During long afternoons when I was about seven years-old and the war in Germany had ended,I learned to darn socks. Sitting beside my beloved grandmother I felt safe. From my perch I watched her nimble fingers thread woolen yarn across large holes and small.And I asked countless questions as we did our handy-work. Although I did not understand it at the time, darning would come to mean much more to me than repairing worn socks.
I had experienced chaos and heartache in early childhood. When I was very small I overheard my mother’s desperate sobs upon learning that her husband had been mortally wounded in the war.I witnessed my grandmother’s deep sorrow when both her sons--one 19, the other 21—died in battle. As my mother, my grandmother and Ifled from the advancing Russian army in 1945 I witnessed bloodied and delirious soldiers on a transport train from the front crying “Mama, Mama.” When our westward trek ended, I saw bombed-out buildings everywhere and the bloated carcasses of animals littering the streets. In the icy winter of 1946 I was quarantined in a provisional children’s hospital with diphtheria. Amid rampant contagion I contracted one life-threatening disease after another and survived them all. But when my friend Eric died in the bed next to mine, I dove under my blanket and could only be coaxed out for meals. I suffered with night-sweats and hallucinated about losing my mother.
As the afternoon began to darken I laid my partially darned sock aside and asked my grandmother, “Are there any happy lives?” After a long pause she replied, “Our friends in Sweden have good lives. They have everyday concerns, of course, but tragedies are rare. When I visited them before the war, they were seldom gloomy. We laughed a lot and I felt lighthearted.” I pressed her for more. “But why do we continue to live when there is so much sadness around us?” She put her darning down and drew me to her, tears filling her eyes. “We go on because we love each other so much. That’s why.” She held me for dear life and rocked me back and forth. Then she composed herself, took up her darning, and told me to do the same. Which I did.
Life’s unpredictability still scares me. Childhood fears persist deep down. Nevertheless, looking back now, recalling my seven year-old self asking big questions about life’s meaning, I realize that my
grandmother’s answer satisfied me for more than one reason. The words she said were simple and true to my experience of being loved by her and my mother in the midst of the upheavals of a war-torn time. But what clinched it for me, I now see, was her matter-of-fact return to mending—socks, lives--and her instruction to me to do likewise.
Posted on 01/11/2016
by Sue Cawte