End Of An Era

This is a tough post for me to write but I need to do it.

I started this blog in September 2011, exactly six years ago, pushed by an indeterminate urge, a sense that I was at a sort of crossroads and it would be interesting if not useful to keep some kind of record. I never intended this to be a journal, just a place where I could muse and ramble and ruminate on all the things that catch my short span of attention without boring my interlocutor to tears. Readers can skip the boring bits, whereas listeners just doze off. So a blog serves a useful purpose.

In the event, it has been a lifeline during a period in my life that I could not have anticipated. And now, that period is drawing to its close and I am embarking on the final phase of my life. At least, that’s what it looks like from here: what Germans call “Lebensabend”. I hope that I am sailing into a beautiful sunset.

My parents’ house, which has been home to us all for the past eight decades, has been sold. I flew the nest in the early sixties, but then in December 2011 my mother needed my assistance and I returned – initially for three months, thinking I’d set up some kind of care system for her, and then, when I realised that wasn’t going to materialise, my three months turned into four and a half years. This blog fortuitously coincided with that time span so I don’t need to repeat here what I have already published.

This is the one place I have always returned to no matter where I was currently residing, the house my parents moved into, a young couple aged just 24 and almost 22, in April 1938 even before the plumbing had been connected, so that they had to use a tap in the garden for the first few weeks. They could have bought it for £200 but they rented first, unsure if they would stay. After the war, they bought it for about £700 as sitting tenants.

This little house has always drawn me as if I were attached by an elastic umbilical cord; it’s where I was born and grew up, where my parents lived – forever it seemed – and where they both wanted to die; where they left their mark as they painted, decorated and furnished it over the years; the home I left and returned to when my mother could no longer manage on her own; the ancestral home for my daughter, her children and their families. And now it’s going to be home to someone else.

This is a home that has always been full of love, a happy, hospitable home, with WELCOME! not only on the mat but pervading every room. “…in need of some improvements but holds much character…” says the estate agent’s blurb. I pray that the new owners will make the necessary improvements without losing the character, that they will feel and respect the spirit of this place, the gentle and generous genius loci, and I pray a blessing on them, that they may be as happy and contented as all those who ever lived here have been.

I am relieved that the new owners are people I have known for several years, good people, kind and caring. I feel I owe it to our long-suffering, big-hearted neighbours to ensure that someone decent comes to live next door. And even though this sale marks the end of my own official link with my childhood home, I look forward to returning some time to see how they are getting on.

The bond between this place and me will, I think, endure: after my birth the midwife gave my father my placenta to bury in the garden! No wonder I feel the pull of the umbilical cord!

 

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Name This Child

“Hallo,” came a voice over the fence as I was hanging out my washing (oh, the delight of clothes that have dried in the sunshine, absorbing the scents of freshly mown grass, thyme and roses). “Haven’t seen you for a long time,” she added.

I was surprised, actually, that my neighbour still recognised me after almost six years. It always unnerves me slightly when this happens: what is so peculiar about me that I should make such a lasting impression? Our contact had been slight, though it was usually when I was hanging up my washing so perhaps I was simply a bit of déjà vu for her. Anyway, she remembered my name.

I put down my pegs and walked over to her, making a fuss of the little black Labrador that suddenly appeared at her side shoving his nose through the palings. I explained why I had been away for so long, and then, rather embarrassed, confessed that I had forgotten her name. I expected her to tell me her family name. This is Switzerland, we have only exchanged small talk over the fence, and know nothing about one another really, so this seemed to me a classic case for the formal “Sie”. However, she smiled and said: “Hortensia.”

Telling a person to call you by your first name in Swiss German is an invitation to use the informal form of address, “du”, and although it’s common enough among young folk, it is not so usual among those of a certain age and older, as we are. So I feel quite flattered in a way, in spite of our having lived next door to one another for twelve years. That’s nothing in a Swiss village: you can be here fifty years, and still be strangers.

I responded with my Christian name, sealing the fact that we are now “duzis”. I have never met anyone called Hortensia before, and I was secretly wondering if she liked her name when she informed me that her daughter was also Hortensia. So presumably she does. You wouldn’t saddle your baby with a name you disliked, would you?

