And so, I have over time avoided tackling this story because it is complicated (as all the best stories are…) It concerns the layering of multiple stories and notions of truth – which is essentially life – because what is truth – what does it look like, feel like, breathe like? Do we recognise it if we fall over it in the street? Do our paradigms shift to embrace it? Or are we so perpetually caught up in our own sliver of the stuff and the re-telling of it that we can’t always conceive that another, altogether truer truth exists elsewhere?
It is strange because sometimes truth shouts at you, even explains itself in detail and yet somehow we refuse to see it. Recently, we were so desperate for someone to fulfill a role for us that even though she was telling us that how she would deliver that role was not as we expect we were so caught up in the needing of someone (anyone) that we carried on regardless and employed her. So when it all went horribly wrong we half tried to convince ourselves that it was a surprise when it wasn’t: the clues were there right from the start.
Then there is the opposite issue, when someone lies so convincingly that you have no clue as to who they truly are and are subsequently shocked to the core when you discover that they are a bad person or a good person who does bad things.
Then there are those who fall somewhere between who give you a tantalising glimpse into their world and yet somehow never fully reveal who they are for fear perhaps or because there is pain or shame or a worry so deep that they cannot ever be who they truly are. And so it was with Ilsa Cole.
It is hard to know where the story begins because the seeds were sown perhaps in character or socialisation, so I will begin from the end. And work backwards.
I only met Ilsa once. The memory is vivid for me. She was short, a little overweight by then and she was old. She wore a cardigan, firmly fastened, and on the edge of the lapel were safety pins. She still took in work as a seamstress.
There were other features that were hard to unsee: the nicotine stain in her slightly bouffant hair, for example and I will never forget the appalling racism she displayed about an individual next door. And yet, for all that, and her slightly comic German accent Ilsa was utterly compelling. Not because she told the truth, or spoke with authority on the world but because she was charismatic, out-going, alive. She was also my partner’s mother.
The end of the story then and where I choose to begin is at her death. Ilsa had 3 children. For the purposes of this story we’ll call them Fred, Steph and Magda. And as Steph and Magda waited for her to die in the hospital a kind of release for them happened.
Ilsa was dominant, powerful and potent. Magda had chosen to stay away for years: a sort of poisonous miasma descended as she’d neared her mother’s house and so, over the years she had withdrawn to survive. This was a survival at its most basic. As the eldest child, Ilsa had reserved some of her worst for Magda. She told of tales of beatings, and being locked away. But Magda did not have it within her to take this quietly and so there had been running battles through the growing up years: about space, about freedom, about choices – about Ilsa trying to control the edges of it all and perhaps control what could be controlled. Ilsa was happy to tell people what a terrible, woebegone, despicable child Magda was – which was a systematic and frankly wrong-headed campaign to assassinate her daughter’s personality. When Ilsa died a neighbour said that she knew what was really going on. The result for Magda was a commitment to changing the world, a championing of the under dog.
The second sister, Steph, had an equally difficult if different experience of her mother. Being of a different sort of personality, she at once presented a different kind of challenge to Ilsa. Steph wasn’t argumentative in the same way as her sister, and grew finding ways to entertain or please in response to the barrage of attacks that Ilsa focused on her. As time rolled out, Steph grew to be the kindest, most decent of people who puts others first, often at terrific cost to herself.
And Fred? Well, he withdrew – moved into himself, shut down because to do otherwise was to be destroyed. In some ways: because he spent less time analysing the results of his relationship with his mother he was somewhat less aware of the damage it had done often saying there was nothing wrong, or that they had had a perfectly normal childhood thank you very much.
They had not.
So, for what’s it’s worth, the childhood they did have was dotted with love: Christmas, trips to Germany, birthdays alongside the daily grind of unmitigated misery. So, when Ilsa died a sort of breathing easy took hold, a deep breath of (and it matters not how old you are) ‘well at least that won’t happen again.’ Being generous, both Steph and Magda reached an agreement with Fred that he could take their parents’ house as his own – a tiny amount of offset payment was exchanged. And so, Fred took up residence in their family home.
The sisters arrived to help pack Ilsa’s stuff up, to give Fred a chance to make the house his own. And what stuff she had – as if she’d gathered things to weigh her down to this specific reality in this specific place. They found money in places they never believed possible: tiny pots of cash squirreled away ‘just in case.’ And they found pile upon pile of things she’d never thrown away – gifts for sewing jobs she’d done: bottles of wine from 20 years before, boxes of chocolates so out of date they’d developed a discolouration like a second skin. Most significantly of all they found an old notebook. From front to back they found pages written in their father’s hand. It was seemingly the story of how he’d got to where he was when he met Ilsa. From back to front in the book, Ilsa had written her story too – all in gothic German script.
So Magda took the book hopeful that a translation would finally offer them some insight into their mother’s life because they’d heard only strange snippets of what might have been during and after the war…two airmen escorting Ilsa half way across Europe, by all accounts and other tales that seemed fanciful.
Then, one day, out of the blue, a letter arrived. A handwritten letter addressed to Ilsa.
Curious, Fred opened it up.
And that’s where the story took another turn
To be continued…/