This January my nan was cross with us for not properly celebrating her 100th birthday, despite the fact that that a) she hated celebrating anything and b) she’d just turned 90. If this makes it sound like she was losing the plot, I’ve done her a disservice. Mental acuity was not the problem, but she never gave up an opportunity to get angry about something. She was angry her entire life.
Born in Germany in 1927 (making her fucking NINETY), things were fine until her mother sacked off her kind, quiet railway engineer husband for a syphilitic kitchen salesman whose claims to fame included conning everyone in sight out of their savings, and getting a full house in his own game of STD bingo. When he finally died, his funeral on a hot summer’s day was enlivened by his rotting corpse exploding and seeping through his (stolen) coffin. Well played, my great-grandmother. What a catch. He had disliked children but had enjoyed hurting them, so she had shipped hers off to other relatives, which is how my nan came to live on a farm in what was then Prussia, with her grandparents, who she’d never met. Tales of her childhood there sound very very cold, and very very poor (“We all gave each other a carrot for Christmas”), and her main nutrition at this time seems to have come from eating whole raw onions and drinking pigs blood soup, to which she attributes the fact that her brown hair never went fully grey. I’ve never been able to bring myself to follow this advice, and am cheerfully cultivating a white streak.
By the sounds of it, things carried on being bleak and cold but broadly uneventful until the Nazis moved into town. Hitler (“he wasn’t a nice man, I didn’t like him”) had a bunker nearby, and all the kids would be ordered out into the street to wave as he passed, my nan and other brown-haired children being ordered to stand hidden behind the more on-brand blondes. My nan’s grandparents hid some local Jews in their cellar, and upon being found out, narrowly avoided being shot themselves by producing my great-great-grandmother’s Mutterkreuz, a special medal she’d been given after losing all of her five sons in the First World War. Typing that sentence has made me feel extremely ‘Christ, I don’t know I’m born.’
Later, the Russians marched on their village and my nan was taken away to a prison camp. She didn’t go into lots of detail about what happened there, but when I mentioned that I was thinking of visiting Russia some years ago, her response of “My god don’t go there, they will beat you and feed you bone gruel” reinforces my opinion that her experience was Extremely Not Good. By the time the camp was liberated by the Red Cross in 1945, she was malnourished and very unwell and was immediately taken away to a hospital in the Harz Mountains, where she remained for four years. FOUR YEARS. During this time she had raging TB, had her entire left lung removed and received not one visitor. Interestingly, she describes this as the happiest time of her life; I think perhaps she was just glad to be warm, and fed, and looked after.
Upon leaving hospital she somehow reunited with her real father, got into West Germany, and gave birth to my mum. No further details were forthcoming on this period, and perhaps I’ll always have a lingering sense of regret that I didn’t push harder for answers. When my mum was around 3, my nan met an English mechanic working in Hannover, whose romantic ambition was clearly to meet a traumatised, asthmatic German girl with a dark past and a small child and live happily ever after. Which they sort of did.
Sort of. I’ve struggled to decide over the years whether my nan had an undiagnosed personality disorder (possible) or just had so much anger festering away inside of her (probable), or a bit of both; but she was very hard to live with. My mum and her (step)dad became everything to each other as they expertly manoeuvred around her moods and abuse. I was blissfully unaware of this until my late teens, at which point I became old enough to cop for this too. It’s difficult, because while she was clearly an awful mother, she was a wonderful grandparent, and some of my very best childhood memories are of days spent with her. When she was in a good mood, she fizzed with charm and made you laugh until you couldn’t catch your breath; when she was in a bad mood I wanted to throttle her. Endlessly captivating to small children and all animals, she could mimic anyone or anything and frequently made me cry laughing with the merciless accuracy of her impressions. Despite these and many other charms she pushed people away her entire life, cutting out her family back in Germany (she may have had good reason for this), managing to alienate friends, neighbours and – periodically – us. But we take Duty very seriously in our family, so she has been well taken care of even when it hasn’t been rewarding to do so; has had her shopping done even when she’s been so angry she’s left it in the hall to rot while she sat out a self-imposed hunger strike in her bedroom; and been forgiven after saying truly unforgivable things, because that’s just what you do, isn’t it. For what it’s worth, I don’t think she could help it.
So there won’t be a funeral, because only we would go anyway and we would hate it, but I wanted some people to hear about her and her life, because she really was remarkably strong. I wish her life had been easier, I wish she’d been better looked after and I wish she’d known how to be kinder to herself and everyone around her. I didn’t always like her but I loved her, the complicated little cow xxx