Monday, 19 November 2007

Talking to Gertie

My Dad's sister, Gertie, or Keukch as we call her, now lives in a residential home in the north of London and I spent a couple of hours with her yesterday. It's over a year since I last saw her. Apart from mealtimes she no longer gets out of bed and is handicapped mainly by terrible arthritus but also by the wasting effects of a small stroke a few years ago.
Above her bed in the home is a wonderful photo of her in her white lab coat performing an experiment in the school chemistry lab where she taught. It's a great picture of her in her prime, surrounded by chemicals and strange glass bottles, and completely in her element.
I was tired yesterday by the time I got to Rickmansworth and cross with myself that I hadn't thought a bit more about what we could talk about. Health or how she is feeling isn't a good issue, not becuase she complains overmuch about herself but because she sometimes imbues my own illness in rather saintly terms, as if I either need to be treated as a hero or with extra compassion and I prefer to avoid that. I suppose too that I know that she is really very unhapy to be living as she is now but I sense somehow she doesn't have the physical or emotional energy to approach a conversation about that. She has lots and lots of visitors and yet somehow remains lonely and seems not really to know how to say anything more than banalities.
In the end we talked about family history, who in the family had married German-Germans and who Jewish-Germans thus sealing their own and their children's fates. Keukch and her two younger cousins Renate and Anne-Marie are the last ones left in Europe of that generation, a final cousin Greta lives in Buenos Aries. None of those female cousins had children of their own. Yet Gertie played a very important role in Richard's and my life when we were young children, playing brilliant games with us and taking us around London in the school holidays. Travelling up to see her going through Baker Street and Harrow on the Hill and all those stations on the metropolitan line was extraordinarily evocative of childhood for me: catching tadpoles, walks in the woods, learning to play scrabble, picking vegetables from the garden, going to Kew gardens and of course exploding experiments in the school lab. She was extremely generous with both her time and her money. And we were generous with our indifference and irritation as we became teenagers.
I left feeling more than usually guilty, promising to myself that I will try and go and see her soon, knowing that I will get too involved in work again to make that time. I can tell that visits which focus on family history and stories from the past help her - and they also interest me. Somehow I feel that if she had been a person in one of my congregations the visit might have been a bit more profound, I might have dared to go a bit further in the conversation.