Final Version by Petra Rau
Every time I went home another tree had gone. Year after year.
First, two conifers disappeared from the back of the garden that bordered on our neighbours’ plot. The roots had raised their paving, they said, could something be done? Then the Spruce in the far corner was commented on; the needles, you see, made the pavement so slippery.
One year I noticed that I could suddenly see as far as the next village from the living room window on the top floor, and that’s when it occurred to me that the silver birch on the other corner had vanished. Now you could also peer into the allotments across the road: endless entertainment on evenings and weekends. On my next visit I got a bit cross when I had to put down the blinds to get dressed in the morning, because the big rhododendron in front of my window was missing. As was the Italian Cypress tree. Too tall, apparently. The following year I got a phone call from my sister.
“You won’t believe this. You won’t BELIEVE this!”
“The Morello Cherry tree next to the garage. It’s 30 years old! She called the guy with the chainsaw from the allotments, and yesterday afternoon he cut it down.”
“She” was our mother, wielder of all authority over the garden. Or what remained of it since Dad had died.
The only tree left was the Spruce right in front of the house: it hung on for Christmas duty, having to carry the illuminations. Apart from this sole survivor, the garden was bare and the house exposed. What would be next, I wondered. Would she take down the rickety fence? Replace the tired grass with concrete?
New neighbours moved in next door, on the plot that had been empty and unsaleable for decades. Within a couple of months they put up a flat-pack house, levelled the front slope for gabions and painted the front door grey. They drove Audis and dressed their child from a catalogue. From the first-floor window on the staircase (once shaded by a Black Pine) my mother could see the wife hoovering the pavement every other day.
“Brushing it, you mean,” I said to my sister.
“No. Brushing would be normal, twice a year or so if you get round to it. She’s hoovering: the cars, the drive, the pavement. Maybe even the child.”
We were worried: this might give our mother further inspiration. It turned out, though, that she had already set her eyes on another target. My sister called again.
“I’ve had it now. I lost my rag.”
“This afternoon I popped by the cemetery. I bought a new planter yesterday and I thought I’d put that down before the rain sets in later in the week. And as I get to the grave and wave hello to the warden, he stops in his tracks, puzzled-looking, and comes to see me: ‘I was about to say you’re an hour early, I was a bit delayed at the crematorium, but now you’ve brought this planter I’m a bit confused,’ he says.
“‘What do you mean,’ I say, ‘an hour early. Early for what?’
“‘Well, I’m about to remove the headstone and clear the plot, like your mother wanted,’ he says to me. I almost fainted there and then, you can imagine. Remove my father’s grave? My grandparents’ headstone!
“‘That’s the first I’ve heard of it,’ I snap. ‘You’ll do nothing of the sort.’
“‘She paid up front, your mother did.’
“‘You’ll wait until I’ve spoken to her. You won’t touch that grave.’
“And then I got on with the planter to prove a point and when I’d cleared up after myself I sat in the car for 10 minutes until I could breathe again. Remove the headstone. Level the grave.”
“Did you speak to her about it?”
“Speak to her? I drove straight up to the house and asked her what she was thinking, giving orders to remove the family grave without our consent. Which we would never have given. Can you imagine if I had got to the cemetery half an hour later, it would have all gone! And me standing there with a new planter like a blithering idiot.”
“So what had she been thinking?”
“She said that you’re not here anyway and it’s too far for her from the other side of town despite the shuttle bus. When the council wrote her a letter about renewing the plot for another quarter century she’d decided that it would be easier – easier! – not to bother anymore. Like it’s her bother. I look after it anyway, she doesn’t have to come if she doesn’t want to.”
Next time I visited our mother, she brought it up because my sister had been upset and she could not quite see why.
“What’s your view?” she asked. “You’re not here, I know, but it’s just more work for your sister to tend the grave. She’s so busy, and I don’t want to be buried there anyway. Do you care about the grave?”
“Well, it’s a little late to discuss that now, isn’t it? You’ve already upset her. She’s tending the plot because she wants to look after it. It’s her Dad and her grandparents.”
It’s not just about tending, I wanted to add. It’s about spending a few minutes once in a while remembering what they meant to you. Instead, I said:
“I don’t need to visit their grave to remember them, but if she does you can’t take that away from her. Not without so much as a by-your-leave, Mum. I’ll give you the money if it’s that.”
“Oh no, it’s not that. But it’s been a long time, and I won’t be buried in that plot anyway.”
