Childhood

I was born in 1955 in a small town in northern Germany...

I was born in 1955, in a small town in northern Germany to parents who had survived the war as children. My father was nine-years-old when WWII broke out, my mother was barely six.  My paternal Grandfather, not agreeing with the German regime, deserted. After an escape attempt, he was captured by the Russians and ended up in Siberia for five years. Luckily, he survived and, in 1945, slowly made his way back to Germany, forever changed and even quieter than before…as my Grandmother would later tell me.

 

While my Grandfather was gone, my father, being the second eldest and only boy, became the safeguard and the provider of the family. He escaped from the now Estonia region by horse and wagon with his mother and four sisters. They took very few possessions and, with the Russians on their tails, managed to make it to northern Germany - a small town ready to rebuild after the bombing stopped. Life was a struggle then, but everyone in the village was recovering from the same post-war shock. Most very poor and hungry, but just happy to have survived.

I don’t know much about my mother’s early years, only that she was the sixth of ten children. It was large family with lots of turmoil and challenging personalities, likely abuse. My maternal Grandfather, a farmer and devoted man of God, dictated the rules and was feared by all...including myself until the age of 15. I can still see his angry expression and hear his stern warning: “you have no say in this, you do as you are told.” The core message of his words would stay with me for many years. 

Later, he would be the final straw in my decision to leave. I remember listening to him thinking: I need to leave. I need to leave this family. There is no other way.

Salzgitter, 1957

It was 1949 when my parents met. A romantic three year courtship was followed by a glamorous wedding, which my paternal Grandmother did not agree with. It was my aunt who told me many years later that my mother acted like a spoilt princess, while my paternal Grandmother was a practical, down-to-earth woman who was always hands-on with her family. My father's family warned him about her high-maintenance tendencies, but he didn't listen. My mother also didn't want children, an unacceptable notion in those days. It was my father, the only boy, who pushed to have his bloodline and name carried forward. 

 

Three years into their marriage they were blessed with a baby girl, and all seemed well, at first. There are snapshots of me, a smiley baby with happy parents. My family was full of pride and I remember laughter and music in our home. We were poor, but we had the basics, and that’s all we needed. There was no car, no TV, no washing machine, no fridge, but my father had a strong work ethic and managed to bring those luxuries into our home later. 

Salzgitter 1959

We lived in a two-room flat with a tiny kitchen. The weekly bath was a huge production - I sat in a small iron cast bathtub filled with multiple kettles of hot water.

I have early memories of my parents working every evening, as they produced sweaters on a knitting machine. Every night I fell asleep to the sound of the machine whirring and the quiet murmur of my parent's plans to build their dream house. 

And they did. The house took three years to build and, when I was six-years-old, we moved into our new brick home. My parents always wanted a huge garden - my mother filled it with fruit trees and my father had his big bed of roses in all sorts of colours. I was thrilled because the garden had a sandbox and a big swing. It was a true family production. My mother set up the yard, my father and Grandfather built the house, and I helped mix the cement…or tried to. My father’s sisters visited with plates of food and my cousins in tow so I had someone to play with.

I still remember the day when my father finished building the swing. I loved it, and he was beaming from ear-to-ear when he proudly presented it to me. Built from basic iron pipes, the swing was very tall with a wide comfortable seat and thick ropes. I spent years on that contraption. Much to the dislike of our neighbours, I would crank up the volume on my portable radio every Saturday night at 7:00 p.m. and listen to the "Top 10 Hits."

1967 was the best year…The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Doors, Cream, Van Morrison, Jimi Hendrix.

 

I remember the discussions my parents had about school, how happy they both were when I passed the academic test and started Grade 1. I was barely five-years-old in April of 1960. Luckily, I was tall for my age so I didn't stick out, but emotionally I wasn’t ready for the large group dynamics and often felt intimidated by my older classmates. 

Even then I could not understand the cruelty and unkind behaviour I would observe. I often ask my father and teachers: “why are people so mean?”

In hindsight, was that a glimpse on what my journey would offer me? It would be a life full of observing, learning, and understanding the huge range of human emotion and behaviour. A life of contemplating pain.

 

My mom cried a lot on my first day of school. I did not understand why, but to her school was a big deal. It was the experience she was never afforded. 

Salzgitter, 1957

I did not realize the significance of this until much later, when our whole family had to face the disastrous impact poverty and inequality can have on someone's mental health.

Religion played a huge role in my childhood. After the war, many houses were destroyed and many churches, too. The rebuild was slow, and both my Grandfathers felt they had preaching abilities to lend to a the new congregation. Even my paternal Grandfather, being normally quite shy, sounded like a different person when he quoted the Bible. The village church was completed in the summer of 1961 and our church-going days in the Lutheran denomination began three-times a week…Wednesday and Saturday evenings, and Sunday afternoons. 

 

My father, playing many instruments (trumpet, violin, harmonica and piano) was summoned to be the organ player. He was reluctant, but had no choice as he later told me. My mother, obedient and unquestioning, refused to speak up whenever my father was asked to do something he didn’t want to. A big piece of our family’s happiness disappeared with all that religious influence, and the strictness of conduct that came with it.

