Another piece in the puzzle.
I have used that title intentionally, because I am beginning to think that these posts, dedicated to my past are bits of the jigsaw that, completed, and read in the correct sequence [I purposefully publish out of order] will help me to understand why I am me.
Gretel S. [Mutti] really deserves a chapter all her own in my story. Not just because she was an extraordinary woman, which she was, but because of the effect she had on my life.
Born in Holland in I9II Mutti moved with her parents to Germany when she was eleven. I am not sure exactly when she moved back to Holland but it was there she married an Englishman, Norman S, and had a daughter, Marjorie. The marriage broke up, Germany invaded Poland breaking their treaty with Great Britain and war was declared. Wrapping two Persian rugs around her middle and with only what she could carry, Mutti brought her eight year old daughter to England as the Germans marched into Holland. She arrived when the country was in turmoil.
Unprepared for a war that was inevitable - thanks to the dithering of Neville Chamberlain the Prime Minister of the period, men were hurriedly conscripted and trained, factories converted from peacetime products to producing uniforms, guns and ammunition, tanks, planes and field kitchens. The powers that be, requisitioned schools, houses and land as headquarters, living accommodation, training bases, and stores. Khaki, pale blue, and navy blue uniforms now predominated and the accents of all nations could be heard in the towns. Sign posts and place names were removed from roads, sticky paper strips criss-crossed windows in trains and blackout curtains in every home cut out any chink of light that might lead an enemy bomber to its target.
Rationing began; gas masks were distributed and were obliged to be carried at all times. Municipal parks were dug up and planted with vegetables, and Barrage Balloons looking like floating elephants protected important sites. Lorries collected iron railings and garden gates to be turned into shells for bombs and bullets and the Black Market was born.
After living for a while with her estranged husband Mutti moved to Bedford to be near her only brother Paul, who was a Trades Union leader.
Mutti was a sturdy five foot nothing of energy, with the face of a mischievous but rather plain, elf. If there was something she wanted or needed she would find a way to get it. She would badger people into submission using a mixture of coercion, persuasion and moral blackmail. She sold her rugs and some jewellery and bought a large run down house and proceeded to beg or borrow the means to repair and paint it. When it suited her she would play the poor refugee who had escaped Hitler by a whisker.
She had the idea of creating a housing billet where officers could rest and relax; near enough to London to commute to their offices, yet far enough away to avoid the nightly bombardment. Having conceived the idea she followed it through by shaming those who were doing nothing, to help her in her plan. Beds and bedding were donated; shops were scoured for the necessary equipment for her kitchen and for all the other essentials.
Mutti knew her antiques and was not above trading the food her officer’s food stamps brought her, for more rugs, fancy tables even object d’arts. Eventually she had room for eight officers and her fame as a cook ensured that the waiting list for places grew and the numbers stayed constant. She knew how to make a little go a long way. Cream was a thing of the past and butter rationed so she would take the cream from the top of each bottle of milk, letting it stand for a while before draining off any liquid then whipping the cream to top her coffee or her fancy puddings. Her soups were legendary; made from a stock pot that was always on the go. It began with a chicken carcass or meat bones with onions, celery and bay leaf and then took all the leftovers that came back from the vegetable dishes. Nothing went to waste, ever. She bought day old bread and stale sponges for half price. The bread was held under hot water for a second then baked in a hot oven until it was as crisp and fresh as new baked. The sponges were soaked in sherry and made the base for sherry trifle. She gave her men Goulash and Blinis, bashed tough steak into submission, tied pieces into sausage shapes and pressure cooked it in rich gravy until it melted in the mouth, salted runner beans in the summer glut for winter delight and made her own Sauerkraut. In a time of restrictions, her officers ate very well.
She did not waste money on sending soiled washing to a laundry. Monday was washday and beds were changed to crisp fresh linen and she would still be ironing at eleven in the evening. She had one particular and peculiar quirk which she credited for her boundless energy. Every afternoon after lunch she would retreat to her bedroom, remove her shoes, climb on the bed and cover herself with a rug. She would close her eyes and sleep for precisely ten minutes and wake refreshed. Wherever she was in the world [and I have witnessed this in London and New York and heard of her search for a bed or bench in Franco’s Palace in Madrid] she would enter a hotel lobby, remove her shoes, lie back on a couch, close her eyes and sleep for the required ten minutes. No one disturbed her. By the time hotel staff decided to rouse her, her ten minutes were over and she was up, shoes on, shopping bags retrieved and on her way.