We chatted for a while as I finished pegging out my clothes, and she updated me on the latest garden news: she no longer has any hens, they all died of old age, as did the Labrador she used to have (I had noticed that this one seemed not only smaller but also quieter than its predecessor) and that the hedgehogs still frequent the gardens at night, probably nesting and hibernating under her shed. I was pleased to hear this, as hedgehogs seem to be dying out. And the crows have a nest in our other neighbours’ fir tree, which is why our dawn chorus is less enchanting than it was when the blackbirds inhabited it. I presume that the name Hortensia is somehow connected with the Latin ‘hortus’ meaning garden, so I was mildly pleased by the context of our conversation.

As I returned to my other chores, I ruminated on her name. Hortensia, I vaguely recalled, was an ancient Roman matron famous for giving a speech in front of the Senate, as well as another name for the hydrangea plant. Interesting: you wouldn’t name your daughter Hydrangea, would you? Oh, well, maybe nowadays you would. Nobody would blink any more.

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I went back to my laptop and the family tree I’ve been working on. Aptly enough, it’s one of the German lines, featuring ancestors with evocative names we rarely hear nowadays like Apollonia, and the Three Wise Men: Melchior, Balthasar and Caspar.  I say apt, because there before my eyes was grandfather Ernst Friedrich Adolf Richard Traut. No, I can’t see any of my granddaughters wanting to name their babies after him.

And as I began browsing through a new family tree, compiled by a distant relative, I saw that Ernst FAR Traut (no, definitely; nobody would give their child those initials nowadays, I hope) apparently had had an older brother, Martin Traut.  No middle name, I noticed. Had he been jealous of his younger brother, blessed with not one but three middle names?

Click, and there’s Martin’s son: Moses Hugo Karl Adolf Bertold Otto Traut. Surely that can’t be just one person? Oh yes, it is, and there’s even a photo of him. He looks normal enough, thank goodness. But I can’t help wondering whether his father had indeed felt short-changed, and given his son a different name for every day of the week to compensate for his own meagre moniker. Or did he have a number of rich uncles he was trying to flatter? I don’t know if this side of the family had Jewish connections, but if not, Moses was not a fortunate name to bear in the Third Reich. Maybe he dropped it and used one of his alternatives?

I’ve been reviewing the Trauts. They seem to have a penchant for resounding names: Emilie Ernestine Friederike, Karl Friedrich Wilhelm, Maria Elisabetha Thekla, Anna Ida Lina, Karl August Ludwig Martin, Ernst Gottfried Bernhard and Ida Dorothee Augusta. But none of them can match Moses.

Incidentally, Moses Hugo Karl Adolf Bertold Otto Traut married Lina Ella Olga Leipold. Their children all had short names.

Catch Me If You Can …

“You need something to look forward to,” declared my best friend at the beginning of January, assessing my black eye. “Come and spend some time with me in Florida.” I looked out at the snow-covered landscape and we sat down there and then and booked me a flight. The end of April seemed a long way off in the future.

Then, my eldest granddaughter proposed a trip to our holiday home on the north coast of Brittany, with her children and my daughter. Granddaughters Two and Three said they would also like to join us – sadly, Granddaughter Three couldn’t get time off work, but the rest of us were able to set off on 2 April, a jolly convoy of females plus my two great-grandsons. My son-in-law was able to follow a week later, so we have had a very full little house, but there was room for everyone, and no problems with the sleeping arrangements.

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IMG_0836.JPGI am still in awe that with four generations in such a small space, we had such a harmonious time; we have several alpha types in our midst (I won’t say bossy boots) yet all functioned perfectly as a team and if there were any disagreements,I wasn’t aware of them – apart from the two-year-old’s occasional short-lived tantrums, which are to be expected at that age. He was startled out of one of them when he flung himself on his face on the beach – nose and mouth filled with sand came as an unpleasant surprise!

