Paula has always been in my life. She became part of the family before I was born when she married my uncle Poul. They met when he went to work for the U.S. Army in Germany after World War II, fell madly in love and married. Later, they lived all over the world, but by the time I was born, they’d moved back to Denmark.
It can’t have been easy for her. The Danes are not fond of Germans, what with having been occupied by Hitler’s forces during the war. To this day, we have issues with our neighbours south of the border. Paula was fluent in Danish, but did have German accent and I think she was always a bit of an outsider in the family. Denmark can be insular and not only was she foreign, but she was also different in many other ways. She was smart, she played the piano really well and she had a complicated history. Living, as they did, in a fairly uncomplicated small town, this was enough to set her apart.
I learned about shades of grey from Paula. History tells us that many Germans joined the Nazi party in the 1930s and you get a sense of an entire country of citizens believing in this terrible philosophy. Paula told us that her dad was a member of the Nazi party. Not because he believed in its tenets — nothing could be further from the truth. But he was a teacher and had a family to feed. Membership in the Nazi party was mandatory or he would have lost his job. So he did what he had to do for his family.
Paula also taught me that the war was devastating for the average German person. Her brother was a soldier and died in Italy and she twice lost everything. She became a refugee and left with nothing but the clothes on her back and her baby daughter in a pram. For a while, they lived on a farm where she was worked hard and survived on nothing but potatoes. Later, after the war, she worked for the Americans and that’s where she met Poul.
Paula loved children. Her daughter was grown and lived in Germany and not being able to lavish her love on her grandchildren every day, she did the next best thing. She worked in a kindergarten where she was much adored. She was also an excellent cook and this did endear her to the family — we are very food-oriented.
My grandmother used to host the annual Christmas dinner for the extended family, but when it became too much for her, my mother and her three siblings took turns. I always looked forward to when it was Poul and Paula’s turn for two reasons. One was that they had a fireplace and being a latent pyromaniac, I very much enjoyed spending time by the fire, feeding it whatever flammable objects I could find. The second was the meal, which was different than the usual pork roast with crackling. Poul worked for the US Embassy and traveled extensively, including going to US bases in Greenland. He’d pick up a reindeer roast and Paula would cook it to perfection.
Yes. We ate Rudolph.
I’ve always liked Paula a lot, but as a child I often didn’t understand what she said because of her accent. It didn’t matter, though. We knew we liked each other. When my juvenile arthritis started at age 4, I spent some time in isolation in the hospital because they thought I had rheumatic fever. I have very few memories from that time. I remember being in a white bed in a white room with bright light, behind a white door with a small window in it. And I remember my grandmother and Paula coming to visit me. Paula was wearing a fabulous fur hat and she ate my totally disgusting lunch, so I wouldn’t get in trouble for not eating it. That right there made her one of my favorite people!
About a year after we moved to Canada, Poul retired and he and Paula moved to Germany so she could be close to her daughter and grandchildren. In the early 80s, we visited them in Düren by the Eifel Mountains. We went for an outing to a nearby town, a very old place with lots of cobblestones. Very picturesque, but not accessible at all. I stayed in the car and Paula stayed with me and we had a conversation as adults for the first time. And I discovered that just as I’d suspected, I liked her very much, not just as my aunt, but as a person.
Paula was a strong woman and kept going as she aged. In the past several years, she’s had some health challenges, but it never seemed to stop her. Until recently, when they took over. Blessedly, she didn’t have to live through it long. She died quietly in her sleep last Friday at the age of 92. She had an amazing life, saw big changes in history — and felt some of them on her person — and she was loved by many.
I’ll miss her.