“Of course Spencer never married. He left his heart with a girl in Belgium.” That was the family story about my great uncle.

So when I found a piece of purple ribbon in a pocket of his war-time wallet, it immediately confirmed the romance: he carried her hair ribbon through the war and preserved it all his life.  I imagined the fair-haired woman and the serious older soldier (Spencer was thirty when he enlisted) falling in love and then being separated by the intractability of war, the only legacy of their love a length of purple ribbon. Ninety years later, the creases are immutable, and the taffeta torn along the folds.

This version of the purple ribbon was unchallenged until last week. I’d been thinking about Spencer deeply on and off for a number of years and it seemed to be time to round off my research and move on to another project. I was looking through his wallet again, gently separating the newspaper clippings and dance cards, and poems and hymn sheets folded into small squares. They too were splitting along the folds.

I found this.

Suddenly the romantic story was eradicated, as family stories often are when they encounter reality. The purple ribbon was no longer a relic from a love affair, but a lucky charm against passions and evil influences.