My mother had not got on with her in-laws. Or, for that matter, with her husband who, in dying, abandoned her to a life of unmitigated boredom and who, as we found out to our surprise, left her with a large amount of debt. It wiped out her life savings. His revenge for her persistent, indiscreet adultery, perhaps. Or maybe he had just forgotten to mention it when the chemo got a bit much.
“You don’t have to be buried in that grave if you don’t want to. You can do what you want.”
I thought of Uncle Heinz, whose urn was interred at the foot of a tree in a nature reserve. Or Aunt Marianne: no grave, no headstone, no service – bio-degradable urn, anonymous plot. That generation liked vanishing acts.
“I would prefer cremation. They put urns in the rose bed on the south side of the cemetery, near the infant wall. (So sad.) I want the rose bed: the mass grave.”
“It’s not a war zone, Mum, it’s just for people who don’t want a headstone. And who haven’t got relatives to look after the plot or much money, for that matter. Don’t call it the mass grave.”
“Well, the rose bed. Then no one has any bother with that either.”
“What makes you think it’s a bother?”
“Well, it’s just easier this way.”
My sister dismissed these plans out of hand but I could see Mum’s point.
“Would you like to spend an eternity close to people you didn’t get on with in life? If she wants the rose bed, she can have the rose bed, or her ‘mass grave’. She can even pick her own variety of rose,” I said. “What about ‘Little Flirt’ or ‘The Queen of Sheba’?”
In the end the family grave stayed where it was and my sister continued to tend it. But then other things started disappearing. Drawers were emptied, clothes given away, spare furniture dismantled and disposed of. Boxes that had been in the attic for decades slipped quietly away. You had to point out what you wanted her to keep, like a bailiff putting a sticker on confiscated items.
“Mum, please don’t empty the house. What’s the rush? No one’s ill, no one needs space. What’s this about?”
“I don’t want to leave a mess.”
“There is no mess.”
“When your grandfather died and grandma had to go into a home, we had to order a skip for their flat. Several skips. It took days. You wouldn’t believe the stuff they had. Pickled cabbage from 1983. Garters. Chamber pots. I thought it would never end.”
“But you don’t know what we might want to keep. Why worry about this now?”
I got it wrong, of course. She wasn’t suddenly worried about “this mess”, she had been clearing out for a while. As if time was running out to tidy up the past and preempt our thoughts about forgotten garters or preserved cabbage, remove things she didn’t want to leave behind, discard options she didn’t want us to have, dispense with evidence, delete memories. In fact, she had done this all her life – edit, edit, edit. And why wouldn’t she? Why should our version of the past – the one we wanted to keep and remember and inherit – be more valid than hers? What right did we have to retain her past when she did not even want to keep it herself?
My father only learnt that his wife-to-be was not called what he called her when they stood in front of the registrar: her papers didn’t match the name he knew her by. So?! What right had he to demand she stay the same person all her life when marrying him required a name change? I mean, really! So he kept on calling her what he had called her until then, even if some of her sisters didn’t or wouldn’t; he wanted to spend his life with the woman in front of him rather than live with the person she had once been but no longer wanted to be. When we were little, our aunts called Mum by one name and our Dad called her by another. That you could be two different people to different constituencies did not seem so very odd. On the contrary, it was logical. Just as we were on our best behaviour at school and naughty everywhere else when we could get away with it.
Mum never told us much about the alternative versions of her life before Dad (and we) came along. Only sometimes did they seep out, through hints and half-finished sentences in careless moments or rows. They would proliferate into the future once we had left home: occasionally we answered phone calls from men we had never heard of, we learnt of weekend visits to spa towns and saw fur coats we did not recognise. My mother has always been a Doppel- or Triplegänger, harbouring in the secrets of her life the shadows of other possibilities. Eventually she was ruthless in her choices.
“It’s the final edit,” I said to my sister. “She’s 84: let her have ‘the mass grave’.”
“Well, at least she’s not hoovering the pavement.”
Author bio. Petra was born in Germany to expellee parents who settled in Franconia, just south of what would become the Iron Curtain. The political tensions, fault lines and catastrophes of Central European history run deep in her family, and this biographical vicissitude has come to inform much of her research and writing. She is interested in the cultural ramifications of military conflict, in the history of travel and migration, in hybrid and emigrant identities, and in the ways in which cultural production engages with these topics.