My mother’s special farewell wave
This is a photo of my parents, Hansi and Bill Barrett, taken outside their home in Leeds. Our mother always waved goodbye to family and friends, whether they had just popped in or had been to stay. In about 1985, their good friend Val decided to record this ritual, including my father, who must have been cajoled into joining in.
To Hansi, saying goodbye was as important as saying hello. Her welcomes were warm and engaging and her farewells were an extension of that welcome, sending us off with love and support. Yet they were also tinged with a little sadness. My mother was born in Vienna and came to Britain as a Jewish refugee in 1939, aged 17. By then she had already witnessed the disappearance of friends, who had either escaped over the border in secret or had been taken to prison. She never knew which. Her parents were not practising Jews and their nanny often took Hansi and her sister, Trude, to the local Catholic church. That was irrelevant to the authorities. As antisemitism in Vienna grew throughout the 30s, they began to ask each morning, “Shall we be together tonight? Or will one of us disappear?”
Saying goodbye was even harder when they came to leave Austria. Cousins begged them for help to get out, but war was declared and for the rest of her life, my mother held a trace of guilt. Our family has photos of little girls who perished. Fortunately, Hansi, Trude and their mother all received sponsorship as servants in London.
But my grandfather, with thousands of others, found himself in Shanghai, where he spent the war in a refugee camp, having been offered a job in northern China that fell through. He never saw my grandmother again because, despite my mother’s efforts, he came to Britain too late to see her. She died of cancer in 1946.
My mother was fortunate to be taken in as an au pair in a family of Quakers who helped set up a club for refugees at their local meeting house. There, she met, and later married, Bill Barrett who was a conscientious objector working as a farm labourer. Among Quakers, she found a circle of support and a way of being that transcended religious affiliation, where the silent worship and acceptance of all, was balm amid the confusion and fear of war. The essence of Quaker belief is that each person is precious and unique, and to deliberately kill anyone is absolute cruelty. She became a campaigner for peace and justice, read the Guardian almost every day till she died aged 90, often referring to it as “my Guardian”.
Recently, my sister and I went to Vienna to retrace some of her steps. We discovered that the family leather business is a shoe shop and the cafe near their flat still serves delicious Viennese tarts and cakes. At the opera house, we heard Beethoven’s Fidelio, which is about love overcoming cruelty and, as we sat in the Gods, where she used to go, I wondered how people could hate one another and yet listen to this sublime music together.
At the Quaker memorial meeting after Hansi’s funeral, friends of all ages spoke, one after the other, about her capacity for deep and lasting friendship. With humility, kindness, humour and warmth, she saw our foibles and our gifts. One person summed up what everyone felt, when he said, “Hansi would open the door and I would immediately feel special, just the person she wanted most to see at that moment. She remembered what we had been talking about last time, what we were doing and what might be on my mind now.”
Through her life experience, she had learned to treasure each friendship. Her farewells were an extension of her welcomes, sending us off with a sense of continuing connection that we could carry with us till we met again.
Snapshot … Ruth Tod’s parents, Hansi and Bill Barrett, taken outside their home in Leeds in the mid-1980s