By Jane Witte
I didn't have to soak in the same bathing water that my father, my brother and my sister had previously used; but only for the fact I did not have a father or a sibling, anymore, or yet. I had always wondered what the feeling must be like, to be comfortable riding your bike along the lifeless streets, ring your person's doorbell at 2AM. Better yet, they would be on the front porch already, a drink in hand, anticipating your arrival. You would forget what's inside your head one way or another. You would do this time and time again.
This became my concept of family. My birth was lacking in many things, and a family was one. If I wanted it, I had to work for it myself. - But I could hardly stand people younger than me so instead of adopting children, I waited restless years to adopt siblings. I was told one cannot sever blood ties; by the ones who never stopped to consider their own.
My luck ran out sometime around 1943. My grandmother, who was used to spacious rooms and a lovely cleaning lady, gazed out at the Ouse with the rest of the family, four siblings and a mother. It was either her or me who do not remember what season it was, but both of us are claiming that her hands were frozen stiff. The house had been bombarded. It would take an infinite amount of lovely cleaning ladies, and a significant raise in wages, to dust the suddenly suffocatingly spacious rooms off. So, their mother decided to leave it entirely. The wind would clean it up, sooner or later. The shattered remnants of everything she has worked for throughout her life, finally allowed to travel, happy to float. It was what people dreamt of in the 1960's, and again once they started to rebel against the simulated worlds that had tied them to their desks. Always keeping an ear to the ground, my grandmother's mother wanted to go even further: Let the river embrace her and the kids in its windy, outstretching arms.
Grandmother was the second to have come to see the light of the 1930's. She felt the dread in the air, she felt the horror in her mother's face, but she could not speak. She could not place what was happening.
Her brother could. In the four additional years he had spent on this world, he had come to accumulate the vocabulary necessary for persuasion. What he said, she did not know. She saw her mother's face tense, graver than before. She grabbed her children's hands and strolled back into town. I guess you could call my great uncle my father; if it hadn't been for him, I would be unable to tell this story.
You can look his name up on the internet. I do every couple of years. His company bears my last name. He's at the helm, still. I researched his age. I found a picture of him at a press conference held by his company: 88. He didn't look all that different compared to the last time I had seen him, twenty years ago, but at the time, everyone above the age of forty looked much the same to me: Old. Inaccessible. The query would come up blank if provided with my grandmother's or my mother's name. If entrusted with mine, the first result was an obituary. The second was some work I had done for a magazine, requesting the editor to not print my given surname. The first result I found much more amusing.
The silt of the Ouse's reawakening stuck to me, no matter how hard I stomped my boots. I scrubbed and scrubbed myself under the shower, aching for droplets of purification. My skin and hair rioted at the strange waters; protested at the towels, long a home for life that did not belong to me - that did not want to be disturbed. I tried so hard people on the other side of the door must have thought my attempt at immaculate conception nothing but a cruel masturbation. On the train line 3 into the city, a woman looked me up and down, disdainfully. Her eyes didn't take my face in in hunger – they rested on the stains on my knees, the dim punctures in my shoes (I had brought them to the shoemaker, who fixed the ripped seams that had exposed my Achilles. He could not, however, foresee the holes that would pop up elsewhere.).
By the time my mother was inching close to the age of sixty, she had had enough time to think. I drove over to her hometown during her birthday week. To visit old friends. I did not dare admit to us I was there to see her, I never dared to expose myself to her. My fingertips were gliding among my kitty's fur when my mother, a green plate filled high with biscuits for the guests to arrive, told me that her mother had probably never wanted her. She could not explain to herself the times she'd taken her to work, a smoke-filled pub, to do homework in. The way she had neglected her kid's education. Maybe, if she had gone to a good school she could have gone to college. Maybe she wouldn't have had to bore me into poverty. I could have accepted the fact that I was an unwished-for kid, be it by my parents or the world, but how could the person in front of me, so much more sociable and likable than me, bear the mark of the punished?
I dyed my hair red to turn my mum's blood inside out. People began seeing her Irish face in mine. This time, my body eagerly ate up what I fed it. I studied myself in the mirror of my tiny one-bedroom. The sun did not ever reach the bathroom, and I, in my lacking wisdom of life, wondered why my plant would not blossom. There, at the very tips of my dark eyelashes – the hair had turned orange.
Jane Witte is an English-born writer and journalist based in Berlin, Germany. Forever torn between her two homes, Witte is on a quest to find the best English Breakfast around. When she is not drinking tea, she can usually be found in a basement somewhere scribbling down notes on the punk show in front of me. She studied Japanese and English Literature and hopes to one day share her couch with three or more kitties.