Terschelling, Netherlands, June 1964
She was skipping the rope that, on the other end, was tight up on the stoop bench, while she stood across the street and my friend was jumping. She had been jumping for such a long time, she started to pant. That’s the thing I remember best about that sunny day. That, and the heat.
Mama was a pretty good ’skipper’, you could rely on her rhythm and esteem, and as long as she didn’t sing any ancient old skipping songs, she was the best. Every now and then the skipping was interrupted to let a bicycle pass by, but that didn’t matter.
I was sitting and watching and then that, obviously German, tourist came strolling along, a slender man of about forty, with his daughter who was about my age I suppose, about six. They stood by and watched the skipping for a while. Now my mother didn’t like Germans, but she loved kids, and so, with a friendly arm gesture that wouldn’t take “No” for an answer, she invited the chubby girl to do some skipping with her. The kid could do with the exercise, I suppose.
While the girl jumped clumsily, the man sat down beside me on the sun warmed bricks of the street and stared at my mother. He asked if I spoke German and didn’t wait for an answer. He asked why I didn’t skip. “Ankle,” I explained, in Dutch, but he understood anyway.
“Is that your mother?” he asked. I nodded. She was.
“I know her,” he said, to my surprise. “I am sure of it. I was in love with her, many years ago.”
I thought I had misunderstood him, but he had really said it. In love. Okay, he was reasonably handsome, but I already had a father, somewhere at sea, and so I decided not to encourage him, in any way. So I said nothing.
“She probably doesn’t remember me,” he went on, “but in the summer of 1939 I met her in Hamburg. I was on my way to Berlin to kill Hitler. Do you know who that was?”
“Because of her, I never went to Berlin. I forgot my mission, so to speak. But I don’t think she ever noticed me.” And that was it. His daughter had enough of skipping and collected her father with an almost jealous glance at me.
He rose and walked away, without as much as a ‘goodbye’. It was now my friends turn to skip the rope and my mother jumped up and down like a girl, although she was already forty.
I tried to imagine how that man would have shut Hitler, from a cheering crowd perhaps, blood everywhere, sirens. And because of my mother, he had not.
Later that day, as we were still outside because it was too hot in the house to sleep, I told my mother about the German. She didn’t believe me. And our neighbours who were sitting across the street didn’t either.
“If it is true and he said that, then he is a nut,” my old neighbour said, spitting some stuff from his lungs on the street. “A German nut!” We all laughed, someone turned on the transistor radio and we never thought about it again.
And we also never saw the German and his daughter again.
A year ago I went through my mother’s stuff and I found some photo’s, picturing her as a young girl, and the ship she and her family lived on. They had many friends, I suppose, because there were several pictures with my mother in the middle of a happy young crowd.
And then I saw this young man, a boy still, standing somewhere in the back, handsome, slender. It was him, the German!
I flipped the photo over. On the back was written: Hamburg, Summer 1939.
This story is all true, except for the part of what was said by the German tourist. That part is fiction 🙂 But the picture is in my house somewhere, waiting to be scanned and put up here with the story.