In 1945, two months before WW2 ended, my mothers’ home town of Dresden was destroyed. For three days it bombed and burned. My mother and grandmother hid in the underground shelters. When they emerged, their town was no more.
Mum escaped East Germany through an unpatrolled border, and became a dancer. She left Germany in her 20s, and sadly had to leave her young son behind.
She met my father in Singapore and they married 6 months later. After migrating to Australia, my mother started a new family and tried to leave it all behind.
I always wanted to know about my German roots. ‘please teach me German’ I would ask. ‘Please teach me to write to my Oma’ I also wrote letters to my lost brother, but they were always returned.
‘I can never go back’ my mother said.
I visited Dresden in 2010 on my belated honeymoon. It had been rebuilt and was beautiful. My mother’s flat was on a corner. The river ran warm at the end of the street, and the Fraunkirche chimed on the hour.
‘You must come’ I told her. ‘You must visit Dresden now it is re-built’.
It took us 2 years to convince her.
In 2012 my mother and her three Aussie children travelled to Germany. The highlight was reuniting with her son, and our brother Ralf, in Köln. It was the happiest I’ve ever seen my mum. He had become a professional musician and we met his lovely wife and their young daughter.
After meeting Ralf, we travelled to Dresden.
We arrived in the town square and the Fraunkirche bells chimed.
My mother hadn’t heard the church bells for 60 years.
We went to a local restaurant for dinner.
My mother wouldn’t put down her bag, and her posture was upright, as though she was waiting for something.
‘Relax’ I said to mum. ‘Look, they have dumplings and sauerkraut.’
‘Eat’ I say.
‘I’m not sure I’m hungry’ she says, hiding some of her dinner in a tissue, and placing it into the bag that sat on her elbow. ‘I think I will take this home for later.’
I speak to her in German. She speaks to me in English.
We arrive home in Australia 3 weeks later.
My mother puts down her bag, and takes off her shoes. The wall behind her displays an original drawing of the Fraunkirche.
She will never see Germany again.
She will never see Ralf again.
She will never again hear the church bells ring.
I decide to paint a portrait of my mother.
I am reusing an old canvas.
I originally did a painting of my daughter on this canvas, but it didn’t work out, so I painted over it with clouds. I was dealing with depression, and I wrote all the words I wanted to say.
I choose sepia as my palette.
I hide the words with my paint but some of them show through.
I find my mother in the darkness.
‘I am doing a painting of you’ I tell her.
‘From where?’ she asks.
I haven’t painted my mother for over 30 years. The last painting I did of her, she threw away. She didn't like to see herself. I am not going to show her this one. I know she won’t like it.
But I like it.
It’s my mother.
I am worried about what she will think.
‘It’s from Dresden, you know, in that restaurant where we had that enormous dinner.’
She smiles, but says nothing.
I am adding darker colours. My brush has loosened and I noticed it is angrily filling in spaces. I don’t know why my brush is angry. Is it angry over what happened in Dresden? Is it angry because a city full of refugees, woman and children were destroyed? Is it angry that my mother never got to realise her full potential? Is it angry because we never got to realise the fullness of our mother-daughter relationship?
I don’t know.
But the brush keeps painting.
The brush creates spaces and ignores edges.
The darkness lingers.
I saw her for dinner last week, at her retirement village.
It was happy hour at the restaurant. Her friends were singing around the piano as we arrived. They held up their wine and smiled as we passed.
'They look so happy' I said.
'Look, there's Shirley' she said. 'Shirley is teaching me how to paint.'
'Really?' I ask. 'You, paint?'
'Yes,' She said. 'You must come see them sometime.'
'I will.' I smiled. 'I'd love to.'
GreetI am a yoga teacher, author and artist.
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