Imagine the scene. It’s 1930. The German port of Stettin on the Baltic. The docks once heaving with international trade and traffic have an air of desolation.
You can see the idle grain silos, the cranes waiting in vain like herons for their next catch from the sea, a few tankers float un-easily on the water’s surface next to a dozing war frigate left over from 1918. Breath deeply and you can smell the rancid houses lining the dark damp TB infested streets.
A young German woman, Charlotte, is hurrying down the street, voluminous bag in hand, ill-fitting hat on head. She has a determined look in her eyes. She bangs fiercely on a few doors. There’s no answer. She shouts up at the windows. She demands someone answer her.
A few children look out from the house windows, a few slither out into the street, followed by a man – their father she presumes – who rushes out, shouting a few words in half Polish, half platt Deutsch at the errant children.
She pleads him but he ignores her, cuffs the children around the head and tries herding them back in doors. She puts her foot in the door and doesn’t allow him to shut her out or them back inside. She half hears a woman lustily singing contralto from the top of the house the Martin Luther hymn, Ein Feste Burg:
A mighty Fortress is our God,
A trusty Shield and Weapon,
He helps us free from every need,
That hath us now o’ertaken.
A neighbour tries to advise her to leave well alone but she ignores him and offers a few choice caustic comments of her own to the neighbour who, distressed at her wilfulness makes his way back up the street, shaking his head. She continues to hammer at the shut door in front of her. Eventually the door opens and 15 children spill out into the street, clambering all over the young woman, looking eagerly up into her eyes, searching her bag for signs of food, play and inspiration, pulling her this way and that.
The bag is torn from her grasp and out spills jars of jam, jelly, salad cream and loaves of unappetising bread. Brown paper bags of carrots, leeks and lettuces are strewn across the road and trampled by the ravenous young children into the mud. The children are still not satisfied and hunt deeper into the bag. They remove books, games, hand puppets, candles, lebkuchen and a toy piano and wave them gleefully above their heads until the young woman loudly reprimands them. They meekly stuff everything back into her battered old bag as she chastises them for being so greedy.
She leads the straggly crowd of children down the street away from the docks to a room at the top of another Baltic hanseatic house where they meet 50 other children who are packed like eels into a fish crate.
The only difference being these eels are alive and kicking and hungry. Hungry for food, education, god, a kitchen, a church and a family.
And that’s what Charlotte gave them, and that’s what she gave all of us, her family who have gathered here today to give thanks for a life which was marked by devotion, sacrifice and sheer bloody mindedness.
A few years after this scene in the back streets of Stettin, Charlotte meets a young gallivanting English architect, Francis Keith Aitken. No-one has recorded the first comment she made when she met him but the chances are it wasn’t too coherent. She’d hated English at school and had been the worse pupil in the class.
Nevertheless, there’s more to language than just words. Within two years the couple are married and her street kids give her and Keith a roaring send off at their wedding in Stettin. They subsequently move to Crieigiau near Cardiff in Wales.
A few miles down the road in Swansea and four years younger than Charlotte Margarette a young Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas, was growing up with his own brand of energy and indignation. A good few years later he was to write:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
One thing you could say about Charlotte Margarette was that she never went gently into anything: and her last few years bore witness to her energy and spirit which would kick and fight anybody that she felt was getting in her way.
We might have said to her, you didn’t have to kick so hard.
But she never gets to swap notes with Dylan Thomas before she and Keith move to London and the South East where she gives birth to three children, Veronica Mary in 1936, John Mark in 1938 and William Martin in 1947.
Living in England as a German woman at a time when this nation had declared war on your brothers, sisters and kith and kin could not have been an easy situation to tolerate. That period of 1939 – 1945 has left its own scars across the continent and no doubt it left them on Charlotte Margarette Elizabeth as well. But if they did, they’re not immediately visible.
Her children’s memories are of her singing Schubert’s cradle songs when they wouldn’t go to sleep, walking in the woods in Petts Wood and going to the swings in the local parks: activities she would repeat with her own grandchildren 40 years later.
