Autobio 2000

A Personal View of the Twentieth Century

by Robert Brow   Kingston, Ontario, Canada, 2000 
Chapter 1

Half My Genes

Fifty percent of what shaped my body, brain, and quirky instincts came from my mother. My mother was raised as an atheist, but she was sent to a priest to be prepared for her first communion. She thought this was inconsistent if God didn't exist, but it was explained that the social formalities were important for business. When the priest asked her to confess her sins she said, "I don't have any." The Sunday after taking communion she wanted to go to mass, but my grandparents told her she now had all the religion she needed for life. Apart from my baptism as a baby in the Church of the Holy Trinity, Karachi, and a few other necessary occasions, she never went to church again till at the age of sixty she was taken by a male friend to Fifth Avenue Presbyterian in New York. She complained that she was only woman who didn't come in a mink coat and that she would never go again. When Anne was thirteen Brussels was occupied by German troops, so Anne lived her teen years under the occupation. She could hear the bombardment of Antwerp. Ypres was in Flanders, only 60 miles away. The first battle of Ypres ended in a stalemate and the war, with all its restrictions and inconveniences, dragged on. The second battle of Ypres seemed to promise an Allied breakthrough, but it was stopped by the use of poison gas. In the third battle of Ypres, usually known as Passchendale, the British advanced at the cost of 400,000 lives. In between these battles the carnage went on in the trenches just over the border in France. In her late teens, Anne was given the choice of half a dozen young men with the right business connections at the tennis club. She stubbornly chose a British Army Lieutenant in the Royal Engineers who arrived in the city after the Armistice on November 11, 1918. I saw a photo of him looking impressive and rather dashing in his military uniform. The family was adamant that she could not marry a foreigner with no business connections, but she waited patiently for four years till she was able to elope and get married in a registry office in London. None of my Belgian family attended the wedding, and she never forgave my grandparents for not giving her the lavish reception she was entitled to. I was born August 30, 1924, at 7 Mary Road in the European part of Karachi. I believe the house still exists. Hitler was writing Mein Kampf and ten years later he would be elected Führer. In those days, however, the British in India imagined nothing would ever change. I was looked after by an Ayah, and somewhere there is a photo of me as a little boy on my mother's race horse. My sister Denise was born seven years after me, and Jackie two years later. By that time I was living in Belgium, so I never really knew them.

My grandfather was a collector of antiques. He was also a wine connoisseur. Every year he ordered 24 bottles of whites and reds from each of the best vineyards in France. They went down into the cellar, which he never visited. When a wine was about six years old he would send for a bottle, smell and swirl it around, sip it slowly, and say "It needs another three months." When it was just right, we drank it every day till it was finished. They said you could give him a glass of any wine to taste, and he would always get the vineyard right, and quite often the vintage. So I drank white wine with fish, and red wine with meat from the age of five. Grandfather died of diabetes and heart problems while I was away during the war.

When I went back to Brussels after the war I found the family business had survived the German occupation. Uncle Jacques was in charge of the woollens. He made frequent business trips to Yorkshire to buy the very best tweeds and worsteds. When I came back from boarding school in England with a new suit he would look at me from twenty feet away and name the factory it was woven in.

Uncle George was equally skilled in buying the taffetas, brocades, and other silks that wealthy ladies bought to be made up by their dressmakers. He was my favourite uncle because he had lunch every day at my grandparents' home, 114 Chaussee de Charleroi, Saint Gilles, Brussels, next to Siemens & Compagnie. He made model sailing boats, including one that I raced to beat all comers on the circular pond in Rue de la Regence. He also did sparkling water colours. I never asked why he had his own room in the house. After the war, I discovered he had lived for many years with a mistress, but the family would not let them get married because she came from the wrong class.

In 1947, he was suddenly converted from atheism at the same time as I was. He told me he longed to take communion, but the priest said he was living in sin. He had begged the family for permission to make things right with the Church, but it would have been very bad for business and it could ruin marriage prospects for his nieces. He never did marry the woman he loved, but they lived happily and he left her the house they lived in. Franchomme & Compagnie called her in after he died, thanked her for acting honourably by not making an issue of marriage to Monsieur George, and gave her a very generous pension for life.

