A suitcase full of secrets

Yesterday a letter arrived from Holland from my cousin, Lilo, who lives in Switzerland. She sent me a copy of my aunt’s obituary along with a few handwritten words of greeting and acknowledgement.

The letter is in German, as is the obituary, and although I can make out the meaning of some words, without the help of our German house guest, I would not be able to know that my cousin writes to ask where I fit into the scheme of things.

She also acknowledges that her mother died with a suitcase of secrets still strapped to her chest.

Not until her nineties, did my aunt tell her daughter Lilo that she had experienced terrible things as a child. She would not elaborate, beyond the description of Lilo’s grandfather as a tyrant who believed that women should not be educated and were fit only for housework.

This aunt is the youngest of my father’s siblings and so the story goes to the grave with her. We will never know the truth of what happened in my father’s family, only the bare bones.

Historians might root around in the archives and try to piece together the jig saw of our lives but unless there is someone out there still alive who can bear witness to the events of my father’s life and that of his sister as small children then we are left to guess, as I have been guessing all my life.

I do not fully understand the way people hold such secrets from the light. I understand the pain might be unbearable, but to carry such knowledge and not to share it with another who is concerned and interested seems unfathomable to me and yet this is so.

There are many who want the past to stay hidden as a black hole in experience that others in the present and future can only guess at.

I imagine things went terribly wrong in my father’s family from the extent that things went terribly wrong in my own, from the few things he said to me when I was a child, not all of it war related.

When I was small, maybe as young as five or six, I sat once on his lap. We were on holidays in Edithvale in the house that an uncle let us borrow for a week or so each summer. An old shack among a series of holiday places, it was a short walk to the beach and I could hear the waves in the distance and by day the caw of sea gulls.

This particular evening we had finished dinner and I chose to sit on my father’s lap, a thing I have no memory of doing as an older child and not something I would ever do willingly when I was older.

At this stage of my life I was young enough for my father not to terrify me, not yet.

‘Where is your family? I asked my father. ‘Your mother and father, your sisters and brothers?’

My mother had talked endlessly about her own family back in Holland but my father travelled alone in the world. I asked the question with the innocence of the curious young. I wanted to know about my other Oma and Opa, about my other uncles and aunties.

‘Look into my eyes,’ my father said. ‘They are black and evil. I have no family.’

Something in his words, something in their tone, propelled me from his lap.

I could not bear the idea that my own father was evil. That he had no one. That he had come from nowhere and I ran from the room in tears.

‘Don’t be so stupid’ I heard my mother say behind me, not to me but to my father. She said it in Dutch Do nit so fou (sic), or words to that effect. Don’t be foolish perhaps or cruel or hardhearted.

In my mind it all began then, this life long search for the meaning of my father’s experience.

When my aunt Nell’s obituary arrived, I felt another door close but at the same time a crack opened up elsewhere, a crack that must be further prised apart because of the language barrier.

My cousin wants to know about her mother’s story from me. As far as I can, I will tell her.

She’s been kept in the dark for too long.