I've been in London this week going through my late mother's things. Readers of this blog will know that she died in July at the great age of nearly 94.
You might think it was dispiriting to spend several days in your parents' house where only their memories are left behind, especially when it's the home you were brought up in. Not at all dispiriting, though it was thought-provoking. My sister lives not far away and we had many hours together sorting their stuff out, going through a vast number of books, unearthing unsuspected papers in the attic and reminiscing about our childhood in North London in the 1950s and 60s.
The trapdoor to the attic was hardly ever opened. So I had never clambered inside it before this week (unless the memory has been wiped). How strange, this late in life, to find an undiscovered country in your own childhood home! Once, when my father was busy up there archiving his papers (or something), I dared to climb a few rungs of the ladder he had positioned against the skirting board. It was queasy perching there as the ladder flexed and swayed above the stairs that descended into the abyss below my feet. I did not want to go any further. I could not go any further. (Later in life I replayed that experience when I followed a false trail high up on the Langdale Pikes. The friend I had got separated from said he spent an uncomfortable hour rehearsing the speech he would need to make to my wife when he came back from that Lake District expedition alone.)
We found a lot of papers that my father had obsessively kept: decades of bank statements and cheque-book stubs, invoices, receipts, business letters and utility bills. But this was not all there was. We came across a large musty bag containing my grandmother's personal archive. (This was my mother's Jewish mother, "Omummy" who with my grandfather whom I never knew was hidden underground in occupied Holland following the German invasion.) Letters from her children, her parents and her friends were carefully bundled together - by year I think. There was correspondence from the German front during the Great War with postage stamps bearing the Kaiser's image.
Most poignantly, and chillingly, I unearthed my grandmother's Verzeichnis über das Vermögen von Juden, the Third Reich's valuation of my grandmother's assets as a Jew, signed on 29 June 1938. She had pathetically little to declare: by then, not long before Kristallnacht, regular income for Jews who had been in business had dried up. It was a case of Things My Mother Never Told Me to quote the title of Blake Morrison's memoir. I was both moved and excited by this find that I hadn't expected. It will take time to assess how important it may be in contributing to our knowledge of family life during the Great War, the Weimar Republic and the Nazi era.
Taking breaks in the fresher air downstairs, I was happily poring over my parents' immense collection of books. I remember from childhood how some of the titles stood out on the choked bookcases: Bannister Fletcher's History of Architecture on the Comparative Method, G.M. Trevelyan's four volume English Social History, Plato's Republic (Benjamin Jowett's version, the famous nineteenth century Master of what would be my Oxford college, Balliol), Lancelot Hogben's Mathematics for the Million, Spinoza's Ethics, the Knox translation of the New Testament that a Catholic boyfriend of my mother had given her during the war in a vain attempt to convert her to Christianity.
But most of all I relished what was on the top-shelf. These books, far above my head, were strictly not for children to take down and look at. I know what you're thinking. But you're wrong. These were the leather-bound volumes of German poets: Schiller, Goethe, Heine, Rellstab, Hölderlin, Rilke and others. They were beautiful books, a joy to look at especially when the sun was setting in summer and lit up the fine bindings in a golden light. They had belonged to my grandmother (or her parents) and been passed on to my mother. They were never opened, and a day came when my parents decided that they should go into stack to make room for newer books that needed accommodation. So they were banished to the attic in a big mouldy suitcase where they remained for years until I rescued them from their long dusty exile and brought them back downstairs this week.
Heinrich Heine was one of the greatest European Romantic poets. He was from Düsseldorf where my mother was born and grew up until 1937 when as a teenager she was sent to England. While browsing through her bedside books, I'd come across a paperback anthology of German poetry. On the flyleaf was written in my grandmother's careful script: "for Michael" - so it should have come to me when she died in 1987. She had also referenced her favourite poem. It is by Heine, so in my imagination it belongs to that nineteenth century leather-bound set on the top shelf. Here is a translation by Sibylle Luise Binder of that poem, Wo?
Where will the tired wanderer last resting place be?
Under palms in the South? Under lime trees by the Rhine?
Will I be hastily buried by strangers’ hands in a desert?
Or will I rest in the sand on a sea’s strand?
At least, here like there I’ll be surrounded by God’s heaven.
And at night as lamps of death the stars will hover over me.
I didn't know the poem before this week, but I think it will come to symbolise these winter days spent in my parents' home. It's typical of the Romantics' love-affair with death, and with the metaphor of life as the journey of an exhausted wanderer yearning for home. (To get the idea, listen to that seasonal song cycle Winterreise by Schubert, a profound setting of poems by another Romantic poet Wilhelm Müller in which a rejected lover finds his whole life under review as he makes his winter's journey away from all that is familiar and homely. Or look at the pictures of the German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich.)
As I thought about the Heine poem, and the death of my parents and grandparents, I recalled that it was Advent. It's the season when we reflect on the Last Things: death, judgment, hell and heaven in the light of Christian faith. In later life our thoughts inevitably turn towards mortality: the loss of those we have known and loved, the prospect of our own death, "one whole day nearer now" as Philip Larkin put it (on whom see my last blog). Heine's poem is about death as a homecoming. I found it comforting to read in this house of truth where death could not be evaded, this place that was once home and that is so full of childhood memories. And in this Advent time, it was good to be reminded that we live by the promise of the One who is to come, that in our Father's house are many mansions.