Saturday, March 1, 2014
the late dinner
This is one of those stories I know from family legend better than as a complete memory from childhood. It happened while we still lived in England during the years after WWII.
Back then I had a German aunt. Aunt Hella and her husband, Uncle Arthur, lived a few doors away from us on Corporation Rd. in Gillingham. Although they weren't family in the traditional sense, children then were taught to call adult friends by the honorifics of aunt and uncle. I don't remember much about Uncle Arthur other than his big moustache and his even bigger grin. Aunt Hella, on the other hand, was entirely memorable. She was a German war bride, the daughter of a very wealthy family in Berlin where Uncle Arthur had been stationed as a mechanical engineer. When his tour of duty ended he returned to England bringing Aunt Hella with him. She hated the place.
She didn't like the food; she didn't like the streets; she didn't like the houses; she didn't like the weather; she didn't like the people - and, much to my mother's embarrassment on shopping trips, made no secret of her low opinions. Hella spoke English very well but didn't enjoy doing so. The only exception was that she liked us - my mother in particular. How they became friends has to be a matter of speculation for me since neither of them are around to ask nowadays. Nevertheless, they found much in common to laugh and talk about. Not only was Aunt Hella the one who taught me what little German I remember, she also told wonderful stories about her life as a child in their Black Forest summer home. Her magical descriptions of Oberammergau fueled my imagination and my child's heart. It was obvious to me then (and more now) that she was homesick.
On this particular evening Aunt Hella had invited us for a proper German dinner. We arrived on time around 6pm to discover dinner was not quite ready. My mother called through the locked kitchen door offering to help Hella but was summarily refused. Instead, we sat with Arthur looking through his photographs and talking about this and that. I have no idea what I was doing in particular. Anyway, hours passed with no sign of dinner while Arthur and my father's stomachs were rumbling in a unified hunger they had to raise their voices to talk above. In those days my bedtime was invariably no later than 8pm. 9pm had come and gone as the clock ticked towards 10pm, at which point my mother had had enough. Goodbyes were called toward the closed kitchen door and we went home.
As my mother prepared something for us to eat, we all heard the sound of crashing from the front hall. We stood amazed as Aunt Hella's special dinner of sauerbraten, spãtzle, marinated herring, spargel, carrots, beans, bread and even the Eierkuchen she'd made for dessert, not forgetting the plates they sat on, came pouring through the letter box.
My parents cleaned up the mess and so far as I know nothing was ever said to Aunt Hella about her extraordinary outburst. It did, however, become a fine teaching story about the folly of indulging in temper tantrums.
Aunt Hella and Uncle Arthur later spent many years in Africa where he worked on highway developments. Eventually they returned to Berlin. The friendship between them and my parents lasted throughout their lives.