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.


  1. Writing what we know of those who came before us is important. It is good to know that they were proud of us in their own way. My father's mother was courted by my grandfather for 11 years. He met her when she was in high school and he was a few years older, in seminary in Red Wing, Minnesota. He asked if he could write to her. One of my cousins has the letters they wrote each other for 11 years and some photos. After high school, she worked in the county auditor's office where her father worked. She appears to be a free-spirited independent young woman in the photos from those years in the late 1800s and early 1900s. By the time I was born in 1949, she appeared quite stern and rarely smiled in photos or otherwise, according to my cousins who saw her frequently. But there is a photo of her holding me as a baby, where she is smiling broadly. I was named after her. I can see your grandmother laughing and dancing and holding S. Thank you for what you wrote and for the photos.

    We have more snow and ice and freezing temperatures than we have had for years, but the birds are singing in that way they do in the spring. Sending love as your back continues to heal.

  2. Sometimes I think about the fact that everyone has a story. Every person on this planet. And so few of them are ever known. Thank you for sharing this one. An amazing story indeed.

  3. Oh, what beautiful descriptions.

  4. Wonderful! I loved reading about this stern and powerful woman. How proud she must have been when you left to go home. She must have immediately called her daughter to get you, too proud and determined to get you herself. Great photo of her, and...what is that dessert?

    1. That's her signature strawberry flan with cream. Erbeertorte mit Sahne. Cream only on birthdays and for visitors, mind you.

  5. People lead such amazing lives! You are so fortunate to have such incredible pictures (and stories) of your ancestors.

  6. I love reading this story of your grandmother. What a full and rich life she had. She really does sound like quite a character. Makes me wonder what she would have been like had she been born 50 years later. Context of time is such an interesting factor. Thank you for writing this down, Sabine.

  7. She'd have got on with my Granny (definitely Granny.) Not a warm woman, not to be dismissed.