November wears a mourning band.
Storms tear the last leaves from trees, woods weep raindrops into muddy puddles, colours fade and die. Fallen leaves rot on sodden paths. Grey day follows grey day.
The feast of All Hallows on the first of the month is followed by the day we remember our dead, the feast of All Souls. It is the day when the whole family gets together to meet at the graveside of those they have lost.
In my childhood we travelled to my mother’s home village. Early in the morning we stood on a draughty station platform, stamping our feet and clapping our hands together to keep warm, waiting for the local train to transport us from the smoky town to the sleepy little village crouching among streams, mist shrouded fields, and an occasional avenue of poplars marching into the distance. Farm houses, surrounded by barns on three sides, lay low, broad and solid among them, sheltered by a stand of oak or beech trees from the prevailing East winds.
|Photo thomas mayer archive|
It was a homely, comfortable landscape.
Inside the stuffy carriage with its wooden seats you could smell the smoke snaking back from the engine. It was a short journey, with half a dozen stops at villages and a small market town along the way, but the regular rat-tat-tat of the wheels induced a light doze in the fug inside the carriage.
It was hard to alight into the cold, damp, air at our destination. We still had a long way to walk to
grandfather’s house, where we thawed out with a steaming mug of coffee. Aunt Little Kate gave us lunch, usually a hearty soup and good country bread, before the whole family got ready to walk to the cemetery, which was about 2 miles out of the village. We passed the forbidding reddish brown brick structure of the nunnery and convent school, looming out of the mist, and walked along an avenue of 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 dead leaves underfoot.
The cemetery itself was enclosed by low stone walls, with large wrought iron gates in the side nearest the road. There were no other buildings there, no houses, no trees, just bare open fields, leaving the East wind to whistle through you to the bone.
At the graveside, the men fussed over positions for the wreaths and bouquets they had been carrying, the women lit everlasting candles in red plastic holders and set them on the flat stones, each of which denoted the final resting place of one of their ancestors or siblings. Great grandparents lay there, grandmother too, and uncles and aunts who had died young. There was room for grandfather and a few more, who had yet to die.
“The grave is looking good, the cemetery gardener has made a good job of it this year.” And a mumbled “wonder who’ll be next, will we all still be here next year?”
The mourners for the day stood around in the biting wind, murmuring platitudes and wishing themselves out of it and back in Aunt Little Kate’s warm kitchen but not quite daring to suggest retreat for as long as grandfather stood his ground.
“The old man is going to catch his death of cold”, his daughters whispered, “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 the time to leave, even if it killed him.
Finally, they all set off again, the short day was ending and various family members had trains to catch. Only uncle Hans, who owned a small transport business, had a car. It was too soon after the war, before the economic miracle took hold, a very few owned private cars.
Aunt Little Kate provided more coffee and cake; the talk was loud and free now, the relief at having escaped for another year palpable. They were alive, they had survived, things were looking up.
“See you at Christmas”, they said jovially, and “get home safely”.
By six we were stumbling back through the dark night to the station; no street lighting in those days to show you the potholes waiting to trip you up.
Walking home from the station in town was purgatory for the aching legs of a small child. It had been a long day, I was ready to fall into a dark and dreamless sleep.