I have mentioned on several occasions that I have the job of organising all of my wife’s family graves, and that they are paid up, tended to, and that the factions that exist within her extended family remain civil. Failure in this task results in the gnashing of teeth, bickering over the phone, and a general lack of civility among certain parties. I had this task conferred upon me due to my being an “Organisationstalent“, with my somewhat scatty sister-in-law being my proposer and seconder. My wife, wishing anything for a quiet life, offered to help me.
At last year’s conclave, the smoke was rather black as we met on 1 November, with a collection of relatives. And, as with the evergreen “Dinner for One“, we again adhered to the “same procedure as every year“. Except for one difference, namely that I was coordinating everything and am able to report back that peace had broken out among the feuding relatives and that the tension of previous years had dissipated. For my own sanity, I’d drawn up a little family tree, with my wife’s help, as we had always gone through who was related to who, and who had fallen out with who when discussing seating plans for dinner with my sister-in-law, who generally hosts, given that she has the largest dining table.
I always thought family trees were “portrait” or vertical affairs as new generations are born, but my wife’s family tree seems to be a “landscape” horizontal one – with lots of cousins on it. And with only sporadic new dangling fruits. With most of the assembled relatives at our conclave aged being 60 plus, there is a stuffiness and formality about proceedings, and I would imagine this stuffiness is what has helped reopen divisions. The very elderly ones tend to nod in acknowledgement and remark that they “hadn’t expected to still be around” for this year’s iteration of the Grief Committee. Occasionally there are more barbed remarks, which in translation might be rendered as “why are we still discussing that good for nothing rascal!” (This being about the presumed racketeer of the family).
However, there has been one particular mystery that has troubled me. One grave that I have to tend to is for a husband and wife (I’ll call them A&B for brevity and to avoid confusion) buried in it, from the late 1940s and early 1950s. And to be honest, I had expected frugality of the warring factions to have said that that grave should be given up. But, when I announced that it was up for renewal next year, there was a nod and confirmation that the grave, in a cemetery in Hietzing should be renewed. I’d asked what the precise relationship was, and never got a very satisfactory answer (another reason why the family tree was required). However, as I tended it this year, I noticed that the gravestone had been treated, and at the bottom were the forename and “dates” of a girl who had died in the 1950s in her teens (aged 14/15) visible, about whom I had not had any record or inkling of her existence. No-one was willing to say who she was. From her dates, she was clearly too young to be a daughter of A&B (they were born in the 1870s and she in the 1940s). I was sure someone knew something. And it turned out to be the case that someone actually did know the story.
I’d presumed in my family tree that A&B had died in the 1940s/1950s without having had any children, since their children (by my calculations probably born around 1910-1920) would either have likely been sharing the grave and the surviving relatives would have mentioned that A & B had children. As I spoke to my wife and sister-in-law’s cousin later while drying up the dishes, he told me that A&B did in fact have children, although they were at best step-siblings. B had brought a son (E) into their marriage from a previous relationship or marriage. It emerged, however, that A had had a child (D) with a mistress (C), whose identity only came out after B died, and the date of D’s birth was while A and B were married. He added that C and her daughter (D) were not to be mentioned in front of the others. The girl whose name was on the gravestone (F) was C’s daughter D’s only child, and she was clearly a troubled individual.
It turned out that F had been brought up in a number of children’s homes, presumably after having been orphaned (D had apparently predeceased A and B, and D is apparently buried with C in a grave at another cemetery that the rest of the family doesn’t know about), and F’s father being “unknown”. My wife’s cousin suggested that it is possible that D fell pregnant with F from a fleeting liaison during the Second World War, possibly with a soldier.
The mention of a life in homes didn’t really register with me other than it is always unfortunate that a young child was left in such a situation, but recent news that a settlement was to be paid to survivors of abuse in Viennese Children’s Homes, made me think again. Of course, there is no way to prove that F might have been abused, and no real motive for pursuing the issue further, since it won’t really achieve anything, but given the fact that she was living in homes at a time when such abuse was so prevalent, the thought will stay at the back of a my mind until my faculties desert me.
So I thought that I had cleared up everything, and was metaphorically patting myself on the back about my sleuthing. Until I realised that B’s son E was still unaccounted for, and there was no knowledge about E’s father (B’s previous partner/husband before A). As my wife’s cousin was leaving, he gave me his card, and said in hushed tones that we should continue our chat via e-mail. When I got home with my wife, I told her about my conversation with her cousin. We awaited further developments for over a week, and the feeling of suspense was, I will freely admit, a strange one. My wife had an idea that there might be a few question marks in the family tree, given the questions I had asked over the last year, the shuffling around of pieces of paper before drawing the first version of the family tree, and given the fact that my work had thrown up names that she did not know.
As the weather got a bit colder this week, I noticed an e-mail come in from my wife’s cousin, with a lot of attachments. The attachments included a letter about D and the arrangements for her burial and the identity of C. Another attachment contained information about some of the homes that F had been in, as well as a photo that been in some of A’s papers. And then a type-written letter, claiming that E had disappeared and was officially declared dead, with last known whereabouts having been somewhere up near Linz, and that he was being sought for potential involvement in a crime. I guess we’ll never really get to the bottom of it all.