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.