My Grandmother Agnes died 17th of August this year. She died of heart failure in the house she was born in 95 years ago while warming a crepe she was about to have. I read a shorter version of this eulogy at her funeral last week.
Agnes was the daughter of the butcher, she was the sister of two butchers and she was the wife of the butcher, but she was also a butcher herself and she had the scars on her hands to prove it. Only twice or so did she get stitches. Normally she would just tape the cuts. She also liked to fix electrics. I think my brother got it from her. I have two different sets of memories from her.
I remember the sleepovers at my grandparents’ house, the milk with honey at night, making the Belgian-style ‘hamburgers’ with cheese inside of them. We always had New Year’s parties at their house with homemade buttercream cake for dessert. The house was in the center of town with the church and town hall right in front of it and we would look at weddings or the fair from the first floor of the house. My school was next to the town hall and I would often have lunch at their house. As my grandparents were early risers, they would always have a nap of half an hour after lunch. Except when I was there. Then my grandma always played Connect Four with me for half an hour.
My grandfather died the year I turned 18. She missed him immensely, I think she never stopped missing him. We all helped to set her up in a new life without my grandfather. She cooked lunch at her house for my aunt and her kids who live nearby. She spent her weekday afternoons at my parents’ house helping out wherever she could. I would go and study at her house over the weekend. She had company and I got peace and quiet and delicious meals on time: 12 o’clock lunch, 2 pm coffee break, 5 pm dinner.
Over the nine years that I spent almost every weekend with her, I got to know my grandma in a new way. We talked a lot and, maybe more importantly, we listened to one another. She listened to my complaints of professors and study load, my heartaches and heartbreaks, but also my trips abroad. Her comment to those was always the same: “How I would have loved to travel and see all of that as well, but it were different times when I was young.” And she told me all her stories. How her father adored her as the youngest daughter with three older brothers. “I could climb the trees just as well as my brothers”. As a result, the nuns warned her parents that she was too much of a tomboy.
She went to boarding school in Bruges, her favorite city, like I did, when she was twelve. “You stayed for three months at a time. You only came home for Christmas and Easter or for the Summer Holiday.” Her parents sent her there to learn French: “You got punished when you did not speak French with each other!”
She was sixteen when the Second World War broke out. She told me how she and all the youngsters in town were all excited by the “War”. “We had heard so many stories from our parents about that Great War and we were excited to now experience war for ourselves. But our excitement was short lived. As soon as the first bombs fell, it was over. We were terrified and it lasted for four years. For four years, I was afraid. Constantly.”
One of her brothers was a soldier in the Belgian army. Her two other brothers were called upon by the Germans to work. They had to go work on the German farms as all the German men were soldiers. One went into hiding. The other one was in a forced labour camp most of the war. She herself got a letter to present herself as well, which she burnt in the stove. Luckily, the war was over shortly after.
She also told me what had happened to her parents and their relatives during the First World War and how they were traumatized by it. While pregnant, her mother and first husband fled to France when the First World War broke out. Her husband died working in a sugar factory in France. Her mother remarried one of his brothers. And had three more children. Their oldest brother was actually their half brother, but they didn’t care. An uncle, another brother of her father, had survived the battle of Antwerp, but he limped his whole life until one day a piece of metal broke through the skin of his knee. After pulling it out, his limp was gone. He still died young, wasted by the war.
My grandma herself still cried when she talked about what happened in the village after the end of the Second World War. The villagers punished all the people who had worked with or for the Germans during the War. The parents and family of her best friend were punished severely. Their whole house savaged, they were expelled out of town.
Because of her stories, I got an interest in the stories of both World Wars and I started taking her, once a year, to the Memorials and Cemeteries of the First World War. I would also just take her to Bruges to have ice cream or crepes every so often.
Another favorite topic of talk for my grandma was her husband and how she met him. Still being single at twenty-eight, the mothers in the village would come over and present their sons to her. She would always turn them down. As she said herself, she wouldn’t just marry anyone. It had to be the right guy. They called her haughty and said she would die an old virgin. And then. She met someone. A handsome fellow passing through town with his horse and carriage from Menen, a day ride away in those days. He was carrying out one last transport order to please his father before settling as a butcher, his actual profession. He was a handsome, gentle man, one year younger than her. “He would take off his hat to greet you like no one else could.” And “no one could pronounce my name as pretty as he could”. Her eyes still shone when she talked about him. I think it was love at first sight. She found herself a butcher. He found a wife and a butchery. He moved in. She never left the house she was born in.
They worked hard. Together. They got two girls, my Mom and my Aunt. She told me she actually wanted more children, but he did not. He wanted to be able to take good care of them and she respected that. She told me she still talked to him every night in bed after he had died.
After college, I saw her less. I had made my own home in Leuven. My life was taking off. Fortunately, my grandma had a new joy in her life: her first great-grandchild. She helped take care of him at my parents’ house. Her eyes shone again.
By the time we moved back from the States she was 91. It hurt to notice her stories were gone. She was still solving crosswords and word puzzles, but it took too much effort to retell the stories of the golden days. She would still have this beautiful smile on her face when she saw us, all of us, but she did not really engage in conversations any more. She did however play Connect Four with Janne all the time last summer.
Thank you, memé. For Everything. Forever.