don’t ever think that they’re gone for good.
The advantage of getting older is that you look back on your life and realise the things you were worried about simply weren’t important. But at the time, you can worry yourself silly about things. So don’t go worrying about anything, and just keep trying to see the other side of things. You have to have these experiences to be able to live and understand other people.
Of course it’s only on reflection that you don’t worry, but if you ever get the chance to do something completely different in your life, don’t think, ‘Can I do it? Will I get hurt?’ If you get any opportunities, just take them. Because you’ll never get them twice, and you never know what a thrill you might get.
Elaine Webb, 76, was born in Liverpool in 1940. Her family home was destroyed by a bomb when she was two and her father died when she was four. She was left with no choice but to leave home at 17 due to issues with her stepfather. A former carer, she has been married twice and has one son. She lives in London.
The best piece of advice I’ve ever been given is just to keep smiling and be positive. Don’t forget to keep your sense of humour in life.
I’ll never forget what someone said to me years ago: ‘there’s always a little bit of good in the worst of us, and a little bit of bad in the best of us’. I always try to find the best in people.
I’ve been very fortunate, having had a wonderful job and a wonderful son. There’s very little I’d like to change now. But if you are unhappy with your life, just go out there and change it. Move house, move jobs, move schools. See what works for you – you can always go back to what you had.
The older generation have had to be strong in their time, living through two world wars, and we often say the youngsters don’t understand what it was like back then – I think they worry too much now. It’s good to remember that life works as it works.
“ There’s always a little bit of good in the worst of us, and a little bit of bad in the best of us. ”
I didn’t have anyone older to give me guidance when I was growing up. I wasn’t that close to my mother as I was only young when I left home, so I wasn’t given much advice. I wish I had been closer to her, as we never had that bond a mother and daughter should have, but I just had to leave her behind for a few years.
My biggest regret in life is that I didn’t spend enough time with her. This is something that’s still with me now, but you can’t turn back the clock.
You just learn as you go through life and, sometimes, you have to learn the hard way.
I started my career in caring when I was divorcing my first husband in the early 70s, and the new job really helped me through it. It was the best thing I ever did. I then remarried in 1988, although my husband had a very severe stroke and died a few years later. But that’s life. It’s better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all.
Rina Lovett, 88, moved to the UK from Croatia in 1945 to work as a dressmaker. She had to spend two years in an immigrant camp in Vienna before she was allowed entry to Britain. She lost both her daughter and her husband to illness, and now lives with her surviving daughter and her two grandchildren in London.
It’s important to look on the bright side of life rather than focus on the negatives. I always say, what’s the point of worrying? You’re only going to make yourself ill.
The benefit of going through a hardship is that it makes you use your mind. You are capable of doing anything you want, but sometimes you have to go through trials and tribulations to come to your senses. For example, during the war, everyone was just trying to survive as best they could. There was no fighting or quarrelling. We were always looking for things to do, from watering the vegetables to going for a swim, and I have learnt the importance of keeping myself occupied. Being busy makes me happy.
“ What’s the point of worrying? You’re only going to make yourself ill. ”
I don’t know if it’s in our blood, but people then were definitely happier doing things, rather than wasting their time sitting down to watch TV or listen to the radio. I used to teach sewing lessons to people who had mental illnesses and I learned that having a hobby is a good way to occupy your mind.
It’s also important to remember to be grateful and thankful for what you have. Life is really boring and selfish unless you help others, especially when you retire and become a pensioner. Going out and talking to others keeps you going: your friends will keep you young.
It’s good to learn from each other and it will make your life happy and contented.
Joyce, 88, spent the majority of her life in Finchley, north London, after her family home was destroyed during the war when she was 13 years old. She worked in a bakery, and later as an underwriter, while dedicating her spare time to caring for her mother and two aunts who were injured during the war. She was married at 60 and has no children.
When my home was destroyed during the war I was hiding in a cellar, away from the bombs. I wasn’t killed but suddenly my family and I were completely homeless and just out on the street. It was a really bad time but, being British, we came through.
The older generation had a very hard time during the war. My aunts were buried alive and had to be dug out of the remains of their home. They came to live with us in our new house in Finchley and as I was the youngest I did most of the work. It was really difficult but I don’t regret staying home and helping, even though I wish I had married earlier and had a family. It’s important to remember that sometimes these things just aren’t meant to be.
Whatever happens, when it comes to the crunch, you always have to make the decision that is right for you. Sometimes it’s not as pleasing as you would like it to be, but decisions do have to be made.
And later, if you realise you have made the wrong decision, you just have to try and put it right, as much as you can.
“ You always have to make the decision that is right for you. ”
I knew the minute I saw Dudley, my future husband, that he was the one for me. But we didn’t get married as soon as I would have liked and when we did, it was a bit late. We were only together for a short time because of our age, but that’s just what happens in life.
However, I’m glad I waited until I met the right person, as having a good friendship with someone makes a tremendous difference to a marriage.
And if you’re fortunate enough to make friends, look after them. You need people to help you through the dark periods and when you’re on your own you need the loving care of other people. I was recently in hospital for eight weeks and was amazed by how many people came to visit me. That’s a time when you need friends.
I know that I did what I could in life, and I wouldn’t do anything differently now.
Special thanks to Contact the Elderly, the only national charity solely dedicated to tackling loneliness and social isolation amongst older people, through regular face-to-face contact. See more here.