The dog days of summer are here and it is a sultry, sunny afternoon after church as ten of us tuck in our chairs around our long, sturdy, pine dinner table. Three generations, eating pizza and salad, laughing, talking loudly and simultaneously, and glad in each other's company; celebrating this moment--the now.
Later, in a quieter moment, I show our daughter-in-law Sue, a letter written to Dad in 1956, by a man he met in Germany when he was there ten years earlier with the British Army of the Rhine, Ernst Moller, and we are transported back to an earlier generation of family and an enigmatic glimpse into connections with another time and place. The letter is a treasure.
If you, faithful readers, will forgive me jumping back in time in our journey, I will transcribe the letter for you. I think you will find it interesting:
12th February 1956
My dear Christopher,
I am sure it was one of the greatest and most agreeable surprises of my life when, on coming home from work one evening, it was the 17th of January, my wife told me that a clerk of the Bergedorfen town administration had inquired about me or my address and had left a letter behind for me to verify that I was the person wanted, i.e. Ernst Moller. Well, I was, and it hardly needed the enclosed photos to see that only you could have been the writer of that letter directed to the Burgermeister. I recognized you, as it were, at first sight, for I have not forgotten you, nor has my wife, and I have not forgotten the name of the place Stourbridge either, nor that must have had something to do with a school house and I flatter myself to remember your handwriting, having had a specimen of that about 10 years ago. To cut a long story short, we remember so well as if you had left Bergedorf only a short time ago, in fact, now and again, during all these years, we have been talking about you and the good time we had together and what might have become of you.
I meant to write you in answer to your letter to the Burgermeister, but as it happened, you anticipated me. So, first of all, let me thank you for your kind letter, which I got on February 2nd. You wrote you hoped I would receive it also with some degree of pleasure. I wish to tell you that I received with a considerable amount of pleasure. We are happy that you have made up your mind to write and thus re-established contact with us. We are still living at the Forsthaus, I am sure you will remember the place. We have nt yet got a home or separate apartment or a flat of our own, the housing problem over here being far from being solved. But apart from that, things have changed a good deal and I wonder if you would recognize Hamburg...or me or Betty. She is keeping well, still going strong. I am 52 now. Do you remember our two daughters? Erika is 19 and is cultivating the slim line, and "little" Ingeborg is 12, a cheeky brat and rather boyish. Dear me, it's 10 years since you left here and time has drawn a few more lines into our faces and endowed me with a little embonpoint.
You would love to see us again. Dear Chris, we should love to see you again. May I take it you are planning a visit to Hamburg and Bergedorf this year? You are welcome whenever you choose to come. Of course, you will be our guest, we think we can manage to accommodate you (a couch in the living room would do, wouldn't it?) You see, staying at a hotel or boarding house is likely to be too expensive. So if you won't mind staying at our humble and somewhat restricted and noisy place (in the ground floor is a pub or restaurant again) it's quite all right. But I would like to suggest, if you can manage of course, to come not before spring-time. Things will look brighter then, the days will be longer, nature at its best, you no longer need a winter coat etc. At the time being we are at grips with a hard winter, a cold spell is giving us much trouble.
Please, give me a rough outline of your intentions, of when you think to come (say April or May or June or later) and for how long. If I can manage I shall then take a day or two off or even get part of my holidays, so I can show you over Hamburg and the docks, now in full swing again, and our surroundings, and I am sure we shall have a grand time. And of course, there will be no end of asking questions and telling and talking; you remember we always enjoyed a good chat on any subject.
Excuse the delay in answering your letter, but I could not find the time and leisure to write you a letter in understandable English as I hope this one will turn out to be.
I am still working as a designing engineer in the dock district of Hamburg and that is a good distance from Bergedorf so that much of my spare time will be already taken up by covering the way and in the evenings there is always a lot to do at home.
Are you still single?
Thank you once more, my wife and Erika and Ingeborg join me in kind regards and best wishes for your health. We are looking forward to seeing you again.
I enclose the letter from the Burgermeister and your photograph
I don't know if Dad ever replied to Ernst Moller's letter. He certainly never went back to Hamburg. It is interesting that he apparently had made no mention of being married, or having a family in his letter to Ernst, but perhaps his letter was brief and to the point, merely trying to establish contact with an old friend. So many questions, to which the answers can only be imagined. I wonder who Ernst was; how they met and what their relationship was. I wonder if in Ernst and Betty, Dad found the parent figures he really never had.
Dad showed me the letter for the first time, in 2002, just months before he died. I found it again when I went back to help sort out his few papers after his death.