The death of my mother in February and the subsequent chasing around organising so many things have left me in a kind of zombie state: I have been running on adrenaline for so long, and suddenly all the tiredness and exhaustion that I had been defying has crashed the barriers and overwhelmed me. I really needed that break.

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sunrise …

… sunsetIMG_0817

We returned from springtime in Brittany in full bloom, with two weeks of sunshine, sea and sand (incredibly, no rain!) to a cold wet Switzerland, and today it’s actually snowing. Well, admittedly, we are at an elevation of 500 m above sea level, but snow …

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And my friend reports from Florida that they’re having a heatwave …

I’m wondering if I simply shouldn’t have just stayed in Brittany!

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Elsie Williams, 9 May 1916 – 16 February 2017

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Taken just before her hundredth birthday, May 2016

When the expected happens unexpectedly, it still comes as a shock. Watching my mother dwindle, physically and mentally, over the last year has been painful, even distressing at times, and especially since she was obliged to give up her last shred of independence and move into a care home. Loss of mobility and no sense of purpose were hard to bear for a woman who spent her life looking after others. Her indomitable spirit kept her going, even as her body shrank and her mind sometimes became confused, and she always had a smile and a song on her lips. She was loved by the staff and residents in her new abode, but never really felt at home there and always longed to be back in her own four walls, in the house she had lived in since 1938. Alas, that wasn’t possible.

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1 February 2017

It was a great joy for her to be able to hold her newest great-great-grandchild in her arms, give her a cuddle and sing to her at the beginning of February, when her great-granddaughter visited with two of her brood. We knew that she was fading fast, and are so grateful for this meeting and the pleasure it gave her.

It was a comfort for us who were with her towards the end that the hospital Chaplain was able to come and pray with her and us and bless her. She lingered a little longer, but finally had no more strength to fight and she died just after 7.30 am on Thursday, 16 February 2017, painlessly and peacefully. She was an amazing lady, who touched many lives and inspired many people. Tributes are pouring in, and I will eventually get around to thanking everyone, but for the moment we are trying to get used to her absence, to the ache left by her departure from her earthly life, and the huge gap that this tiny woman has left in our lives.

Verses 22-23 in chapter 5 of St Paul’s letter to the Galatians list the fruits of the Spirit:
“…love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control …”
All of these were manifest in the lady I was privileged and blessed to call my mother.

The quote that she wanted in her memorial is this:

“There is a land of the living
and a land of the dead
and the bridge is love,
the only survival,
the only meaning.“

 Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey

The Long Dark Twilight Of The Soul Without A Signal

img_0688Alone in its dark little cupboard, with ne’er a bang nor a whimper, suddenly it died. I was checking out possible forefathers on ancestry.com at the time, so perhaps it gave up the ghost in sympathy. I don’t know, but I’m not aware of any obvious reason why all at once the message “YOU ARE NOT CONNECTED TO THE INTERNET” should flash up onto my screen. Whatever the cause, my router was no longer responsive.

I went through the usual routine of switching off and on again, disconnecting and reconnecting all the cables and finally giving it a thump, but all my CPR was in vain. I called the telephone helpline and a very polite gentleman called Trevor with a Caribbean accent took me through a catalogue of actions which all availed nought.

“I am very sorry ma’am,” he finally admitted, “but I can’t find an online solution. I’ll arrange for an engineer to call and see what the problem is. Goodbye, ma’am.” This all happened Tuesday evening, last week, around 9 pm. The engineer (have you noticed? They are no longer technicians, all engineers) will call sometime on Monday morning – or maybe Monday afternoon. My helpline guru warned me that if the problem was not a technical one, I would have to pay a large fee, but that is not an issue: I need wifi! It’s scary how desperately I need wifi. But – wait until MONDAY??? Six days???

“Very sorry ma’am. I wish you a very good evening, ma’am.”

Oh yes. If I hadn’t already noticed, this was evidence that I’m back in Bllghty! Just for a visit, as my mother’s condition has been deteriorating and I need to be on hand. Of course, I have spent most of the past year back home in Switzerland, and have quickly become accustomed once more to systems that work. If something goes wrong, an expert appears on my doorstep as soon as summoned, like a genie from a bottle, and fixes it. Swiss call-out charges are high, but prompt service is worth paying for.  I had forgotten that “EFF–I-Ci-EN-CY” is no longer a current term in the English language. Is “Blighty” derived from “Blight”?

