28 February 2017

Let's take a look at Ludwig and Margarete, my father's great grandparents. Don't they look serious? Yes, of course, having your picture taken was serious and momentous. I wonder what was the occasion. Maybe they were just showing off their status.
The book in her hands is a small collection of poetry and sentiments, one for each day of the year. It's downstairs on my bookshelves somewhere. Someone long ago used it as flower press, whenever I open it, small trembling bits of disintegrating flora flutter to the ground.

My grandmother always and with pride mentioned that Margarete was from a mill estate on one of the meandering Franconian rivers. I found this picture of her childhood home on wikipedia:

My father tells me that as a child he used to cycle there with his friends during the summer, to watch the water mill and look for tadpoles. After the war, it was a hotel for a while, with a popular beer garden. Today, the big house is a retirement home.
When Margarete lived there as a child, the online census data of the kingdom of Bavaria also lists 13 cattle on the property. My grandmother always mentioned Margarete's father, the old W, the big mill owner and butcher. In Franconia, you do show off your wealthy relatives. It's all part of who you are.

But doesn't Margarete look exhausted, and much older than her husband (who was in fact seven years her senior). Between 1859 and 1874, she gave birth to nine children, six boys and three girls and lost two of them during the typhoid fever epidemic of 1872.
Ernst Friedrich, her fourth son, ran away from home when was 17 yrs old and according to my grandmother's handwritten records, he emigrated to the US that year. I think I found him, a tin smith, a painter, a carpenter, working first in New York and later for the railroad in California. Shipping records list him arriving in 1887, as 'Norwegian' albeit with German as his native language, his father and mother living in Bavaria. The last census records tell me that in 1930, aged 60, he lived as a lodger, single, in employment, in Los Angeles. If it is indeed him.

I have no record of Margarete's death but judging from that photograph, she probably did not live to a ripe old age. 

Ludwig, who looks slightly pompous here, certainly well fed, comes from a long line of prosperous metalworkers, blacksmiths, locksmiths, you name it. The oldest record of the family business that I have found dates back to 1562 and Daniel, Ludwig's eight-times-grand-father, registered as a blacksmith at the same address where my father's cousin are living now. Ludwig died when he was 64 years old, which was well above the average life expectancy at the time. (His oldest son, Karl, inherited the family firm, where my grandmother, Karl's oldest daughter, sharpened her business skills during WWI.)

Ludwig was well off. And Margarete must have been a good catch. I wonder, did they fall in love? Or was it all a shrewd bit of matchmaking? I suspect the latter. We are in Franconia, after all.

27 February 2017

Slow life report seven weeks after surgery. The birds are very noisy and busy. I counted three (3!) of the 100+ snowdrops of previous years in bloom. When I accused R of of having dug them up last summer he did not deny it. In fact, he gave his usual spiel about useless plants taking up valuable space. I grow veg, he says.
Seriously. This is what the world has come to.

At this stage, I am ready to sell my soul for an evening in the old armchair, all crooked and rolled up, legs hanging over the side. Instead, I watch an old Endeavour episode, lying on my side, while R tells me what I am missing from the plot because, well, it is a completely different angle.
Last night, I watched American Honey, which you can watch from all angles and still find amazing and sad and strangely hopeful.

But. But. But. I am able to walk down to the river and back and every day, I add another very tiny loop through our quiet neighbourhood to extend the distance.  I am allowed to sit for an hour max at a time (albeit no sofa or armchair). Twice a day, I diligently do my exercises as directed by the physiotherapist. I even cook dinner occasionally. In fact, I am discovering the many things a person can do while keeping an upright back but without twisting or bending: ironing, hoovering, washing the kitchen floor, cleaning the bathroom sink (but not the bathtub or the shower), moving tomato/pepper/aubergine seedlings into larger pots, cleaning the fridge - all suddenly delightful activities for a formerly and still somewhat stranded beetle.