Both my Grandfathers added their own beliefs and portrayed them as "God’s word", and with it came many rules. They had a rule for everything -  dress code, hairstyle, social conduct, speech, and more. These barriers became a real hinderance for me as listening to modern music and dancing was not allowed and regarded as sinful. 

I adored my father. We were close and he was always my rock. But he also taught me, unknowingly, many negative attributes that shaped my life. I adopted his habits of tremendous self-sacrifice to keep the peace, to avoid confrontation to be likeable, to allow boundaries to be blurred depending on the day, to run away from the problems at home and to escape into long hours at work. As family life dissolved into years of sadness, I became in many ways his duplicate - trying to fly under the radar and appease everyone. 

 

Going back, in October 1961, my brother was born and with that an avalanche of chaotic events followed, impacting all of us for years to come. My mother tumbled quickly into postpartum depression, a completely undiagnosed and misunderstood condition in those days. My paternal Grandmother volunteered to help out part time, but mostly my father and I took care of my little brother. I liked my Grandmother, but my mom despised her, putting my father between a rock and a hard place. He had no backbone to deal with the strength of character of either woman. I remember being very confused with the conflict and anger that existed between these three adults. My mother stopped smiling and became cold, and my father started working endless hours.

As my mother refused to bond with my brother at all,  my Grandmother and my father had to teach me to feed him, change his diapers, and rock him to sleep. These nurturing skills served me well later on in life when I had my own children, but as a child I believed they were simply just part of a sister's duties. I didn't realize that I had essentially mastered the basic skills of parenthood too young.

 

My responsibilities this early in life eventually made me resentful, as I began loosing out on playtime with my peers and was trying to hide the disfunction of our family life from my friends. Going to school for five hours each day was my highlight, as well as reading at night. I immersed myself into my dreamworld of foreign places full of adventure and beauty. It was my escape from the turmoil around me. I had no safe space so, when I could, I created my own with only a flashlight and a book…beneath the bedsheets so I wouldn't get in trouble.

Salzgitter 1962

Matters only got worse, and the day my mother tried to end her life was only the beginning to a very tumultuous downward spiral. I was barely seven-years-old and my brother was just five-months-old. My father had left for work at 5:00 a.m. and my Grandmother was sick with the flu. Our neighbour was supposed to come and take care of my brother while I was in school, but my mom changed the plan. She sent the neighbour away and instead told me to stay home from school and take care of my brother. 

 

I can still hear her words and see her tired eyes: “Mommy has a very bad headache and needs to take lots of medicine. Don’t come and disturb me until dad gets home.” Holding a bottle of vodka under her arm and a fistful of pills, she went upstairs into the bedroom. I was scared of my mother's anger by that point, and I had learned not to ask any questions or to expect much from her.

So, I never went into her bedroom,  took care of my brother, and read my books. At 3:00 p.m., my father came home and found my mother unconscious. The ambulance came and took her away. From that day, when doctors pumped out her stomach in the hospital, to the special Institution for mental illness where they administered shock treatments, it would be two years before I saw her again.

Meanwhile, life became more and more extreme, a daily roller coaster ride. My Grandmother needed to take care of my Grandfather, so my brother and I spent more time with my mother's unkind sisters. I remember one aunt, who had no patience for a crying baby, placed my crying brother in his travel box and closed him inside a closet. She told me to stay away from him or she would beat me. He screamed and, for a while, I covered my ears. When I could not stand it any longer, I snuck inside the closet, picked him up, and calmed him down. When we both came out, my aunt was furious and I told her: “I will tell my dad! You are a really bad person.” The look in her eyes told me to be weary of her. I held on to my sleeping bother in the hallway for hours until my father came to pick us up, hoping she would just keep her distance. I told him what happened and that I never wanted to go back there. I remember him saying: “We are done with mom’s family. They cannot be trusted.” I felt so relieved.

When my mom returned two years later, she was a completely changed person. Mostly withdrawn and sleeping a lot, never leaving the house or participating in any household tasks. She was constantly medicated with a drawer full of pills and became increasing violent in her behaviour towards my father and I. That's when the beatings began.

 

My brother remained safe from her outbursts, but lost out by not having a nurturing mother ever in his life. I had become the replacement homemaker, a mini wife of sorts, and was quite skilled in running the household at age nine. My father and I divided up the chores and I waited for him to come home from work to talk about our day.

with my parents in  1960 

For fun we would read, and play ping pong or badminton in the garden. My father and I cooked together and my Grandmother would come at times to make a few meals. She taught me to bake cookies, apple strudel, and other pastries. We had lots of fun baking together, it was her passion - something she wanted to pass down. I remember many stories she would tell me about people while we baked…about being content, making the best out of each situation, and that giving up was not an option. She was the only person in my family who tried to relate to my struggles then and, again, the only one to support me at 21 when I decided to leave Germany for Canada. Her glass was always more than half-full. She lived into her late 90’s and was active until 92 when she broke her hip falling down the stairs. I believe that my father and I were given a big portion of her will power, overall stamina and work ethic. It’s how we survived.

