Standing on her shoulders – thoughts about my grandmother

Standing on her shoulders – thoughts about my grandmother

Standing on her shoulders – thoughts about my grandmother

My grandmother in the 1920ies

We all have these rememberance days. The days when we remember  our beloved ones… those who left us too early. On these occasions, memories come up about their birthdays, deathday, wedding days …. I also have mine and I treasure them. Moments when time stands still and I am diving into time, putting fragments of the past together again. These days I am treasuring the memories of my grandmother. A few days ago I was sorting out some papers and a blue folder landed into my hands again. The memories of my grandmother …. A ‚project‘  we finally realized together, just a few years before she died. The blue folder contains about hundred pages – pages filled with family history, pale black-and-white pictures, dreams, stories about the war, love and broken dreams… I am flipping through the pages and I am getting lost in the pictures: my grandmother – her name was Elfriede – as a baby in the early 1920s, my grandmother as a young lady with a fashionable hat and self-made dress, „dernier cri“, my granny as an elderly  lady, bent over one of her oil paintings. And while I am reading some of the chapters again, I recall our intense conversations, that intimacy, her smile, her energy, her bright eyes. These are the moments when I really miss her, missing our regular Sunday morning telephone calls – always at 11 a. m. sharp – when we caught up with family stories and her plans for travelling. It was a nice chit-chat, I was always surprised about her energy, her curiosity and intense presence even though we were just talking on the phone, and she was hundreds of kilometers away. There were years, when we were able to see each other only 3 to 4 times, mostly at birthdays or Christmas day, because we were busy with our lives.
As such, she had never been a typical “Granny” to me. I don’t remember any cozy moments cuddling in her arms in a rocking chair and her reading stories to me. She was not cooking my favorite meals for me, but she wrote down the recipes of our traditional family Christmas cookies so that I could do it by myself; nevertheless, she sometimes spoilt me with fried potatoes, those ones only she could do.  She was different, in many senses. Her motto in life was “believe in yourself and always look ahead” … and somehow, this kept her moving on.

My great-grandparents 1919

Elfriede was the single child of a young couple, who had saved their love through World War I. They lived around Dortmund, in the center of North Rhine-Westphalia in Germany, where the coal and steel industry had been the most important employer. Both of her parents had been working in offices of a coal mine. My great-grandmother was a self-confident woman, who did not only manage the household and was the decision maker for the family but was also resolute enough to get her husband a job in difficult times in the 1920s. My great-grandfather was a quieter man; he loved art and in his spare time he was a dedicated painter and photographer. Both were looking carefully after her daughter, giving her a lot of freedom. Elfriede was a vivid girl, who loved sports and school. Although she was able to grow up almost carefree during these difficult times, things became more problematic for her parents. The Nazis came up. Her father did not want to join the party and in order to leave him in peace he and his wife decided that Elfriede should join the Nazi youth organization.

Like in many other German families, we never really talked about this period in the life of our grandparents. We talked about the Nazis, the war, the destruction, the expulsion, the fear, the prisoners of war, but never really about their times in the Nazi youth organization. I was always told that “it was an organization with a lot of ‘leisure activities’.” And I listened to a lot of stories at family reunions, what happened to the men during war times, when they were fighting, but there was a lot of silence about the women. What they have done. Somehow, they managed to survive, this was the impression I got… and at that time, I was far too young to ask too many questions.  It was only later when I learned more about the atrocities of the German history, that I tried persistently to ask more precise questions; I wanted to know how it had been possible that the German population had become so addicted to Nazi ideas. But often I only got evasive answers: “You know, we tried to somehow survive, not to be conspicuous…these were difficult times” – these were the answers I got. And most of the time, I had to accept that my grandparents didn’t want to talk to me about this part of their history. They wanted to look ahead, trying to forget, to repress the memories. Instead I dealt intensively with my German past from other sources. Among others, this is one of the reasons why I tried to convince my grandmother about “our project”, to write about her life. I wanted to learn more about my family history, I wanted to understand. It took me years to make myself heard … and it was only in her nineties that my grandma finally consented. And while we were working on this text, she opened up, little by little and sometimes she allowed me a deeper, more intimate look into her past. Still not the full perspective and still not giving detailed answers to my questions about political events, but at least I learned more about her life and her thoughts before I got to know to her as my grandmother.

