“Do not send me flowers on Mother’s Day,” said my 92-year-old mother with her usual firmness. “It’s meaningless. You should be nice to your mother every day.”
Frail yet indomitable, my mother was given to pronouncements. Inge lived in France, and I called her on Sundays. She told me not to phone (“I don’t want to be a duty”) yet frequently rang herself to remind me that a daily call was neither expected nor appreciated. Inge knew how to combine impossible imperatives. The most impossible one remained unspoken: never to betray her by revealing who she really was.
I loved my mother deeply, but she could be hard to like. “Guests and fish stink after three days” was another motto. My short visits were carefully regulated. Inge always said that she longed to see me – and quickly packed me off to the B&B where she insisted that I stay. Neither of us mentioned the tension that exhausted us both. We upheld the fiction of our marvellous relationship, especially when her adoring friends visited. To them she was a charming English lady who gave conversation classes and wonderful advice alongside large drinks and tiny cheese cubes. They didn’t pick up her difficulties with grammar or notice the odd mispronounced word. They loved her operatic flourishes, the way she literally threw herself into song and pranks – usually to divert probing questions.
Inge was German, half-Jewish and a Holocaust survivor, all of which she chose to deny. Talented, charismatic and infuriating, she surged through life constantly reinventing herself. As a little girl, she longed to belong to the girls’ equivalent of the Hitler Youth and wear the cute jacket. Rejected, she said to her Protestant mother, why did you marry the Jew? She had no understanding of the religion. Her father was a Communist and an atheist, one of those totally assimilated German Jews who believed in their country and perished in their hundreds of thousands.
At the age of 13, Inge was expelled from Nazi Germany, losing her home, sense of security and her language. Her father’s life ended tragically in Auschwitz; other family members died in the camps. She and her mother survived the war living underground as stateless refugees in Brussels. Unable to go to school, she worked on the production line of a sweet factory to support her mother. By the end of the war, the ambitious teenager was in the office answering the phone in fluent French. She married Tom Charlesworth, an English soldier 15 years older, apparently for love. In hindsight it seems more likely that she chose him for his British passport. The 19-year-old landed in a council estate in Birkenhead. The marriage didn’t go well. My father went off with an older woman – a double insult. They divorced.
Now a single mother of two young daughters, Inge kept us distant from our father, typecast as the cheating absconder. She moved us to London and once more reinvented herself. She fully intended to disconnect us from her past, and for a time, this worked. We couldn’t hear her accent and she never spoke a word of German. But when I was 11, my clever big sister wormed out of her that she was German and half Jewish. This was an astounding revelation. Something clicked, and the course of my life changed.
In her 40s, Inge fell in love with René, a Frenchman who was regrettably both married and a Catholic. A long and passionate affair ensued. René regularly sent traffic-stopping bouquets of 100 red roses. Years later his wife died suddenly. The next day he summoned Inge to France with more flowers and an ultimatum: “Will you marry me, or would you prefer to be my mistress?” How French. They enjoyed 10 years of married happiness – and when he died, she reinvented herself one last time as that charming Englishwoman.
Even through these happy years, her real identity posed a threat. In France, a woman is forever known by her maiden name. Inge’s ID inscribed with the giveaway Rosenbaum was a constant source of worry and shame, and she went through immense contortions to hide it. I converted to Judaism when I married my Jewish husband, much to her horror. When we visited, Inge ceaselessly assured friends that she personally didn’t have a drop of Jewish blood in her. How exhausting – but for her, it was necessary. We went along with the masquerade. To oppose or expose her was unthinkable.
Inge was terribly damaged, but by concealing her true self, she won. Yet she never stopped fearing the mistake that could unmask her. In old age, she regularly telephoned to remind me that when she died, I was not to put the customary ad in the newspaper, for fear of friends and neighbours seeing that maiden name. “And no flowers, darling. Flowers are for the living.” To the very last day of her life, she triumphantly concealed her past from everyone but us.
Or so we thought. As soon as she died, the secrets emerged. My sister and I worked out that she lied to us about each other. After 50 years of being held apart, we bonded. Next, we discovered that Inge had in fact been 13 when she first fell in love with our French stepfather. His family informed us that he was our father. I’d often wondered why I had a French name; now I knew.
I missed my mother so much. And yet I was enraged by this level of deception by somebody I had trusted and loved – and colluded with – all my life. She prevented me from getting to know either of my two putative fathers. Organising her funeral (no ads), a new purely bureaucratic difficulty arose. The French insist on a plaque with the full name of the deceased being fixed to each coffin. And so her problem became mine. When her friends and neighbours gathered for the “gesture of homage”, they would all see the dreaded Rosenbaum. I panicked – just as my mother would have. Although Inge insisted that flowers were for the living, I covered the entire coffin with them. It was the first time I disobeyed her.
After the funeral I threw myself into researching this complex, troubled woman. The German archives would tell me far more than she knew about her past and her remarkable father, “the Jew”, a street fighter and resistance hero. DNA testing would eventually reveal who my father was.
Despite those protestations, I did send Inge flowers on Mother’s Day. She would demand to know what I’d spent (“You were cheated, darling”) before describing the pathetic bouquet she’d received. “What a pity they don’t have decent flowers at such-and-such a shop”, she would say, gleefully.
Now I understand. Nothing could match the glories of her fantastical inner life. In the opera that continually ran in her head, my mother pirouetted and sang for her life-long secret lover, and in her arms were hundreds of the most extravagant red roses.