Sunday, November 11, 2007

I remember

How do you remember something you have never experienced?

It’s a struggle isn’t it, to try and fully respect and appreciate the suffering inflicted by war? You hear stories and you try to imagine what it must have been like, but for the most part our lives are so comfortable, so bountiful, that the horrors of war seem like a distant passion play.

Like all of you, I have read about the impact of war in countless history books. I have proudly worn my red poppy every November. I have listened to pundits and veterans talk about their experiences.

But it was only in a Rome hotel room seven years ago that I truly heard, and began to understand, how war had shaped a person I love.

In the fall of 2000 a girlfriend and I visited Europe, along with my mother and the woman who would became my mother-in-law. Our destination was Prague by way of Vienna but we had a stop-over in Rome and spent a full day and night in the city.

After a red-eye flight and a day of exploration we found ourselves in a tiny hotel room with a view of St. Peter’s Basilica. Mom and I hunkered down in one room together, but we were jet-lagged and couldn’t sleep.

And so we talked for a while. About life, about family, about a million dreamy, inconsequential things. Then there was a knock at the door. It was my-mother-in-law. She couldn’t sleep either and had heard us talking. Could she join the conversation?

There is something about the darkness, I think, that frees people to speak of the things that are too raw, too fragile to withstand daylight’s glare. And so as the moonlight streamed across the ancient city’s rooftops and into our room, she talked.

It had been years since she had been in Rome, she said. Just being in Europe brought back memories.

My mother-in-law was five years old when German forces attacked the Netherlands. She lived in the capital De Hague throughout the Nazi occupation.

She remembered that they were always hungry. That they boiled and ate tulip bulbs to stave off starvation. There were no dogs and cats left in the city, but even as a little girl she knew better than to ask where they had gone.

They were always cold in the winter, she said. There was no heating fuel so they burned everything they could to stay warm. City residents would bicycle to the outskirts of the city to forage firewood but the Nazis would set up checkpoints and confiscate their findings when they returned to the city.

She chuckled remembering how she and her little friends would ride their bikes out beyond the checkpoints to warn people to take an alternate route. She remembers the Nazis discovering what they were doing and how she peddled furiously away on her little girl bike as gunshots rang out behind her.

It was probably four in the morning. We were mesmerized. Her voice was quiet, but strong with a lilting Dutch accent. I remember meeting my mother’s eyes across the room and seeing that she too, was crying. I remember bowing my head and not wanting to make a noise, lest it break the spell.

She told us about her brother Eugene who was in the resistance movement and how she felt so proud of him, but was riddled with anxiety for her mother, who could barely function, so terrified was she that Eugene would be caught. She remembered that he would return home occasionally with a precious block of cheese that all the neighbors would share.

She remembers the Nazi officers searching their home for her brother. They found him eventually, she said. He was sent to a concentration camp.

No one ever saw Eugene again but after the war one of his cellmates from the camp tracked down her family and knocked on their door. He presented her mother with a note Eugene wrote for her before he died.

Her mother died shortly afterwards, mostly of a broken heart.

My mother-in-law was ten.

Her father was never the same, she said. He remarried a woman who didn’t like her so she joined the air force as soon as she turned 18 and immigrated to Canada at the first possible opportunity a few years later.

Her remembrances, that surreal night in Rome, are something I will never forget. When I told Rob, he said I had learned more in that evening about his mother’s childhood than he had ever known. I am not surprised. Our parents are not like us. They do not value the constant self-analysis in which we indulge. Their hearts are strong because they protect them, they do not bear their souls for the quick fix of a sympathetic ear.

My mother-in-law today is a happy, vibrant woman. She plays competitive tennis at the provincial level. She is a superb gardener. She plays so energetically with Graham that the mere mention of her starts him shrieking and running about the room.

When they play and the rise and fall of their laughter echoes throughout our beautiful home, I wonder if she is struck by the incongruity between the childhood she had and the one Graham is experiencing.

Does she look into his eyes, so full of unbridled joy, and feel sorrow for the little girl whose childhood was marked by fear and hunger, loss and death? Or is Graham’s fearlessness, borne of absolute security, representative of the ultimate triumph of good over evil?

She must know that this child, this flesh of her flesh, will never fully understand what her childhood was like. She must know that none of her children or grandchildren will. It is a testament to her grace that she reads my musings here and isn’t disgusted by the pure self-indulgence of them. Small wonder that she only smiled bemusedly at this recent post in which I worried that I had somehow scarred Graham by administering a smack in response to what was clearly unacceptable behavior.

How do you remember something you have never experienced?

It’s not easy to take a step back and realize that most of choices we agonize over are pure luxuries, most of our worries as inconsequential as dandruff.

But when I find myself worrying about time or money, or feeling hurt or slighted or frustrated or uncertain, I take a step back and remember the stories my mother-in-law told me that night in Rome.

I remember.

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Anonymous said...

That is a beautiful, beautiful story.

Laura said...

What a great story. It is amazing what people must go thorugh during a time of war. I have some writings from my grandfather who was a POW and have been encouraging my grand-father-in-law to tell his story to preserve it.
Thank you for sharing.

Dayna said...

Amazing. So worth reading. I wish your Mother in Law would blog - or tell you more.

S said...

What a poignant and lovely post. Stories like your MIL's need to be told, so that we never forget.

I'm so sorry about the loss of her brother. For him to have been in the resistance -- how very brave, extraordinary for sure.

Anonymous said...

Splendid post about a splendid woman.

b*babbler said...

(I'm so behind on my reading, so sorry this comment is late)...

But your mother-in-law's story is amazing, and beautiful. What an incredible woman.

And what an amazing way for the story to be related.

Just incredible, and well-worth preserving.

a kelly said...

These are the blog posts I love. Poignant, real people stories. I wonder about that generation, their strength and courage compared to what you describe as our self indulgence. They were amazing and worthy to remember.
Thanks for sharing her story.

Beth from the Funny Farm said...

This post of yours brought tears to my eyes.

(My memories are different, but I too remember a much harder life.)

Very moving.... Thank you.

RiverPoet said...

I'm getting ready to visit the Holocaust Museum with one of my college classes. I've never been to it, but I'm looking forward to the trip.

When you wrote this post, I had only begun to blog and hadn't discovered you yet. I'm so glad you linked to this in today's post about your MIL's battle with cancer. I wish you and her and the entire family the best. I hope you are surrounded with kind people and lots of resources. You all remain in my prayers. What an amazing woman she must be. Can I have her?

Peace - D

Anonymous said...

I just discovered your blog, so decided to read the best of. This post was really wonderful and touching. Thank you for sharing.