My parents are celebrating their 56th wedding anniversary today. I spoke to them this morning and my father was complaining that he was hungry, and why did my mother have to watch that silly film on TV that she watches every year? My mother ignored him as usual. They bicker like that all the time, but I know that even after 56 years together there is real companionship and a deep love between them. They talk to each other all the time and often give each other hugs. I hope My Man and I can make it to 56 years as well (if I survive until I’m 90!).
Their story is quite unusual and wonderfully romantic. My mother was born and grew up in Wittenberg*, a small town in what for many years was East Germany. After the war ended she made a promise to herself to escape to somewhere safe, somewhere where she would never have to endure anything as horrible as a war again. From school she knew that Sweden was a neutral country and had not been directly involved in a war since the early 19th century, and so in 1948 she wrote a letter to a radio show in Stockholm, which acted a bit like a dating service, bringing young people together from different countries.
My father was listening to the program and liked the sound of my mother’s letter, and since he had studied languages his German was quite good. And there it began. They exchanged letters for more than two years, and I believe that my father probably fell in love with her right away, being the romantic that he is. In fact my mother tells me that when they eventually met, in Hamburg in May of 1950, his first words were “let’s get engaged”, which they did. They went in to the nearest jewellery store and chose their rings, and put them on right then and there, in the shop. “I guess we should have waited”, my mother says, “but we had never been engaged before, so we didn’t know how it was done”. Afterwards they went out for lunch. My mother remembers they ate duck, my father thinks it was turkey.
But there were many twists and turns before that post-engagement lunch of duck or turkey. One of my favourite stories goes like this: in the autumn of 1949 my dad suddenly decided, whilst out mowing the lawn, that he wanted to visit my mother. And so he wrote a note and put it on the kitchen table and left. The note simply said “gone to Germany”. A week and a half later a letter arrived in Wittenberg, written by my paternal grandfather – in Swedish. With the help of a small dictionary my father had sent earlier, my mother and her father spent several days trying to decode the letter. “He had terrible handwriting”, my mother remembers. Eventually they realised that my father had gone missing and my grandfather wanted to know if he was with them?
He wasn’t, in fact by this time my father was back home in Sweden again, after having been arrested and subsequently deported by the Russians for trying to stroll across the border from West to East Germany.
In January 1950 my mother made the difficult decision to leave her family and make an attempt to cross the border. She was escorted in the middle of a moonless night to the beginning of a field from where she was left to manage alone. Of course it was dangerous; there were guards with guns and there were dogs. But the man who had escorted her earned his living from helping people flee, and at least there were no barbed wire to cross. And so she crawled across the field, dragging with her only a small bag with a little bit of money and some clothes.
Before eventually arriving in Sweden in late October that same year, my mother worked on a chicken farm, earning enough money to get a passport. And without knowing more than a few words of Swedish she travelled alone by train from Hamburg to Stockholm, where my father met her. They started planning for the wedding, practising their wedding vows over and over again so that she would get it right. “I was worried she would say no instead of yes”, my father jokes. But she said yes, and even though she was sad that no one from her family could be there on the big day, I think her joy and excitement is clearly visible in her face. My father's happiness just goes without saying.
*It was on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg that the theologian Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses in 1571, protesting against the indulgences of the church.