Forgive me for being selfish and writing an Armitage-less post today. But I had been planning to write this little memorial ever since the summer when so many of you expressed your sympathy over the sudden loss of my father. I was inundated with very welcome messages of consolation and many of you also very generously showed your compassion by donating to one of Richard’s charities, organised by Obscura and Servetus, as well as donating to the local history society that my mother and I had named as a recipient for donations instead of flowers, organised by CDoart. My mother and I were blown away by your kindness and sympathy! It certainly made me see the light in a time of darkness. I cannot thank you enough for the words, the love and the acts of compassion I received in the summer, but the least I can do is acknowledge it again and share with you what I was up to last week, because your donations may have gone into it…
You may have noticed that I was absent for a number of days, and except for a few 140-character messages on Twitter and a few “likes” on WP I had gone silent. The reason for my absence was a trip back home, the first since my return to Ireland after my father’s death. There was a specific occasion for my trip home. At my father’s funeral service, the chairman of the local history society had announced in his eulogy that the society wished to honour and commemorate my dad with the planting of a tree. And they had expressed their wish that myself and my children were present for the planting. This ceremony took place last Saturday – incidentally my birthday, made more special as we were not only celebrating my own
insignificant birthday but my father’s life and the lasting impression he hopefully has left.
My father was a refugee. He was born during WWII in an area called Lower Silesia which is now part of Poland. At the young age of 4, my father became a displaced person, being moved West together with his parents and his older brother, and finally settling in a village in Northern Germany. His new home could not have been any more different from his previous home – from the mountains of Silesia to the edge of the North German Plain. They had very little – essentially the clothes on their backs – and I remember hearing with wonder the stories my father used to tell me of receiving the great gift of an orange for Christmas, or a cabbage, left outside their new home by anonymous donators from the little village.
Being so young, my father quickly became friends with the children in the village, learning the local dialect (which is completely different from the dialect of German that was spoken in Silesia) and feeling at home in his new surroundings. Despite being a blow-in, he considered Northern Germany his home, identifying strongly with it, and taking an active interest in local history, language and customs. He was one of the founder members of the local history society and contributed to books, exhibitions and articles on local history as well as compiling a comprehensive volume on the etymology of topographical names of the region. It was a wonderful compliment when the society chairman in his speech on Saturday called my dad “a true local”. In many ways, he was probably more attached to the village than the locals themselves – maybe a result of the early loss of his birth home…
A small group of fellow locals and family members gathered on Saturday to witness the planting of the tree. The tree chosen is a Ginkgo, and the choice could not have been better. The Ginkgo tree hails from the Far East, and is quite well-known in Germany due to a poem that our national poet, Goethe, wrote in 1815.
Goethe wrote the poem for the late love of his life, and in it he uses the two-part leaf of the Ginkgo as a metaphor for friendship. I, however, love the reference to the East in it – literally translated Goethe starts the poem “This tree’s leaf, handed into the care of my garden from the East…” – just like my father then, blown into the village from the East. Goethe muses about “two” which are “one” – I like to interpret it as a reference to one life living on in another life, a man living on in the next generation, or a grandfather living on in his grandchildren. My children and my father were very close, despite the distance between Ireland and Germany, and I can see in both my children many similarities both in looks as well as characteristics with my dad. How extra special then, that my children were asked to plant the tree by digging the hole, placing it in there, and watering it.
And so the tree now stands in the garden of the local history museum, a traditional half-timbered house that used to be the home of the local forester, built in 1781. My father always loved this house, played in its grounds as a boy, and later frequently visited it when it had been turned into a museum. Personally, I prefer this tree, which has been given a temporary plaque with his name on it, as a place for commemoration and contemplation, rather than the graveyard in our town where a little stela carries his name. The graveyard makes me sad, but the tree gives me hope: Ginkgo trees are said to grow as tall as 40 m high, and they may grow as old as a 1000 years.
How beautiful to think that this tree may be there for a long, long time, even after my children and I are gone. Whether the name on it will mean anything or the plaque will survive the decades, is meaningless. The exotic tree will stand, I hope, proudly showing off its characteristic leafs, unique among the surrounding beeches, and firs, and oaks. Maybe future children will play in the garden of the museum, noticing the strangely shaped leafs, listening to birds twittering in the branches, wondering what kind of tree it is, where it came from and how it got there. If it sparks curiosity and enjoyment of nature and the environment, it will be the perfect embodiment of my father’s spirit.