Also, at some stage next week, my bicycle will have been fitted with state-of-the-art saddle suspension and elevated handlebars and I shall be able to cycle again - only for short flat and therapeutic distances, don't hold your breath here.

However, the right leg remains stubbornly limp and I continue to walk the sloppy way of a duck that has one paralyzed foot (wait, that's me). The outlook is meagre but apparently not hopeless which is why we are waiting for a letter from the powers that are, aka health authorities, in reply to my request for a specific rehabilitation program. In my dreams, I am already there but in reality, there are all sorts of obstacles. It's complicated. I am impatient. I want this to be over. I want things the way they were three months ago. I know, silly.

21 February 2017

Maeve died on Sunday morning. She was 103. For the last couple of weeks, so we've been told, she was mostly asleep. And on Sunday morning she did not wake up. We were expecting this. She did not suffer. Her life ended. It is sad and comforting at the same time.

Maeve was the oldest sister of my beautiful mother-in-law. A strong, gutsy woman. I have written about her here.

Now there is only Nuala left from that generation, the second oldest sister and she is not well, both in mind and body. But she is looking forward to the funeral mass. Nuala is a devout catholic, she believes in miracles. She speaks to her saints regularly on all our behalf. I have a stack of mass cards from her. Proof that she prayed for me. That my soul is safe.

When my mother in law was dying (much too soon, much too cruelly), we were instructed to not say a word and nobody did. And so she was never told that she had pancreatic cancer, that she had only months to live and that we all knew. Even her husband, the love of her life, the ever charming JC, he would not, could not tell her. Not to himself, either.
For short while, I was furious but what did I know, me, the heathen foreigner.

But of course she knew. She prepared her death carefully.

Often, when I close my eyes, I see her on that Sunday morning when I opened the door, her smiling face, would you wait a little while, love, while I finish talking to Sean (the family lawyer). And after Sean had shook my hand and left, I combed her hair and held her hand while we watched mass on the closed circuit tv.
On Sundays, I was always the first visitor and I would leave when the next family member arrived. The grandchildren came after lunch, alone or in twos, bearing paintings and flowers, being ever so good and adorable, everybody loved granny. My father in law had the evenings and on one of these, he brought a priest along and they quietly renewed their vows.
During the week, I'd sneak in a short visit on my way home from work to exchange gossip and take instructions about the dogs or the garden or what to take out or put in the freezer.
And then driving home in the rain, waiting at the traffic lights by Blackrock shopping center, crying while the rain washed over the windscreen and Walking in Memphis on the car radio.

And then that day when I could not reach her any longer, when all I could do was moisten her lips with that lemon scented sponge. For a brief moment, she opened her eyes and said, thank you Maeve. That's when I stepped back. For the next few days, I minded kids, prepared endless pots of tea, cooked dinners nobody really ate, answered the phone, looked after her dogs and did whatever was necessary so that her daughters, her son, her husband, her sisters and brothers could be with her while she was dying.

Later that week, when we visited her laid out in a bed of flowers, surrounded by the letters and paintings from her grandchildren, R showed me her wrists. She had asked for them to be slashed after her death. Why? I asked. To be sure, he said, she was afraid. Just like we are. Afraid of not dying and afraid of death.
For a moment, I felt a sharp pain washing through me.
But we were young then and our lives were stretching out in front of us, endlessly. What did we know of fear, of death.

18 February 2017

and this

Tens of thousands of people marched through Barcelona today calling on the Spanish government to immediately take in thousands of refugees.

 Photograph: Manu Fernandez/AP

16 February 2017

Another mysterious wedding picture from my father's stack of photographs. I can identify three people, my grandmother in the back next to the bride, the little boy in front is her first born and I think she is pregnant with her second child. Her mother, my great grandmother is seated holding on to her handbag in the front on the left.

The date is 1923. I made a copy of this picture and sent it to my father and we had a longish conversation over the phone. He does not recognise anybody else. We agreed that it must have been a once-removed wedding, a distant cousin from my grandmother's side, maybe not even a relative. The groom seems to be a fair bit older than the bride and I think the elderly mustachioed gentleman in the front row could be his brother.