I can only assume the bond between my father and I enraged my mother. She did everything she could to minimize me. I had to do all the chores, and she would inspect them to great detail. Polishing between chair rungs, washing dishes, cleaning the floors. If anything was done wrong I would get smacked, usually in the face. I was sent to the grocery store with lists of food to buy, specific and detailed. I had to wander around the aisles, making sure not to miss anything, for I was sure to receive a beating if I did. I’d carry the bags home in my little arms, sometimes forced to take several trips, praying that everything was there and in pristine condition. If I accidentally crushed the corner of a cake or got the wrong type of anything, it would send her into a rage. It wasn't the shop clerks complaining about serving a child or the complexity of her demands that made my father finally pay attention. Instead, it was the day he came home to me sobbing after being hit and I finally spoke up against her that he decided to help my with the shopping. Everything else stayed the same, though. 

The years went by and, as my brother got older, the two of us would venture out and connect with the kids in the neighbourhood. By 12, I had figured out several games to play with younger children and I was even offered to help out at a birthday party. Eventually, I became known as the local birthday party organizer. I even got paid for my efforts. It was my first experience flexing my entrepreneurial skills and it fuelled my desire to work with children.

 

Over time, as a young leader in my neighbourhood, I developed a lot of empathy for the underdog and was outraged by unfairness. My father and I would have many discussions about the injustices happening all over the world and once we had a TV we would watch the news together, followed by lively discussions. 

During my last year in school I decided that I wanted to become a social worker. My father liked the idea of me working in childcare and found a church preschool program for my first practical year, which was the entry into the diploma program.

first day of school - 1960

I quickly realized we had different visions of my future. I wanted to work in an orphanage or a “home for troubled children” as they were called. My father wanted me to be a local teacher.

And mostly, I wanted out...out of my house, out of Germany, out of my life. I loved my father and my brother, but life with my mother and her verbal and physical anger on a daily basis had become unbearable.

 

The day she ripped pages out of my diary and cut up my favourite dress I had made up my mind. I was 13 then and I knew my father could not protect me. I was on my own to navigate through the mess. I learned a lot of survival skills, and I was good at assessing her before she’d make contact. I could outrun her and hide in certain parts of the house, and I usually knew to stay a safe distance away. It is so very sad, even today, as my mother has now been gone for five years, that we never made peace while she was alive. 

 

I will never forget that cold January night in Germany in  2013, I was driving back from the hospital in my father’s little manual car in the snowstorm after he had survived a heart attack. It was the night before my mother’s funeral. That night I realized the sadness of my brother. That night I felt so alone. I had the weight of my family on my shoulders and was just longing to be held by someone…someone to tell me “it’s going to be alright.” I stopped the car in a big field and stepped out just to scream at the sky: “What kind of a shit show is this?” All I could hear was the howling of the wind and feeling the snowflakes in my face.  

Sobbing in the car for I don’t know how long, I remembered the dream of the night before. It was my mother and I on a blanket in the summer and there was sun shining on our smiling faces. I started talking to her, angry at first and then becoming mellower. She never answered, but as my rage subsided I felt this need of finding out more. Determined, I started the car and drove to my dad's house, looking for the box of pictures he had stashed away. 

 

I found many treasures in there - a smiling couple on a motor bike, a woman and a child on a blanket, yellow ribbons and my parent’s wedding photo. I remembered my mother liked putting yellow ribbons in her hair, and in mine when I was little. 

The next morning, with a yellow ribbon in my hair, I picked up my brother  and we went to visit our father in the hospital. He was recovering slowly. Tears were flowing when I handed him the picture of the couple in love. At the funeral home I placed the wedding picture in front of mother’s coffin and my brother and I held hands and cried, both of us lost in our thoughts and emotions.  

Summer of 1955

We reflected that night over a few beers, feeling the sadness for all of us…the daily trauma we endured as children, the scars her anger had caused, the loss of a relationship for our parents, the loss of life not lived. 

It took her death in 2013 to finally open my heart and begin actively researching her life story. I learned too late about the injustices she had suffered during her childhood. It allowed me to understand and slowly start to forgive. Her life was a journey of incredible heartbreak as a child, with a few brief years of happiness with my father, but a life of misery from age 28 to 80.

I had already left home long before she passed away. After graduating early at barely 16, I packed my bags and left home. I had secured a practicum placement in a little town in the mountains two hours drive from my parents home. My dad was very sad. He said little as I told him I had forged his signature on the application and needed to do this for myself. My brother cried and my mom was expressionless. 

I closed that chapter of my life in a big way that day. I knew I was on my own. Really, I had been on my own for a long time. My father and I spoke little over the next four years and once I decided to immigrate to Canada with my boyfriend, whom he did not like, we barely talked for the next five years. Our relationship improved slowly after that, and he visited Canada frequently every other year to visit me and connect with my children.

with Hans in 1972

It took time, but we grew closer again and for many years we both would look forward to our long-distance Sunday phone call. I was there, next to him when he died. I was holding his hand and talking to him as he smiled one last time, listening to his words before he left: “Take care of yourself my sweet girl. Your passion for life is your true North.” 

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