How do you begin to pay tribute to your mother who has died?
It's now a month since her death. My thoughts and emotions have been in strange, unexpected places. The landscape of loss is always bewildering. My last blog recalled how in her final illness, she met her second great-grandchild for the first and last time. I said it felt like a Nunc Dimittis. All of us who surrounded her bed were moved at the joy little Madeleine brought to an elderly woman who was about to bid the world farewell. She lost consciousness a few days later and the end, when it came, was a merciful release.
Soon afterwards, I went to register her death. I cannot praise Islington Register Office highly enough. In bereavement, you need to know that you are dealing with professionals who know what to do. There were complications with the registration that I won't go into; suffice it to say that It took a full four hours to complete the process. The staff were all superb, not just in terms of their efficiency, but pastorally too. We clergy have a lot to learn from our secular colleagues.
The registrar was intrigued by my mother's name: Dorothea, "also known as Dorothy or Doreen" said her will. She noted that she had been born in Germany but had married in England. She asked if I would tell her the story - not because she needed to hear it as a registrar but because it looked interesting, and maybe because she sensed it would be a kindness to me. So I related what you'll already know if you've read my blog before.
She was born into a middle-class liberal Jewish family in Düsseldorf. They had long been assimilated into a completely German culture and identity. She was a schoolgirl in 1933 when the Nazis came to power. Things rapidly went downhill for the Jewish community. She recalled how, in the September of that year, not one of her school friends turned up for her eleventh birthday party. Stones began to be thrown at her and other Jewish children in the playground. One night, her father asked her to help him take a pile of books out of his precious library down into the cellar and throw them into the fire. She remembered that most of them were by a single author, Thomas Mann. How could a child begin to understand why the writings of that great novelist had been proscribed by the Third Reich and anyone found in possession of them would be severely punished?
In 1937, my grandparents decided to send her brother and her to England for safety. This was far-sighted of them at a time when many Jewish people were still hoping against hope that everything would be all right. She was assigned to a little boarding school in the small market town of Ledbury in Herefordshire. How curious that it was to Ledbury that a young family who were to play a hugely significant part in my own life would come after the war, to a house a few yards away from that school and the Miss Ballards who ran it. For - perhaps you've guessed it - this was precisely where my own wife was brought up, and lived until she left home. But of course my mother had left the town by then to take up nursing in London.
Meanwhile, her parents remained in Düsseldorf until life became impossible. They sought refuge in Holland where my grandfather began to rebuild his business as a successful leather goods manufacturer. However, in 1940 the Germans occupied the country. My grandparents were driven underground - literally. They spent the rest of the war being protected by a couple of devout, extraordinarily brave, evangelical sisters in Edam who housed them in their cellar and cared for them. They survived, but my grandfather died shortly afterwards. My grandmother "Omummy", however, came to the UK to join her children and lived to a great age. I once blogged a tribute to her too, because of the great influence she had on my life as a child and then as a young adult.
It was as a nurse at Charing Cross Hospital in London that I think she first found a true sense of belonging in this country. She was loyal to the friendships forged there right up to the end of the life. But after the awful upheavals of her childhood, my mother wanted nothing more (she told me this during her last illness) than to settle down in England as a family woman. She met my father at evening classes and they married in 1947. I was born three years later and my sister four years after me. Her quiet, domestic, seemingly uneventful existence in suburban north London belied the real drama of her story, and the perseverance that she needed to make something of her life in a strange land as a survivor of the Nazi holocaust.
Her big and lasting regret was that because her schooling had been so disrupted, she was never able to go on to higher education and pursue the life of the mind. I'm not saying that she would have become an acedemic (but who is to say? - her brother did precisely this, and had a most distinguished career as a medievalist at Oxford). But she was a very gifted linguist. She spoke English without any trace of a German accent, not to mention Dutch and French as well. Later in life she took up Spanish and Italian, and then had a stab at Latin. She was an avid reader on every subject imaginable. Her home, which we now have to clear, is crammed with her books on music, art, history, biography and philosophy in addition to the European classics of literature and poetry. She would always have four books on the go, one for each room in the house where she would read. As a child I just took it for granted that being surrounded by books is a normal state of life, just as I took it for granted that there would always be classical music playing on the radio or gramophone, and it was part of a mother's duty to teach her children to love it. It was many years before I realised that this isn't how all youngsters are brought up.
Among the many kind things that were said about my mother after she died was one that has particularly stayed in my mind. The writer described her as "courageous". It hadn't occurred to me to describe her in that way, but of course I now see that it is indeed true. She lived through the biggest catastrophe to befall Europe in centuries, and it involved a cataclysmic fracturing of her own life. She was reticent about speaking of those times, as many survivors are, so it took me time even to begin to understand her past and how it shaped her life, and - though I only saw this very obscurely at first, how it has shaped my own life too. Yes, it takes courage to go on living through such terrible times, and when they are past, to reconstruct a life and live it positively and hopefully even in the face of memories that no one should have to carry.
So it was important at her funeral to salute her courage and honour her remarkable story. I think it did, thanks to all who took part and contributed so well to create a ceremony that was beautiful and even joyous as well as being poignant and sad. Music by Mozart, Bach and Schubert, readings from Paul Tillich, Thomas Wolfe and Rainer Maria Rilke, and personal tributes by members of the extended family all felt just right. They were her. Afterwards there was a reception at which lavish quantities of food and drink were enjoyed - my mother always wanted her guests to be generously provided for. It was a warm sunny day, the kind of summer weather she loved.
It was a good leave-taking. May she now rest in peace.