Rethenwyn Grethenan lives on the Canterbury Plains, scratching out stories and sunflowers from the clay and dreaming of hills. Growing alongside are her tree-loving husband, three miraculous children, Russell Crow and his harem of chickens, and ‘Monsty’ the monster truck.
“Writing is catching the perfect wave and flowing with it to the shore. Falling is inevitable, but eventually, with grace, deep waters are transcended and swept into the shallows where they become visible to the avid eye.”
My grandmother lived through a war.
A real one. With death and fire and screaming, and no escape for anyone. Especially little girls. Relegated. An overlooked fact of my softly selfish life that I’ve never fully grasped. Until today, when I find her in the woodshed; my grandmother who lived through a war.
Obliviously I followed the trail laid down by the dead through the f lat pages of a book; fiction, but not. I sat for hours, entrenched in the rubble of a ruined German city, whilst the trembling whispered their stories into my ears and their words ran as ghosts before me. My feelings rose with the dust, in that human recipe where beauty folded smoothly into raw devastation; there was a lot of detail to the Second World War.
Details like fragile brown suitcases and painted red crosses on trains. Details that add f lesh to the overworked bones of an otherwise generic tale of woe. Details that connect the dots of humanity within me and keep my mind trawling the ashes long after the words have run dry.
In this wake, winter is defused and limp around the edges. The keen frost has turned to muddy haze by the time I attempt to be here and not there. Through the protests of the wheelbarrow I drag it along sloppy trenches, forcing it on. I must collect the dry bones that fuel my life; fire is certainly hungry wherever you are.
The tone of the woodshed shifts with my unsubtle clatter of barrow on thoughts, and I fail to realise at first that she is waiting for me here. Here in this space of quiet damp where only spiders and secrets make their homes.
She takes me by surprise, my grandmother who lived through a war; catching me as I dissect the roughly stacked wooden limbs. She slips out from between the gaps and lies gasping and grasping at my feet, handing me a realisation that weighs like the dull reality of a bullet in my palm:
She lived through that same war, my grandmother. That is what she wants me to know. The same country, the same bombs, the same decimation of her young, fragile life, as the story I have almost drowned in. A story which is fiction, but not.
Now, gathering her dignity from the skirts of silence that surround us both, she rises and stands
before me: the wisp of a girl in the woodshed, with old lady eyes and a mouth full of splinters. It is her turn, and like a statue I can only stand, and be painfully aware.
She is there. Young. Balancing amongst the debris. A fragile brown suitcase, her only home now, knitted into her palm. Three times the bombs have demolished the bricks and concrete she had hoped would make her invisible; three times she has run before the wall of sound which devoured her screams; three times she has been left with nothing. No one is transparent before the monster of war.
She stands with the rubble of her childhood strewn around her feet, whilst a chain of sisters trails from her other hand. Paper dolls the lot, thin and easily torn, with fixed eyes. She was the eldest of four girls, my grandmother. A hard position to fill when your father has been frozen by Russian ice and bitten by Russian bullets; when the mother you knew has all but gone and been replaced instead by hard, vacant stares and concerns over what has to be done.
Take care of the little ones. What other choice was there?
She lived through a war, my grandmother, and I wonder now how I could so easily have dismissed it all, now she stands exposed in the sawdust and going for a song. I did bring her out for history show-and-tell once. They held her up as a model example. They grew excited over the part where a twelve year old girl hid General Goering behind her bed, when his turn had come to flee. A lofty claim to fame, they said, not very sellable though.
Miles away in that comfortable classroom I didn’t recall her fear. It must have been there though, now I consider it, swelling in the darkness, its treacherous breath on her neck as she lay trapped between monsters in a warped game of hide-and-seek.
Trapped, she stayed in hiding. Packed obliviously away in her weary brown suitcase and tucked into a corner of my mind. My indifference could never be bothered to find her, until today, when another story did the seeking.
My grandmother lived through a war, and now I see all too clearly the snippets that showed themselves when I was a girl. The way she strove to overfeed us, as those who have known starvation seek to prove their love. The need she had for order and control, as those who have seen the midst of chaos would surely try and cling to. And how she revered cleanliness as a healing balm, as those who have been stained would yearn to scrub the stains away. My mother always said this was a German thing, but either way it tells a story.
“Mench, the Russians they vere pigs!” she’d spit. I guess they probably were; men hardened by a war who forgot that a girl was not the enemy. There was a story here, written in the lines around her eyes, woven so tightly into her look of contempt that it had clung on for decades.
A fumbling in the dirt underneath a weary train. Apparently the red crosses painted along the sides didn’t always deter the enemy. They were probably too busy thinking of their own families forced to hide under their trains amidst the dregs of their own demise.
Haven’t we learnt yet that two wrongs don’t make a right? War makes us forgetful, I think, but then again so does peace.
She watched in the sweat and mud as indifference turned sons into animals that brutalised daughters. She was young, and cast only as a cowering witness. Lucky. But afterwards she could not wash the trauma from her eyes no matter how hard she cried; her nightmares traced the shapes of bodies long, long after the wind had blown them free from that cold, careless dirt.
Today I am the trembling, here, amongst the fragments in the woodshed. My hands are throbbing to the tolling in my ears, though it was not me who wielded the axe. One tale has bled into another, one face merged with the other and I am cradling both their stories: my grandmother and the character from a book that is fiction, but not. I understand. They are not the only ones who lived through a war.
They are far, far from being alone. Stories clamour to be heard until their struggles become cheap to saturated ears, the excess seeps from the television set and pools stagnantly on the floor. Maybe there is no getting away from it apart from in deafness?
Or Alzheimer’s. This is how she’s finally done it, my grandmother, who lived through a war. Slowly, gracefully, she is losing her mind. It is indiscriminate, like war, and will leave her with nothing but her innocence, as it tramps a path back through her life.
Time has bent the rules and found her in that
place of desolation where the little girl has always lingered. It whispers in her ear, and she answers with a knowing grin. Turning, she walks backwards towards blissful ignorance, and I can see them now, the old lady and the girl, maybe playing hopscotch and laughing together as if the rest of the world never existed around them.
Her story slips from her grasp, and maybe it doesn’t matter after all if I remember that my grandmother lived through a war.
Yet today I was moved by human pain woven amidst the threads of a story that was fiction, but not, and I realised that I was not alone in the woodshed.
Acknowledged, the flecks congeal and there it is, as it surrounds us all, all of the time. The truth. And it needs to be ugly, lest we forget, because it is not fiction. It is not.