Emma McQuay always believed that her son George would return home from France, even though he had been listed as missing since 1916.
When the war ended, Emma visited the docks and searched the faces of the homecoming soldiers hoping to see George. Emma attended every Anzac Day service. As she watched the veterans march by, she found herself staring at their faces. This ritual seemed to lift her spirits. She always returned home with a renewed strength, convinced that George would return one day.
In 1928 a journalist visited Emma and told her that her son was indeed alive. He explained that George had languished in Callan Park Mental Hospital, ever since he had been found wandering aimlessly about the battlefield.
Authorities organised Emma’s passage to the asylum. Upon arrival, the superintendent delicately explained to Emma that George suffered a severe psychiatric condition with no chance of recovery.
Emma, upon meeting George, embraced him and called out ‘Darling, darling.’ After a brief moment of bewilderment, George responded, ‘You have been crying mum.’ Emma and George obligingly walked through the nearby gardens for the gathered photographers. Away from the prying cameras, they stood together, holding hands, Emma quietly sobbing while she gently stroked George’s head.
George had only been identified after the asylum’s superintendent shared his photograph with newspapers. What had followed was a sad procession of hundreds of parents to the asylum, who had cherished through the years the flickering hope that perhaps their boy might have been wrongly reported as missing.
It was the flickering hope that Emma had harboured for George’s return. And it was the same flickering hope that compelled thousands of mothers throughout Australia to maintain their missing son’s bedroom exactly as they had left it: linen freshly laundered, flowers displayed, and clothes laid out for that improbable day they returned home. Unlike George, they never did.