My mother’s spe­cial farewell wave

The Guardian - Family - - Family life -

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.

Ruth Tod

Snap­shot … Ruth Tod’s par­ents, Hansi and Bill Bar­rett, taken out­side their home in Leeds in the mid-1980s

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