Friday, 24 February 2012

The two Dorothys

One day in 1959 a young mother, left alone in England with her children while her husband was helping test H-bombs in the South Pacific, picked up a book on a railway station bookstall somewhere in Norfolk.

My mother Dorothy was never a great reader, certainly not a fan of profound texts. She liked “true stories” of nurses or medical pioneers, having been an SRN in the Midlands before her marriage. So why she was initially drawn to this particular book I'll never know, since she died in 1988. Perhaps the cover notes were particularly persuasive:

"Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?

That lost poetry of childhood which Wordsworth laments is recaptured in Dorothea Rutherford's book. Through the eyes of the little girl Liesbeth, the author shows that it need not be true that “the things which I have seen I now can see no more”.

This is the autobiographical story of an enchanting child on the threshold of life. The time is the turn of the century, the place Reval, the chief city of Estonia, where the author was born and brought up. In this setting we relive the early years of a little girl, with her day-to-day joys and tragedies, big and small. Immune from sentimentality, The Threshold displays an astonishing intensity of memory and an exquisite delicacy of selection – glory in a snowflake or a sunbeam, terror in a shadow or a sound, eternity enfolded in the vivid, passing moment."

So she bought it, and began a love affair with it that has lasted ever since. What was this influential text? Only my favourite book.

Why did this book appeal to her? What follows is only an educated guess, piecing together my own childhood memories, and conversations I had with her in later years.

In about 1950 my father, being in the RAF, was sent to Hamburg in northern Germany, as part of that country's post-war recovery. For my mother, with two very small children, this was probably the most interesting, even exciting, time of her young life - a service wife with a large house, a gardener, and an exotic German nanny for Susan and Christopher. They would attend Kindergarten, freeing Dorothy's time to indulge herself. There were holidays at Scharbeutz on the Baltic coast, staying in the impressive Kurhaus. I have a postcard in front of me now, reminding me of the wonderfully deep, soft, Ostsee sand, the curious basket-work beach shelters - a cross between an arbour seat and a beach hut. Below is the card Dorothy sent to my grandmother in Tamworth, noting that this particular stretch of beach was "for allied personnel only - see the flag flying" atop the hotel.

My mother's postcard

Another view of the Kurhaus from the air
And I am also reminded of the sadness of the German 'episode', when my grandfather died and, for whatever reason, Dorothy couldn't travel home for his funeral - a hurt that became a deep resentment towards my father that she carried all her life.

But she also carried with her The Threshold and allowed me to read and reread it, till now it belongs to me. And I feel I'm the only one who really appreciates its magic (that is, of course, until I discovered Christine!) When I read the book now it seems the memories of the two Dorothys overlap, and as I was growing up they also merged with my own experiences of childhood and death.

Christine tried tracking copies around the world that were for sale, and found only forty or fifty. I think there is an excellent reason for this apparent scarcity - all those who already own this volume treasure it too much to ever bear parting with it whilst they are still living. In 2012 our online discussion brought another Christopher into the story - not my "little" brother, but Dorothea's grandson... The Threshold binds us all together, and the whole world should read it.

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