My father thinks it was most likely a day trip, hence the large handbag and the absence of my grandfather. This was before the time of family cars. Living and working in a small provincial town required maybe a truck, tractors, definitely a couple of horse drawn carriages for the business, but families had no need to drive around in cars back then. It is definitely a rural setting. The towns had much better road surfaces. My father thinks his mother and grandmother probably hired a car with a driver for the day.

In the past weeks I have emailed this picture to every country hotel and restaurant within a 150 km radius from my grandparent's address at the time. I found only three country house hotels, as they are now called, with the same (or a similar) name as this 'The golden cross inn', but no, it's none of them.  The managers of all the other country inns and hotels of a similar age that I contacted must think I am slightly mad. One in a rather godforsaken spot replied with a lunch voucher for two.

I also contacted a couple of historical societies and received a few polite replies from what I assume are retired teachers who basically confirmed what my father said over the phone: forget it.
The name of the proprietor is incomplete and I haven't even started to look into this.
Rural Franconia was not dramatically affected by  the war, so it is unlikely that the building was bombed or burned down.  My brother suggests I write to the local papers. Maybe.

This picture is utterly Franconian. I can hear the accent and the noises from the kitchen.  I imagine that they will all sit down to eat Fränkische Hochzeitssuppe (beef consomme with lots of different vegetables and semolina dumplings), Tafelspitz mit Meerettich (beef with horseradish and apples), Eiernudeln (home made egg pasta, fat ribbons), Apfelküchle (apple pie), Franconian wine, the locally brewed beer, coffee for the women. I wish I could sit down with them.

15 February 2017

Halfway through February. The open bedroom window. Birdsong since well before daybreak. Gorgeous birdsong. Now, after I watched R cycle off to work, with his energy and purpose like a sparkling cloud surrounding him (or maybe it was just his shiny red anorak), I am back in bed waiting for my day to find purpose and for my body to gather energy.
I could occupy myself. I could distract myself. I could make a plan, write down all the little tasks and schedules that are waiting somewhere for attention (or not). And in time, I will do all of these. Because that's what will get me through the day. 
But right now I am trying to not remember process what two experts told me yesterday after they had banged their little hammers onto my knees and ran their needles along my legs. Namely, that nerve cells do not regrow. That unlike all other cells in our bodies, nerve cells when damaged are kaput for ever. That muscles need nerve cells in order to function. And that while muscles can be tricked into activity even when nerve cell damage has occurred, extensive damage can also imply permanent paralysis.
Theoretically speaking, I am fucked.
But hey.
It's only one foot and most of the leg attached to it. Actually, one of the experts was quite enthusiastic about cycling, could be possible, he nodded, probably easier than walking. Eventually. 

So here is the plan: In time, slowly, slowly, I am going to get those muscles, hell, all and any of my muscles, into tip top shape, I swear it, here and now.

(As of today, I am on sickness benefits, i.e. my salary is paid the working masses.)

This bit of music, simply for the name of the band:  

14 February 2017

I've had some serious health issues in my time. (As if I haven't mentioned this before.) More than one expert told me in the last six years that I am lucky to be alive, that kind of stuff.
Also, in my almost 60 yrs I have been through some gruesome pain (however and thanks to the heavens above, the almost fatal issues are mostly pain free but just carry the potential to finish me off). The pain that tormented me to date has been due to more benign causes, accidents, inflammations, that whole dental catastrophe, not forgetting childbirth (- which was actually sublime, pain incl.).

I used to feel proud of my coping skills. OK, proud is probably not the correct term, let's say I used to be confident about being able to cope. Eventually, after the jitters and the panic stations, I am not perfect. But. Always falling onto my feet in the end. Breathe in breathe out, that kind of attitude.