In the family business any of the sons had a right to a desk in the office, and they served as the board of directors. As a boy I remember Uncle Henri used to arrive about eleven, then put his feet up and read the papers till noon. On the way out to lunch he would bend over the balcony and shout at a saleslady serving a customer on the main floor. Before she could answer he was in the elevator on his way out to a restaurant till two-thirty. He then came in to sign what was put before him, and soon left for his club or his mistress. Other directors, or their wives, would borrow large sums, and never bothered to settle what they owed. The family paid for one fellow to go to Morocco to enjoy his drugs there. He got an allowance as long as he stayed away from Brussels. I remember one occasion when he arrived home and they passed the hat around to send him back on the next ship.

After she inherited one third of my grandfather's shares in the business, my mother began a running battle with the men of the family till she died. She complained that her brothers and other males paid themselves huge salaries, and shelled out next to nothing by way of dividends.

When I joined my parents in Karachi in 1940, my mother had already decided she could not cope with my father's drinking and the women in his life. She agreed they would live in separate bedrooms in the same house on the understanding that they would get divorced seven years later when my two sisters were old enough to fly on their own. By then my father had retired, and they moved to Bermuda. He hoped she would change her mind, and they could grow old together. But when I left the army in the summer of 1947 I had a holiday with them in Bermuda, and I had to negotiate the arrangements for their legal divorce.

My mother's ambition was to play the best tennis in the world. She moved to New York, became an American citizen, and took an apartment in Forest Hills overlooking the famous courts. By then she had changed her name to Ann from Anne, which she thought sounded quaint. She did all the socializing needed for membership and she played for the club team till she moved to Old Lyme, Connecticut. One reason for the move was to be near my sister Denise. The other was that she hated Jews and black people, and Forest Hills was full of them. I was impressed that later on her tennis partner was a Jewish house painter.

Mother mellowed in other ways. When I wrote to say I had been converted my first week at university, she knew I wouldn't be half hearted about it and told her friends, "I have lost my son." She refused to discuss matters of faith with me, and was angry when I stupidly sent her a book to enlighten her. Mollie and I were missionaries, poor and teetotalers, and I am sure every muscle of our body language expressed disapproval of her life style. When we lived in Ontario we used to drive the children down every summer to Rocky Neck State Park on the beach, within easy distance of her home on Rogers Lake. It helped when I discovered at the age of fifty that Jesus turned water to a lot of wine for a wedding. After that, being able to eat and drink together with my mother at the family table made things much easier. She began asking Mollie what I preached in my sermons at Little Trinity Church in Toronto.

Fourteen years before she died, the doctor said my mother had very high blood pressure. She must give up tennis and must every month for medication to avoid an imminent stroke. She refused to go back to a doctor again, treated herself with various diets, and played tennis as usual. When she did not feel well, she never wanted sympathy. On July 3, 1977, we set up our tent in the camp site and called to see if we could come and see her the next day. When we arrived after lunch she was lying on the floor still wearing her tennis shorts from a game that morning. She never regained consciousness, and died July 12, 1977, at the age of 76.

My sisters had no church connection, so they asked me to do the service two days later in the Duck River Cemetery. I have just found notes of what I said on that occasion. Let me read you some words Jackie found among mother's papers:

To strive with difficulties and to conquer them. Ann has passed through the final difficulty with courage and dignity. That exactly expresses the quality of courage that I treasure most in her life. I remember her first arrival in New York. She was determined to make a new life for herself. She was going to play tennis in the Forest Hills Tennis Club. Over the last 27 years I have watched her desires changing. She was determined to keep herself in health, not through doctors but through nature. She was equally determined to be no burden to her children. She never complained to me about her health. And she welcomed us royally. There was always a roast for a family dinner. She served Almadean white and red California wine. Last year she served 5 mangoes to greet Mollie and I and our children to remind us of India. The last few years I saw her prepare herself for her own death. That takes great courage, and she succeeded magnificently. Three years ago she made a will. It was thoughtful and considerate. All the papers were in order. There were instructions not to be kept alive. She didn't want to be an invalid. In her final stroke she fell from a table where she was sewing a tennis outfit.

I concluded with the fact that Death, especially of one's mother, is awesome and mysterious. From our point of view it seems like the end. But life after death is like life after birth. I often tell the story of the two twins who had an argument inside their mother's womb. One believed that there was nowhere to go. The other thought there must be something more. So they argued for months till the woman went into labour. As the contractions began they knew this was the end. Shortly, they found themselves contentedly sucking at their mother's breast, and the world after their birth was infinitely bigger than the womb they had come from. They had been inside their mother and never knew it. Now they saw who she was.

I suggested that for mother the tennis of heaven is already far more exciting than she ever imagined in Forest Hills. There was a long silence in the quiet of Duck Lake, and my sisters said they were impressed.

Chapter 2...