Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Smiles and Tears

This weekend I became an aunt for the first time. I have a nephew!

The as-yet-unnamed little tyke has that gorgeous new baby, warm and cuddly thing going for him, that you just want to hold and hold... until he cries and you hand him back to whichever parent is closest at hand.

My brother and sister-in-law are still searching out names, but they're keen to give him a family name from my father's (ie. the German) side of the family as a middle name. So as the family's resident genealogist, I pulled out the family papers and put together a list of family names for them.

Whenever I go through this particular file, I always get a lump in my throat. Copies of birth and baptismal certificates, my grandparents' death certificates, and then the really interesting papers: an admittance letter to a refugee camp for my grandmother and her three children (no husband in sight as he was in a Russian prisoner of war camp at the time. Whether my grandmother knew this or whether she thought he was missing or dead, we will never now know) and the release papers from the refugee camp, many months later. Then in 1952 the papers confirming their passage by ship from Italy to South Africa, to start a whole new life in a country not destroyed by war.

Then last night, as I packed away the file, I stumbled across a packet of letters I'd never seen before, dated 1950-1952. They were letters from my father, aged 6-8 years old, to his family.

I always knew that my father lived with his grandparents in Berlin for a while, apart from the rest of his family. He was something of a musical prodigy and in order for him to study the piano properly he needed to be in Berlin.

But knowing and understanding are two different things. It was only as I read these letters, no more than a dozen in a child's large handwriting about seemingly inconsequential things like Easter eggs and birthday gifts and a story the teacher told him in class, that I truly understood. For at least two years, in Grades 1 and 2, my father lived so far away from his parents and his siblings that the only contact he had with them was through the lost art of letter writing. No telephones, no cars to nip down the highway for weekend visits, no skype. These were the letters of a child the same age as my own daughters are now, written with effort, saying so little and yet so much.

And yet what brings tears to my eyes isn't this glimpse into past lives. It's the fact that even though my father is sitting in the same room with me, I can't ask him what he remembers of that time. I can't ask him where the rest of his family were living, or how it felt to be reunited with them to make the journey to South Africa, or to ask if he remembers the aunts, uncles, childhood friends he mentions in his letters.

Because that child prodigy is now an empty husk. If I talk to him he smiles at me and nods, and I don't know if he understands or even has any idea who I am. Alzheimers is a cruel disease.

If anyone deserves a do-over, I think my father does. Born in a war, raised in a country wracked by poverty, split from his family, then relocated halfway around the world to a completely foreign land where the talent and opportunities of his youth were stunted, never to see the grandparents who'd raised him again, and now finally to this.

We can't undo the past, but we can damn well ensure that the beautiful new children we're bringing into this world have every opportunity, all the love and family and health, that they deserve. Let's not squander a moment of this precious time. Let's cuddle our babies and be thankful we live in a world where halfway across the globe is no longer an untravellable distance and where we no longer have to rely on a few clumsy words on paper to express our love.

I think of the great big plastic box under my bed, over-flowing with pictures and paintings and school notices and birthday party invites, and first school books, and I can't even imagine how hard it must have been for my grandmother to reduce their lives to the suitcases and boxes that the family brought with them by ship to their new life in Africa.

I am so incredibly grateful that I have so many momentoes of their lives to pass down to my children.

And I will be forever grateful that my grandmother kept a dozen letters from a lifetime ago. I will treasure them as much as she clearly once did.


  1. Such a touching and tearful message to us all. Thank you, Romy for sharing this.

  2. Heartwarming and heart-wrenching all at once. Lovely post, Romy.

  3. Beautiful Beautiful Romy!!

    What caught my attention was the fact that your father might not recognize you as you look him in the eye and wonder if he recognizes you as his daughter.
    September last year I went to say good-bye to my grandfather who also suffered from Alzheimer's.
    Once he was this lively old guy playing with young kids, racing them down the street with those short old little legs.
    And to have seen him in a state of where he does not recognize anybody anymore until that one moment where we got up to leave. I kissed him on his cheek whispering "I love you grandpa. I'll see you on the other side one day." Suddenly he looked up at me and grabbed my hand and replied. "I love you too Ashie."
    Silently as I tried to grasp what just happened he slipped back and his eyes turned cold. But those words I will forever cherish. The love he had for me brought him back to reality even if it only were for a few seconds.
    You are indeed very lucky to have all those letters. Enjoy them and cherish them.
    Beautiful story!

    1. Oh Ashleigh - your story brought tears to my eyes!

  4. What a beautiful post, Romy. Thank you.

  5. What a lovely. touching post, Romy. May you have much joy with your new little nephew.

  6. A beautiful and heartbreaking post, Romy. Sending love.
    And many congratulations on the birth of your nephew. xx

  7. A really beautiful post, Romy. I'm so glad you found those letters and have your lovely daughters with you, and can share the letters with them one day when they're older. Congratulations on your new baby nephew. xxx