Anton Doll: Children Skating on a Frozen River
Reading Sonata's recent post in Fridge Soup, and seeing her photo of the wooden skates known as doorlopers, reminded me forcibly of a story my mother told of a family tragedy back in the late 1800s.
My paternal great-grandmother, a widow struggling to bring up her family in Belgium, lost one of her young children in a skating accident. Aged about eight, the boy had fallen through the ice, and could not be saved. Tragic enough, you might say, but how she heard of her son's death was through the arrival of one of his companions, who flung open the door, threw the drowned child's skates on the floor, shouting "Ernest is dead!" and fled.
No gentle breaking of bad news; no bereavement counselling either, in those days; many children died of disease or in accidents, but the loss, grief and lasting sorrow were never dulled by the commonplace nature of the experience. Ernest's death was felt keenly. My great-grandmother carried on; she took in washing, specialising in the laundering of fine linens, such as the lace and silk blouses of wealthier customers, and brought up the remaining children with dignity and success.
My grandfather, the eldest, shared in supporting the family from an early age. A quiet, gentle man, he held a responsible post in the railways, married my brisk, practical grandmother, and in 1918, his own family looked like this:
My mother (the cross-looking baby) adored him. He was a wonderful story-teller, a talent she was to inherit from him, and she would tell us how he would gather the children round him, extinguishing the lights in the kitchen, so that they sat in firelight, while he told them tales of mystery and adventure. He softened the edges of my grandmother's no-nonsense parenting, and brought his sense of fun and a love of the ridiculous into his children's everyday experiences.
He was the man to whom neighbours would come for advice, and for help with official letters that they might not always understand; he was a pillar of his community, and a dignified man, but he had a twinkly sense of humour and, to my grandmother's chagrin, a keen admiration of the somewhat scandalous star of the 1920s, Josephine Baker.
I was still a baby when he died, but he remained a vivid presence in our family, through my mother's deep attachment to him and the wealth of memories she recounted to us.
Arthur Story, forced to grow up too quickly, carry too much responsibility too soon, but turning out a fine man for all that.