Meanwhile, this huge jolt makes me very much aware of how much I need my broadband. No Internet. Not only no ancestry.com and no Google allowing me to look things up or catch up on current events, but also no e-mails, no social media, no Skype or FaceTime, no WhatsApp, no Siri: oh dear, how isolated I feel! How can I communicate with people?

Er, ahem! Look, there’s the phone! Oh yes! Good old-fashioned phone! I have both a landline and an iPhone, so surely I’m not so cut off from civilisation. Ah, but most of the people I want to talk to are abroad and if I use the phone for international calls, it’s going to be expensive. Can I claim compensation from the phone company for these wifi-less days, the inconvenience and the extra costs incurred due to having to use the landline?

Of course, the scariest thing about all this is the realisation that I have become so dependent on wifi. Not so many years ago, whenever I was in England, I was quite happy to take a five-minute walk once a week to the public library and use their PC for an hour. That was more than sufficient, and occasionally they would print stuff out for me, too. Now I’m running around like a headless chicken with my iPad, looking for a hot-spot so that I can download my e-mails, many of which will be junk. But I need to see them, need to know who is trying to reach me, and reply instantly. Don’t I?

What a long way we have come from my childhood and youth, when hardly anyone I knew had a phone, and we wrote letters, real letters that we took to the pillar box, to be delivered the same day if the addressee was local, or by the next day if further afield. We ordered our lives, made plans in advance, scheduled our activities, arranged meeting places and times, and it all seemed to work smoothly. The whole pace of life was more leisurely and predictable. Did our hearts beat more slowly? Were there really more hours in the day, more days in the week, more weeks in the year? Is the world really more chaotic nowadays? Or is that simply a common illusion as we grow older?

A voice-mail message from Trevor on Friday advised me that the problem was outside my home, and the ingenious were going to fix it. (Ingenious? Engineers in Caribbean pronunciation, I realised as I listened to the message for the third time. I like that, and will henceforth adopt that pronunciation.) So I didn’t have to hang around all day waiting for the ingenious to call. Or the genies to leave their bottle, come to that.

When I still had no signal by last Tuesday, a week after it disappeared, I called the helpline once more. A soft American voice this time, a man called Lee.  He put me through to the technical helpdesk – a competent-sounding lady who identified herself as Chanu, with a pretty Madame Butterfly accent and I felt very guilty at having constantly to ask her to repeat herself. She informed me that the external fault had been rectified and it was therefore, after all, my hub that was defective. She generously offered to send me a new one, free of charge. It would come by post and should be here by the end of the week.

Does the fact that I am on first-name terms with half the helpline staff make it any easier to bear? Am I supposed to think that, because we are now good pals, they are pulling out all the stops  to get me reconnected? I’m not that naïve.  One thing is in their favour, though: none of them appear to be European, so even with Brexit their jobs appear safe. And maybe they will eventually all learn to speak English intelligibly.

My eldest granddaughter arrived with two of her brood of four on Tuesday evening. I lamented the loss of the wifi to her, and she looked at my router. No power. She pressed the button on the side, and hey presto! Everything worked!

The new router arrived on Wednesday afternoon.

Of Tin-Openers, Potato-Peelers And Weird Exotic Finds

Kitchen drawers fascinate me. No, not the neat and tidy ones of OCD owners, but those that are used as repositories by absent-minded people who aren’t quite sure what this is, or where it really belongs, but the kitchen drawer is handy. Over the years and decades, if nobody interferes with its evolution, a wonderful gallimaufry accumulates in a relatively small space. Gadgets, gizmos and widgets reside untouched and unused as their owners forget their original purpose, or the appliance to which they belonged dies and is thrown away. You can find cutters for turning potatoes or carrots into intricate chains, bought at long-forgotten domestic exhibitions,  or seals for vacuum cleaners that were disposed of back in 1995. Matchboxes with unidentified contents – seeds or gooey black stuff – mingle with parts of something that broke and was going to be repaired.

