Thursday, 30 October 2014

A Family Reunion - All Saints Day - Part III

The more specific maintenance of the graves fell to uncle Peter and aunt Katie. They often grumbled about it. Grandfather, who owned the plots, felt that it was only right and proper that the task of looking after the family graves should fall to his surviving son. He was the only one still living in the family home, rent free, as grandfather frequently pointed out. Aunt Johanna, one of his daughters, who lived in  a village less than an hour’s walk across the water meadows away and whose husband had a truck, pleaded ill health, which made her cry a lot every time somebody asked her to do something. Uncle Peter and aunt Katie carried on working on the graves, spending time and money they could ill afford.  Aunt Katie liked to keep the peace, besides, there was nowhere else for them to go, they were dependent on grandfather’s goodwill. The old man spent little time thanking aunt Katie for the hard work she did for him, the way she put up with his moods, fell in with his demands and tolerated his high-handed and sometimes scornful treatment of his son, her husband.

The mourners for the day stood around in the biting wind, murmuring platitudes and wishing themselves out of it and back in aunt Katie’s warm kitchen, but not quite daring to suggest retreat for as long as grandfather stood his ground.

“I wonder who’ll be next”, they said, each hoping it wouldn’t be them but allowing enough suffering into their voices to imply it might be.

“All gone, all of them gone, who knows where.”

“Stupid woman,” I heard father whisper to mother, “dead and gone, with nothing left of them, that’s where.” Father was getting tetchy, mother’s family could be trying at times. He had long ago fallen out with two of his siblings and disliked his own father heartily.

“The old man is going to catch his death of cold”, his daughters muttered, “somebody should get him to move.”

Grandfather was a stubborn old man, he knew the family had had enough but he would be the one to decide when it was time to leave, be the wind ever so chill. He had lost his wife many years ago and celibacy and loneliness had hardened his once kind heart.

But even grandfather couldn’t go on ignoring the cold seeping into his old bones. “How much longer do you want to stay here,” he asked, sounding impatient for the others to make a move. “We’ve done what we came for.” He’d done nothing. “I for one have had enough and I’m off, stay if you want.”

He turned away from the graves and without a backward glance went towards the centre path dividing the cemetery, and made for the main gate.

Women and children scuttled after him, The men followed in a more deliberate, statelier procession.

The short day was ending, we had a train to catch, the widow of grandfather’s second son and her two children had an hour’s walk ahead to reach their home in the next village the other side of Muehlhausen.. Only uncle Hans had brought his family in his truck. It was too soon after the war, long before the economic miracle took hold; nobody else in the family owned more than a bicycle. Petrol was expensive and not easy to come by, and uncle Hans never offered anyone a lift.

Aunt Katie provided coffee, while the women cut sandwiches; the talk was loud and free now, the relief at having escaped for another year palpable. They were alive, they had survived, not just the day but the years of hardship and terror lay behind them. Life was still a struggle but they could see the promise of a future without fear.

“See you at Christmas”, they said jovially, and “get home safely”. The men slapped each other on the back and the women hugged and smiled broadly.

The kitchen heat had warmed the blood. My coat felt heavy and unnecessary, my hat and mittens itched. I wanted to take them off, stay here and climb the stairs to the cold attic and get into bed with Gisela.

Kommt gut nach Haus”, Aunt Katie shouted after us from the open cottage door as we trudged back to the station. The night was dark, there was no street lighting. I clung to father, who held my hand. Afraid of the dark, afraid of the potholes waiting to trip me up, I stumbled along as fast as I could.

Nobody in the family was ever late for anything, setting out in good time was a virtue. Perhaps their generation had had punctuality and reliability drilled into them to the extent where it had become second nature.

We arrived at the tiny, single-storey brick-built station and the waiting room with its wooden benches with enough time to spare before departure, for me to study the signs over two doors in one side of the room once again. I was a good reader from an early age, but these signs defeated me. “HOMMESGENTLEMEN” and “DAMESLADIES” they said in capital letters. Each time I saw them I separated the syllables, saying them quietly to myself. “hom – mess – ghent – lem - men” and “dah-mess-lah-dees”.