Her fame spread and her bank balance grew. She grew close to one of the officers, Reginald Floyd, a tall buffoon of a man who could see at once that her dragooning character was a perfect foil for his own laid back laziness. Marjorie went to Bedford Girls High School and became a perfect English rose.
Sometime in the late forties Mutti bought a large rundown hotel in The Bay, and with her usual formidable energy and courage turned it, in double quick time, into a convalescent home. She took patients from all over Kent for two weeks of convalescent care and some of her very good cooking; with the aid of a regular turnover of German girls, and a number of her ‘stray lambs’; girls like me who needed tender loving care. Reginald or Flukenbush as she called him drove her around in his large black Packard, to the station, to the Wholesalers or to the Bridge Club where they played every Thursday evening. For the rest of the time he played solitaire in their sitting room, changed the occasional light bulb or parked outside the Pier and waited for the showgirls to exit from the Summer Show.
I953 and I enter her world.
I was given a card to take to the Home for an interview with the owner, Mrs Gretel S. who needed a cleaner and general dogsbody. I had been a week without money and I was very hungry. Mutti looked me over with her small twinkling grey eyes, saw with her amazing antennae that I was a waif in distress and hired me on the spot. ‘Time for lunch, my dear’ she said in her comic Dutch/German accent. ‘Come and join us’. It was stew, not any old English stew with gobs of fat floating on thin tasteless liquid; but Mutti’s stew. Succulent meat, bite tender vegetables and soft fluffy dumplings floating on rich thick gravy. I ate three bowls, an act that became part of the folklore of the Home.
I worked from Monday to Friday with Mrs.Robinson- a long term member of Mutti’s staff - I stripped and remade beds, vacuumed carpets and swept the oak-stained and polished floorboards. We dusted and polished furniture, cleaned windows and bathrooms, and folded linen. If all that was done Mutti would find me another job. Dampening and rolling pillowcases, sheets, table cloths, shirts and blouses ready for the iron. Or she would have me stringing runner beans, shredding cabbage or simply stirring a pot. Mrs. Robinson, [Robbie] knew better than to show her face. If her work was done she would hide herself in an upstairs room and smoke another of her endless cigarettes. I however was in some kind of heaven.
The work, though never-ending, was not hard and everyone was pleasant. Mutti’s assistant, Erna, a tall grim looking German woman was a bit severe but Mutti herself more than made up for her. We had coffee at eleven around the big kitchen table. For the first time in my life I tasted proper roasted coffee and with Mutti’s famous ‘milk top cream’ it was sublime. There would be cake, almond slices, or biscuits and the conversation would be mostly in German. I was told that after a while there would be no translation and I would soon pick up enough of the language to follow what was being said. Sometimes we would sing. Around that table, with our coffee and cakes, one of the girls would hum something and another would pick it up. I learned to sing Das wonden ist dast Muller’s luste [probably not quite right but that is the phonetic spelling] A Roundelay, you know, where one singer starts and the next begins midway, then the third and so-on. The first time it happened it made me cry. I couldn’t believe such happiness existed. I sang all the time and no-one told me to stop. At the top of the house in the attics I would sing 'Oh Mien Papa' from Madam Butterfly, and hit the top note [just]. I was almost delirious with happiness. At the end of the first week I bought a bottle of Hiltone bleach and became a blonde and would remain one for the next eighteen years with a few hiccups along the way. After three weeks I moved into one of the attics at the top of the house and, at eighteen and a half I began to venture into what today would be known as teenager territory.
Marjorie was three years older than I. At first she was distant. I was just another of her mother's stray cats and I think she would have loved to have Mutti's attention to herself, but little by little we became closer until we were inseparable-at least when she was home from the hospital where she was in her third year of nursing training.
Because of Mutti and Marjorie I would begin my own nursing training within a year.
Because of Mutti I became a good cook, learned to appreciate music and gained knowledge of antiques, spoke German and a little Dutch and discovered that caring comes in all shapes and sizes and that by 'paying it forward' can be endless.