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Spring and No Flowers
Memories of an Austrian Childhood
By Albertine Gaur
Intellect LtdCopyright © 2006 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
The Time in the Garden
The first thing I remember clearly is a dream. The dream came at regular intervals when I was about two or three years old. Not later. The dream never varied. I was in Aunt Paula's room, it was late in the afternoon and the sun was shining. There was a big wardrobe full of beautiful clothes. Aunt Paula opened the door and allowed me to look at them. I remember how I reached out and spread the skirts of the dresses, felt the fine texture of the material, admired the beautiful colours. We did not talk. Talk was something I had not yet fully mastered. We communicated our delight entirely without words. These looking-at-her-clothes seemed to be a well-established ritual, known only to Aunt Paula and myself. Eventually Aunt Paula closed the door of the wardrobe. I clearly remember standing there, with my back to the room, Aunt Paula no longer within my vision, the top of my head just touching the door handle. And then everything changed. Froze. The light, so beautifully golden, took on a deadly white, colourless quality. I took a deep breath and at this moment I knew that if I touched the door handle I would breath out. And then I would begin to scream and go mad. I had a full and absolute comprehension of the meaning of madness. The unspeakable, irrevocable isolation it would bring about. Sanity was only a thin wall of glass, which the scream would scatter. I would pass through it into another dimension, another reality. I thought, but I am only a child, I should not know this, it is too early, something has gone wrong. The grown-ups will punish me if they find out I already know about madness. And at this moment the dream would simply fade away and I, presumably, woke up. But this is something I do not remember.
I was not frightened of the dream in the daytime. If I remembered it at all, I remembered it as something I did not fully understand, and that was therefore of little consequence. But every night the dream returned. Then I also remembered that I had been through it before. There was a particular type of recognition, guilty recognition. Only, as far as I could see, there was no reason for guilt. Just disbelief and shock at my powers of recognition. I realized that my understanding in the dream outstripped my waking capabilities, that in my dream I was transcending the prescribed dimension of my existence.
I have sometimes wondered what could have provoked this wholly premature, abstract recognition of madness. On the surface, our household was secure. The place where I was born was a small baroque town, forty miles west of Vienna. We lived at its southern edge in a rambling house with a large garden. On a clear day one could see mountain ranges from the first floor windows at the back of the house. They were just a gentle blue line in the distance. When I was born my parents, my mother's parents and my mother's younger sister, Paula, lived with us. Not an isolated nuclear, but an extended family, one could almost say a joint family. Such families were in the 1930s not uncommon in Austria. Indeed, as I was to find out, a good many of my school friends lived in a similar way. But ours was not supposed to be a permanent arrangement. In a way it was I who had caused it - or so my mother liked to put it.
My mother was the dominant figure of my childhood, not emotionally, but factually. Her dominance was not so much based on love, but on the fact that she was able to claim exclusive ownership of my person. There was an element of revenge in this claim. She had not wanted me to be there in the first place, now that I had arrived, unasked and at the most inconvenient moment, she wanted to make sure I was kept in my place. I was to be restricted, prevented from causing more trouble. There might even have been a secret element of fear in her attitude towards me. A suspicion that, if not properly watched, I might become her executioner. (As subsequent events proved, her suspicions were perfectly justified. The way we often help to create a situation we most fear by our efforts to prevent it).
Mama's (as I called her) family had originally come from the German speaking part of Czechoslovakia. Her grandmother had been the only daughter of an impoverished (very impoverished) minor nobleman. Hapsburg Austria was flooded with noblemen and noblewomen. Unlike in Britain, there was no clear right of progenitor; all sons and daughters inherited the title. In addition, there was the nobility by merit, who were usually more concerned with their dignity than those who had inherited it. When great-grandmother (her name seems to have been Theresa) was eighteen years old, her own mother died and she was sent to stay with relatives in Vienna. From the fragments of conversation I picked up here and there (none of this was even openly discussed in front of me), the relatives seem to have occupied some minor position at the Imperial Court, and the young girl from the provinces was soon enveloped in the social life of 19th century Vienna. Eventually she fell in love with an officer of the Imperial army and it was there that her troubles started. Officers of the Imperial army were not expected to marry young, their wives had to come either from the right background or, at least, provide a substantial dowry that would enable the couple to live according to their station. Even Jewish women were accepted. Vienna had always been thoughtlessly anti-Semitic but, providing the money was right, and the girl converted to Christianity, the marriage could take place. Whatever else, great-grandmother could not produce a dowry. As to her social station I am not quite sure, but the relatives, in whose house she lived, were certainly not of the right social level. Otherwise her (I think it was some kind of) uncle would not have had to work for money. Whatever the job, at the end of the 19th century 'working for money' always implied lower rank. I am not at all sure what happened. It does not seem that her lover actually deserted her, but his family behaved in a fashion, which so wounded her pride that she wrote to her father, informing him, she would return home and consent to any marriage he saw fit to arrange. Was she pregnant? I do not know. Though I had already developed considerable talent for hearing things I was not supposed to hear, this particular fact would certainly have been beyond my comprehension. The husband her father chose, rather quickly, seemed to have been quite rich (there were apparently a good many debts in great-grandmother's family), much older, a widower, an alcoholic, and there were veiled indications that he had once been 'ill'.
