Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Swan (Part 6): My Brother William

VI. My Brother William (2nd Draft, London, March 1944)

A determined effort to kill him

We were introduced to each other when he was only a few hours old and I was about two years old. I was told that I was jealous of him long before he arrived, but I cannot believe it because I was much too young to have any feelings towards anybody who was not yet visible.

          Father took me on his arm and showed me my little brother (who spent his first weeks in a kind of laundry basket like all of us). I seem to have cast one apprehensive glance at my yelling baby brother and then said, with every expression of relief in my voice: "O, only a duck!"

          However, when I had to accept William as a human being I became violently jealous and mother became worried and finally found a really clever solution by making me a present of William. I must have been at least three by then because I remember quite distinctly that I was a bit overwhelmed by the magnitude of such a "present."

          Mother explained to me how nice it was to be a sister, she flattered me by saying that in other families sisters could not be entrusted with the care and upbringing of their smaller brothers and sisters until they were much older, but with me she could make an exception because I was such a good and loving sister. (The latter was certainly not true because William could not yet walk when I made a very determined effort to kill him by knocking his soft baby-head against a table leg.) 

His voice

          As long as I can remember William, I can also remember that he was "my child" and that I was responsible for him.

          William was smallish, fat and pasty-faced and suffered from any number of ailments and illnesses. he often irritated me because I was too young to know what was wrong. His voice was plaintive, soft, but penetrating and he could say the same thing a hundred times over, hoping against hope that by repetition a weak argument could gain in strength. I could hear his voice almost in every corner of our house and rushed to help him.

Plum stones, scalding milk, and a queerly muffled voice

          There was always something wrong with him. He fell over his own feet, he pricked his fingers with every available pin or needle. Doors were slammed in his face, he grazed his knees at least twice a week, he drank his milk boiling hot and scalded his stomach lining, he swallowed plum stones and cough lozenges, he slipped under his blankets and was almost suffocated, he tumbled down the stairs—and whenever things like this happened to him, his very big blue eyes looked sad and disappointed. He could look more helpless and forlorn than any little boy I have ever seen.

          Once he found a small silver ring which he adored and which he constantly "nibbled." One fine day he informed me, in a queerly muffled voice, that he had swallowed the ring. I gave a yell for mother. She, more angry than alarmed, pushed her fingers deep into William's mouth and pulled the ring out of his throat. Only afterwards did she show any alarm. So did her brother, who adorned our balcony on that hot summer day in his brilliant uniform of a lieutenant-commander.

          William, by way of compensation for this unpleasant experience, took some cherries out of a basket on the table. Before anyone knew what had happened, William had swallowed a cherry stone and was again blue in the face. This time mother slapped him on the back, the stone flew out of his mouth, uncle Ernest started to bleed out of his nose and William was sent to bed. He looked rather proud, with no signs of repentance, and I began to admire him.

In mid-sentence

          Very early he started with his famous migraines. Within a few minutes his face turned light green and he slipped quietly under the nearest table and remained there on the floor until the attack had slackened a bit and he could be taken to his bed in a dark room. I used to shove his little horsehair pillow under his head, without which he could not rest properly. It was nothing unusual for me to see William disappear under a table in the middle of a sentence. I probably said: "Damn his headaches!" and then went on playing.

Shitting on angels

          Our favorite pastime was drawing and we constantly demanded paper and pencils. I clearly remember William in his little bed (which looked exactly like a cage when its sides were up). He stood there and in his famous manner sang out a hundred times: "Paper and pencils, paper and pencils..."

          Our drawings never varied: we drew houses with four windows, one door, a doorstep and a smoking chimney. So far they were not different from other children's drawings. But we liked to have angels on our roof, and there they were in shapeless bunches, much more like carrots than angels. They had wings and that was sufficient for us.

          Our eyes were not to be strained during our measles and paper was therefore refused. We had pencils and found a way out. Every morning we were dosed with castor oil and the necessary rolls of toilet paper were put on our bed tables. When unobserved, we covered these rolls with our angel drawings and did not mind using the paper for its proper purpose later on as this obliterated all traces of our illegal art.

Chamber pots

          Castor oil reminds me that we were always constipated. Mother and Nanny said that we did not do our best and we were therefore put on our "chambers" every morning and were not allowed to get up until we had produced something. Here again, William was slower than I was and would look perfectly agonised when he suspected me of having done my duty so that he might be left behind.

          His pot looked like a top hat, mine was very round and feminine. There we sat solemnly between the folding doors of two rooms and waited for inspiration. We got red circles on our buttocks like a postmark and we got rather bored. We reasoned that we were not allowed to get up but that we were not forbidden to travel whilst seated and developed a technique of sliding through the roos at amazing speed. William, of course, overdid matters as usual and attempted the stairs. I believe he broke his pot but nothing else.

