… grandparents …

I must have been 4 or 5 years old when my mother took me to Berlin to see my maternal grandmother for the first, and, as it turned out, the last time. Due to the Soviet Berlin blockade after the war, the severe lack of resources, and the disrupted transport system, many families were kept apart for years.

We stared up a bleak wall, until Hildegard appeared. She flung her arms towards us, wanting wings, leaning precariously from the window of the hospital ward where she was kept isolated with TB.

Or so we Berlin 1955sthought. A nurse confided her doubt to my mother, and how she had urged for a second opinion, a hint my grandfather ignored. My mother insisted on a fresh blood test, but was ridiculed by the doctor in charge.

To console me, a kind neighbour rescued an old bicycle and taught me how to ride it among the rubble of ruins in the streets. He also allowed me to watch him construct a ship with sails inside a bottle, which made me think of gran being confined, not sailing anywhere. The atmosphere between my mother and her father grew tense. She insisted he should query the doctor’s diagnosis.

The crescendo happened in the kitchen, when she lifted a tray of 2 dozen eggs from the top of the fridge. He said, ‘You won’t.’ She said, ‘I will.’ He demanded, ‘You will not.’ She shouted, ‘I will.’ He shouted, ‘What can a nurse know?’

That’s what did it. Two dozen yellows and whites marbled the red-tiled floor and my mother walked out. I was thrilled. The drama mobilised my grandfather to challenge the hospital.

Sadly, my gran died within days, much too young, and not of TB. The blood test had been mixed up. What killed her were toxic medications based on a wrong diagnosis.

The message went deep. I was going to be a warrior. I learned to appreciate my intuitions and developed a useful allergy against intimidating authority.

Memories of my paternal grandparents are more serene. Oma and Opa, Erlangen145 Oma was a tall, striking woman. Despite having lived through two tragic wars she kept her back straight and held her head high into old age. When she caught me sitting crouched, she would gently push her fist into my back – ‘Free that, spine girl.’ At other times, she advised me to pull superfluous thoughts from my nose. The tricks work to this day … sometimes.

My parents had moved south towards the Alps after my birth, but we regularly visited my grandparent’s home in Erlangen. With fine weather, we would walk across the River Schwabach into the wooded hills to have a picnic. Oma would place several handkerchiefs on the moss under fir trees for us to sit on. Once we were settled, she spread out the much anticipated picnic treats from her basket, with plates, cutlery, napkins and all. My favourite treat was Gugelhupf  Marble Cake. Increasingly, my imagination was plagued by the secrets of her handbag. During one of our picnics I dared to ask why her bag was so bulky. Forthcoming, Oma explained how during the war, before I came along, when sirens frequently announced bombing alerts, they needed to drop everything and rush to the underground shelters.

text, German cookbook‘I developed a habit of having our survival gear ready at short notice,’ she said. To my delight, she displayed her survival gear on the forest floor:

Identity papers, notebook, pens, her favourite recipes, dried fruit, a pocketknife, matches, candles, string, clothes pegs, a scissor, plaster, ointment, cotton strips, tin opener, mirror, needles and yarn, buttons, a slim book of Rilke poems, a small bottle of Brandy … and spare knickers.

To this day I never leave the house without identity papers, notebook, pen, and a slim book of poetry. Skipping knickers 🙂 I carry a shrill-sounding whistle, visa cards, a pay-as-you-go mobile, a Barret in case it rains, and a small makeup bag. Times changed, or have they?

Opa, a dreamer like me, enticed me to create imaginary scenarios in the soft, black forest soil. We sculpted landscapes, with villages, a pond made of gran’s round mirror, churches, roads, rivers, bridges and hills, using pinecones, sticks and stones, and tiny people made of leftover food and chocolate wrappers.

I came to value the creative power of sculpting when it comes to out warding inner worlds. I encourage my therapy clients to shape sand in a tray and and to populate the landscape with world objects.

The recent post of an online friend, Katia, reminded me of my paternal grandmother, and the incident with the handbag I had in mind to share. Memory swerved and expanded. It occurred to me that whether we are grandparents, aunties, uncles or family friends with the benefit of a certain age, our influence on young ones has a timeless quality. Children may crown us with a halo of mystery. Given this kind of power, even small incidents, benevolent or troubling, can leave deep impressions and impact lives, nursing stories that travel onwards through generations.

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18 Comments

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18 responses to “… grandparents …

  1. I do the knickers !

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  2. A lovely and evocative post. Grandparents leave such strong impressions.

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  3. A ” Survival Gear” kit, represents strongly the real needs of us all. We are survivors in many ways and are capable of great feats of change. Attachments can and do, restrict our freedoms.
    What a lovely story of memories and experiences. Anyone having had the joy of grandparents is a fortunate person. Someone with inherited beliefs and wisdom, has a ” Survival Gear” kit with them in their mind forever.B

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    • Thanks B ☼ Women tend to have a strong attachment to their handbags, which can be a symbol for ‘mother,’ being held, as well as holding survival gear, a need for reassurance. Most men I know don’t seem to have this need. Could it be that boys feel more appreciated in the first place, a cultural thing, maybe. Just a thought.

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      • Many men carry their own quasi handbag via a “Pot belly”.
        I don’t think it matters much either way. Were it to be a pot belly, a handbag or just a memory, the need if fulfilled offers satisfaction and comfort.
        The challenge is to do within whilst without and this takes a secure sense of place.
        B

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        • Interesting thought, B. The potbelly’s possible function hadn’t occurred to me. My Opa had one, carrying it with pride, like a signature to his achievements and good natured patience. Bodyweight, while metabolisms and temperament are at play, tends to convey a sense of solidity, securing or giving gravitas to one’s story, one’s place.

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  4. Thanks Ashen for this lovely post of your memories of your grandparents! Especially the imprint we can leave on our grandchildren were we so blessed to have them – that air of ‘can do’ and mystery – leading us to wondering what we would take along as our survival kit –

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  5. What wonderful, deeply-impacting memories. Thank you for sharing them and thank you for the mention.
    Incidentally, have you ever read ‘The Summer Book’ by Tove Jansson?

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    • Thanks Katia. It was you who reminded me to share some memories of my grandparents 🙂
      I adore Tove Jansson’s Mumins, and the Summer Book, which I read when it was published, I think. Will find it and put it next to my bedside.

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  6. Hello,
    These were very precious moments for you, and I’m so thankful that you shared them. I had the privilege of going behind the Iron Curtain in 1985 and singing before the wall came down. I visited several cities and one of them was at that time East Berlin. I was amazed at how a city could be separated by a wall. Last year, I had the opportunity to chauffeur and be a guide for a couple from America. The man was discovering his roots. He comes out of Franken country where Erlangen is. It is a beautiful part of Germany.
    As for my own grandparents, they played significant roles in my life also. Many of the achievements that I am experiencing are the dreams that they had for themselves.
    Shalom,
    Patricia

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  7. That is a lovely memory and thank you for sharing the story of your grandmother. I am sad though by what happened to her, and shouldn’t have happened but I guess that was the times.

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  8. elainemansfield

    Such poignant memories–one horrendous and others filled with love. I’ll remember those two dozen eggs–their value and preciousness, the symbols of new life, food that could have nurtured your grandma. Splat!

    I love your paternal grandma’s survival kit. I live alone in the country, so when I leave the house in the winter, I take everything I would need if I had to walk home. It hasn’t happened, but if I ended up in a ditch or the car broke down, there is no cell phone connection and no one would know. Here’s to self-reliance. I have the notebook and pen, too. Many Rilke books to choose. I must get some brandy.

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