With Tante Eva in Berlin.
(The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday, February 10, 2024)
BERLIN – I know an African, a long-time family friend from Uganda, named Q. He was born in a house with a dirt floor in a closet normally storing things like suitcases. He told me while we drove to Entebbe’s airport. “Mother didn’t want to get other parts of the house dirty,” he said.
I’m still thinking about it in Berlin. Because while he was born in a suitcase closet, Q – his full name is Quaresh – has seen considerable success with business and family life. “I think I’ve been lucky. Also, I feel I’ve been loved. People have embraced me,” he told me.
I was born, like you I’m guessing, in a hospital. In Berlin’s Charité Hospital. I’ve just visited it for the first time. Gosh, you’d think I’d have gotten around to this before now.
But I’m in Berlin to especially see Tante Eva, my mother’s sister, who you may recall from this space. She’s lived in the same third-floor flat on Friedrichsruhen Strasse for six decades. Ninety-two and living by herself, she goes up and down the 60 stairs to her place daily. Or she busses to a bakery to find just the right cakes, this, recently, to host me with a spirit of affection.
And where were you born, dear reader? Where did you learn to walk? And talk? What childhood games did you play? And what were your schools like? How about your friends? These things shape us, often profoundly. Places we lived. Sports we played. Books we read. The God we were introduced to.
My story involves German parents who’d emigrated and met in Canada. They married and started a family that soon fell apart. One thing they agreed on was my name before, pregnant with me and taking my toddler sister, my mother returned to her family in Berlin. Here she birthed me and, as agreed, named me Thomas.
Three years later, Dad Froese appeared in Berlin, unannounced, with legal backing to bring us two kids back to Canada. I was in Bavaria, cared for some hours away. One Toronto newspaper’s front page – “One man’s fight for his two children” – shared the intrigue, reporting how my father’s custody win included one danger or another, eventually leading to a military police escort (remember this is Cold War West Berlin) to ensure our safe return to Canada.
Two years later, my mother, who’d stayed in Berlin, went into eternity. It was suicide. Three years after that, when I was eight, my mother’s mother and Tante Eva visited my father and us two kids in our Canadian home. It was an unimaginable and remarkable healing gesture.
Tante Eva has since kept touch for 50 years, lovingly sending, Berlin-to-Canada, Christmas and birthday care packages, even to my own children while they’ve grown up.
I share all this not just to share my story. We all have one of those, a story. But sooner or later we, hopefully, do get more comfortable in the skin of our own stories, accepting how they’re painted onto the canvas of our lives with the use of both light and shadow, both light and shadow needed like in a valuable work of art.
Courage is needed too. My father showed courage. So did my family in Berlin, left coping. It seems to me it takes certain courage just for any of us, really, to get through this life. Let’s not expect much different.
But the thing about my own story is that while Berlin’s Charité Hospital is now a massive, multi-campus medical centre with some 10,000 physicians, nurses and researchers, I actually feel more akin to my African friend, Q, born on a dirt floor in a space normally used for suitcases.
Like Q, I feel that I’ve been rather lucky in life. Like Q, I’ve also felt very much loved and embraced.
We all know this doesn’t always happen. I’m just saying, life can surprise you in this way too.