Part 2 of a series of posts about Crossing boundaries by Julia Wilson
By the time I was born my mother’s English was fluent, although it has its idiosyncracies, such as Oh aren’t I’m awful when she was being self-deprecating. And she has always said ‘Five and twenty to’ instead of ‘twenty five to’ when telling the time. But she had different types of communication, she learned to communicate with her personality, too, becoming the ‘nice German girl’ that people got to know.
She met my dad because he was living with his aunt across from her lodgings and he wanted to learn German. It turned out that she wasn’t very good at teaching it and he wasn’t very good at learning it so they decided to go out with each other instead.
Types of Communication
As a child I knew nothing else than this bilingual mother and the tales of far-away relations in another country. In a world where we speak nostalgically of MSN Messenger, it’s a stretch now to go back to those times before mobile phones, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Whatsapp … even email. We didn’t have a telephone in the house but our neighbours did and if a call came through for us they’d bang on the adjoining wall, just as they did when out parents were out and we were making too much noise. My mother would march round and take the call, which would always be from Germany (few of the family friends had phones). I look back and marvel at this arrangement, this communication – no words needed.
One day, when I was nearly six, I came home from school to find my mother crying in the kitchen. She held a letter in her hand – it was from her twin, my aunt. It had been written a few weeks previously when she was preparing to go into hospital for a major operation on her heart, the heart that had prevented her from coming over with my mother in 1950. The letter had arrived after my aunt had been admitted, and on this day, my mother had had a feeling of foreboding, as twins often do. When the bang on the wall came, she knew it was Germany, she knew it was about her sister, and she knew she was dead. The operation had been successful, but whilst my aunt was in recovery, the hospital suffered a severe power cut and the second generator had failed to work. That night my mother gathered us – myself and my two brothers – on to a train to Harwich from where we sailed to the Hook of Holland. I wouldn’t return to school, or my father, for six weeks.
Our cousins – my aunt had had two boys and a girl as had my own mother – are older than us. I remember one of them, the middle one, trying to speak to me. He had no English apart from ‘Are you my friend? I was a shy 6-year-old and he was 18. I hardly dared breathe in those early moments over there. We spent those six weeks moving between my aunt’s flat and my grandmother’s house and we could talk to nobody properly but each other. Yet somehow it worked. Again, we have have so many different types of communication and on this occasion we didn’t need a common language to communicate. My memories of that time are of the food and the smiles and the welcome. And the sadness. And the strangeness of not being able to understand what my own mother was saying for large parts of the time, and yet knowing that she hadn’t changed, was still my mother. It was a heady experience … and that cousin, now 62, still has no English, but I am most certainly his friend.