Memories of my Father In Law
It’s been a difficult week for our family, on Sunday June 21st 2020 my father in law passed away. Yes, it was on Father’s Day which I am sure made it all the more poignant for my husband and his siblings. This was the second devastating loss since this pandemic began.
My father in law was fortunate in that he passed peacefully with no stressful admission to hospital, he had been in a care home for the past couple of years, which meant that since March he was unable to have any visitors. This was extremely hard for my family in England, the only blessing, if you can call it that was his dementia which perhaps meant that he wasn’t aware that friends or family had been unable to see him. I don’t need to go into details of how hard this must have been for his wife of almost fifty years.
Although it is particularly difficult for my husband and his sister in Australia at this time, with the current travel restrictions they are unable to just hop on a flight to be there within hours as a support to family and to grieve together as we would normally expect to be able to do. I was surprised at how the rediscovery of a letter from my father in law’s mother, typed on an old typewriter could bring so much comfort and connection to us all.
I had discovered that this letter existed about eighteen months ago when I was researching my family history. My husband had mentioned something about it in passing. After he had found it for me it disappeared into a drawer along with my good intentions of putting it into a word document to keep it safe with other family history items.
Last weekend I took the letter and my laptop out onto the deck, sitting at the table in a shady spot as the day was hot and humid, and began to type. It was hard to read some of the words as even though they were typed I recognized the print as being from an old ribbon typewriter, the kind I remember playing on as a young girl. The ink was old and faded, having been put onto paper in 1976. The paper was browning a little and felt gritty and dusty to my fingers. I had to repeatedly wash my hands during the process as my keyboard would feel sticky and dirty. The note paper it was typed on was the exact same paper I remember being given for my birthday long ago, a Holly Hobby print. (Holly Hobby was originally a popular rag doll in old fashioned country dress, her image was marketed to young girls and teens on all kinds of merchandise for several years)
Although I corrected a few small spelling errors I kept the broken English the same so it sounded authentic to those that would read it in years to come. My grandmother in law was German and although her English in 1976 was very good some of the translation was a little stilted.
This letter was written specifically to her grandchildren, she even names them all, to tell them a little of their father’s history. As I slowly made my way through this letter, I learned so much about my father in law’s life, it really gave me an insight into the challenging childhood he had endured along with his whole family. He was an only child to a Jewish family living a relatively comfortable life. Just six months after he started school as a young boy Hitler took control of Germany. Life soon became unbearable for a young Jewish boy; Jews were separated from other children in the school and were routinely bullied by their peers and called “dirty Jews” the children were repeating the words they heard from Hitler himself and of course their families.
Although I know the history well it was particularly heartbreaking to hear it through a family member’s words and from such a personal perspective. I had never met this remarkable woman, but I would have liked to. Knowing the sacrifices, she made and the heartbreak of leaving her home, family and friends so suddenly with virtually no possessions, made her an incredibly strong woman. Sending her only son ahead of her to England with a little known relative. Several months later she was able to join her son in England and eventually found a job, although this meant them living separately in different parts of the country pretty much until my father in law reached the age of sixteen. They would meet up for occasional weekends and on holidays.
An incredible story of human strength and endurance in the face of such fear and tragedy. It helps to understand why my father in law and many people of his generation are so guarded with their emotions, partly a cultural thing for Germans but also I suspect an indication of the difficult and traumatic events he encountered throughout his young life. It is amazing that he turned out as strong, steady and clam as he did.
He was never one to get angry and it was a rarity that he would lose his temper, always a calm and grounding presence in his family.
He was so welcoming to me when we first met thirty-four years ago and every time since then. He always welcomed our two boys and has been interested in their lives, supporting them whenever he could.
So why am I telling you this? As a reader my hope is that this will encourage you to write down part or all of your story, to leave it for your children, your grandchildren and beyond. After typing out this eight-page letter I forwarded it along with a forty-page autobiography that my father in law wrote many years ago, of his life up until just after his four children were born. I had an email back from several relatives’ thanks me so much for sending these along. Reading these accounts helped bring a measure of comfort and healing to them, giving them a connection to their father/grandfather that perhaps they may not have realized before.
Until then I hadn’t quite realized the full value of writing down our stories, I personally find them fascinating, even those from strangers. When I read and realized some part of my own parents past it gave me a fresh understanding and compassion of knowing where they were coming from and why they made the choices they did.
It was comforting and yes even made us laugh to recall some memories we had of Dad/Grandpa. One of my memories of when we first stayed with my in laws as a couple was of Dad walking around the living room in the evening as we were having our night time cup of tea with a bar of Cadbury’s or sometimes Galaxy chocolate. He would hold out the bar to us individually asking “would you like a square?” I remarked at the time as soon as we were out of earshot “I don’t want a square, I want the whole damn bar”. For some reason that has become our private family “joke”. Now whenever we bring out a bar of chocolate in the evenings, we always ask, “would you like a square?” and laugh, remembering dad as we help ourselves to a row or two of chocolate. (yes it’s a favorite food) Knowing what I do now this probably came from the rationing of luxury goods that came from living through wartime as a refugee.
It’s awful thinking of people being forced to flee their home and country, sadly this is still going on today even as you are reading this. Germany has since taken steps in reparatory measures. Now all direct descendants of refugees from the war who were forced to flee the country are able to apply for citizenship. My brother in law has already done so and my husband and sons are in the process of applying. This is a small step in helping to heal the horror of the past and allow his descendants to make a home in the country of their birthright. I like to think that my grandmother in law would be proud of her descendants and find some peace, I can imagine her looking down on the great grandchildren she never met and being able to rest knowing that they are able to take ownership of the citizenship that was denied to her and her son all those years ago.
If you needed any more reminders or encouragement to pick up your pen or your laptop and write your story this is it. Your story matters and could make a difference in someone’s life.
Please share if you feel you would like to.