21 August 2017

My Godmother

Maggie May - My Godmother

This weekend, Mr Maggie May and I paid a visit to my godmother. We guiltily realised it had actually been a couple of years since we'd seen her, so hastily arranged to call in for a cup of tea and catch up.

I was so glad we did.

My godmother is now 89 years old. She was born in Austria in 1928, and grew up in beautiful Tirol. She was 10 years old when the Nazis invaded her country, and as a result of this, saw things which no child should ever see.

As we sat down with steaming mugs of coffee and big slices of chocolate cake, she began to speak of her childhood - some of her anecdotes I had heard before, and others were new, but it struck me that these amazing stories may currently exist only in their verbal form. Once we have lost this incredible generation from our lives, who will tell us about the horrors which took place? Who will remind us of our history - history which our own relatives, our own flesh and blood, were part of?

That's why I decided to write some of her stories down.

I understand that this is perhaps a slightly different read to what you usually find on a lifestyle blog; it may be more upsetting, depressing or 'out-of-touch' with the normal foodie/travel posts you see on here - but I think it's important for me to write.

My godmother was the eldest of ten children; with six brothers and three sisters, plus her parents, there were a lot of mouths to feed. They managed through the war with their ration packs, and with produce which her father bought from the black market - it was when the war was over that the problems started. There was simply no food.

She spoke of how she would set off for the day with a rucksack on her back and a photo of the ten children in her pocket, and literally go from door to door begging for food for her family - the photo being proof that she wasn't lying about her number of siblings. People were often generous, but some would simply refuse to give anything.

One day, she visited a farmer and asked if they had any food to spare. As she and her sister passed through the store room into the kitchen, they noticed several hams hanging from the ceiling, but were told by the farmer and his wife that they had no food. Starving and desperate, my godmother told her sister to distract the couple while she made her way back through the store room, grabbed a ham and put it in her rucksack. Her defence? 'They said they had no food. So if that were true, how could I have stolen a ham from them...?'

She spoke of how grateful they'd be if someone gave them half a loaf of stale bread - even if it was rock hard, they'd eat it.

She explained that in those days there were no such things as egg boxes, so she would have to place any eggs she was given in a bag of flour so that they wouldn't break in her bag. And the flour wasn't stored in bags, but in handkerchiefs which were sewn together at the bottom - which she had to steal now and again too.

Maggie May - My Godmother

She spoke of how none of them had shoes, so that when she set off up the picturesque mountain paths of Tirol to find food, the pine needles lying on the forest floors would spike the soles of her feet, at the same time as the straps of her heavy bag dug into her shoulders until they were red raw.

She spoke of the times when it was dark and past the curfew set by the Nazis; if she was out late and saw the soldiers approaching, she'd hide in the ditch at the side of the road until they passed.

She spoke of how the twelve of them in her family would share the bath water when it came to washing, and that the soap provided in their ration packs was so grainy and tough that it would leave a layer of scum on the surface of the water. Her mother would use a cup to skim as much of it off as she could in between each wash.

Once we got home, I told Mama Maggie May about the tales my godmother had shared with us; again, she knew some but not all of them. It was then she asked, 'Did she tell you about when she escaped from the women's camp?'

She hadn't.

Maybe she felt she'd shared too much for one day. Maybe she didn't feel like she could talk about it. Maybe we weren't ready to hear it.

The afternoon spent listening to her made me think: my godmother is an inspiration. To have lived through what she's lived through, and to be here today with a smile on her face. Able to blend in seamlessly with our 21st-century behaviours, not letting slip day-to-day the tragedies she encountered or the hardships she faced.

Sometimes, I think our ancestors put us to shame.

So what do we do?

We promise to never forget what they tell us about those dark, traumatic times. We promise to respect them, and to be proud of them. We promise not to make the same mistakes. 

Most importantly, we remember that they are all an inspiration.

Thank you to The Cotswold Company for use of their images.

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