My Mother's Death

Jakob Brønnum

A note on the connection with the stimulus. In Fellini, it seems, the mother is often, if not always, essential and central, spiritually, physically, symbolically or antithetically, even if she is not there, or like in Roma, is the brothel keeper. Or as in – is it in Amarcord? – the capriciously sexual scene with a young boy almost being swallowed up by a woman with monstrously big breasts.


I never really knew my mother. She was born in Berlin in 1922. Her father was a member of The German Reichstag for the social democrats. When Hitler came to power in 1933, they had to flee. I don’t know when she became the secluded person that I saw.

I have the impression that it was not just due to what the escapes and her shameful and suppressed identity as a refugee did to her. She must have been lonely from the beginning. The few anecdotes I’ve heard about her elder brothers laughing at her childish behavior, and something about being ridiculed at home by her mother for a kitschy birthday present, seem to point in that direction.

There were two escapes. First to Denmark as an eleven-year-old with her family, leaving behind a large house with staff and garden. Then, alone, during the war, the escape across the Sound to Sweden in September 1943, when a fleet of small fishing boats famously rescued the Jews (her mother was a Jew), as the Germans invaders were closing in.

She scorned talking about her past. I always felt my ten-year older brother, born four years after the war, knew her better, but I am not sure.

Now she was 81 and dying. She was in a hospice. It was summer. My brother called me.

He had received the message from the hospice that if we were ever to see her again, it had to be now. I hurriedly left a conference some 80 miles away and took the train.

But halfway between the two cities the train was held back. In another compartment a young woman had shown her breasts. Passengers had complained. The crew called the police, who came to pick her up at the next station. The interviews with witnesses among the travelers caused the delay.

This is so typical of my mother, I thought.

At the time I wasn’t sure why I felt like that. Some time later I remembered the story my brother had told me years back, that when he as a young boy on one occasion went to the theatre with his mother (and mine), he had felt that she expected him to act as his lover.

I’m sure he was wrong. I too went to the theatre with her when I was a young teenager. I remember her cautioning me to act as her companion, meaning letting her go in the door before me, taking her coat at the cloakroom and holding the tickets and leading the way to the seats. There must have been a mimetic atmosphere between them, causing my brother to interpret it as if she meant “lover” and not “companion.” I knew she meant to teach me about social behavior.

Later we’d talk about the way she held onto us, long after we were grown up. Mothering us about wearing the right clothes during winter and what to do when you have a cold or how to remove a particularly obstinate stain from your trousers.

She so wanted to recreate a family environment that on visits you’d see her pass by on the way to the bathroom only half covering her naked torso.

I had understood this as a kind of existential loneliness, but among us we called it psychic incest. This was what we felt.

Maintaining a sense of home and family was and must have been an existential challenge, ever since she lost it all as a child, and lost it again as a young adult. She probably harbored a sense of urgency of constantly having to build everything up again, no matter where she was in life.

When I arrived at the hospice about an hour later than I otherwise would, my brother was sitting outside.

“I thought we’d better go in together,” he said. I sat down to catch my breath when his telephone rang.

It was the hospice again. She just passed away. They didn’t know he was right outside the door.

“Why couldn’t she wait till we arrived?” one of us said, in our usual manner.

“She was probably too shy to die, while we were there anyway,” the other replied.

“If she didn’t die before we came, she would have waited till we had left.”

We went inside and she was lying there. Pale, frail, and almost cold.

I asked one of the nurses, “Can you hug a dead person?”

She said, “Sure you can.”

I hadn’t hugged her for years. I felt that if I hadn’t there and then, it would have left a big black hole in me.

Actually, it was the first time I stood in front of a dead person so close that I could embrace them – and then it had to be my mother. Typical!

I talked to some of the nurses. My brother tried to prevent me, but I resolutely overheard him. I wanted to give them an impression of what kind of person she was, or rather share my emotions of an era now over. Yet another shadow cast by The War had vanished.

One of them said she somehow felt they were treated by my mother as servants and not as medical staff. She was always reenacting her Berlin childhood.

Afterwards my brother and I left the hospice. Later that day he transferred some money to me from her bank account. I haven’t seen much of him since.

I’ve travelled quite a lot, but I’ve never been to Berlin. I understand that one thing I have inherited from her is the sense that you cannot go back there. Nobody ever said it. Or maybe they did when I was a child, this I cannot know.

But I don’t remember ever hearing about her going back or even talking about it. The mere sentiment of exclusion from the place of her childhood is transferred intact. Completely meaningless, it seems. Of course, I could go to Berlin. I’ve just never been.

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