Coming back to her time at the Nazi youth organization, my grandmother stressed that she loved the sports activities, being together with friends. She could even travel to Poland with them (before the war), something exceptional for a girl of her age at that time.
While discussing her text, my grandmother repeated that she wasn’t interested in politics at that time and at the age of 11-15 years old, she was much too young for it. We couldn’t go deeper into it…

Elfriede left high school when she was 15 and joined a commercial school, where she trained as a secretary. Still ambitious and curious, she did a lot of other things on the side: continuing English and French courses, sewing her own dresses, and even playing the accordion at Sunday afternoon tea parties in a well-known café. In times before Facebook and other platforms, it was common to get to know each other through personal ads. By answering one of those in 1938 my grandmother got to know to Heinz, a young man from the South of Germany. They both loved English and together they travelled to the UK. I am still impressed that my great grandparents agreed to this trip: my granny was only 18 years old and the two of them were not married. In pre-war times and the difficult political situation in Europe, this might have been seen as a short escape from everyday life.But it didn’t last long: when Hitler gave his speech in the Sport Palace in Munich on 26.09.1938, asking “to bring the Sudeten Germans home to the Reich” their British hosts advised them to return immediately to Germany because they could no longer guarantee their safety. And this is what they did … and soon after that, Heinz had to join the army; he did not survive the war.

Heinz (no 1) and Elfriede in London

Herbert and Elfriede shortly after their marriage in 1941

During war times my grandmother tried to continue with her everyday life: working as a secretary, learning languages.
In 1941, she got to know another man, Herbert. They got married at Christmas in 1941 … a war marriage, like so many at that time. It did not last very long; they got divorced a couple of years later, but they had a little daughter, my mother, who was born in 1942.

When the bombing of North Rhine-Westphalia intensified, my grandma decided to take her mother and daughter to safety in Bavaria. Her father had to stay in Dortmund. Bavaria was a fresh start and my grandma had to take care of her family needs. She was asking around for a job, ready to accept any offer, and got to know that a teacher was needed in the neighboring village. Even though she didn’t have the necessary qualifications, she took courage and applied for the job … and she got it! At the beginning of the new school year, 80 pupils of different levels were waiting for her. Without further experience, but with a strong will to make it happen, my grandmother at the age of 24 years jumped into cold water and learned how to swim. She made it, working hard to prepare the courses to guarantee good quality of her lessons. The students’ parents thanked her with food; in this way it became easier for Elfriede to support her family.

Elfriede, her mother, her father, her daughter

Soon after the war ended in 1945, my grandmother wanted to head back to Dortmund to reunite with family: with her father, her aunts and uncles, her cousins. But in the chaos that dominated in those times, it was very difficult to  travel with her mother and her little daughter – only 3 years old at that time – and the rest of their belongings 800 km back to the North. She was in charge, and it became a heavy burden, because infrastructure, like train routes had been interrupted; permits, shelter and food were needed. In that chaos she even got separated from her family and had to find her way back without money or provisions. At that time, where communication was nearly impossible – neither by phone nor by letter – the family members had promised each other to meet again in their family apartment in Dortmund. And when she finally got there, the house was bombed and did not exist anymore; they had to look for shelter elsewhere. But despite all the problems, the most important thing was that the four of them were still alive: her father, her mother and her daughter.

Elfriede found a place to live for her family in the basement of the office building her father was working for. With what was  leftover from their furniture they tried to make it as cozy as possible. Hectic times followed chaotic times and in these new post-war times, people tried to build up a new life, to organize the economy. As it happened, the other rooms in the basement they lived in had to be rented out as offices. And as Elfriede had heard about a good offer to buy “Olympia” typewriters, she came up with an idea: she wanted to open a private school to teach typewriting, stenography and other secretarial stuff. Today you would say that she wanted to start up a new business based on four “Olympia” typewriters, but in those times, things were described in a less sophisticated way.
To get the license for a private school, she had to pass exams for teaching … and with her experience from Bavaria, she managed them in a blink of an eye. So, shortly after passing the exams she was ready to open the doors of her private school. With pride she hung up the wooden sign with the name of her school above the entrance door. Publicity was necessary and as Facebook and Instagram didn’t exist yet, she spent a considerable sum of money for advertisements in the cinema. And she became successful: within a very short time she not only got 70 students, but also got well-filled order-books for the different services she offered, like translations, help with administrative letters. In this way, she could not only feed her family and afford the rent of the apartment they moved in, but within a short time she was also able to buy car: a “Volkswagen”!

