Karie Bookish Dot Net

This Is About Lilly

(my great-grandmother with my mother)

These days I find myself thinking a lot about my great-grandmother, Lilly.

Lilly was born whilst the First World War was raging outside Danish borders. Born into a poor family, she would pick grains from fields at dusk hoping to get enough for her mother to bake bread. At fourteen she was already working as a servant girl. At twenty (or twenty-one) she married her employer – a man nearly thirty years her senior. By this time she had already acted as a mother figure to her soon-to-be husband’s seven motherless children. She would end up having eleven children of her own. Relying solely on her oldest children to help her, Lilly brought up eighteen (18) children in the 1930s and 1940s during the Great Depression and World War Two. The house had no running water and no central heating. The family lived off the land and whatever petty jobs could be had.

Lilly was in her sixties when I was born and she looked after me until I was old enough to start school. She brought me old dish rags on which I could embroider my name and I made dolls’ clothes using her hand-crank Singer sewing machine. Her button box gave me endless hours of pleasure and it was passed down to me.

And she taught me to knit next to the kerosene stove in her living room.

Family lore has it that she fell out with her mother in the early 1930s and, as revenge, Lilly changed from knitting throwing-style to knitting Continental-style. They made up, but every subsequent generation of women was taught to knit Continental-style by Lilly. She was a formidable, smart woman who played the long game. Lilly would have made an excellent army general.

These days I think a lot about Lilly and her generation. I heard her stories about World War Two (during which Denmark was occupied) and these stories run through my head when I see people talking about inspiring WW2 heroes and kicking Nazi butt.

I was brought up in a family very much altered by World War Two. Someone came home to dinner one night wearing a uniform as he had signed up to guard Allied prisoners. I never knew that family branch existed until Lilly’s funeral and his son showed up. Lilly’s oldest brother went into the Resistance and when he passed away (at age 100!), we found a medal. The files are still sealed by the government and my great-granduncle refused to utter as much as a word about the War. We have no idea what he did but his eyes spoke volumes. My grandmother recalls seeing planes flying over the fields, columns of emaciated German soldiers marching through the village and Lilly ushering everybody into the threshing barn.

My great-grandmother taught me World War Two was a time of hardship, strife, loss, bitterness, and heartbreaking despair. Resistance heroes were ordinary men and women. They weren’t “absolute legends”, nor clickbait, nor Brad Pitt with a comedic accent, nor a jingoistic poster. Their actions ranged from whatever my great-granduncle did (but which affected him for the rest of his very long life) to Lilly’s refusal to break bread with a family member. War is dirty and terrible – and I really dislike seeing people almost fetishising the idea of reliving World War Two in 2017. This is not a chance to live out your favourite films nor indulge in cosplay (link from 2010 but it still strikes me as tone-deaf). I genuinely wonder what part our collective sense of nostalgia has played in Recent Events – a sense of nostalgia that has been fed by the media we consume. How is it we react to things?

I don’t honestly know where I am going with this. I really, really do not know. These days I just find myself thinking of Lilly a lot. I think of what she taught her daughter, her grand-daughter and what she taught me. Lessons of resilience and the many complexities of life. She would have turned 101 years this year and I honestly don’t know what she would have made of this mess.

(Lilly with her parents, my great-great-grandparents)

10 Thoughts on “This Is About Lilly

  1. Lin James on January 24, 2017 at 12:32 pm said:

    Thank you for this, it’s very timely and heartfelt. Couldn’t agree more

  2. Fascinating – and powerful. I’m afraid I was unaware that Denmark was occupied during the 2WW, so what you say is eye-opening. I cannot agree with you more about the absolute misery and horror of war and how abhorrent it is that some films and novels and games glamorise war. Now, more than ever, we need to remember this.

  3. saganishiki on January 24, 2017 at 1:32 pm said:

    Thank you for sharing a remarkable story. A dose of reality is so needed in times like these.

  4. Stephanie Offer on January 24, 2017 at 1:47 pm said:

    I fear that in this country at least we have swallowed our own propaganda, of Blitz spirit &sing-songs in air raid shelters etc. whole. We have made it into a boy’s own adventure, complete with uniforms, guns&airplanes. This propaganda covers over the fear, anxiety, tedium, hardship&sorrow of the war&makes us forget what occupied countries suffered. And we are so obsessed by our own victory that unlike Germany we have failed to learn the lessons of that time.

  5. Did Lilly enjoy her sewing and knitting, or were they tasks to be done? Did she have favorite patterns and colors?

  6. Kristina Klehr on January 26, 2017 at 1:25 am said:

    Denmark’s resistance during WWII was the main reason it was my 1st choice when filling out an application to be an exchange student in the 80’s. Got sent to my third choice, Sweden, where I learned to knit like the punks at school.

  7. Angela on January 27, 2017 at 9:02 am said:

    I think it is a very British thing to glorify that period in our history. Having lived in Germany for many years having heard about the suffering that many people on the continent went through during the war (refugees, occupation, attempted resistance from within Germany). I think the British have a very limited view of just how bad war can be. The civilians in Britain didn’t have to deal with enemies on their land, so although the soldiers and the bombed cities suffered, the general public and national identity didn’t.
    Unfortunately the same applies to the USA, who have also not been defeated on their own land.

  8. Barbara S on January 31, 2017 at 11:40 pm said:

    Thanks for this personal perspective. It is definitely crazy times out in the world right now.

  9. Thank you for sharing Lilly’s story with us. I am in awe of that generation.

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