Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Eva's November

Klaus Baum

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”.

“Gute Reise”.

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.


  1. I love the detailed description! You put the reader then and there -- beautiful!

  2. Did you ever go back as a grown-up? Maybe in summer? I always thought that these days in November when it was custumary to cover the graves with fir branches were a torture, too. You gave such a vivid and picturesque description that I am still shivering. Wie gut, dass wenigstens die liebe Tante vorgesorgt hatte!

  3. Aunt Little Kate' sweet personality has shone through again in this blog post Friko. Cooking and caring. What a poignant day for you all.

  4. Such a lovely, lyrical evocation of that long ago mourning day. So many beautiful lines, starting with the very first: "November wears a mourning band."

  5. Such a beautiful description of this event.

  6. You should be writing novels, or a memoir. The descriptions in your scenes are never overdone, and so perfectly evocative that I have no trouble at all being right there with the child that was you. And that's not even saying anything yet about the historical importance of what you write (yes, yes, you're old enough to be historical, dear woman). Beautiful writing and a tender story, even if your legs did hurt. I'm very pleased to be bcoming back to blog-reading with this, but I suspect it'll all be downhill from here.

  7. You manage to introduce so much atmosphere.

  8. Wonderful oral history. I love it. Keep writing them. please.

  9. nothing to add after reading that first line other than I wish I'd been the one to put those words together - as usual.

  10. You captured that mood and the feelings of a young child. Good job!!

  11. There's surely no other month being able to be felt like November. Please have a wonderful Wednesday.

    daily athens

  12. You're a wonderful writer, Friko. I definitely felt I was there, impatient for Grandfather to decide to go.
    -- K

    Kay, Alberta, Canada
    An Unfittie's Guide to Adventurous Travel

  13. oh friko i could read books of your writing - really i could! steven

  14. I could stand a little of that cold in exchange for some of Aunt Little Kate's wonderful German cooking. Sitting around the kitchen table eating soup and probably this morning's rye bread. No fancy restaurant can duplicate that food and ambience. God, but I'm hungry!!!

  15. Such an evocative recollection of probably a bewildering family outing for a child. I hope you collect these into a memoir one day, as they are so beautifully recorded.

  16. Memories of childhood beautifully recorded. The dark, the cold - I could feel it with the child. And the stubborn grandfather reminded me of my own.

  17. Did Aunt Little Kate go the graveyard too or was she womanning that fabulous kitchen?
    How beautifully you write dear Friko, how evocative to me it all is.
    Thank you.

  18. You took me back in an instant to a small village in the Rhineland in which we once lived. The line of trees, the dark streets with a nunnery and church, priest's house and cemetery at the edge of town. I was always amazed at how such a small place could support such large institutions. I made the walk to the cemetery many times, always with the women, as the men and women walked separately and even sat apart in church. The dark, the damp, the silence - perfectly delivered.

  19. Wonderful writing. I could almost smell the smoke on the train and feel the chill in the air.
    The first year we lived in Germany, I saw the beautiful wreaths for sale in late October and my neighbor had to explain why I should not purchase one for my home.

  20. You write so beautifully, I'm always drawn in by it.

    Memories like this, from childhood, bear all the cold and physical discomfort. What was important was that your family modeled the importance of remembering those who have passed on.

  21. I am taken in the way you write the chill in the weather and in the somber thoughts with just a touch of warmth in the family and in the warm nurishment so that I am able to stay and read to the very end. And come back again for more.

  22. I could feel the cold seeping into my bones - and the tired little legs walking back to that warm kitchen - once again, you bring us into the moment. Thank you.


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