My grandmother in her first car: a “Volkswagen” (!)

I cherish this picture of her – I have it in front of me while writing these lines -: my grandmother as a young dynamic woman, wind in her hair, broad smile – sitting in this VW. This snapshot says it all: She made it! A self-made successful businesswoman, single mum, looking after her parents, starting a start-up from scratch. Of course, she could only make it, because her mother was looking after her daughter and took care of the household. But: with her boldness she succeeded to get back on her feet in these difficult times.

And on top of it, through her new business she got to know to another man, Karl, who became her 2nd husband in 1949. The 1950s became quieter but remained nevertheless busy times for my grandmother: with Karl she built a house with their own hands; it took them more than four years to finish it. They integrated a small supermarket into the house, which was managed by Karl. It was a good idea, but it gave even more work to my grandma. She had given up her school and was working again in a company, but to organize the supermarket she had to go to the wholesale market in the morning and in the evenings, she helped Karl with the paperwork of the shop. The result: many extra hours of work in addition to her original job.

The house in 2022 – the big windows are a reminder of the former supermarket

In-between this hectic timetable my mother was somehow growing up. I already knew that her childhood had been completely different from what I had a chance to live, but only by listening to my grandma, I got a better picture, what it meant to grow up in these times. It looks like that there was never really a place for “mother-daughter” quality time. Somehow my grandma seemed to be always busy and my mother kind of went along. So, my great-grandmother became her safe harbor, looking after her, bringing her up … a story that is known in many ways in other families, too. And later, when my aunt was born, they all had to learn – in one way or other – to handle a patchwork family.

The years passed, they were all busy with the shop, finalizing the house, school, job etc., but some kind of normality came back with family meetings, birthday parties, Christmas celebrations etc.. Obviously, my grandparents managed to have a decent income, but it was not spent on travelling or costly leisure activities. Most of the money was invested back in the house and in the shop. The supermarket was well appreciated in the neighborhood, but ran into financial difficulties, when the first self-service supermarkets opened and in 1970 it closed its doors.

By that time both daughters had already left the house and got married. And so, my great-grandmother, who was getting old, moved in and my granny  wanted to look after her. But my grandmother was still a busy woman, who just had opened a new chapter in her career: she went back to teaching, now mainly under the roof of the Chamber of Commerce. Again, she was self-taught, but over the years she gained a lot of respect because of her knowledge and her teaching methods. When I was born and started spending some family time at my grandparents’ house, I mostly remember a building site, because the house was still  under permanent renovation and reconstruction, noise and a grandma, who was preparing seminars and a grandpa, who was cooking or playing the piano or was listening to classical music, smoking a cigarette. The cakes for the traditional afternoon coffee were not homemade but were coming from a bakery nearby or from the freezer. Somehow, I did not fit in, when my parents left me there on Saturday afternoons, because they had other things to do. There was no grandpa, grandma visits to a museum, to visits to parks or book-reading; sometimes I was able to help my grandpa in the garden, cutting roses. And like my mother in her time, I somehow went along, bringing my toys, playing by myself. I also brought my flute, and my grandfather was patient enough to accompany me on the piano – even though he was very disappointed that I never showed interest in learning the piano myself.

It was only years later, when I was an adult and had to take exams in economic subjects myself, that my grandma and me were able to really connect. There she was in her element: teaching. I got to know a different woman, a different one to the one I knew from the family table. A dedicated woman, who was in the details, a woman who wanted to make you understand the bigger picture. Even though she never studied at university, she did not travel or had the company of intellectual people, she found access to difficult subjects and was able to transfer it to her students. And she was successful: most of them passed the exams with good marks, staying in contact with her for years.

In my family we all went on with our lives; I moved to different cities, managed my studies and came home only occasionally. My grandparents were part of the broader family, not a priority, but we had our rituals: the Sunday morning telephone calls. Life changed abruptly when my grandfather suddenly and peacefully died in 1990. All of a sudden, my grandma had to handle life by herself. Even though I dare to say that their marriage was not a honeymoon till the very end, they somehow lived side by side in this big house, which represented their common success story, built on the ashes of their scattered lives after  WWII.
And now my grandma had to realise that she could not finance and manage her life’s work anymore. Even though she was still working, Karl’s pension was not there to make it happen. Together with her daughters she decided to sell the house, certainly one of the most difficult decisions in her life, and she moved into a smaller apartment near my parents’ house. While visiting her in her new surroundings, I could feel that it was tough on her, but she made an effort. As her life’s motto says: “Look ahead”. And she did.