Fear, yes of course, I know fear. Before and after fear. I may have lived the comfortable life of a white middle class college educated happily married woman with really decent health insurance (socialist to some), but I have also flown in an airplane that was evacuated upon landing because of a bomb scare (the bomb was discovered on the plane hours later), drove downhill in a car with failing brakes (gears, gears, gears), presented my battered German passport to uniformed men with bloodshot eyes and very large machine guns, got stuck in a lift for an eternity, almost drowned in a freak surge, got showered in sharp glass when the train window I sat under was shattered by one of several massive rocks that missed my head by a fraction, ran out of a burning building, that kind of fear.

The summer before I started university I went wild. Nothing seriously bad or too illegal, mostly tasting-freedom-like-never-before wild. Part of that freedom was a brief love affair with a poet. How could I, with an A in German literature, resist a poet? (I would now, looking back, but not at the time.) 
After the first week, he sent me this poem by Bertolt Brecht, handwritten by himself on fancy paper:

To be Read Mornings and Evenings

He whom I love
Has told me
That he needs me.

That's why
I take care of myself
Watch my step and
Fear every raindrop
Lest it strike me down.

It was only a brief fling, his own poetry was somewhat unconvincing and he also quoted too much Rolling Stones lyrics.  But I always loved that Brecht poem and two years later, I actually stood in Blackwell's Bookshop in Oxford and read it out loud and in English to R, who, in his dirty mountain boots and his wild hair swirling around his head, looked quite out of place in the poetry section but grinned at me just the right way.

Anyway, my point is: I am now officially terrified, scared shitless, of all the raindrops and the way I cannot move my right leg properly and whether this rehabilitation will be a failure and too late and I could go on and on.

11 February 2017

We woke up to strange white stuff covering the world outside. We decided to stay indoors and my old friend vertigo arrived for a visit. I could dwell on how I pushed all the misery buttons at once, incl. weeping and gnashing of teeth, but, well, old hat.
After lunch, big white sheets of sleet were coming down outside. The man who had consoled me earlier started to make marmalade from scratch in the kitchen. I sat down with him while he separated the pips from the flesh. I lamented that I have to be better by Tuesday for my appointment with the rehabilitation center - on which I am focussing all my hopes and dreams right now - and he put his sticky hands and arms around me, which was nice, and assured me that whatever happens, it will not be the end of the world.

Then I listened a couple of times to Frazey Ford singing about the Indian Ocean. The best ocean on the planet, I loved it from day one and cried very very hard when the plane carried us away from it for the last time.

10 February 2017

Today, I was walking past the bus stop where I first taught S how to get home from school by herself. She was a skinny little 10-year old waif, shy and quiet in public. All afternoon I have tried unsuccessfully to remember what school bag she had at the time. But I remember the yellow jeans and the lilac sweater and her hairband. I can see her standing at the bus stop ready to come home just as I taught her during the days in the previous week when we travelled together every day. I am watching from across the road behind that big tree as the bus comes along. She doesn't know I am there but she is doing all the right things, carefully and seriously, the way we had practiced.
In those days, I was probably the one who was scared most.
Come to think of it, I still am.

09 February 2017

you fool

The old bastard is back, sneaked up quietly and suddenly last night.

"Surprise! Hello?!
Here I am again. Did you miss me? Did you think I would stay away while you kept yourself busy with physiotherapy and all this silly walking around the garden, slowly building up stamina every day?  
It looked like a nice old game for a while. You had me in stitches.

Well, here is the thing. I want it now. Your energy, attention, your ridiculous concept of health and recovery. Hand it over. There's a good girl.

Remember: I am your chronic disease. We are buddies forever.

Dole out the cortisone for all you want, go on, you do that now,  but it will just patch things up, poorly and let's not forget my special treats. Yes, clever girl, the side effects. 

I rule supreme."

07 February 2017

grandmother, never granny

My grandmother died in 1995, a few weeks short of her 103rd birthday. On the motorway driving home from her funeral, we had an accident and as a result I had to have spinal surgery, the long term effects of which are probably -  to some extent - the reason why I had to have this somewhat similar surgery almost five weeks ago.

