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.



33 comments:

  1. This is most important writing on many levels. Thank you for educating me more about families. . . . . and about yourself.


    ALOHA from Honolulu
    ComfortSpiral
    =^..^= . <3

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  2. That is a very long day for a little girl, and you describe it so well. Thank you for sharing your story.

    Love,
    Janie

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  3. You are such a good writer on so many levels. I felt the uncertainty and insecurity of the little girl as if I were she. And I'm so glad you can take me back into your childhood so well! Please let me learn more of your long-ago life. So different from my own.

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  4. Thank you so much for this vignette.
    A very, very long day.
    And punctuality was a god in my family too. And many years later I am still obsessed with it, and frequently arrive too early and have to mark time...

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  5. Your writing is a treasure; true gold if a reader is a fortune hunter! I would grab a book if you were the author. Thank you.

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  6. Well told story of a family event. That practice was done here until about 1950.

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  7. Such a remarkably vivid memory you have of your childhood experiences, Friko. For a little girl, there was a lot to absorb in one notable day, and absorb it you did. I could almost smell your aunt's soup, feel your mother's displeasure, ache with you on those last steps to home. This was truly a treat to read.

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  8. "A treat to read", indeed! Even though it was so accurate that my hands itched from scratchy mittens and my legs now ache from the cold walk home!

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  9. Again, what a good read this was for me today, cosily wrapped up in my bath robe, steaming hot coffee mug in hands. Thank you!

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  10. Family get-togethers and all the , often inexplicable , alliances and pot-holes for inlaws !
    Actually quite good training for the children involved .

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  11. Everything you say about the lack of praise, the cold discipline and expectations . . . it all reminds me of my mother's father and the behavior of his wife and offspring. Oh, how I remember my grandfather's bushy white brows raised high over cold blue eyes, and the way his mouth always turned down. He hardly ever said anything, and I have no memory of his smile.

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  12. You took us back to the difficult past and because of your wonderful writing, we felt that we were there.

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  13. Friko, this reunion remembrance is beautifully written, filled with details that a child would notice on the day. I imagine that as you grew older, became even more aware of the family intricacies and gained a larger historic perspective on the lives of those adults who'd gathered together, this day became even more telling.

    Thank you for sharing it with us. xo

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  14. Friko, so enjoyed your post today...all families have some history that leaves and impression on a child in one way or another. You sounded so very tired in the last of the story. Have a wonderful weekend.

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  15. Thank you so much for sharing this slice of your life experiences. It was fascinating and so very well told (although, I've come to expect that whenever I visit!). May your All Souls/All Saints days be special indeed.

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  16. You reminded me of those days we came in from the cold and snow and piled our wet mittens, hats and coats round the fireplace, stove or heater and the room would soon feel like a sauna. Also the grumbling about taking care of the graves. So Like Family?

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  17. What a rich history. So hard to realize that was just a generation ago when I see the changes today.

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  18. wonderful story. each of us growing up after the war, well, I wasn't born til after the war, with such different experiences. I wonder why so many fathers treat their sons with contempt. my husband's father did him and while my husband doesn't treat his son with contempt, he also doesn't find anything to be proud of him for even though he is a good man. A trickle down from the way his own father treated him.

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  19. These posts have been beautifully written, but with such a feeling of cold, of all kinds. Were these difficult times to revisit? There is a sense of fatigue and weariness in them.

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  20. Thank you for sharing this wonderful story about your childhood. Your Aunt Katie sounded like a lovely gentle soul. You describe people so well.

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  21. To my mind, a salient feature of great story-telling is the ability to evoke the larger world from the vantage point of a single, localized event, as you've done here. It's been a pleasure to read these posts. I have much the same sense of engagement in reading them as I did in reading Väinö Linna's Under the North Star trilogy. What you're doing here is as valuable as it is rare, and I hope you'll carry on with it.

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  22. Hi Friko - what a time those days were ... I'm just glad we didn't have to tramp across fields to stand in graveyards ... your bravery at attempting to find out what DamesLadies and HommesGentlemen meant and then Klosset - one question was enough ... I felt much the same as a youngster ...

    Took me back to an itchy world ... still can't wear wool, and a very cold countryside ... frozen pipes and all ... not an easy time - but punctuality was an essential ... making sure by leaving early/plenty of time .. and I totally endorse Susan's comment above ...

    Cheers Hilary

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  23. Such evocative writing, Friko! You carried us with the younger you -- beautifully written!

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  24. The ending is perfect, so good. It's the moment we best get to feel how that day hit you--we are reminded that this type of day took its toll on everyone involved, despite the seeming lack of "action." In a way, nothing happens in this tale, yet everything happens in this tale.

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  25. Just spent some time reading through these posts. Very interesting (and well written) story. I love the child's perspective.

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  26. I enjoyed reading all 3 episodes of your visit with your family. It must not have been much fun but maybe with the distance – in time, it does not sound too bad after all. Your writing is excellent as all the comments mentioned - it was like reading a great short story.

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  27. Dear Friko, last week--last Wednesday--I read Part I of your family reunion for all saint's day. Today I read Part 2 and Part 3, and once again I am there in that cemetery. I have come to know the people gathered there: your curmudgeon of a grandfather, your joy of Aunt Katie, you war-weary Uncle Peter as well as other relatives and your parents. With so few words you create character and paint scene. Thank you. Peace.

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  28. What gripping story-telling. You make it all so vivid, with the characters, the setting, and the cold. Your aunt Katie sounds like a gem. Thank you.

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  29. You transported me back to the cold weather of my childhood with this account, with the scratchy mittens and stockings I've tried hard to forget (I too can't wear wool) Such depth of memory and observation makes this single day come vividly to life. More please.

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  30. I hope this is the beginning of more and more stories to come. Your memories evoke so much in the minds of your readers. Your childhood was so different from mine, yet, the stories of family are universal. You captured much of what I also think about when I remember those post-war visits with family. We had much comfort compared to you, but the family dynamics are reminiscent of those I also experienced. Thank you for this exceptional story.

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  31. The best thing about this series is that, by the time it was over, I was ready for the chapter to end. That's no reflection of poor writing. Quite the contrary, You caught me up so completely, I was exhausted by the end, longing for an end to the day and the comfort of home.

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