I have only ever seen two pictures of my great-grandmother. One was taken during her stay in Vienna. It showed a slim girl in an enormous crinoline. A tiny waist and soft coloured eyes blazing with light. The other was that of women with three small children. A frozen face, blank eyes. After her father had died, she took her three surviving children and left her husband, a move that immediately made her a social outcast. For the rest of her life she lived in her father's house, saw nobody, took no interest in her children or in anything else. My grandmother's older sister became the head of the household -a very poor household. Great-grandmother used to walk through the house at night with a burning candle in her hand, looking for her lost lover. I was impressed by her constancy, her power to shape life into a coherent story (a Schnitzler story?), divide the essential from the peripheral. Her proud disregard for facts, I admired her like a beautiful poem, a perfect sculpture. I never looked upon her as a possible role model. I knew that even if I tried, my life could never be like hers.
Great-grandmother was entirely indifferent to her children. They were part of the factual world that no longer touched her. This indifference towards children was handed down through my Grandmother to Mama. Her three children, each in his or her own way, carried the taint of her obsession. Great-grandmother died when I was about three years of age. Neither Grandmother nor Mama went to her funeral. Nor did Grandmother's brother who lived somewhere in America. I remember that there was talk that he too had been in the army and that he had left because of gambling debts. (Many years later, when I was a student in Vienna, I happened by chance to come across a woman who had known Grandmother and her brother when both of them had stayed in Vienna. She hinted, maliciously, and therefore not totally trustworthily, that the reason for grand-uncle's sudden departure had been a scandalous suggestion of incest.)
Mama mistook manners for emotions. I had to say: 'Good morning!' individually to each member of the family, curtsy whenever I received a gift. If the gift came from Grandmother, Mama or one of their women friends, I had to kiss their hand. Any omission to say 'Please' or 'Thank you' at appropriate, and sometimes quite far-fetched occasions, brought swift and mostly physical punishment. There was also a rigid set of verbal rules. The most heinous offence was to use words like 'I want' or 'I don't want'. A child, I was told, was not entitled to have a will of its own, a child did not want things but asked for them - politely. Before going to bed I had to kiss everybody and say, 'Good night and sleep well.' The amazing thing was, not that Mama insisted on the strict oberservation of these rules, but that she truly thought they were proof of affection from my side. As long as etiquette was observed, all was well. Just as she was convinced that any lack of proper affection could immediately be corrected by a slap across my face.
I knew open rebellion was completely pointless. So was an appeal for understanding and sympathy. The grown-ups would under no circumstances make concessions, or side with me. Their rules were laws against which there was no court of appeal. All I could do was outwit them, modify the legislation and then stick to my version, just as obstinately and rigidly as they insisted on their right to make laws. It was guerrilla warfare, which solved no problems, but allowed at least some measure of self-respect. I would dutifully kiss each family member before going to bed, but insist on doing it in a certain order, an order I had devised myself. The first kiss went to Nick (my Alsatian dog), the second to Grandfather, the third to Mama, the fourth to Papa (if he was there which did not happen very often), and the last to Grandmother. Grandmother would often complain that she came last, Mama would say bitterly, 'You like your dog better than your own mother.' I never replied and I never changed the order. I sometimes even felt a kind of contemptuous pity for Mama. She may have been a grown-up and powerful enough to make me behave in a certain way, but I already suspected that you could not force love, and evening after evening I was giving them a demonstration of this fact.
