Patchwork Lives

This is a few years old now  and my Uncle is moving further and further away from us, lost in anxiety and fear.  But in these precarious times, it feels more and more important to remember how much people have had to survive and overcome just to be here.


Last  Sunday was my uncle’s 90th birthday celebration.

It has been a long time in the planning, this gathering of the generations.

Guests travelled from the far North of England, from Wales, from Germany. fellow survivors of the Holocaust travelling miles, to celebrate with him..

His daughter, my cousin,  had very impressively managed to arrange most of the party from her home in Germany.

” How’s the planning going?” I asked, the last time I spoke to her before the party.

” Well,” she said, ” it’s all sorted. We’ve booked the local synagogue hall, we’ve sorted the caterers and we’ve asked 70 people, family and friends, who have all accepted the invitation. Only one person has said they’re definitely not coming.”

” That’s a shame,” I said, ” who is it.”

“My dad,” said my cousin.

I laughed, she didn’t.

” Do you think we can celebrate his 90th birthday without him?” she asked. 

I hesitated.

” Well you can’t cancel it now.  Perhaps he’ll feel better about it on the day.”

” Maybe,” she said,  sounding  unconvinced.  And I understood why.

My uncle has always been stubborn, even when he was well and young.  Now that he is unwell and old, he clings to his stubborness like a lifebuoy. 

 It is the one thing that is not disappearing with his memory.

“Perhaps we could persuade him to sit in his wheelchair and then just run towards the party,” I suggested.

My cousin gave a half-hearted laugh.

“He doesn’t really use a wheelchair. I guess we’ll just see what happens.”

But the day arrived and even as people began to trickle into their house, my uncle remained determined not to enjoy his day.

Family and long-time friends gathered in the front room while my uncle sat, resolutely grumpy and alone in the kitchen.

” Walk with me to the hall,” said my cousin, half an hour before the party was due to start. She turned to her mandolin-playing minstrel brother, ” perhaps you can just tell dad it’s time to go,” she said, ” maybe he’ll forget where it is he’s meant to be going to and just come with you..”

Her brother nodded, ” I’ll do my best,” he said quietly.

We set off for the synagogue, the hall decorated with balloons, round tables laid out with name plates and cutlery.

” It’s looks amazing,” I said, “I don’t know how you managed to arrange all this from Berlin.”

My cousin shrugged. ” Let’s hope everyone comes,” she said, ‘ then at least, if dad really doesn’t come we’ll be able to show him the photos. It’s amazing how many people care about him.”

And everybody did come.

The hall was full, his family and friends seated and the first course just about to be served, when my uncle arrived.  

Leaning on his stick, he walked slowly to his seat and sat down next to my aunt.

My cousin grinned,  heaved a huge sigh of relief and her brother took out his mandolin and played the first notes of happy birthday.

A mixture of tuneful and disharmonious voices filled the hall.

Everyone  joined in, and even though my uncle’s eyes were closed, he was smiling.

The courses were peppered with speeches ( and even a poem ) by family and friends and the room was filled with the gentle hum of conversation and the odd screech of laughter from the table of teenagers.

All the grandchildren and great nieces and nephews from the ages of 7 to 17, were sitting together.

And, as is always the way with groups of teenagers, they were wrapped in a cloak of unrealised potential, an edgy energy, that seemed to say, ‘ we are just slightly more important than the rest of you.. 

While the speeches remembered my uncle’s past, the teenage table represented his future, my uncle’s fingerprint resting on the heads of his two grandchildren.

They are half Indian, half Jewish and, in a strange twist of fate,  living in Berlin the city where their granddad’s life began and from which he had to flee. It’s like his world has turned full circle, but somehow in the turning it has moved to a different universe

I wondered, if in all his wildest, long-ago Berlin dreams, my uncle, a young Jewish boy, could ever have imagined he would be part of such a patchwork family.

In those days, anyone who married outside their faith would be shunned by the rest of their family.

Yet in his 90th year he sits at the head of a family that is like a small version of the United Nations. A mixture of-Indian, English, Thai, Sri Lankan and Irish blood coursing through the veins of his grand children and great nieces and nephews. None of this third generation are practising Jews, most of the second generation Jewish in name only, The trauma of his niece coming out as gay many, many years ago, a distant memory ( even the never-ending Passover night when she added “or she,” every time God was called “he*) and her partner long-since accepted as a member of the family.

Some of the patchwork family

But despite this diluting of his religion through the generations, nothing has meant more to  my uncle or had more impact on his life, than his Jewish faith. 

 Family and friends stood up  and, with warmth and obvious respect, told the story of his life, 

As a German refugee  at the beginning of the Second World War, his life in England  began  in a children’s home  for children who arrived on the Kindertransport. He was lucky., his mum and dad were with him, they were running the home. But he had to share them with all the other lonely, frightened, suddenly-parentless children.

 It was a strange, sad beginning to a new life in a world that had been turned upside down by the crazy,, incomprehensible rise of a devastating anti-semitic hatred.

The speeches were warm and witty. 

There was no anger at the tearing apart of the lives of so many in that room, just a sense of belonging to something  that can never be completely destroyed.

” All these people are nice people” my dad said when the speeches had finished, “they’re all kind and gentle. Why would anyone want to murder us?”

I looked at the crowd gathering around my almost-asleep uncle.

It was a hall full of survivors.

 Even the patchwork teenagers were only here because the people before them had survived.

It always seems strange to me that people who have given up everything, had to make a new start from nothing, should end up living every day lives in unexciting suburbs like my uncle, moving from the North of England to Slough and then to Ealing.

But perhaps that’s what survival means, recreating the normal, trying to give your family the very thing you lacked, a life of certainty and uneventfulness.

Of course it never quite works that way.

His children are wanderers, restless somehow, not quite wanting to belong.

But he and my aunt made them a home full of love and laughter and life.

And in his 90th year, my uncle still hasn’t lost is sense of humour.

Although he seemed to be asleep for most of the speeches, when they were finished he pointed at the microphone.

My cousin was really pleased.

” After all that fuss about not coming, he’s going to make a speech,” she smiled.

Everyone turned towards him, waiting.

With slow determination he switched the microphone on.

” What I want to know,” he said after a pause, ” is why no one has mentioned Slough.”

Slowly people began to leave, each of them representing a different part of my uncle’s life.  Old and young, religious and irreligious, his past and his future.

And I realised suddenly that it is not just our families but our whole lives that are a human sized patchwork of being. A collection of memories and experiences, of now and then, of who we are and what we were, held together by a golden thread of beliefs and values and hope.

As the hall emptied, my uncle made his slow way to the synagogue. 

It’s a tiny room now, partitioned off at the end of the hall, a shadow of what it used to be,it’s members dwindling and ageing. 

 But it’s where my uncle feels most at home, where the sometimes fading patches of his life come together, vibrant and alive for the shortest of moments, a quilt of comfort in an often uncomforting world.

And perhaps, for just a little while, he is transported to Slough.

Happy Birthday Uncle Kurt


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