Wednesday, 10 March 2010

I should have listened to the warning

For writing workshop 16: Under Pressure and Parallel Worlds inspired by New Day New Lesson's 'Document your Parents life story before it is too late'

I should have heeded the warning signs earlier, but I was young and life went on. The collective family memory seemed to rest with Great Uncle George, the token member of the older generation. Looking at family pictures we were always assured that if no one there know then Uncle George would, he was the sage.

I remember just one particular anecdote: after the war he was billeted to a large house in Berlin and the owner came to him, pleading with him that he and his men would not damage the house and be kind. She said how she had lots of English friends who could vouch for her good character - and when asked to name just one she replied with the name of my Grandmother, MB. Happy coincidence in the face of post war chaos! I seem to remember even then asking myself, who would remember all these things and more when George was gone.

Next there was Dagi, or Dagmar Von Lewinski to give her her full name. She had been MB's best friend and she had to England for her final days. I knew my Grandmother (MB) but everyone said how alike we were and so I had always felt a special bond with her, despite her having died before I was born. Dagi was a grand lady who had spent all her life flitting between countries, cutting a somewhat sad path; alone and struggling in adult life in a way that she could never have anticipated as a wealthy child in turn of the century Berlin.

I really got to know Dagi, just before she died, when she moved to Twickenham and I would do her shopping and visit her most weeks. We talked about all sorts of things, almost as if she recognised a spirit of MB in me. She seemed to pick up streams of conversation that she had started decades before with MB. We discussed ancient Greece, philosophy and random musings of a German in London.

Occasionally she dipped into her personal history. She had fled Berlin for Cairo, with her husband, when she was publicly opposed to Hitler. She talked about the deceit of her husband, spying back to Berlin on her activities there. The years had enabled her to talk about it in a matter of fact way, but nothing could disguise the fact that once trust is broken it is hard to ever build that bond again.

Her death came as a surprise, I was even out of the country for her funeral. As if to taunt me further, it was just as the film, 'The English Patient' came out. I knew that she was there in Cairo at the same time as it was set, she would have had the inner story on the intrigue and the real history of that era. I have never been interested in dates and wars and the patriarchal histories, I love the details, the people, what it would feel like to there - and that is what I lost with Dagi.

Since then there has been a roll call of deaths. I miss my Mum's parents horribly, although I did listen to certain key lessons. Grandpa never really talked, he listened - leaving the talking to Granny as she did it so well and so freely. She was a historian, teaching adult education classes until she was in her Eighties. She has a real gift for imparting knowledge, neither taking anything forgranted nor assuming that anything was beyond you. Hence, on meeting DH starting with 'I came from Glasgow, do you know where that is?' and still being able to softly chastise me when I got the date of some chairs in the stately home mis-dated by 60 years (I was amazed I was in the right century, but unabashed she continued about how the chair backs had some important function in the way that the ladies had ornate wigs of that decade). She managed to do this with charm but never superiority.

It is through Granny that I gained that delight in historical context; looking into paintings to see how the 'real' people dressed behind the bejewelled statesmen and woman, imagining the effect of the costumes on the way they moved or danced. How to forget about prices, market values or reputation but to look and enjoy. The lesson I still failed to learn was to ask the right questions of her while she was still here, such as what was it like being loosing her father when she was so young and then going to University in the days before it was the social norm for girls to do so.

As Susie says in 'Document your Parents life story before it is too late', you never know when life is going to be cut short. With my father a degenerative illness just gradually stole his power to communicate; to start with we thought he was just getting progressively eccentric with age, then we thought that he was just having difficulty explaining himself. Then it was too painfully clear that it was an illness that would even steal from his the capacity to breathe. Daddy told such vivid stories, about him and his mother and Aunts - who were larger than life (and as Great Aunt Gertrude reputedly had vital statistics 40'40'40' it follows that they had BIG characters). I remember that Gertrude's wartime letters resembled confetti after the censors had checked them and his epic trips to London, but what else did I forget?

So that leaves my Mum. Her family moved to Berlin after the war and only left during the Airlift. What must this have been like for a seven year old? This time I must listen to the warning, nobody lives for ever, but through stories their memory can. Watch this space for another blog about my mother's war time experiences.


  1. Wow-your uncle sounds like a real character. Someone larger than life.

    I am so glad I wrote that post, even if got one person thinking about documenting history.


  2. I'll let you know how I get along with extracting information from my Mum.

  3. What a fantastically rich history you have., your grandmothers especially. I love the warmth with which you write about them - they sound like such amazing women. You really should write it all down in full, it would make fascinating reading.

    Will look forward to you sharing some more stories!


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