A photograph of my maternal grandmother looks down on me kindly from the pinboard behind my desk, scanned, emailed, protected from the sunlight by plastic. My cousin in Los Angeles has the original, inherited from his mother, my mother’s oldest sister. It’s the only image of my grandmother that I have.
My mother left no photographs, no legal documents or any other evidence of her past before my father. We were on our annual visit to Cape Town, in December 1979, to spend Christmas with my sister and her family. A day or two before we returned to London, my mother told me she had put so much paper down the garbage shaft in her appartment block that her servant had to unblock it with a broom handle. I hear my mother telling me this with her self-depreciating laugh. I didn’t ask her what those papers were or pick up the cue. We left Cape Town in mid-January and my mother killed herself on 2nd February leaving farewell letters which I kept for thirty years, and then threw away.
My grandmother’s face is strong, rectangular, without marked cheek-bones. She looks at me with seeing-through eyes, wise eyes. Her nose is heavy, and the grooves on either side almost reach her mouth, held in a firm straight underline beneath her nose. Her look says, you haven’t fooled me even though I am silent about what I see and know. Ulla, my mother’s middle sister, told me their mother was a simple woman. My grandmother does not have the face of a simple woman, but of a silent woman, a woman who held her peace. On the black and white photograph she is wearing a checked dress with white verticals zigzagging through black horizontals against a background that I imagine brown. Brown would suit my grandmother because in the photograph her eyes are dark and her hair too, tied up to show delicate ears. Her neck is slender, although no longer a young woman’s neck, her chin rounded, her jawline just beginning to give way. My grandmother is not beautiful, but her face shows great strength. My mother said my grandmother was a good woman. I feel her benevolence as she looks down on me.
I imagine the photograph was taken for my Aunt Edith when my grandparents sent her, their oldest daughter, to South Africa to escape the Nazis before things got as bad as they got. We don’t know where or how my grandmother died. The last she was heard of was at the station in Lutz, Poland. Did she die on the platform, or in a train, or was she gassed in Auschwitz?
My mother’s portrait hangs in its gilded wooden frame in my art studio to the left of one of my father’s portraits. The other portrait of my father stands on a shelf behind my desk in my study in-between bronze heads of my two children, cast when each was four; I imagine my father protecting me and my children. My mother painted well and although her oneiric style of lyrical black lines influenced by Picasso over blue and yellow watercolour was not appreciated thirty-five years ago it would have a respectable place today. I could not live with my mother’s image in a room I inhabit every day, but, having inherited some of her talent, she has her place where I paint when I have time.
My mother poses half-profile. Her hair is thick and black, and permed into waves. An earlobe that protrudes is fleshier than her mother’s but her neck is longer and more graceful. Her body is slighter; my mother was always thin. She is wearing a soft, tailored V-neck blouse that might be mohair with stitched pleats that come down from the shoulders and open up over her breasts which we cannot see. The tailoring looks expensive. My mother eyes were a brilliant light blue. In the black and white photograph, they are translucent and well-set under smooth lids; later her eyelids weighed down upon them. Her eyebrows are plucked fine. Her nose is strong but not large, her mouth lipsticked into a heart-shape. The colour stops before the corner to make it smaller; she had a wide mouth and a smile that showed her teeth.
The portrait-woman’s eyes meet mine with many expressions: soft, reproachful, resentful, challenging, blaming, chiding; longing; does she sneer? My mother told me many times that she was considered beautiful. I didn’t see it and I do not see it in the photograph. But she was interesting, unconventional and charismatic. She would have liked to be a film star like Sarah Bernhardt, admired and beloved by thousands, or a great artist, the equal of Picasso. In a safer world, she might have had a chance. Her expression is not submissive, as was expected of a woman at that time, and by a man like my father, twenty-years older, wealthy and established. The photo shows a woman who is not happy with her fate.
The three-quarter size portrait was taken by Jane Ploz, whose work is in the Bensusan Photography Museum in Bree Street, Newtown, Johannesburg. A label at the back tells that it was framed and mounted by S. A. Picture Framing, 18a Burg Street, Cape Town, and reference numbered 9117. For all I know it is a collector’s item. I imagine it was taken shortly after she married my father during a visit to Cape Town to spend time with his younger sister, Esther, who lived there. After my mother’s death, I asked my aunt to give it to me. I chose that portrait because the woman in it does not look like the mother I remember. I could not live with a likeness of the mother I had experienced.
Like my grandmother, my mother has seeing eyes, but she focussed on people’s weaknesses and would then exploit them.
‘She’s always digging holes for others, and then she falls into them herself,’ my Auntie Esther said.
My mother went her own way and at the end she paid the price with dignity. In the photograph she is wearing pearls that my father gave her and that she gave me when I was perhaps thirty. I have not given those pearls to my daughter.
In my study, my most personal room, I have many photos, mostly of my grand-children with me, or with their parents, or with my second husband who is not my children’s father. I have three photos of him and me together. In the earliest, taken a year after we began to live together, I am thirty-nine. I have permed curls, as was fashionable in mid-eighties, and am in profile, leaning against him and looking up into his face. I am astonished how much I look like my mother, so much that the photo might have been of her. In my favourite, taken a year later, after he stopped me from perming my hair and it had fully grown out, I have long, shiny black hair, a slender neck longer than my mother’s and the same shape of face and nose. I was beautiful. She must have been too.