When I asked mother what the words meant she said “they’re Klosetts; do you need to use them?”  “No thanks,” I said, but was no wiser than before. “Toilets?” Klosetts were called ‘Männer’ and ‘Frauen’ not these strange words which made no sense to me.

On the journey home the monotonous rumble of the train rocked me to sleep.  Father was still an invalid and not strong enough to carry me on to the connecting train at the market town and he certainly couldn’t carry me on the walk home from the station to our house in St. Toenis.

During the last half hour I made slow progress. My legs ached. Shivering with cold and tiredness, I stumbled along in the middle of the road, mother and father almost dragging me, both of them holding me by a hand.  “Not far now”, they said encouragingly, “home soon.” It had been a very long day.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

A Family Reunion - All Saints’ Day - Part II

Aunt Katie’s welcome smile ushered us in. The black and white tiled hall of the cottage was unheated. We shed our coats, hats, scarves and gloves as  quickly as we could and  made for the kitchen-livingroom  where the round cast iron stove blazed fiercely. Grandfather was sitting in state on his sofa under the window; he didn’t get up for us, and we had to squeeze past the table in front of the sofa to shake his hand. I didn’t like to hug him, a peculiarly stale and dusty smell enveloped him, which offended my nose. Although we liked each other well enough, I was never his favourite grandchild; that honour belonged to my cousin Gisela, aunt Katie’s daughter, who had lived with grandfather since the day she was born.

I loved aunt Katie. Her smile lit up her whole face and her deep blue eyes sparkled with pleasure. Her kitchen was always cosy, and the large kettle on top of the black stove sang a sweet song of hot drinks to come. The aroma of a good thick soup tickled my nostrils. I was always hungry at aunt Katie’s; mother hated that. She never stopped complaining about what she called my greediness in aunt Katie’s kitchen and my lack of appetite at home.

“Let the child eat if she’s hungry,” aunt Katie blustered in her forthright manner. “Food in other people’s houses is always tastier than food at home, that’s how it is. Everybody knows that.”

By and by aunt Katie dished up and we all ate her nourishing soup and a piece of good country bread to mop up the last drop and wipe the bowl clean.

Soon other members of the family arrived and grandfather’s cottage began to feel very small. It was time to wrap up again and walk to the cemetery, which was a mile out of the village. We children were not excused the trek, honouring the dead was a duty we learned to perform early.

Once out of the village, a forbidding reddish brown brick wall rising to more than two metres loomed out of the mist. It was breached by equally tall wrought iron carriage gates which rarely opened. The only other entry into the nunnery and convent school, for that was what lay behind the wall, was a much smaller gate let into one wing of the carriage gates. To the villagers the nuns were mysterious creatures, who  never left the convent but allowed services to be held in their chapel on special occasions and, if you paid them, for funerals and weddings. No village child attended the convent school in those days. Cousin Gisela and her friends thought it a spooky, frightening place; they told each other gruesome stories about little girls being whipped and kept prisoner within the high walls. Whenever we visited grandfather, I refused to walk past the gates without holding on tightly to a grown-up, for fear of a hand reaching out and dragging me inside.

The convent was the last building we passed before we left the main road and took the turning towards the cemetery, an avenue of mighty horse chestnut trees, the candle decked branches a picture in spring, but now dark and bare, shiny brown conkers freed from their prickly wrappers sprinkled in the thick layer of dead leaves underfoot.

The cemetery itself was enclosed by low stone walls, with wrought iron gates, wide enough to allow entrance to a hearse, in the side facing the road. There were no other buildings, no chapel, no trees, just bare open fields in all directions; only the dead safely tucked up underground could escape the bitter East wind and its spiteful, bone-chilling whistle. I kept close to the larger adults, their bulk affording my skinny little frame a small measure of protection.

