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.