Now that I am the family “matriarch”, I wish that I had asked more questions and paid more attention to my parents’ stories when I was a kid. If I had, I might have a more interesting project with which to occupy myself during this strange time of self-isolation and physical distancing.
(To be fair, if I had taken an interest in learning to knit, crochet, embroider, tat, or do beadwork – all of which were skills my mother and grandmother had – I wouldn’t be bored enough right now to think about telling family stories.)
Mine was not a family with family heirlooms like those my “Canadian” friends had. I was quite fascinated when a neighbour’s home contained a rocking chair that had come from their grandmother, china that had been passed down through generations, or a music box made by an Ontario craftsman in the 1800’s. The oldest thing in our house was a well-worn wooden steamer trunk in the basement: a big square box made of weathered oak planks with metal clasps, it had carried my mother’s clothing on the Beaverbrae from Bremen to Quebec City in 1949. That same ship brought my father (who had not yet met my mom) and his sister in 1950, and later my maternal grandmother and great-grandmother. Dad came at a different time of year than my mom and her family though, and so landed at Pier 21 in Halifax instead of Quebec; the Beaverbrae could only navigate down the St. Lawrence in the summer months.
Everything I knew about my parents’ lives before I came on the scene came from stories they told when we got together with their German friends or relatives. Everyone in that circle was a refugee; a few of them before WWII, but most of them after. Once the big meal was over – there was ALWAYS a big meal when they got together at each others homes, and always ending with a fancy homemade dessert and coffee – the men would go to the living room or out into the yard on lawn-chairs to smoke and drink brandy, and the women would go to the kitchen to do dishes and have more coffee. Whose stories I heard depended on which space I could make myself invisible in.
So, with physical travel not possible right now, let me take you on a trip through the past. Maybe our sons will read this, or it will hang around forever on the internet for our grandsons to find someday. At any rate, my next few blogs will share some of the stories that form my Mandau/Neidert family history. I’ll do my best to flesh them out with information gleaned from the backs of photos, or shared by others in my DNA match circle in Ancestry online. My mom’s story includes things learned from my amazing maternal grandmother, a pragmatic realist who was my idol, and who I was lucky enough to have in my life into my 40’s. My dad’s parents died in Germany right around the time I was born, so I never got to meet them, but my father’s sisters and half-sisters helped separate fact from fiction in his tall tales.
It’s not all nostalgia and sentiment. Life for and with my parents was not always wonderful, but I have to believe they did the best they could with the hand they were dealt, and maybe that’s all any of us can ask for.