Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Good night, Tante Else

BenkeI've been thinking about Tante Else. This, you understand, is a little odd, because Tante Else wasn't my tante, or aunt, as you would say. I never met her. I know almost nothing about her.

Tante Else was the great aunt of a boy I was dating in the mid-90's. I'm not sure anymore, but I don't think he even mentioned that he had a great aunt until she died.

On the morning of the funeral, we realised that none of us knew exactly where the church was. Because this was before the age of ubiquitous internet, we spent some time running around in the streets of Sagene, faded black funeral wear flapping in the wind. Five minutes after the service was supposed to have begun, we finally found the right place. It was a drab brick building with no trees to shelter it from the noise of traffic. The second we sat down in the glum rows, panting and sweating, the bells tolled. They had waited for us.

I looked around, and the reason for this rather undeserved kindness became clear: Apart from my boyfriend's dad and stepmother, a minister and a gruff-looking funeral attendant, we were the only ones there.

The minister read briefly from a single sheet of paper. Tante Else was born in Oslo. She never married. She was a very nice lady, sweet and helpful. Then he moved on to bible quotes. No stories, no juicy anecdotes, nothing to reveal what Tante Else had loved, or hoped for, or dreamed of.

During the ceremony, I was the only one who cried. Painfully aware of the odd glances her family gave me, I sobbed for the lost heart of Tante Else, who lived and left so quietly that there were no words left in her wake.

After the service, over sandwiches and coffee, I learned that Tante Else had been in love, once, when she was very young. Her love had left for America, like so many did back then. Tante Else was going to join him. She even had a ticket and a great big suitcase ready.

But then her mother fell ill. There were other siblings, but none that were willing or able to care for the mother. So Tante Else stayed, and she never saw her love again. Or so my boyfriend's stepmother said, between mouthfuls of catered sandwich.

Tante Else, I just know there were a thousand little things to tell about you, and that your family probably knew them all so well it never occured to them to recite them when you died. I am, or would have been, if our paths had ever actually crossed, a stranger. I know nothing about the patterns and comforts of your life, and I can only guess how it felt to willingly lock your heart in a cage that must have chafed it raw.

But I still think about you now and again. 'I wonder', I think whenever I find myself in Sagene, 'Did Tante Else ever walk in this park? Did she like it? Did she feed the pigeons, or did she toss the crumbles at the sparrows, like I always do?' I feel certain that you fed the birds, though. You were, I've heard told, a very nice lady.


Li:ne said...

I'm sure she was. Imagine what she would say if she knew about this text!

Tanja said...