Ancestral Letters

When exactly was it I put up my hand and volunteered to be the keeper of these things:

Boxes of letters and photographs and folders of documents and passports accumulating beneath the bed and at the back of the wardrobe for no reason other that no one else would take them.

What was it made me the chronicler of the lives of people I never knew but cannot be rid of, whose whereabouts my great aunt remembered with clarity when she turned into a girl before my eyes,

Ducking away into the ditch on the far side of an open field during an air raid by the Allied forces  – the Brits, she’d say with more wonder than resentment. Where she lived, no men were left.

Der Hitler she’d spit with all the gall of one recently deceived. She’d stood at the roadside along with all the other girls the day he came to town. Their spirits had been high, their cheering deafening.

Proud men she’d been raised to look up to, her own father a gendarme when here was still in France and our money foreign. A man who’d rather been a joiner and spent his old age mending things.

My own father recalled the shards of fine French china that exploded on the wooden floor where the gendarme had smashed the dish with peas every time he took us there for lunch.

Her house smelled funny, of mothballs and of stale cologne, and upstairs her parents’ rooms were still intact: A foreign country, never dusted, never aired and not touched upon by narrative.

And then her friend who’d worked the land the same as her to serve the country. She sent her clothes after the country fell in two: Bought at her brother-in-law’s who had been poor before, in the Ukraine.

A different class of poor: We ate the birdies off the field, he’d tell my mum, watching as she peeled potatoes, too thinly in his view. Forty years of sending parcels wore him out;

He shot himself the year the wall came down, with a round of bullets he’d requested from my father. To protect the shop, was what he’d said, and sounded plausible: These were the eighties, after all.

His widowed wife married a man from Nigeria, twenty years his junior, who suffered the good people’s scorn the same as him, before she fell into oblivion and forgot her son and sister’s names.

My great aunt was never blessed with failing memory. Among her letters, too, a copy of the note she sent her fiancé to set him free. Some wrong turn she took, she would insinuate, and look away.

She’d reemerge at the table across from me when the nurse came in and asked how was she keeping. Frau Meier she’d say and pat her arm and she’d purr like a well-mannered cat and say that never better.

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