Anna Auer, 9.12.1920 – 12.3.2012

A grandmother who thought sugar was good for you.

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Near our home in Switzerland.

Death has an odd way of getting people moving. Maybe it’s a bit morbid to think when one person dies and stops moving, others don’t stop, but if you think about it – it’s exactly what happens. You’re either driving back home from the hospital or old age home to sort through the deceased’s possessions, organising a funeral or trying to just get away. People just move.

I found out this morning that my grandmother died and I am back where I was two hours ago – in bed. I was sat on the edge of the bed, with the phone in my hand, listening to my mum say she had ‘news’. My mother was calling from Washington, I was sitting in Bangladesh, my dad was probably trying to sleep somewhere in Switzerland and my grandmother’s body was in an old age home in Germany. We seem to have a habit of being in different countries on a regular basis, and now is just not a good time for our way of life. Usually yes, it’s very exciting and most certainly a privilege, but it’s not conducive to family life.

I can’t quite run to the airport just yet because I don’t know where to go. My father has yet to arrive in the small village where he grew up and where my grandmother will presumably be buried. So here I am. Not moving, not jumping into action. I would do what I normally do on a work day, wake up late.. stream an episode of New Girl or The Big Bang Theory.. take a shower.. eat lunch and head to work (I’m not just lazy, my work hours start late) but I don’t feel like moving. I’m actually feeling inspired to write, so that’s action in a sense, right? I’m not sure if inspired is the right word, but here goes.

I call myself a writer because when I was a kid I used to avoid doing work by writing stories. You can be a writer and not have a job or be paid for it. It’s more of what kind of person you are than what you do. Or at least that’s what I tell myself. In the empty pages of my school diary, I used to write down a scene between my heroine (obviously I’d want a girl to be the badass hero, (subconscious) feminism and all) and her nemesis or her frustrating father (yes, as a teenager I drew from my own life a lot). I used to take such pride in reading novels and recreating the worlds in my head and then writing my own version, as if I could improve on the greats I was reading.

But my reality is that I rarely write like that anymore. I think I have a chronic condition – I seem to procrastinate anything I’m supposed to do. So when writing wasn’t something I had to do, I’d procrastinate my science project by scribbling down another chapter. But as soon as I decided to study Creative Writing – hey presto, my will to write evaporated. It was like I’d sucked all the fun out of my hobby and – if my arrogance will be forgiven – my ‘talent’.

The one thing I thought I was good at, I gave up on. In the five years since I’ve not willing touched pen (finger) to paper (keyboard), I have found so many other ways to procrastinate what I used to do to procrastinate. It’s ridiculous. It’s stupid. My parents think I’m the writer in the family, that’ll I’ll write down all their stories and give them life for others to enjoy. There’s this expectation in myself, that I’ll write novels once I get my act together. How the hell am I to write my grandmother’s story now that she’s gone? I’m probably not.

So after a long-winded six paragraphs of unstructured self realisation – let me start by writing about my grandmother. A stocky German woman who fed me mars bars under the dining table (which didn’t have a tablecloth to hide me), spoon-fed my dog (much to my frustration), and almost licked her plate clean at every meal time (much to my father’s frustration).

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Staying in bed seems to run in the family.

If I’m honest, I hardly remember the woman the way she was. The last years of her life were spent effectively diminishing. She had broken her hips three times by the age of 70, most of her family had died or fallen out with her, she lived a solitary life in both her own home and in ours, she slowly lost her mental ability to distinguish between the plant pot and the cutlery drawer, and had to move into an old age home because her son and his family’s nomadic existence couldn’t house her anymore.