But she’d given up singing when we wouldn’t go to sleep; she’d be more inclined to stomp upstairs and fiercely instruct us to be quiet – and our walks with her in the fields around Heronsgate were accompanied with Chess the dog, Mickey the dog, Bonzo the dog and any unnamed number of others she’d collect on the way: much like the Heinz 57 variety mongrel street kids of Stettin, rough and ready to snap at your heels if you got too close.
But back in the 1940s although there is a war going on there is also home-made Blackberry jelly, lettuce, carrots, salad cream, playing in the sandpit with all the children of the cul-de-sac and Children’s Hour on the wireless. This is a safe, secure childhood, which despite the war – or is it because of it? – is neither frightening nor threatening.
Ah, the wireless. That old Bush contraption could only ever half heartedly receive the Home Service and the Light Programme. A generation later would see it still broadcasting interminable episodes of The Archers at the prompt 1 o’clock lunchtime. After that we would be ordered upstairs to take our afternoon rest so that she and Keith could retire to their bedroom: to listen to the Archers in peace and quiet, we presumed.
In 1956 Charlotte Margarette Elisabeth Louise and the family move to Lindens in Heronsgate. Over the years her mother, brothers and sisters and their families all visit. August, Eva, Erika, Thomas, Nick, Friedrich Wilhelm, Monika, Patricia, Petra, Carlos, Peter Macher, Roseann, Tante Heidi, school friends and far-flung cousins fly into Heronsgate trailing their glamorous clothes, strong perfumes, exotic triangular bars of chocolate for the children and arrive confident, continental and not at all English.
Shining through these visits was her pride for her homeland and conviction that her brothers and sisters were the best in the world and that she could never match up to them, that she was at the bottom of the list when it came to looks and intelligence.
But for us you were never at the bottom of any list although you might not have believed us had we told you.
Charlotte Margarette Elisabeth Louise’s devotion to home, children and church meant that growing up in Lindens provided many of our formative memories and moments.
But whilst her religion was about love, forgiveness and resurrection you wondered whether there was a sterner old testament prophet who’d be whispering in her ear, telling her not to be so soft and that the one God was a fearsome God indeed who would not flinch from punishing any transgression, real or imagined. If she wanted to die and God would not let her, then he would punish her with ear ache to stop behaving against the word of the Lord. Her faith was naive maybe: but none the worst for that.
But in 1993 the Lord summons her Keith for the last time. She is so distressed she ends up in hospital, kicking and fussing like only she can do, getting out of bed, setting off the fire alarms, phoning the police or wandering half-dressed outside the hospital grounds.
These were sad days. She’d lost her one true partner in life and suddenly she lost all her bearings. It was like her past had come full circle and was now suddenly confronting her in the here and now, rather than the there and then.
She’d lost the one voice who could help her negotiate the world rather than barnstorm her way through it and she was never quite the same again.
Charlotte Margarette Elisabeth Louise Aitken. You had a good marriage which lasted a good 60 years and brings us all here today.
The last five years saw you travel to Brazil, sell up Lindens and settle down in Dapplemere Nursing Home where on the 22 January you finally gave up kicking and blew out like one of your Christmas tree candles.
You were born in Reichenbach in Pomerania in 1910, daughter of August Petri and Auguste Horn. You grew up in Belgard with your five brothers and sisters – Friedrich Wilhelm, Erika, Lisi, August and Albrecht.
You married Keith, bore 3 children and 7 grandchildren and at present 7 great-grandchildren, scattered across the globe in America, Brazil, Wales and England, all in all not a bad haul for a young nurse who went fishing in the back streets of the Port of Stettin.
So perhaps in a world where we’re increasingly advised to stop kicking and to accept our lot, your persistent energy of resistance is something we might rekindle, celebrate and aspire to when times get tough. As Dylan Thomas might have said…
And you, my Omi, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Testimonial for Charlotte Margarette Elisabeth Louise Aitken Née Petri, February 2000.
The film above is a homage to the staff and residents of Dapplemere Nursing Home in Chorleywood, where Charlotte Margarette Elisabeth Louise Aitken Née Petri spent her last few years.