It was the custom in our family that aunt Katie and her husband, my mother’s brother, my uncle Peter, ordered wreaths and flowers in the village and that the others paid for their share on the day. Uncle Peter had only very recently returned from a prisoner-of-war camp in Russia, and his little barber shop barely earned him enough to feed his family. Grandfather, whose savings languished untouched, didn’t like to advance him the cost of the wreaths, which meant that the flower seller didn’t get his money until after All Souls Day.

Traditional grave decorations were bouquets and wreaths of asters and chrysanthemums, interwoven with ivy and holly and ferns and backed with fir twigs. The men had been carrying them and now they were fussing over their position on the graves. Mother’s family had three plots, all in a row, one large family grave reserved for couples and two narrower ones for single men and women, much like the large wooden sided double beds and the narrower cots in the bedrooms at home.

When each man was satisfied that his contribution had a prominent enough place on the graves,  the women lit everlasting candles, which burned from the afternoon of All Saints’ day until the morning of the day after All Souls. The candles were placed in small lanterns, heavy based to stop them toppling over in the wind, and set on flat stones, each of which denoted the final resting place of an ancestor or sibling. Great grandparents lay there, grandmother too, and uncles and aunts who had died young. There was room for grandfather and a few more awaiting their turn.

“The graves are looking good this year, the cemetery gardener has done well. " He always did, he was conscientious about performing his task. “Very orderly the way he’s raked the pebbles;  zigzags are so attractive."

If you owned a grave, you paid a small annual sum for general maintenance to the cemetery authorities.

“We must do something about the headstone, is it leaning to the right, do you think? And what about the moss, shouldn’t somebody clean it off?” There was always someone finding fault. Making a fuss made the complainant look concerned.

to be concluded tomorrow.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

A Family Reunion - All Saints’ Day - Part I

In November the wide and fertile flatlands of the Northern Rhineland cower in the path of angry storms, which travel unimpeded for thousands of miles across the North European plains from as far away as the Urals, mercilessly sweeping a never-ending army of lowering clouds before them; when they arrive, trees in the woods huddle close together, bending their crowns and weeping raindrops into muddy puddles; October’s fireworks are dead and gone. Fallen leaves rot underfoot, the air is dank and in the lanes, along the banks of hidden brooks and by secretive ponds, in the copses and clearings in the woods, where timeless mosses grow deep and soft, the smell of mould is all pervasive.  Grey days lean heavily on the bony backs of black and white cows, listlessly standing in damp meadows, yearning for shelter, while white mists rise from the ground like shrouds abandoned by the long dead.

November wears a mourning band.

The feast of All Saints on the first of the month is followed by the feast day of All Souls, the day when tradition demands that we remember our dead. It is the day when families get together at the graveside of those they have lost.

In my childhood, we travelled to my mother’s home village;  Allerheiligen or All Saints was a solemn public holiday.  Early in the morning of the feast day, before daylight had fully woken, we stood out in the open on a draughty station platform, stamping our feet and rubbing mittened hands curled into fists to keep warm, clouds of breath visible in the morning chill. The station consisted of a wooden hut, where the stationmaster sheltered from the worst of the weather, and a pair of wooden benches for the convenience of passengers, one each on the down line and the up line. Here we waited on the edge of the down line for the train to transport us from St Toenis, the small village where we lived, to the sleepy little hamlet crouching among aspen lined streams and mist shrouded fields, where grandfather’s house stood. Muehlhausen was no more than one long street, a continuous row of houses lining it on both sides; occasionally a farmyard interrupted this line, leaving a broad strip of muddy, grassy verge free between it and the road. Wherever a break occurred, a ditch ran along the side of the road, nearly always half full of stagnant water. In winter the ditch froze over and children, their feet shod in clogs, skated upon the run of ice. Halfway along the village street stood a chapel dedicated to St Vitus. Every time we passed the tiny chapel, which was really more a shrine than a chapel, I expected to be smitten with St. Vitus’ Dance and start jerking uncontrollably. I had been warned not to get too near the Saint’s statue and certainly never to touch the icon or remove the flowers devout villagers had placed in his niche. Grown-ups always assumed children would do damage and needed dire warnings to stop them.