Until I went to school I had no contact with other children. Mama's best friend did not have (and did not want) children. As a matter of fact, I cannot remember anybody ever bringing children into the house. When grown-up visitors came I had to curtsy and immediately withdraw to my room. Just opposite our house was a large green lawn, surrounded by birch trees. Some children, living in the neighbourhood, would play there on occasions. Most of them were chaperoned, but some of them were allowed to play on their own. Mama and Grandmother referred to them, contemptuously, as 'street children', a term that implied not so much moral but social inferiority. In their joint opinion there was no need for me to play with other children, or to be taken to a park. I had a large garden all to myself, besides, other children would only teach me bad manners. 'This child has everything she needs,' was a phrase often used by them. To show any signs of unhappiness or frustration was considered a gross act of ungratefulness on my part.
So I stayed within the confines of my garden and invented my own games. I did not really resent my confinement. One day, I knew, I would be grown up and free to go. It was only a question of time. And time was on my side.
There are two games I remember clearly. One was that of 'being queen'. Grandmother could, if she chose, be a prolific storyteller. If I felt like it I would bring a storybook and if she was in the right mood, she would read to me - providing I promised not to interrupt her. She was very shortsighted (and too vain to wear glasses). At such times a certain bond developed between us, she liked to talk and I liked to listen. I soon began to realize that fact and fiction were not basically different. Following the pictures, she would begin to tell the story slowly and at one point, the tale in the book became intermixed with reminiscences of her own, or her mother's life in Vienna. I knew about the queen in Snow White, just as I knew about the beautiful remote Empress who ruled the Court in Vienna when great-grandmother had still been a young girl. I vaguely began to understand the connection between power and isolation, and I began to see my own isolation not as a deprivation, but as a mark of distinction. I accepted that in order to be different, one had to be removed from everyday happiness (the children opposite the house on the green lawn surrounded by birch trees, laughing, playing, running to their mothers, being hugged, lifted up, kissed). I also accepted the importance of ritual to divide the ordinary from the extraordinary. One Christmas I had been given a little red-lacquered desk with a chair to match. It stood in my room by the window and I used to sit there and look at my picture books and the drawings I had made. Whenever, and as far as I remember, for no particular reason, the time had come to be queen again, I would pull the desk into the middle of the room and put the chair on top of it. Then I would lay an old embroidered shawl that belonged to Grandmother over my shoulders, cover my head with a piece of old lace, and climb on top of the chair. A crown cut from gold paper was always in my desk drawer, together with an old wooden spoon I had elaborately decorated with coloured pencil drawings. Then I would sit on the chair, dressed in my royal regalia, holding the sceptre. I was usually not given to sitting still. Mealtimes were frequently interrupted by slaps across my face for fidgeting. But whenever I was queen, I would sit perfectly still, sometimes for hours. If somebody called for me, I would ignore it (something I would normally not have dared to do), and if a grown-up burst into my room to find the reason for my obstinate silence, I would say, perfectly polite: 'I am sorry, I cannot talk to you, I am queen.' I was never punished for this act of defiance. Even Mama would laugh, close the door, and I would sometimes hear her say in exasperation, but also with a tinge of pride: 'I don't know from where that child gets those extraordinary ideas.'
The other favourite game, I remember, was 'marrying my Grandfather'. I would drape myself into the same embroidered shawl, take my favourite teddy bear, and go to Grandfather's room. 'We are getting married,' I would announce gravely, and just as gravely he would rise from his chair (Grandfather never made fun of me) and we would go in search of Grandmother. She would grumble at being interrupted, but eventually she would relent, and with the teddy bear serving as witness, she would perform the appropriate ceremony. I cannot remember what the ceremony was, I only know that it was a fixed set of actions I had myself invented, and in the end she would join our hands together and pronounce us man and wife. This was the end of the game. Grandfather would retire to his study, Grandmother would return to whatever she had been doing before, and I would go my separate way. I knew the ceremony was not for real, but it served as a sort of preparation. It reassured me, that once I was old enough, I would really marry my Grandfather. Nobody ever tried to stop this game, or tried to explain to me the impossibility, or even the implication, of my action. Silently, they condoned the concept of incest.
I have (apart from the dream) no definite recollections before the age of two. Neither of incidents, people, impressions or emotions. Yet those four people, so oddly joined together for such diverse reasons, their characters, their past histories, their interactions, must in some way have influenced me.
Excerpted from Spring and No Flowers by Albertine Gaur. Copyright © 2006 Intellect Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
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