It starts out with a daughter visiting her mother in a nursing home. It turns out to be in Hamilton, my adopted city. The mother had worked at the Hamilton Public Library which I visit at least five times a week, but did not get this book there. I got it from my sister who lives near Montreal. The mother was a member of the Canadian Authors Association where I once made a presentation.
The daughter, Maggie is a psychoanalyst and the mother had been a prolific writer. Such a prolific writer when not writing short articles, books, and book reviews she wrote letters and journals. In all that writing an interesting life history was revealed. It also reflects a lot on the author. The book switches back and forth between events of the past with current efforts to explain and clarify.
As her mother lay in a precarious dilemma her daughter pondered "What if she dies? What if she didn't?" Towards the end her mother's life there is much uncertainty as she is confronted with dementia, incontinence and depression. Maggie Ziegler had a difficult relationship with her mother, but realized there was love and guilt. As a psychoanalyst she had been trained to examine herself and when her mother asked to write her biography she eventually agreed and was given access to a lot of written material; letters, journals, notes, etc. They were very detailed.
Born in England, in a small town called Chesterfield, near to the larger city, Sheffield. Her ambition since the age of 8 was to work in a library and to write When the war started she got involved in supporting the British war defense effort. By 1943 she had enlisted with the Auxiliary Territorial Service and found herself in Kenya.
Lots of unattached and some attached (i.e. married) soldiers. Before too long, like many of her friends she got engaged after a short acquaintance. The army sent him to the Indian theatre and before long she met another charming man. His name was Wolfgang and he had as a Jew fled Germany in 1938 to Kenya and then interred as an enemy alien. When the British found themselves short of farm managers he was released and employed on farms. He was a socialist and loved classical music. He proposed to her almost right away and when she explained she was already engaged he didn't give up.
Mary's family was opposed mainly because he was German, but she broke her engagement with the other fellow. They got married, but he was often required elsewhere. Her letters revealed that she was seeing another man and it was not entirely platonic. She got pregnant, but confessed to Wolfgang who said he would accept the child as his and he did. It was several years before any of their other four children were aware the eldest had a different father.
After the war Mary was able to get back to England at government expense, but Wolfgang had to wait. They settled in England and eventually became a family of six. Their household income did not meet their needs as expected and at first Wolfgang moved to Canada, Hamilton. He landed a better job and Mary and children followed. She eventually worked at the Hamilton Public Library and continued getting articles published. She was asked to write a book about the role of women in the war and in 1973 published "We Serve That Men May Fly."
At one point Wolfgang wanted to own a farm and found one he could afford. He had a received a settlement from the German government. It turned out to be where the Hamilton Airport is now located. The two quarreled and separately with their kids moving back and forth. And from time to time they supported each other.
The book carries right to her health breakdown which involved dementia, depression, broken bones and surgery. Her four children who all lived in far away places took turns visiting her with Wolfgang also visiting. She died and her ashes were distributed around Burlington Bay.
For me a few Hamilton references made it more interesting. Jackson Square is a walk away and the Farmer's Market is a place I visit at least once a week. We are now members of the Royal Botanical Gardens, a favorite place for the Ziegler family. Others might identify with Kenya or England.
Writing is a way of understanding. You remember better not just for the reminder, but for the process. One point made in the book was when they got a television there was less writing.