A long slow whistle pierced the gloom of the station platform, announcing the arrival of the smoke plumed train, the engine showing its displeasure at being forced to stop by hissing hot steam in all directions. We were usually the only people embarking; knots of people alighted, pulling their coats close about them as they stood for a moment on the platform; the men settling hats more firmly and women fussing with children’s shawls and woolen caps and securing their own scarves more tightly under their chins, before they started the cold walk down the Chaussee into the village and thence the cemetery, bound to perform the same offices for their dead as we were.

The stationmaster held aloft his red signal disk, and put the whistle to his lips. Doors slammed shut, a short blast on the whistle sent out a shrill warning and the disk slapped down. The locomotive hissed once more, the train chug-chugged into motion. The smoky plume renewed itself triumphantly above the carriages.

Black and white cows floating on deep cushions of pure white mists briefly looked up as the train drifted past and an occasional avenue of poplars marched into the distance. Farmhouses, embraced by barns on three sides, lay low, broad and solid among them, sheltered from the prevailing East wind by a stand of oak or beech.

Inside the stuffy carriage with its wooden seats you could smell the smoke snaking back from the engine; the fug and regular rat-tat-tat of the wheels induced a light doze. “Don’t fall asleep,” father chided me, “you know it takes you forever to shift yourself.” Father had to stay alert, it took less than an hour to reach the small market town where we had to change to a branch line which would take us to just one village away from the hamlet where mother’s family home stood. The train’s destination was Kaldenkirchen, a town on the Dutch border. Up to now it had been slow, with frequent stops at villages along the way, but once past the junction with the branch line, where we would have to change trains, it would gather speed and make for the border without further delay.

Although it was fully daylight now, I found it hard to alight into the cold, damp, air at our destination. The open road from the station to grandfather’s house was the part of the journey I liked the least; the wind blew across the fields, the mist clung in cold droplets to my nose and eyelashes, blurring my vision. I constantly wiped my sleeve across my face.

to be continued tomorrow

Monday, 27 October 2014

SHORTS: Bad Temper

The old couple were second in the supermarket queue. It wasn’t a long queue and the young man at the till moved items across his scanner with admirable skill and dexterity. Watching him, she idly listened to the chat between him and the customer ahead of her; they were smiling and obviously in good spirits.

Then it was the old couple’s turn.

“Hello there, how are you today?”
“Not particularly happy, I hate shopping,” the woman said, filling her bags.
“I’m with you there, I don’t like it either,” the cashier replied.
The woman laughed. “How refreshing to hear you say that,” she said.
They giggled; the man looked on grumpily.

Shopper and cashier continued their good-natured banter until the trolley was emptied, the bags packed, the bill paid and a receipt handed over.

As she turned to leave, she said to the still smiling cashier, “Thank you very much, it’s been a pleasure.”
“Not at all,” he said, “glad to be of help. Might as well make the best of a tedious job. See you soon.”

As the couple left I heard the old man say: “ I wonder what HE was ON.”

Grumpy old git.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Friko’s Personal Alphabet - J

What is it with the letter J

Juggle how I may, at this
juncture no suitable
juxtaposition presents itself. This
jewel of the alphabet has me in a

Judging by results
J has made a
jesting-stock of me.
Judiciously observed, no
jollification, no
jubilation, not a
jot of
joy can be found in the
jungle that is
Janus and
Jezebel have
joined forces to
jinx and
junk my efforts, and send me to

jailers prevent access to the
jamboree of
janitors viewing me with
jaundiced eyes send me into a
Jeremiad of woe.

jaw-fallen I
jettison the
Juggernaut and
jog my mind in the direction of


For months, when I’ve been looking for a subject for a post, I’ve considered  continuing with Friko’s personal alphabet.  But nothing at all ever jumped at me for the letter J. A jackdaw in peacock’s feathers could have made a better job of it.

J’y suis  J’y reste.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Pills, Potions And Piety

The Guardian
The remnants of Gonzalo landed on these shores last night and today. It had long blown out its destructive fury across the other side of the world and the gales and rain storms it brought our way were unpleasant but not deadly, although a woman was killed when a tree fell on her.