It has nothing to do with my grandmother - it was a freak snowstorm, poor visibility and the usual speed limit transgressions on German motorways - but I had to get this in somewhere, self pity and still not able to walk properly etc.

Here she is in 1905 on the day of her confirmation, 13 years old.

and here with her siblings, three years later:

She is the oldest and all through her life she maintained a close relationship with her sister and her brothers. Indeed, she bossed her nieces and nephews around just as much as her own children and grandchildren. These two boys are the brothers who started the family feud after WWI. Hard to imagine. My father told me this morning that as a school boy he would cycle from one uncle's house to the other's, delivering messages and papers to sign, eating two dinners and bringing home treats for his mother, each bigger and better than the other. His uncles adored my grandmother and were always there when she needed help, but never at the same time.
There is no proper explanation for this feud. They had different ideas about the business, one was the crafts man, a skilled blacksmith who eventually became quite famous for his ornamental iron work. The other one was the manager. But that surely is the perfect combination for success? At a push, my father suggests it could all be due to their wives arguing and competing in the stifling social circles of the 1920s in a provincial town. There is a second and a third generation working hard on keeping it alive these days.

This is my grandmother in 1914, she had left school for good and was now attending a 'finishing institution' for young women in Augsburg, where she was to be instructed in the various important social graces incl. designs for dinner settings and pastry baking.

The beginning of WWI put an end to this. Her brothers went to the front and she came home to run the family business with her mother.  I am not sure about the role of her father, I think he was ill. From what we have been told, she was a very successful businesswoman. And she loved to talk about that time, how deftly she handled the competition. Often she told us that she 'showed the men' that a woman could be just as successful and ruthless if not more so. And ruthless she was, all her life.

By the time WWI was over, she was getting on, she was almost 25, with her brothers back running the business (and arguing about it), she had to concentrate on marriage. And as the oldest daughter of a successful local merchant and land owner, i.e. money, there was a fair selection of suitable candidates, despite the effects of the war.

When I was a small girl, I often sat in her kitchen, drinking black tea with hot milk, dipping in one of the very hard biscuits she kept in large tins, while she counted her suitors on the fingers of her hand, giggling like a shy young girl. There was the teacher who unfortunately was slightly cross-eyed, the pastor with an overbearing mother, the forester who always tried to look under her skirts when she was cycling past his house in the woods (why was she cycling there? I would ask, to check whether he was meeting other young women, she replied briskly), the son of the local brick factory owner (he later married her sister) and so on, until this dashing one arrived, posted to the province to run the finance department, with a law degree from Munich and a truck load of bespoke furniture. He was the best catch, obviously. Never mind that he was 17 years older, he came with dramatic career prospects and the war was over. They married in 1919.  Their honeymoon was a trip to Vienna on a pleasure boat on the Danube. Every afternoon, so the story goes, my grandfather went for a swim in the river to exercise his healthy athletic body while she had to sit and watch him. Until one hot day, she had enough of this showing off and jumped right off the boat to join him.

With my grandfather's next promotion came a house - that she designed and built. Or rather, supervised as it was built. People still shiver when they talk about it. My father moved back there after he left my mother in 1988. He lives there now among his father's bespoke furniture, a place full of stories.

Anecdotes and memories, hearsay and family folklore. I am no closer to my grandmother than I was when I was small and scared of her. She was a hard person, no cuddles, no wiping away of tears and there were many. She always had work for us, picking fruit, sorting through the apples and quinces in the basement, folding laundry, drying the dishes. No treats or sweets. No time for fairy tales or lullabies, instead, she read to us from her favourite tabloids, Grace Kelly, Jackie, Frank Sinatra, Maria Callas, all the adventurous European royals, her voice dropping to a conspiratorial whisper when it came to pregnancies and betrayal, divorce and - shock! - adultery. Most of it I did not understand (what does pregnancy mean, grandmother?) and she was not a person you would ask.

