Even difficult journeys, like the one I just survived to my native land, Germany, can yield wonderful surprises. It’s in the nature of such visits that old stories are unearthed and things you didn’t know happened suddenly become news. I went to say goodbye to my ageing uncle, a world class intellectual who, on account of being only a decade my senior, acted the part of older brother in my life. We shared the not so wonderful arrival of the American occupiers in 1945, standing at the door of our fourplex when two very young, black GIs came calling, reducing me to a screaming bundle of terror. They were clearly perplexed and uneasy, however, my screams did not deter them from throwing us out of our home; two children, and two women without husbands, banished to a barn supplied by a friend. Actually, my uncle reminded me, they did it twice; something I had not remembered.
There were other stories, about his sisters and their ‘difficult’ personalities, about his mother, who might, indeed, have had a lover! I asked him about this persistent family rumour stoked largely by my mother, who was certain that she was not the child of Otto, my grandmother’s rightful husband. If true, that would make me one quarter Jewish, since the lover in question was a certain Major White. Would that explain my decided preference for arch Jewish recipes, like Latkes and Mohnkuchen, or my collection of irrepressible Jewish friends?
Be that as it may, the best story that emerged was not about my family at all; it was about how my uncle’s mother in law died. Most stories about death are anything but uplifting or insightful; most are simply a sad reminder that we’re all going down that road, eventually.
But this story was not like that at all–in fact, it was unusual in that, after hearing it, I felt so much better about the whole thing. So here it is, paraphrased from the German. Imagine a small, energetic woman in her seventies, forthright and not overly concerned with political correctness or other modern foibles, and you have the Narrator, my uncle’s wife Renate, pictured above with me and Alex, the super dog:
“My mother, who lived with us in this villa during the last decade of her life, was a great lady. Independent, Prussian to the core, she never interfered with our life; she respected boundaries, and the only thing we did regularly with her was to go for a dip in the swimming pool every morning. Even when we didn’t feel like going out in cold or drizzly weather, she would urge us on with comments like, don’t be such crybabies! And we always obliged, so when one morning she stayed in bed instead of coming to the pool with us, we were shocked. When we returned early, somewhat worried, we found her still in bed.
I think I’m going to die now, she announced calmly. And then, she did. And it was not awful, it was not even sad; it was like she just stepped into the next room. We sat there for quite a while, feeling neither sad nor shocked. It was all so…normal. Of course, later on, we grieved and cried, but at the time, it seemed okay to simply accept what had happened.
They showed me a picture of her; an elegantly dressed woman with regular features and a direct gaze. Perhaps that was her secret: she never averted her eyes from the truth, from the inevitable. She dealt with it. Denial was not part of her life.
She’s become someone I admire though I never met her. Knowing when and how to leave the room–that is the ultimate test, and I can only hope I have a fraction of her clear resolve when it is my time to leave.