I was eight, and looking at my mother.
‘Why do you look at me that way?’ she asked. ‘I don’t like you to look at me.’
I too have seeing eyes, darker blue than my mother’s.
My mother was charming. I am careful to avoid charm. It is too close to manipulation.
A photo of my daughter stands within hand’s reach on my desk, taken when she was thirty-three. On her knee my first grandson; close up her husband with his arm around her, looking at his son with a devoted expression, sweet-faced. My grey-green eyed daughter wears her wavy hair, dark brown, with hints of gold, clasped in a pony-tail pulled forward over one shoulder. Her hands rest on my grandson’s knees. Her expression is childlike in its happiness. My grandson is wearing a jersey I knitted for him, with white sheep against a green background. It is a soft picture. My daughter is beautiful and charismatic.
Above my desk I have a kinetic wire sculpture, bought at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, on which one can suspend photos. My grandchildren, and my husband weave around each other, balancing on wire T-bars. My granddaughter: my daughter’s daughter, has black eyes like my son-in-law, a slender neck, and a beautiful smile like her mother’s. She’s a characterful little girl, delightful and charismatic.
We are five generations of women. My mother and grandmother are long dead. I am close to seventy, my daughter is in the middle of her life, my grand-daughter in the early years of her schooling. What do we have in common, besides genes? We go. We leave. We leave by going, and we make others leave by sending them away.
As life became increasingly dangerous for Jews in Berlin, my grandfather sent his daughters to Southern Africa, Edith to Johannesburg, Ulla, the middle daughter, to Bulawayo after South Africa closed its borders to Jews in 1937; my mother, the youngest, to join Ulla in 1939. Later Rhodesia, now called Zimbabwe, closed its borders too. The war started. My grandfather discovered that while he could not get into South Africa directly from Berlin, he would be able to get there from a different African country but my grandmother refused to leave without her sisters. Grandfather had taken financial responsibility for these sisters who had never married, and would surely have brought them out of Germany once he had a place to bring them to, but Grandmother didn’t give him the chance. She chose her sisters above her husband, daughters and grandson; I, her oldest granddaughter, was born after the war in which she and two-thirds of her family were exterminated. Grandmother did not go, she left by sending her children away.
My mother was left a widow at thirty-one with three children aged six, four and not-yet two: I’m the oldest, next a sister and then a brother. My mother wasn’t interested in her children—she wanted a life. In Germany, when she was thirteen, Jews were no longer allowed to attend school. At eighteen she’d been sent away from her parents to work as a governess or nanny. To escape from that she had married, and then, pregnant, left him when he was convicted and jailed for fraud. Then, on the train from Bulawayo to her sister Edith in Johannesburg she miscarried at eight months. I only learned about this sibling after her death. I’ve always imagined a boy, an older brother; an oldest child who, in a kinder world, would have stood between me and my mother. Some people thought the child was born spastic and put into a home but no one has been able to trace it. The dead child was a secret. My father wanted a white wedding. My mother was not allowed to mourn, or to remember.
When a woman loses a baby and isn’t allowed to grieve, her heart and mind: her love and attention, are caught up in the dead child. Love flows from parent to child, from our ancestors down to us and our children, through the generations like water flowing downstream. When parents lose a child, the flow is blocked, as water is dammed by a fallen tree or an avalanche of rocks, only to be released when mourning is complete. My mother could not grieve for her lost child because she was not allowed to talk about it, to give it brothers and sisters: to keep its memory alive in her heart. She could not mourn her own parents, talk about them and tell stories so that they would live on in her own children’s minds and hearts because her grief was too large to bear; was intolerable; and so my mother’s love could not find its way to her children who came later.
My mother never spoke about her life before my father. Her own father had died of kidney failure and pneumonia in 1943. In the years before her suicide, she began to blame herself for not bringing her mother out of Germany and saving her life.
Each mother is someone else’s daughter. My mother is a daughter who lost her own mother in appalling circumstances which she had to imagine because they were not known: did her mother die on the platform at Lodz, or in a train on her way to Auschwitz, or in a gas oven? How does a daughter who has lost her mother that way survive in her heart and soul? My mother kept her attention away from the terrible facts until they caught up with her. I, her daughter, too have kept my attention away from these terrible facts, until now.
My mother left London and returned to live in South Africa in 1967, shortly after my son was born. I waited until my children were at university and then left London to live in Holland and Switzerland with my second husband.
I had married at nineteen. Unmothered myself, I did not know that children need their parents not only after school, but throughout their lives even after their parents are dead. I left by going away. Each of my children has, in their turn, left me and years have passed during which I did not hear from them. Now they and I live in different countries, and visit when we can.
When we are born, we come onstage into a drama that is already unfolding to take on our roles in our parents’ and ancestors’ stories. My grandmother, my mother and I are women who go, who leave, who make our children leave us by sending them away, or who leave ourselves. I hope my daughter and my granddaughter have lives that permit the generations to stay together.
Joy Manné is a much-published and translated author in the relationship field. Among her books, Soul Therapy (1997), Family Constellations: A Practical Guide to Uncovering the Origins of Family Conflict (North Atlantic Books, 2009). Her short fiction has been published online in Chicago Literati, Airgonaut and Café Aphra, among others, and in print in Offshoots (The Geneva Writers Group Biannual journal), The Ham, One Hundred Voices 2, and other places. She has published three children’s books. Joy also writes Memoir.