Sitting in the conservatory this morning,  looking out at the high winds playing with trees and shrubs and listening to small twigs, beech mast and leaves cluttering on the glass roof, I felt snug and warm and safe. Breakfast over, but the day not fully begun I was counting out pills and capsules - all supplementary vitamins, minerals, fish oils, plant sterols, glucosamine and chondroitin, etc. etc. for the next twenty days, thinking how soon daylight will end at four pm again and I will once again struggle to cope with SAD.

It’s my name day today, Oct 21. I don’t celebrate it as I would in Germany, in fact, I usually forget it. Ursula was adopted as a Christian saint and a great embroidery of innocence, piety and sacrifice was stitched around her in a long, involved and frequently changing legend, (depending on who is telling the story).

A more interesting story can be read in a 6000 year old script, 'Old Europe Script’,  symbols invented by ancestors of the Celts,  seen by some as the earliest proto-language. which refers to the ‘Bear Goddess’ : The Bear Goddess and the Bird Goddess are the Bear Goddess indeed. It could mean that the bear goddess and bird goddess merged into a single goddess.  Some archaeologists have claimed that the bear is the oldest European deity. I like this historically equally unproven story better than the legend of the holy maiden who was martyred for her piety.

Looking into the Perpetual Almanack for inspiration I found this short entry for Oct 22:

**By Tradition, the anniversary of Creation:

“In the beginning God created Heaven and Earth. Which beginning of time, according to our Chronology, fell upon the entrance of the night preceding the 23rd day of October, in the year 4004 before Christ.”

James Ussher  -  The Annals of the World 1658**

I thought that William Blake’s work “Europe a Prophecy"
The Ancient of Days, copy K from the Fitzwilliam Museum, would be a fitting end to Ussher’s pronouncement and to this rather cobbled together blog post.

It’s been one of those days.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Vox Populi

Kelly stopped vacuuming and poked her head through the living room door on her way to doing the stairs.

“So, what about this Ebola then.”

"It’s scary.”

“Yeah, it is. Very. Have you heard? They’re looking for a whole planeload of people. One of them nurses went on a plane to a party, a wedding or something, and she was already sick. Had a fever, which is when you’re most contagious.”

“Really? No I hadn’t heard.”

“They’re saying it was a real cock-up, the hospital not noticing and letting her go when she was already sick. It could be all over the place by now."

“Hm, that sounds extremely careless. And dangerous."

“It’s criminal. I’m going to start stockpiling. I don’t want to get it.”

She laughed, but I could tell she was at least half serious. She patted the wooden cupboard just inside the door with the flat of her hand for luck.

“I don’t want to get it,” still laughing nervously and patting the cupboard again, “not me and my kids anyway. Everyone else will have to look after theirselves. It could be like the pest again. They say it could have been Ebola that time when all them people died of the black pest and that it could spread like that again. It was all over the news.”

Kelly was by no means finished. Breathlessly, she continued. "It always happens when there’s too many people. Diseases and wars, I mean. And what they’re really worried about is that the virus mutates and becomes airborne. I’m getting prepared, at least with getting a few things in stock. You never know.”

No, you never know.

I don’t know Kelly’s source of information but it must be popular mass media, what else could it be. She withdrew her head and turned her attention back to the vacuum cleaner. Kelly is by no means a callous, uncaring person with an eye to the main chance. She is a professional carer (as well as a cleaner for a few select clients)  and the way she speaks about her charges gives me the impression that she genuinely cares about the aged and frail. There are many around like Kelly in the West, ordinary, decent, hard working people who worry about many things; could this be the beginning of world wide panic? I hope not. I hope that those 'who know', in other words ‘They’, know what they’re doing. Does that sound at all likely to you? After all, had they woken up sooner to the disaster unfolding in West Africa, the outbreak might still have been containable. But that was West Africa, a long way away from our hygienically safe world.


PS:  Her morning’s job done and making ready to leave, Kelly shouted up the stairs: “See you next week. Unless I’ve got Ebola by then. Byyyyeeee!"