Part 1 of a series of posts about Crossing boundaries by Julia Wilson
My mother came to the UK from Germany in 1950 when she was 18 years old. It was all a bit of a mistake … she was supposed to have made the trip with her twin sister, but shortly before their departure date they had to undergo medicals and my aunt was found to be carrying a heart defect. She was told not to travel, so, not wanting to lose face, my mother came alone. She couldn’t speak more than a few words of English.
I grew up in the knowledge that my mother had always been bottom of the class when it came to the English language. I was also clear about why she and my aunt wanted to come here. Germany had been ravaged by the war. They were still, five years on, struggling for food and work was at a premium. It goes to show the futility of conflict like that when after six years of fighting your sworn enemy you think nothing of starting a new life in that enemy’s country.
Once here, and alone in lodgings, my mother had to start that life without the tool of language. She knew a couple of other German girls and being quite religious back then had the local Catholic community to become part of. I remember the sense of sadness I felt as a child when she told me two stories about those early days here in the city in which I’ve grown up and still love. The first is how she went to a local shop to buy some soup. The shopkeeper tried hard to work out what she wanted and eventually decided it was soap, and proudly handed her a box of flakes. She didn’t have the hear to tell him he was wrong, but my heart goes out to that kindly Englishman for trying so hard to help this young woman who became my mother. The second story she told me and which also tugged at my childhood (over) sensitivities is the one of the Christmas parcel my grandmother put together for her that first year. It was to give her something from home … something to remind her that they were all back there. The problem was that it didn’t get here until way after the festivities, by which time the miniature Christmas tree was dead and the fruit was dry and the cake was mouldy.
But there is another story from that time that fills me with pride for my own homeland, and that is the story of how my mother was welcomed here by the people she gradually got to know and the friends she would soon make. She got a job in a local electronics factory which brought her English on very quickly, helped by the other factory girls who, despite their own Leicester vernacular would not let my mother get a word wrong. They corrected her with a pendantry her old English teacher would be proud of and insisted on nothing less than the Queen’s English. There were lots of voices crossing boundaries … and to those voices I will be eternally grateful.