Ella Helena Sommer, our grandmother from my last post, had a sister, Amalia Margaretha (Malchen) who was seven years older than Ella. Despite the age gap, they were close and in their later years of widowhood almost inseparable. I only knew Tante Malchen as another little bent, black-garbed, white-haired old lady, but she shared that same indomitable spirit that I wrote about a few years ago in my post Daughters of Kunigunda.
These are the two little girls, firstly as babies and then aged about 14, at their respective confirmations, gazing out confidently at the world, unaware of the turbulence that lay ahead in the twentieth century. They spent their entire lives in the same village where they were born, where they knew everyone, and everything about everyone. In fact, Malchen only ever lived in one house, that of her parents, which was later passed on to her son. She once asked me, shaking her head in disbelief when she heard we were moving to Switzerland, “How can you go and live somewhere where you don’t know anyone?” It was a rhetorical question: she might as well have been asking me if it was possible to live on an iceberg.
As a young girl, Malchen fell in love with a slim, dark-haired young man called Rudolf. They were both only 17 when they married, on 21 July 1911, and for the sake of convenience they moved in with her parents. Their son Friedrich Ludwig – named for his two grandfathers – arrived in September 1914 but this was no reason to prevent Rudolf from being drafted into the Bavarian Infantry to fight in the trenches of World War I. He never saw his son again.
Many years later, Malchen showed me her little box of souvenirs, containing a dried red rose, a photo, some letters from Rudolf during his military service, and the notice of his death: killed in action in Flanders on 25 April 1918. He was the great love of her life, and she remained in mourning for him until she died in her eighties.
It was lucky for Malchen that she continued living with her parents, however, especially when her son fell ill with polio. This left him with a lifelong disability, although he was intelligent enough to be able to train as a bank clerk and diligently work his way up to become the manager of the local bank. Malchen was very proud of his achievements, especially as despite all the odds he married and had a daughter. He was able to have the family home extended by having an extra storey built onto it, and so there was room for all four generations to live together under one roof.
The two sisters grew even closer in the early 1950’s, after the death of their parents, followed by that of Ella’s only son and her husband in rapid succession. When I first met her, Malchen would trot up the hill to visit her “little” sister practically every day, and they would exchange news and items of interest – no, please don’t call it gossip!
Later, when she was less mobile, she would sit by her window looking out onto the main street, watching the world turn and chatting with every passer-by. She was probably the best informed person in the village and she remembered everything she heard. Her sister came a close second. Both of them could tell a tale, and it was a delight to listen to them delivering their versions of local current events – the “hatched, matched and dispatched” – as they wove them into their memories of days gone by. God rest their souls, they could have written a wonderful local history book.
“Well, you know, X never had a chance of success. Just look at how his father lived! And I remember when his grandfather was a young man …”