There was so much more to Anna Auer than the vague memories I have of her. She lived through a world war on the wrong side, saw her husband-to-be become a ‘coward’ in the eyes of the army because he didn’t return after an injury, she worked hard as a cleaning woman to support herself in a bombshell of a country, she suffered as no mother should when she buried a stillborn girl, she smothered her next and last child with love and attention, she and her family were accidentally poisoned by wild mushrooms, she watched her son and husband drift apart as one would leave the room after watching the news while the other entered to watch the sport, she supported her son in his desire to leave the small world she knew for Greece, England, the US and Egypt, she accepted a foreign bride (probably reluctantly), she eventually left her small world to see things for herself, she found her husband dead in his chair, she moved in with her son and followed him to India, Bangladesh, France and the UK. She lived for 91 years.

She wasn’t exactly the easiest woman to get on with, and I don’t want to rose-tint my knowledge or memory of her. I sometimes thought of her as a burden, because at times when she was supposed to be the adult looking after me, I was the one making dinner and helping her up to bed. We spoke in a jumble of German and English, neither of us could speak the other’s language properly. I mixed up ‘his’ and ‘her’ in German and she never corrected me because she knew what I meant. She used to have habits that drove my dad crazy (but then again, he’s very particular, much like her). She didn’t have a close relationship with my mother and they barely saw or spoke to one another (to be fair to my mother, none of us saw much of her because of her work). She lost touch with much of her family and her husband’s family stopped speaking to her after they fell out with my father. No doubt about it, she was a lonely woman. I’m not saying I was the golden grandchild that always spent time with her when no one else would. I wasn’t. There were times when I would sit with her and have banal conversation and answer the same question four times, tell my dad to not shout at her because she was disturbing him while she talked to herself or to the dog, help her move things in her room, make her a snack, sit with her at the hairdresser’s, and hug her and say ‘I love you’.  There were also times when I would tell her to hurry up in the bathroom and sent my dog to keep her company so that I could go out with friends. I wasn’t exactly devastated when she had to move out. I was a selfish teenager.

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Oma with Cuddly, our first dog, at our home in India.

I guess movement is not the only thing that comes with death. There’s also regret and wondering whether what you did was enough to value that person. In the last few years, I used to joke about how senile my grandmother was and how her marbles had rolled off – was that appropriate? Or is it excused because it’s a ‘coping mechanism’? She had dementia – a disease she couldn’t control. It’s not her fault she didn’t like seeing pictures of her husband, because after 20 years, she didn’t recognise him. It’s not her fault she couldn’t function by herself or live with us anymore. It’s not her fault she didn’t know sugar wasn’t good for her and that’s why she eventually lost most of her teeth. Okay, that last one had nothing to do with the dementia so it was probably her fault.

She lived a life. A ‘full’ life, as a few people have told me. Whatever that means, I just hope she didn’t have too many regrets. I regret a few things about our relationship, but that may well be because I just don’t remember clearly what I did or didn’t do for her. I wish I’d learnt her language properly, I wish I’d been able to care for her myself, I wish she could’ve had a better relationship with both my parents.

Regardless, she was a woman who, I like to think, did things in her life she hadn’t expected to – like live in India, see her son happy in a life outside her world, found love and companionship with a dog (which I don’t consider to be a consolatory prize to those things with a person!!) and reconnected with family she thought she lost.

I spent her 90th birthday with her, and despite not recognising me and wondering “why is that girl smiling at me” – she sang a whole Christmas carol and had joy on her face. I can’t fully remember her the way she was when I was a child, so I’ll remember that moment instead. Oh that and the fact that she kept saying “what a handsome young boy!” to the teenage waiter. Whether she was senile or not, she had a sense of humour and a laugh I will never forget.

What I have written here isn’t really for any other purpose than for me to say what I need to say about a woman that was in my life. She did what any grandmother would, love and spoil, but she also gave me a presence I will never forget.

I would say I’d pray for her, but I’m not religious so why should I start now just because death paid a visit to some close to me. I’ll write for her because like I said, I’m a writer, not because that’s what I do, but because it’s who I am. And this is my way of making sure something real of her doesn’t die.

The internet is a beautiful thing, I still haven’t left my bed but at least something of me, even if it is only words, is moving.

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This is was the last time I saw her, getting a smile out of her.

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