Angry feelings materialise

          We did quarrel occasionally and enjoyed the tearful atonement afterwards. We did go for each other's hair and found a certain charm in finding one's angry feelings materialise in bits of the enemy's scalp. Our quarrels never lasted very long When we were about 7 and 9 we stopped quarreling altogether and only much later in life started again in a dignified way. Those later quarrels usually resulted in long letters which we pushed under each other's doors, accusing, justifying, explaining, and finally suing for peace. William never cried in public after he was about 5 years old and explained to me that he had decided to stop it because it was "unmanly."

Zeus vs. the umbrella tassel

          Our religious education was a bit strange. Father was a very convinced Lutheran but did not try to pass any of his faith on to us, partly because he was much too busy and partly because he may have felt that his particular brand of Protestantism was highly philosophical and hardly suitable for children.
Omitted from the second draft:
Our religious education was a bit sketchy...The fact that we were brought up like that may explain why we still veer from atheism to Anglicanism, sometimes within 24 hours.
          Mother seemed to be more or less a heathen. She fully instructed us in Greek mythology so that we could pray to Zeus in an emergency Later we discovered that mother was not quite the heathen we thought her to be and that she knew more about Medieval Christian philosophy than many a learned man. 

          Mother's younger sister was a Roman Catholic and she took us to early Mass although mother only allowed us to stay with her under the condition that no efforts were made to convert us. Nevertheless, we toddled to church with her every morning at an unearthly hour and before breakfast but quite enjoyed it.

          William discovered the necessity of a rosary and passionately demanded one but when it was refused he used aunty's umbrella tassel and probably derived the same spiritual benefit from it as from the genuine thing. All this may explain a certain instability of religious outlook later on.

Wilhelm Foerster,
Astronomer, philosopher, Lottie's grandfather
The definition of eternity

          The summit of bliss were our, alas infrequent, visits to our grandparents. Grandmother died when William was about 4 years old, but he always maintained that he remembers her perfectly and that he was very much in love with her, probably because of her soft-colored, rustling silk and lace dresses, their gentle swishing and her heavenly smell of lavender. She was quite unusual, certainly in our eyes, clever, charming, beautiful, gifted, with a good sense of humour.

          She painted amazingly well and if she had lived some 50 years later and had not been the wife of a well-known university professor and the mother of five difficult children, she may well have been famous. She could tell us lovely and exciting stories and illustrate them whilst she talked, a proper miracle and something to be imitated.

          Grandfather, at that stage, was a nice old man with a white beard who could catch the moon and all stars in his telescopes and bring them right to earth for our special benefit. Later on, we began to treasure him as a gifted mathematician who could do our most difficult sums for us, and later still we began to admire him as a man with a very useful all-around knowledge of this world. We never saw in him a well-known philosopher and astronomer.
Grandfather Wilhelm Foerster's observatory
          Without realising it, grandfather must have had a much stronger influence on us than we knew. It must have been in one of his astronomical books that we discovered the reproduction of a very old picture, that of a pilgrim who had reached the world's end.

          He knelt on a mountain and had pushed his head through a kind of transparent dome which seemed to cover the whole earth. One hand was raised in a rather dramatic gesture of amazement and his eyes beheld numerous constellations of stars and several moons and suns. 

          William and I loved this picture and had endless discussions about it. I remember one in which we started on the not too simple problem of eternity. We felt that we could solve it and cheerfully embarked on an imaginative journey through all heavens. We went on and on and it gradually dawned upon us that eternity had no end and that, therefore, we would never reach anything.

          William's eyes filled with tears and the corners of his mouth began to twitch and suddenly we both burst into violent sobs and made for mother on the shortest way. 

          Our explanation for this outburst was that we now knew what eternity was—"But we cannot go back!"

          Mother looked as serious as possible and offered us some chocolates. I am afraid that this brought us back to earth in a second and the matter of eternity was not mentioned again for quite some time.

William and I usually shared a bedroom and in any case slept in adjoining rooms with an open door. At home it usually worked all right but at the grandparents' house we probably were too excited and one evening Aunt Martha lost her patience and separated us.

          We were put on different floors and were desolate until we discovered a kind of speaking tube or house telephone over our respective beds. Into this tube we poured our damning remarks about the whole house, our aunt, the dinner party downstairs, and the unkind treatment we had to endure. We could not know that the speaking tube was equally loud on each floor and that in the dining room about 20 distinguished guests listened with amusement to our comments.