Once before I started school, when my mother was going through a bad patch, I was to stay with her for a few weeks and after the first few days and tears, I decided I would leave and walk back home by myself (about 50 km). All night I tried to remember the exact route and the names of the villages along the way and after breakfast, I packed my toys and told her I was off. She opened the door and never said a word. My aunt picked me up from the bottom of the road hours later.

And yet, I know she was proud of us, proud of me. She would never ever say it to my face, of course not. When S was born, her first great-grandchild, she softened, danced through the room holding her, singing and laughing.

04 February 2017

with the appropriate soundtrack

 After lunch, in a brief moment of mental derangement I decided that I was fit enough to walk down to the river and back. So while R ran after me, cursing under his breath, I marched on until exhaustion caught up with me and forced me to sit on a low wall by the cemetery until I had recovered for the slow crawl back home. There, in the cold damp February drizzle, nostalgia joined us with memories of our tropical past.

This is the view to the west across the Indian Ocean after slowly driving upwards on seemingly endless and very narrow hairpin bends through the rain forest. Further on and up, through ever deeper forest, there is a small tea plantation, a deserted Capuchin mission and then the road starts to dip down towards the east, the harbour and the airport.
It is late afternoon, definitely a Saturday or Sunday, on weekdays we would not have had the time to go for such a long drive after work and before sunset at 6pm. I think this picture was taken in November 1988, because sometime before xmas that year, this car caught fire and quickly burnt down to a pile of stinking rubble. The school holidays had started and R was driving three little girls, S and her two Swedish friends, to one of the beaches on the west coast for the day. They got out in time, laughing and singing, all unharmed.

I was working that day and soon after this happened - miles away - one of the government drivers, who considered the air conditioned office as their lounge, quietly walked up to my desk and waited for me to look up and
ask him what's the matter before he explained, very politely, that everybody except the nice white expat car was fine. And when I looked up and around the office in disbelief, I realised that everybody had known for a while, that in fact, this was the reason for all the annoying whispering earlier that had made me so nervous (I was new at the job and under constant observation). And while I sat there, at a loss and quite shocked, every one of 'my staff', one after the other, walked up to me, shook my hand, and Jude and Pascal, the magical twins, told me that they would take care of it. And they did. They always did.
These two watched over me, they spoiled me, they drove me nuts, they danced and sang during work, we hated each other and we loved each other. Some mornings, I would find my desk decorated with fresh bougainvillea and heaped with pink mangoes, while they both carefully explained why today, a small amount of money may be missing - temporarily of course - from the petty cash. Things always worked out in the end.

I never drove that car, it was too dodgy for my nerves, too many tricks to get it started, too neglected by too many previous owners who would pass it on like gold dust after their two-year expat stint. Then of course, the roads made me nervous for a long time, miles and miles of steep bends, sheer drops and no hard shoulders, thick forest and then the rain, almost daily, torrents, steaming floods. 
The car we got after that was even more dangerous but soon I had gone native and wild and could drive those hairpin bends with my eyes closed.

The twins are both grandfathers by now.

01 February 2017

the first day of spring

is a Gaelic traditional festival marking the beginning of spring. Most commonly it is held on 1 February, or about halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox.
It is believed that it was originally a pagan festival associated with the goddess Brigid and that it was christianised as a festival of Saint Brigid (Lá Fhéile Bríde)
The etymology of Imbolc/Imbolg is unclear. The most common explanation is that is comes from the Old Irish i mbolc (Modern Irish i mbolg), meaning "in the belly", and refers to the pregnancy of ewes. Another possible origin is the Old Irish imb-fholc, "to wash/cleanse oneself", referring to a ritual cleansing. 
(thanks to Wikipedia)

We cut a few hazel branches for the kitchen window, no frost, the birds are busy. We are neither pagans nor catholics, never overly fond of Oirish rituals, but this is the best day of the year. The most hopeful day of the year. By the weekend, rows of little seed pots will line the sitting room windows. We will start with the peppers.