After some time, she got her new rhythm: still working a lot, giving seminars in different places, going there by car. At the age of over 70 (!) she got back on her feet again. And then I got a phone call. I still remember it: a Sunday morning, our usual hour, I was pregnant with my 2nd child, busy in the house and my grandma asked me: “Darling, are you as happy as I am?” The question left me a bit speechless, and I could only stammer: “Pff, I don’t know. What happened to you?” “I am in love”, she answered, and through the phone I could feel her happiness, her bright smile, her bursting enthusiasm to let me know. I remained silent and the only thing I could think to ask was: “Who is it? Do I know him?”. “Perhaps”, she answered, “it is my neighbor: Heinz.” So another Heinz had entered her life at the age of 72 and this one became a profound game-changer to her routine.

Heinz (no 2) and Elfriede

Even though he and Elfriede had already been living next door to each other for 2 years, they only had little contact. This only changed when Heinz’ wife died, and his sister had asked my grandmother to keep an eye on him. So they deepened the contact, starting with chats in the corridor, followed by invitations for dinner or theater plays. Heinz had a completely different approach to life than my grandparents: Heinz was a pensioner and loved activities, company and driving his car. He bought my grandmother hiking shoes, so that they could walk together in the woods. To make an educated guess: it might have been her first pair … He introduced her to the members of his hiking- and dancing-club. It happened that my grandmother and Heinz spent the whole weekend together, being occupied with dancing, walking, visiting other places. Feelings were growing between them.
Only later, while working on her memories, my grandma opened a box to me, showing me the love letters she and Heinz exchanged at that time. It was a very intimate moment because the words she was writing were expressing deep emotions, a high sensitivity, love and happiness. It was wonderful to know that my grandma had a chance to experience these deep feelings and happiness again at that age.
And with Heinz joining our family, we all became witness that it is obviously never too late to change your way of living. As life with Heinz got very busy with new experiences, my grandmother (finally!) quit her job and became a pensioner. Heinz was very happy to drive her through half Europe, showing her new places. They also started travelling on cruises and sending us postcards from different harbors. But they were not able to make the trip to the Niagara Falls, because their doctor strongly advised against it. It looks like that my grandma enjoyed it to the fullest: she was making plans for the trips, Heinz would drive her; she was taking the pictures, Heinz would frame them – perfect couple, perfect harmony. My grandma felt like a queen, never objecting to new adventures – sometimes it looked like that she had a great appetite for them, because she had waited so long for them.

And the times between their travels were not boring for the two of them. Encouraged by Heinz, my grandma rediscovered her talents and love for painting, a heritage from her late father. As always, when she did something, my grandma was absorbed by her work 100 %. First, she concentrated on replicating well-known paintings, like van Gogh, Spitzweg etc..; later her own sketches followed.

My Grandma in front of her paintings

These were pretty good and more and more people around her, including the family, got interested in having them. And my grandma made it to the next level: she participated in different exhibitions and she was able to sell a good number of them.
And something else  happened: Now my grandma took the time and had the patience to teach her great grandchildren to paint and how to use colors and thanks to her introduction, both my kids developed a love for art and creativity.

Heinz and Elfriede lived happily together. And at the age of 85 years, my grandmother married the love of her life. It was a secret ceremony; they just went to the townhall and signed the papers. None of the family knew or were even invited. I was sad about it, because I really would have loved to make a toast at my granny’s wedding … Some years later Heinz got dementia and he had to be moved to a nursing home. This was another difficult decision for my grandma to make. But she tried to make the best out of it, visiting him every day, reading to him, showing him pictures of their common travels. Heinz died at the age of 89 years. My grandmother repeated it several times: the 15 years she lived with him had been the happiest in her life.

