Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Tante Gertraut

Tante Gertraut – May 20, 1918-August 25, 2013
Gertraut and Ruth - in about 1936.
Andreas and I had been dating for a few months when Tante Gertraut and I met for the first time in the autumn of 1975. His mother Ruth had died ten years earlier, and TG (as we called her) had been a second mother to him. She had also been a mother to him when he was only two years old, and recovering from an enlarged heart. It was thought that the mountain air would help, and it may have been that which saved his life. Because of the aftermath of WWII, his parents had been unable to join him for six months or so, and he had stayed with TG when she worked as a cook at Hirschegg, a ski resort in the Austrian Alps.
Andreas and Tante Gertraut at Hirschegg.
As we chatted over schnitzel and salad on the first day that we met, she told me that there were many kinds of Mennonites. There were the Russian Mennonites, and there were the German Mennonites. There were the ones who made this kind of soup and the ones who made that kind of soup. Her kind, she assured me, was the very best kind of Mennonite: The Dancing Mennonites. As Andreas and I were driving home, I asked him about this. Apparently, I had misheard. It was: Danzig Mennonites. From Danzig. Not dancing.
Making a pie at Hirschegg. She was famous for her desserts..
Years later, I popped into her home on 34th Ave. in Vancouver, unannounced, and found her seated at her kitchen table with several of her neighbours, recent immigrants from India. This was not unusual. On this day, she had a set of writing exercise books out on the table, the kind where each page was dedicated to a single letter. You probably remember those kinds of scribblers: three lines, with the middle line dotted to make it easier to distinguish an upper case letter from a lower case letter. Her neighbours may not have been literate in English, but TG was determined that they would pass their citizenship exams. They were halfway through the letter O.
TG and her neighbours, including Kuldip.
At the memorial ceremony, Kuldip, who had known TG ever since she was a child, said that Tante Gertraut was the most important person in her life. This doesn’t surprise me. There are many  who feel that way. In the year that TG lived with us after her hip fractures, we had dinner most Wednesdays with a friend and her nephew, Sean, who she and her husband were fostering. Sean had not had an easy life up till then. After TG met him for the first time, she summed him up in seven words: He’s a good boy. Hungry for love. Every time Sean visited, he went right up to her and took her hand in his, before greeting anyone else. The bond between the two of them was as visible as light.

As it turned out, although she may not have been a dancing Mennonite, she was something of a black sheep Mennonite, and no longer attended regular church services. This didn’t mean that she wasn’t spiritual. When Andreas & I were caring for her in the year that she lived with us, we took turns sleeping on a pallet on the floor beside her bed. Often in the darkest part of the night, she would be anxious and fretful. Often, she would recite the 23rd psalm. She recited it in German, which I cannot do, but I do know the words well in English:

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.

In the spring of that year, I usually wheeled her out to our dining room window just before dawn to watch the sun come up. Each morning, she would marvel anew at the gift of cherry blossoms. Every time, she would say, It will be the last time I see them. She was so ready to go, but her body continued on for another decade, even though vascular dementia had claimed her mind. It is one of my profound regrets that we were not able to honour her wish to die in her own home, on 34th Ave. in Vancouver. That home meant so much to her. Her brothers and her nephews had made it possible.

During the year that she lived with us, I had the privilege of getting to know – much better than before – Ushi, Trudi, and Karin, her nieces and friends. They came and stayed with us for days and weeks in order to give us a break. So did our daughter, Sabrina, who lived in Victoria at the time. So did Andreas’ sisters. Our daughter Vanessa still lived with us then, and she too was part of the ongoing care. So were our friends. Andreas and I could not have done it without them. 

I often think of the trek that Gertraut and her family took near the end of the war, with dozens of others from their farm. I heard more stories about it at the memorial. The menfolk in the family had all been away, and the women had been running the farm. They had been forced to suddenly pack up, and to leave everything behind, except for what could fit into a few wagons and wheelbarrows. They marched for days in the snow, foraging for food, keeping only one day ahead of the advancing Russian troops. Tante Gertraut packed a pistol. She and Tante Hannah cooked by the side of the road, cooking enough to take care of all the children, the elderly members of the family, and the women who were pregnant. It was winter, often as cold as twenty below. It took sixty-seven days to reach safety, and by then the first blossoms were out.
The family home at Reichfelde - lost as a result of the war.
When Sabrina turned 16, it turned out that she had the same shoe size as Tante Gertraut, and Gertraut gave her the very same boots that she had worn on that trek. These are the boots of courage and tenacity. SO much had happened in her life. Her father had died when she was five years old, and two years later her mother had remarried. In one fell swoop, she had gone from being an only child to having eight new, totally rambunctious, brothers and sisters. She then had married just before the war, at age twenty, and within the year her husband was declared missing at the Russian front. It would take a decade until his death would be officially confirmed by the Red Cross. She came to Canada, to join her sisters and brothers, and pretty much functioned as indentured help on their farms in the Fraser Valley. That was the way it was done back then. It wasn't what you might call an easy life.

After my mother died in 1984, our daughters adopted her as their new grandmother. No one could have done it better. She taught them how to fold straw and make Xmas stars. How to carve butter into roses. How to decorate a salad with dancing radishes. They loved and adored her, and she loved and adored them right back.

Tante Gertraut, rest in peace.

2007 - with her older brother Siegfried.
There will be a celebration of life at our house October 12th. If you wish to join us, please let me know. If you would like to donate in her memory, may I suggest a donation to a care home in your own community. She received exquisite care at Totem Lodge in Sechelt for last ten years of her life. No one could have done better.
Thanks to cousin John for the flowers. The pink tablecloth was a gift from TG to him and his wife at the time of their wedding. The urn was handcrafted by Andreas, made out of local woods.
PS. As I mentioned, she was renowned for her cooking. One of her recipes, for Tee Gebaek aka Linzer Cookies,  is published in Mennonite Girls Can Cook.