On Wednesday my great uncle Raoul died, a couple of months shy of his hundredth birthday. It wasn't unexpected really, but still sad. Though I didn't see him nearly enough, he was a lovely man and really unlike anyone else I've met, yet at the same time he evoked many of the feelings and sense of mental orientation common to the eastern European Jewish branch of my family. That evening at Fiona's suggestion we had vodka and smoked salmon for dinner, the perfect way to toast Raoul's passing. The next morning I scrawled some thoughts as they fell out of my head on the train to work. Here they are pretty much unaltered, errors and all (but small clarifications follow).
It was a hollow day when that last thread was cut, but it ended with salmon and chilled vodka in icy glasses and reminiscence and warm thoughts.
The last of a generation was the least of what Raoul was, but he was that for our family too, and losing him is losing all those already missing, a little more. But it’s Raoul we’re missing now. Of course, I never knew the baby born in Samara or whatever that far off city was, or the little boy fled to or through Odessa with his family when the Russian revolution came. I never knew Raoul in Czechoslovakia or later in Estonia or Latvia or whichever Baltic enclave where he worked in... was it some printing trade? I never knew the Raoul my aunt Grete knew, who met and married him; I’m vague even on the how or the when. The Raoul who came pre-war to London on business dealings for his father, who by myth or legend seems to have had a slightly roguish, edgy existence, but later became a restaurateur, businessman, landlord, investor; I was no peer or pal of his either. My history is hazy, and I could easily clear it up but it doesn’t seem to matter in a way, except for the pleasure of the tales. I knew – I loved – but a small corner of the man. I knew him as a child knows an adult, perhaps even in adulthood myself. But his long history, all of it, was marbled through him, salted and spiced him, was bound into his manner, his good humoured warmth and generosity. It peppered his parlance and points of reference and if I only heard him talk (hilariously) of his early years in his very late years, I’d felt it long, long before.
Because Raoul, to me, was the man I knew as a little kid, part of Grete and Raoul with their sidekick Misty, who would roll in with their Peugeot saloon and often as not with Tic Tac Granny to our house in St Margarets, or who we’d visit in Ladbrooke Grove. He was the big hairy hand, those particular fingers, the complicit pat on the wrist and later, very hard of hearing, the waving away of some missed part of a conversation because he knew it only really mattered that we were sharing time. Too little of it, of course, and I wish more than anything that my kids had seen enough of him to know him a little, and vice versa. But I know how he cared for them regardless.
I can hear his voice now, not saying anything, I just hear the tone, the syllables and prosody and that same layered and weathered, weathered and layered person, complete just in that sound. I wish I could really, really hear it.
Some factual corrections following a little asking around. It turns out that it was probably Saratov, another city on the Volga, where Raoul was born in 1912, and that as a 7-year old his family fled to Czechoslovakia and came to know my grandfather’s family, especially my great uncle. The little sister, Greta, 8 years his junior, wouldn’t have been that noticeable but when they met again years later in London and she was a young woman, presumably that was no longer true. They married in 1946. Before being sent to London by his father to learn English and business skills and to work for an uncle, Raoul was in Lithuania and I think that’s where he must have worked as a sports reporter. Sports remained important to him. Presumably the family had all gone together to Lithuania, in fact. It's where Raoul's father was killed in 1941, like so many other Jews. His mother managed to bribe her way from the camps to freedom and eventually to London too. Tic Tac Granny was Greta's mother, my Grandfather's step-mother. And Misty? She was a highland terrier, and you know how animals make an impression on kids...