And there she was. On her own again. She stayed in the common apartment, life followed the same routine: her paintings, visits from family and some friends. And the celebrations for her 90th birthday was a big feast. And as she got weaker, she was moving around the house with her rollator, nursing services were coming every day, her daughters visiting her as often as possible. And she continued painting – her medicine, her way to “look forward”.
In 2015 she had a fall and was taken to the hospital. That was the time when she decided to move to a nursing home; she wanted to be looked after. It was summer and I was on Ikaria at that time, devasted, wanted to return immediately to be by her side, but the family calmed me down, telling me that there was nothing I could do. I still regret my decision, because “just being there” in this kind of difficult situation is sometimes the best you can do.

When I saw her again, I had to swallow back my tears. Already the smell of the nursing home, the atmosphere and the routine in the corridors made me feel sick. And to see my grandma – had she shrunk? – in the big chair, bent over a crossword, was a picture I was not used to. Now she seemed to have become old. She (!) tried to cheer me up, telling me about the good services around, the kindness of the nurses … and that she was missing nothinig.  What a liar she could be! Of course, she was missing her paintings, all the photographs, her furniture. She could only take few of her belongings to this tiny room in the nursing home. The rest of her “life” – her books, her porcelain, her clothes, her souvenirs – were either given away or thrown away. My mother and my aunt “cleaned” the apartment while I was still away, keeping just some memories. I missed my chance to get mine, especially her love letters to Heinz which had been precious to me.

So my grandma and me developed a new routine. On top of our Sunday calls, I tried to visit her as often as I could. Sometimes I was driving the whole way from Brussels to Dortmund and back within a day (a 6 hour drive) just to have a coffee with her in the afternoon and see her for a couple of hours. She was always enchanted, nicely dressed, even with a little bit of lipstick … never letting herself go. But little by little she became weaker. She had started on her last journey. I still believe that she consciously made this decision: she wanted to leave, because she had lived her life. She got it all. Nothing more to come.

At that time, I sat down one night, writing a farewell letter to my grandma. I knew that while reading it to her, she would not be able to understand it any longer, but I felt the need to say the things I never was able to say to her. I thanked her for being there for me, even though she had never been “a typical” grandma for me. But: she comforted me in very difficult times in my life – and there had been many. She always encouraged me to believe in myself, to reach for higher goals, not to give up. In many ways she had been an example – being curious, accepting challenges and just go for it. I put this letter in an envelope, waiting for the right moment to deliver it.

When my Mum called me to tell me that grandma’s life may come to an end soon, I jumped into the car, driving as fast I could. It was not too late, but she was already in a difficult situation, she didn’t recognizing me. I asked the nurse to prepare me a chair, so that I could be with her through the night. I wanted to be there, holding her hand, when it would be time for her to go. We spent the most intensive and intimate time of our lives together. My grandma was very restless, I was anxiously listening to her breathing, not getting a rest. And she made it through the night, she tricked me …. and in the morning, when I had to leave, she was completely there, she was very lucid then: she waved me good-bye – a smile on her lips, her hands forming wings and her eyes sparkling again.

This is how I remember her. Those eyes, those hands …. As I was leaving I gave my letter to one of the nurses, asking her to read it out to her in case that grandma wouldn’t make it till my next visit.
A couple of days later, I was on a business trip in Berlin, my phone rang. In the hustle of the central station my mother told me that my grandma had passed away. She died in her sleep … and that day the nurse had been reading my letter to her, putting it in her coffin. It was burned with her…

My grandma’s funeral was a small one. I gave a speech and this was my chance to remember her again as a multi-faceted character: a woman who apparently could simply lock some events in her life away, a self-made business woman, a woman who focused on her goals, a woman who was not able to be a “typical” mother or grandmother, but also a woman who was curious, who accepted challenges and tried to walk independently on her own feet. This is the legacy she left to us …
Did we, the next generation, accept it? My mother? Certainly. Myself? Perhaps, but with more questions. My daughter: perhaps with even more questions.

I am still visiting my grandma. She has an anonymous grave, as was written in her will. But the cemetery gardener told my mother roughly where it might be located, and so I am sitting there from time to time with my mother on a bench and we are chatting about the past. I am now asking my mother what was her experience with her mum as a child, how she handled the patchwork situation, the absence of her mother as she was always busy. There aren’t too many answers, yet. “Somehow I went along”, my mother says.
But perhaps she will give me some more answers when it is our time to sit together to write her memories. I am still not heard … but hopefully there is still time. My mother will only be 80 this year …

My grandmother – standing on her proper feet, finding her place in society –


(@ Birgit_Urban)