Memoir

My mother and me

FOR A LONG time I could not make up my mind where and when to start my story, but eventually I decided to begin in the middle.

About ten years ago my sister told me that my mother had had another child, one we knew nothing about. We were standing in my kitchen, the day before she was due to go home to Germany.

'Mum was raped by three American soldiers shortly before the end of the war. One of them was black and he was the one that made her pregnant.'

'How do you know?' I asked, in shock.

'She told our brother a few months before she died.'

The conversation went on for a while; my face, ghost-white, slowly regained its normal hue. For the rest of the evening my moods and thoughts swung from incredulity to curiosity, from sadness to hatred.

My sister left the next day. My husband tried to gently coax me back to normality, but saying 'It was all a long time ago' did not really help my confusion.

 

I GREW UP in Germany, learning about World War II in school. As young teenagers my classmates and I were taken to the nearest concentration camp and told to stand in the fake showers, a few at a time. Each year we collected money for the upkeep of the war graves. At the beginning of winter we had to buy little candles to take home and put on the windowsill, to shine towards East Germany, to let the people know we had not forgotten them. Once a year each class packed up goodies to send to an address in the East. I am not sure whether my annual contribution, a packet of rolled oats, briefly improved their diet, but it was all my mother could afford.

My sister's news brought the war closer again. One uncle died in the war, 'lost in Russia'; other uncles were imprisoned by the various victors. Some came home quickly; others took years. We grew up with this knowledge, but thought that our mother and her first two children, who had been 'bombed out' of their flat in Munich, weathered the rest of the war all right, tucked away on her in-laws' farm.

In the time that followed my sister's revelation, my siblings reminisced. Some of our mother's strange behaviours began to make sense.

We had no way of tracing this new brother. Where was he? Should we even look? Worst of all: did he know that his father raped his mother? Best leave it alone, we thought.

But the seed was sown. My sister looked on the internet. We talked to our aunt who had been there when the rape happened. She had run away. It was hard to talk to her: it all happened a long time ago. She thought the church had dealt with it.

 

TWO YEARS AGO my sister phoned: 'Guess what happened? Our American brother's son turned up at Mum's house!'

He had been seeking a German passport, and after visiting the council building for records of his grandmother's address he walked to my mother's house. He rang the bell and my niece, who now lives there, answered the door.

'I'm looking for my grandmother – does she live here?' he asked.

My niece told him that my mother had died nine years ago.

He had known where to look, he explained, because his father stashed the relevant paperwork in his attic.

The holes in the story could now be filled in. Mum had given her black baby up for adoption in Germany. He lived in an orphanage until he was five, when he was adopted by an elderly African-American couple and moved with them to America. My brother later married and had three sons.

My parents went on with their lives. When my father came home from English imprisonment, six months after the war, mum was eight months pregnant. In the following years, my oldest brother recalls, she would periodically take the train to Munich. When asked what she did there, she would say: 'Mind your own business – you don't need to know!' My brother says now he realises that she was visiting her baby. We discovered she had met his adoptive parents several times and had stipulated that they be Catholic.

 

SHE'D HAD ANOTHER five children after my half-brother was born. There were too many, even with a nanny to help. My father died when I was four, and we moved to a bigger town. For my mother, in her early forties, the shock of losing her husband in an accident was profound. She never really wanted to talk about it, but every year on the anniversary she would say: 'It's your father's death day today.' This was so ingrained that I still don't recall his birthday, only the day he died.

She coped while my father was alive but less well after he died. In our early childhood half of us were sent to an affordable boarding school; my sister and I used to comfort each other when, during the autumn holidays, we were not allowed to go home because she could not cope. Eventually I became chronically sick and was allowed to leave the boarding school for good.

I only realised how extraordinary this family situation was when I became a mother myself. My mother was a highly educated young widow – she had completed a doctorate in economics before the war – with eight children and no husband she was out of her depth. It was a hard job, one for which she was mentally ill-equipped. When, like all kids, we would fight, she would retreat to the kitchen and sit at the table, her head bent down with both hands over it. She would sit there, sometimes quietly sobbing, waiting till it was all over. She used to go to church a lot – every day in later life. She said it gave her day a beginning, but now I think there was more to it. She lit many candles for my father and other remembered people. I imagine now that the occasional little red votive candle was for the little baby she gave away.

Another moment comes to mind. In my early teens I was sitting at the table totally absorbed in the local paper when suddenly my mother's hand, index finger outstretched, shot past my head and landed on an article. 'This is what happens to you if you're not careful,' she said sharply and walked off. It was an article about a rape in our town. I did not think about it any more until years later, when I told my girlfriends this little story, and they were all shocked and worried about the psychological impact that it might have had on me.

 

MY SECOND BROTHER was the 'golden boy'. Without my father he was the one who helped mother cope by reigning over us. He made us suffer. He decided how much weekly pocket money his little sisters got, depending on how well we had done our household chores. 'How much do I get this week? I think I did my job really well,' I would say. He would think a little while and decide how much the work was worth. It took me years to overcome my deference to men.

The loss of self-esteem experienced by women who have been raped is a well-known phenomenon, and in my mother's case it is obvious to me now, especially when I recall the sleeping arrangements in our second home. The house was the middle one of three terraces; it had four levels. The older children, all boys, had sunny bedrooms upstairs, with at most two to a room. My mother, my little sister and I shared the cellar, where the three of us slept in a double bed. I have begun to understand the loss of self-worth my mother must have endured to allow this situation. I try to slip into her mood of despair but tears stop me. How could she have been so subservient to my brothers? Why did she not put more importance on having her own space? I cannot resist the imagery of a life that started high, with academic success, but descended to a dark basement.

My second brother persuaded my mother to buy a family car. The expense, combined with the large mortgage, meant she had to rent out three rooms to students. Outside it made the family look fine, but inside the cost was high. To this day, for me BMW conjures poverty more than speed and German engineering. As children we were not aware of this deal my mother had made, subconsciously, with my brother. She needed his support and he was a handsome young man with credibility in the outside world.

With my mother's rape as a background, I have started to watch older people, the way they sit, the way they walk and dress. It is striking how much my mother seemed to want to blend into the background. Granted, her body was worn out by babies, but there was more to it. Her boring colour scheme, her overly sensible clothing, made her disappear and did not befit the way she started life. Her posture was so stooped she almost resembled an upright egg, another way not to stick out in the crowd.

As a child I was not really aware that we hardly ever had visitors. Sometimes relatives would come, but never outsiders or friends. The house was full anyway. She never made a cake, cooking was a chore; she disliked being a housewife, full stop. I ask her once whether she would marry again. A short sharp no was the answer. I was so taken aback that I did not enquire further.

It is this mental mess that I find hard to deal with. I wish I had been able to talk to her about it to find out about her sorrows; I wish she felt she could have told us about the rape and her baby when we were older and more worldly. Knowing her pain, I would have liked to be able to tell her that I loved her even more.

After the initial grand feelings at meeting the new part of the family, I find it a bit hard going getting to know each other more. I hear the right words but the feelings and emotions seem to lag – hopefully they will grow over time. I realise how comfortable I am with my old rabble of a family, most of them anyway. But I persist and send the odd email, ask for photos and so on. I will see my new brother again this year; we will meet in Germany; it will be nice to talk some more.

My mother tells me that she wants me to.

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