My Gran Anna, Anna Smith, passed away in the early hours of November 24th, this is her eulogy.
A little under two years ago I sat down to write my Papa’s eulogy. It remains beyond my comprehension – a loss that still catches me in my throat and knocks me off kilter. I am now doing the same for my Gran Anna.
This loss is profound. Surreal. Unreal. You’re never prepared to lose someone. With Papa, we both did our best to say goodbye and prepare. He’d been sick a long time and poured his stories out to my eager ears, and I wrote them all down knowing he wouldn’t be around to tell them much longer. But with Gran Anna, we weren’t prepared. I was not prepared. I wasn’t ready. Not even close. I’m still not ready.
When you reach the age of 91, people sense the inevitability of death. Even in the very well meaning condolences I’ve received, I’ve heard it time and time again, “91. What a long life she had.” If they only knew the half of it. Her life was fuller than most, but it’s hard to describe to these well-meaning people, that in many ways it feels as if she’s been cut down in her prime. For, at 91, our Gran Anna was one of the most joyful, vibrant, charismatic, charming and loving humans that has ever graced this Earth.
So now I find myself, much like I did with my Papa, poring over my notes, listening to my recordings, and attempting to share with you the story of my Grandmother. And maybe, in sharing that with you all, you too will understand the void that she has left behind.
Annemie Van Vlodrop was born in Essen, Germany in 1926. Whilst born to Dutch parents and therefore always retaining her Dutch nationality, she spent her formative years in Germany. At the age of 15, she left school and was sent away for her Pflicht Jahr – a form of mandatory land service for women. In that year she worked on a farm, and whilst the work was hard she was pleased to have food in plentiful supply. That Christmas she was able to take home 100 eggs and a chicken to her mother, who promptly made a 10 egg swiss roll. I can see Gran Anna’s eyes light up as she reminisced this decadent swiss roll. She’s always had a sweet tooth.
After Pflicht Jahr she returned home, but not for long. In 1943 – in one of my favourite Gran Anna stories – she was caught kissing a boy on the street. It was considered a “moral hazard” and she was sent to work in Bavaria. Bavaria would be a bit overcrowded if that were the law of the land today. Not long after that, she began working for Messerschmidt. Her time at Messerschmidt was a prime example of her spirit, where she found herself in trouble frequently for refusing to stand up when, in her words, “a little squirt of an officer”, would walk in. “He had to stand on a box” she said, “if I stood I was taller than him”.
After the war ended Gran Anna returned to Holland, with her very poorly brother in tow. Since they had no papers her other brother had to smuggle her across the border in the night. After a year of living in Holland, she wanted to return to Germany and see her family. So back over the border to Germany she went.
Gran Anna was caught on the border. And since she was carrying a pound of coffee in her purse, she was sent to prison. This was not a nice place. In fact, it’s a prison that has its own place in history, Werl Prison. Our elegant and refined Grandmother spent months behind bars there, living on bread and water and sharing a cell with a woman who murdered her husband, and another woman who murdered her mother-in-law. Our Gran Anna, a jail bird.
One strike for kissing, two strikes for coffee.
Once released, she moved in with her Aunt and soon followed her cousin, who was selling jewelry on the black market to feed her family, to Winterberg. She took a job as a waitress, where the food was plentiful, and she waited on American soldiers. It’s here she became Anna, hating the way Americans would pronounce her name “Enemy”. Soon the Americans were replaced by the British and a very astute officer noted that her English language skills were far too impressive to merely be waiting tables. He asked her to become his secretary.
While she could speak English beautifully, she struggled with writing, and the first letter he dictated for her, she typed out phonetically. The Officer was incredibly accommodating – he would always write out what he needed her to type. Before long, her English writing skills were matched to her speaking skills.
Gran Anna started processing wages for the British Army, and soon needed a safe in her office. As many of you know, this is where a handsome soldier named Douglas entered the picture. Him at the bottom of the steps. Her at the top. Love at first sight – and she really wanted to go to the cinema in town – only the British Army was allowed to go. In another act of Gran Anna sized gumption, she was the first to ask him out. So they went to see a picture, and they fell in love. All good love stories have a fork in the road, and when Papa was due to return to England, he asked Gran Anna not to see anyone else while he was gone. “She can do what she wants” her sister retorted, “it’s not like you’re marrying her.”
The day was the 4th of March,1950. Papa walked away and came back with a ring. They were married in England on November 24th of the same year. They were married for over 65 years, and I don’t think it’s only because he could get her into the movies.
There’s a German word, fernweh. There’s no real English translation, the closest definition would be wanderlust – but it’s stronger than that. The word means, in spirit, a need for an adventure. A person propelled by a need for adventure suffers from fernweh. I think about who I am, the granddaughter of a woman who, by the age of 24, had lived five lives. And I carry this fernweh spirit with me, the spirit of my grandmother. The spirit of a woman who gave up everything she knew for a new adventure, with a man she loved. It’s that love and that spirit and that very adventure that has brought us all here today. Whether friends, or family, we’re all here because of one woman and her fernweh. I will never let go of this. I will forever hold her spirit with me. And you should, too.