One of my granddaughters was puzzled a few years ago that she couldn’t find a potato-peeler in Great-Granny’s kitchen. She was looking in the wrong drawer. That is another aspect of kitchen drawers that fascinates me: the logic by which instruments and utensils are allocated to specific places. It may seem blatantly obvious to you that a potato-peeler should go in with the kitchen knives, but to my mother it belonged with the tin-opener.

Also, gadgets develop and change in appearance as they evolve over the years. Once my granddaughter had located the seven and a half potato-peelers in among the tin-openers, there was only one that she recognised as the object of her search (the orange one in this photo).

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Evolution of the potato-peeler – note the blade tied onto a clothes-peg! Wartime make-do and mend!

She also failed to identify two of the tin-openers as such, and was totally perplexed by the perforated metal discs attached to metal spikes with a ring handle. I have fond memories of using these as a child, when I was allowed to help with small tasks in preparing meals. Do you know what they were for? Does anyone still use them for that purpose? (If you are also perplexed, read on – I will explain.)

In a friend’s kitchen drawer, I came across this strange implement:

orange-peelerShe demonstrated how practical it is, and claimed that even though hers must be well over thirty years old, you can still get them.  She produced the second – newer one – as proof. We googled the item, and she was right, you can still buy them online for under £10 each.

Still wondering about these gadgets? Well, this picture might help with my friend’s treasure.

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It has a sharp lip in the middle of the blade that cuts a long narrow slice out of the equator of an orange. You can then insert the looped metal end between the peel and the flesh, and finally scrape off any pith with the edge of the blade.

As for the perforated discs, in my childhood we used them to beat egg whites into a stiff snow. The advantage over a normal balloon whisk was that, in the days when eggs were rationed, you could put a single egg white into a glass beaker and beat it quite easily by pumping the handle up and down. I have a modern gadget for frothing milk for my latte macchiato that works on the same principle. And the reward for the hard work was the fun of holding the beaker of stiff egg-white upside down at the end, to prove that the job was done!

 

 

I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas …

I’m getting accustomed to strange Christmases. This year is no exception. With my mother now in a nursing home, where they will be fed a traditional Christmas dinner with all the trimmings, given crackers and paper hats, presents from Santa’s own hand followed by the Queen’s speech on TV and a snooze, I am leaving her to it and sneaking off for celebrations with my Swiss family. This will be the first Christmas I have spent with my own children/grandchildren in Switzerland for about 10 years, and it’s sweetened this year by the fact that we have a new baby to cuddle, my fourth great-grandchild. How could I miss that opportunity? Christmas is so much more fun when there are children around, and on Christmas Day they will be aged eight, five, twenty-one months, and three weeks.

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Of course I’m feeling selfish and guilty about abandoning my mother. It is probably her last Christmas, as she is now aged a hundred and a half. But I know she’s in good hands, and I have been here in England for two weeks beforehand, visiting her frequently, and that has cheered her up. We’ve had some chuckles and reminisced, I’ve passed on all the news and have been pleasantly surprised to find that she has taken it all in and remembered what I’ve told her. We have even been able to FaceTime my daughter and granddaughter, so that Great-Granny could see and speak to her great-great-grandchildren and admire the newest little girl.

My mother is a shadow of the person she was, but sadly that was to be expected. She is in no pain, is lucid and alert much of the time, and frustrated at the loss of her independence though she has resigned herself to the situation, and appreciates the patience and kindness of the staff who look after her. They will do their best to give their residents a merry Christmas, and I know my mother will be happy to join in any carol singing. She still knows all the 12 Days of Christmas, much to everyone’s amazement.

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“Five go-old rings …”

See how I’m justifying my decision? I really and truly hope and trust that she will spend a happy Christmas in the beautifully decorated Home among a cheerful bunch of her contemporaries and their dedicated carers.

And I shall swallow my pangs of conscience with my turkey and Christmas pudding (home-made and kindly donated by a good friend here).