Cosmic fright

          At this house I experienced for the first time what it would be like once William had caught up with me or would even surpass me. I liked to sit on the veranda but was frightened considerably by a large tomcat which liked the veranda just as much. He jumped on one of the chairs and glared at me with yellow eyes.

          These eyes, in combination with the sinking autumn sun and the beginning of dusk, made me feel some kind of inferiority. It may have been a kind of "cosmic" fright, like people used to have about noon when Pan was about. [Had to check on this—apparently the mischievous God Pan, who inhabited secluded woods, liked to frighten anyone who wander by his hideout. He would follow them, rustling leaves, making noise and striking terror in lonely places: hence the word 'panic,' which literally means of Pan.] I was just going to scream when William arrived and took in the situation at once.

          He was just as much frightened by that cat but he faced the terror and pushed it off the chair and sent it flying into the garden. I suppose I "punished" William for some minor offence that same evening just to show the little boy who was the boss in the family. But still...
Omitted from the second draft: Here I had the first inkling of future years when William would not only be my equal in everything but surpass me.

          In bed with one of his many illnesses, William suddenly had a kind of fainting fit. I assisted him to the best of my ability, and when he opened his eyes again, he said with a dignified smile and the quiet voice of an objective biographer: "The great zoologist Heckscher had to suffer a lot in his young years."

          He passed through a zoological period when he owned a siskin which shared a cage with my bullfinch. William called it "Hugo" and talked for weeks of his own son, whom he would call Hugo as well, and who would always be 4 years old.

Dreamy and stupid

          His schooldays were not very happy. In his first select private school he infuriated the headmaster by his slow responses to every order that was given, probably because he first wanted to study the reason why. One day his ears were boxed and William, who never in his life had any corporal punishment, came home from school with a super-migraine and passionately refused to go back to school.

William front row, fifth from left
          Mother was angry with the headmaster and William was promptly transferred to an ordinary elementary school with a larger number of pupils and a much lower average of intelligence. But even here, William did not get on with the other boys and the teachers, probably because he was too different from the usual type. Dreamy, slow, at times backwards, uninterested, stupid, lazy, he must have been a problem.
Omitted from the second draft: He was exceedingly stupid and slow in all things a normal schoolboy ought to know. Fortunately it is a family trait that our intelligence lags a bit behind until we are about 18 or 20. Then it comes with a bang. At times William was imbecile and the teachers suggested that he should learn a trade early in life so that he could support himself, something like a watchmaker as he always had nimble fingers. Figures are not liked in our family. William was never an exception. He could not learn the most simple things about mathematics and when with addition he had reached the end of his 10 fingers he equally had reached his wits end.

          One day he turned up at school in his light blue apron, which he liked to wear at home, and whose large pockets were embroidered in purple with the words BE GOOD! Not the thing to make him popular.

 No ambitions whatsoever

          When William started to learn Latin at the age of 9, he was profoundly puzzled and it took him some years before he quite understood what it was all about. [He would later become a Latinist.] He mechanically repeated "amor, amor, amor..." and looked increasingly frightened with each additional amor.

          At home he forgot all about school as quickly as possible. No work was ever done and the consequences, although unpleasant, never moved him. He liked to remain in one form and had no ambitions whatsoever.

          At home he studied the boiling kettle for a long time and finally invented the steam engine. He was a only a little bit disappointed when he learned that someone before him had invented the same thing. He put it all down on paper with thin wobbly lines. He then turned to the construction of ships and had our nursery wall covered with 'blueprints' of all the decks of his liners. He invariably installed luxurious bathrooms and a zoo for his stokers because, as he put it, they needed all these things more than the passengers because of the hot and dirty work they had to do.

Corporal punishment

          I cannot recall that at home anybody ever slapped William. In spite of his short figure and phlegmatic expression, he was oversensitive and much more finely constructed than I was. He could not even bear when I was beaten for some major offence, and I was therefore always removed to the coal cellar whenever I deserved a serious beating.
Omitted from the second draft: Whilst I got no end of hiding (and deserved them) William was never touched by either of his parents. For one thing, he was delicate, but also his soul was very vulnerable and he was apt to worry a lot. That was one of the reasons why I was removed to the coal cellar when I had to be punished. I am told that I emerged with an unmoved face but a sore behind and the additional punishment of having to stand during meals on that day only suited me as I would have disliked sitting down. These hidings did me no end of good. I used to get into uncontrollable moods and a solid beating was like a thunderstorm: it cleared the atmosphere admirably.
William's doll

          William and I each had our own doll. His was a boy and he often pressed him against his flat bosom and offered him his fatherly milk. He intensely disliked soldiers and all military games. Whenever we had to play with soldiers because we could not think of anything else at the moment, we used mine and they were, as a rule, put underneath a small foot stool which we declared to be a hospital where they lay on cotton wool and were mainly treated with enemas.
Omitted from the second draft: I was fond of soldiers and had boxes full of them. William had no military leanings and also preferred my books. In spite of such feminine leanings, he was a real boy in many ways and although he could very often not stand up to other boys because of his not very strong body, his soul was strong enough and when he was beaten by a bigger boy, he did not complain.
The music box

          We possessed a lovely little musical box with some hundred disks with various tunes; William's taste differed from mine in so far as he was rather sentimental. In musical matters we could not always agree and therefore the box was at my disposal for one day and William's the next.

          He used to sit on his own little wooden chair at his oilcloth covered small table and turn the handle of the music box whilst tears trickled down his nose. 

Ultra-modern composers, like Beethoven

          He could not learn to play the piano. He disliked practice—found it boring—had no patience—disliked his various teachers and was much relieved when his lessons ceased. He liked to listen to my music and would say wistfully: "I wish I could play like you."

          But that was all until he was about 14. He then urgently demanded piano lessons from me. He could play within a fortnight—but only Bach. Ultra-modern composers like Beethoven or even Brahms were out of the question and he approached them later and with the greatest distrust!
Omitted from the second draft: He resolutely turned his back to the piano until he was 15 years old. Then he suddenly demanded lessons from me and learned to play Bach exclusively within an amazingly short time. From then on one of our greatest joys were piano duets.
William and Lottie

William on their clavichord

          Bach naturally was an old friend as father preferred him to any other composer. Pastor Voss, at his funeral, referred to him as a "Bach-Christian." Bach really ruled supreme in our house and we all knew the St. Matthew Passion more or less by heart, long before we could read music. We hardly ever missed the annual Easter Performance in St. Michael's Church, where we caused some stir amongst listeners when we still listened intently during the second part—although we were so small that our legs dangled in midair from our wooden benches.

The nightmare

          When William was still almost a baby, he started to have the same nightmare again and again which he still had when he was grownup. 

          In the middle of the night he would turn up in my bedroom, looking extremely small and lost in his white nightshirt and would utter one word in a trembling voice: "Wolves!"

Omitted from second draft: One morning father woke us up long before our usual time to tell us that we had a little brother. Life was quite nice and we could do very well without a brother. As a matter of fact, we very soon decided that the little brother was undesirable and a terrible nuisance, and the poor child had to feel it for many years of his life.  
Henry, Lottie, and William

He once complained bitterly that we two were like "jacket and trousers" and he was only "a patch on the pants." The result of our inhospitable attitude was probably that he turned out to be intolerable. He destroyed our nicest books, he broke our toys, he told lies about us so as to make us quarrel, in short, he tried everything to be noticed, if not in love then in hate, and he succeeded with the latter for many years. When we finally decided that Henry was not too bad after all, matters became much easier for all in the house and out of early hate and dislike came a very deep friendship.

William and I were too much attached to each other. We prevented other people to approach us and friends used to tell us that they almost despaired at first to gain even our attention. Many of William's difficulties in later life have probably been started by this much too close friendship with his sister.
On the other hand, we can honestly say that our childhood was delightful because we shared it. We had no thoughts which we did not discuss and we were astonished when we found how we gradually diverged in our mental and spiritual development. By the time William began to go ahead and to develop like a late flower, I had forgotten what it is to be jealous of William and I was prouder than anybody else when he started to make really good drawings. It is too early yet to say anything about William's grownup life and that may even be better for his wife to describe. But of his childhood proper I could write forever. 


  1. Fascinating! William is your father Charlotte? I love the part about the piano duets! And I felt the same way about my little brother, and he behaved as William did. And now we are good friends!
    I love the photos that go with this too. Your family will love this, especially in years to come. It is like a private museum!!!

    1. Thank you, Betsy! Yes, William is my father, and how touching that you and your brother are so close! You hit the nail on the head: it feels exactly like a my private museum—and I don't know quite what do do with it. If I do nothing, it feels very much like throwing out history, or throwing out people. On the other hand, everything goes in time. xxx

  2. Well I know what it's like trying to create a private museum...Please see my reply on the other blog. I have notice that you look a great deal like your father in some of the childhood photos, so I am wondering to what extent you identify with him. Maybe the qualities you relate to in him are mobilizing to you in your role with your own new family as you are raising your children. OR maybe there is actually someone in his life that you feel more in common with than you do with him, such as the sister that you seem to be named after. Or, perhaps as you say it all feels distant. I am curious!

  3. I see you putting energy into the museum, so I am guessing there is a reason why.

  4. IN any case, it is quite unique and beautiful, and something I as your friend never knew about. I love it!

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