Whittawer

Reading Maggie O’Farrell’s acclaimed ‘Hamnet’ this afternoon, I was intrigued to come across an unfamiliar word. I like it when an author teaches me a new word; this one was whittawer. I reached for the nearest dictionary, The Concise Oxford. Whittawer did not appear.

I wasn’t surprised. The word looked archaic.

Next, I went to the Chambers Dictionary, a chunk of a volume, the fullest dictionary of its size that I know. Chambers offered saddler.

Later, a larger Oxford improved on the Chambers with, a person who makes whitleather. In later use also: a saddler or harness-maker, (from white plus tawer, i.e. a tanner who treats animal skins with alum or lime, which required an apprenticeship of at least seven years).

I put the dictionaries aside and I returned to ‘Hamnet’, where Hamnet’s twin laments his death of the Black Death at the age of eight years. The dying of the child and the grief that follows occupy much of pages 200 to 300. The death and the grief constitute the emotional heft of the novel. Both are particularised minutely. What might take a telegram, (Hamnet Dies, Judith cries), goes on and on, with awesome tread. For this reader not a word is wasted. The pace is meet. A death is one of the two great facts of all that lives. And every death is particular. 

I looked up, seeking perhaps, respite from sorrow. There lay the Concise Oxford, the volume seventy years old, splitting now at its spine. Mum bought this book for her firstborn, Dennis. (She presented similar volumes to each of us three children who followed Dennis into the world of books and new words. To each of us Mum said, Look it up in your dictionary, Darling. That way you’ll remember the new word.) 

I held Dennis’ Oxford in my palm. I had plucked that volume from Dennis’ large library of brainy books after he died at the age of sixty-three. Dennis’ Oxford is of singular construction, with a little demisphere of space excised from the page margin, in twenty-six places, creating a small lacuna for each letter of the alphabet. Mum’s four kids were guided by this ‘thumb index’ into the right spot in our dictionary for every word we sought. Today, in my search for whittawer, my thumb followed Dennis’. It led me back to that gigantic love of that son for his mother. At the physical tip of a bodily extremity I sensed my brother.

I returned to O’Farrell’s story. She gives her reader the bewilderment of the sibling, bereft: Judith puts out a hand and touches the cheek of her twin. Tears course down her face, chasing each other… such enormous tears, like heavy pearls, quite at odds with the lightness of her frame. She shakes her head, hard, once, twice. Then she says, ‘Will he never come back?’

And later, the child’s search for a self-concept in a family transformed by absence:What is the word, Judith asks her mother, for someone who was a twin and is no longer a twin? If you were a wife, Judith continues, and your husband dies, then you are a widow. And if its parents die, a child becomes an orphan. But what is the word for what I am?

I don’t know, her mother says.

(Judith): Maybe there isn’t one…

Fourteen years have passed since I succeeded to Dennis’ Concise Oxford. The thumb indices admit the edge of the pulp of my thumb. Fourteen years, and notwithstanding my wide collection of dictionaries, I still lack a word for ‘surviving brother’.

Forgive and Forget?


Once, a long time ago, I was sitting in a barber’s chair when the hairdresser unexpectedly laid down her comb and scissors and stood gazing at me. Her hands opened and closed. At length she spoke: “There’s something important I need to ask you.”

“OK.”

“ I belong to a Bible study group. We’ve been reading Romans…”

“And?”

“And I’m ashamed.”

I was taken aback. Through our respective professions the hairdresser and I were well acquainted. I’d treated her and her children, she had cut my hair. In those days I had hair to spare. She was perhaps seven years older than I. She had been born in Germany around the start of the Second World War; she’d have been six when the war ended, the age now of her younger daughter. From the outset we’d had a comfortable relation of trust and openness, but at this moment my patient was not comfortable at all.  

“What about? I mean why are you ashamed?”

“ What we’ve done to you. What we’ve always done, we Christians. Reading Romans, I was shocked. I suddenly thought what it meant, how it all started, how it never stopped…”

“What started? What never stopped?” 

“Jew hatred! It starts with the birth of the Church, we learn it with mother’s milk, we take it in and we pass it on. And then my people… with Hitler, we were the worst of the worst! I’m ashamed. I’m sorry. I need you to know I’m sorry, how sorry I am.”

Ahhh. 

I had no words.

 

At length I spoke: “You said you wanted to ask me something.”

“Yes. I want you to forgive us.”

 

 

In my work I had touched her, in her work she had touched me. A pair of licensed touchers, touching now too closely. I felt out of my depth.

My supplicant stood before me, unclothed, holding her burden of history like so much unwanted clothing. 

Words came to my lips. I spoke them, grateful to extinguish the crowded silence.  Were my words wise? Were they kind? What would the six million have me say?

 

 

My words must have been enough for the moment. My hairdresser completed my haircut and we parted, knowing each other differently, sufficiently. The pain, the shame, the decency of the woman, her courage stayed with me a long time. Eventually our close encounter sank beneath the surface of life’s events and I seldom thought of it. Forty years passed.

 

 

Last week I read an article written by a survivor of the Shoah. After the War he’d become a doctor. In the course of his work he was told a dying patient, not in his care, was asking for him most particularly, insisting on talking with him. Puzzled, the doctor made his way to the bed of the dying man. The patient told him he’d been a member of the SS. He said he’d been a guard in one of the camps, he’d killed Jews, many of them. Now he was dying. He needed to confess, to a Jew. And more than that, he wanted the Jew to forgive him. 

 

 

The doctor did not know how to respond. He searched himself, he thought of those he’d known in the camp, of those he’d lost. What would they want of him?   

 

 

The doctor did not know. Not knowing, he said nothing. The patient died, unshroven. Years later the doctor wrote a letter which he sent to dozens of people, people of moral stature. From memory, he sent his letter to the Dalai Lama, to Martin Luther King Junior, to Abraham Heschel, to others whom he esteemed. In his letter he recounted his encounter with the dying SS officer and he told of his non-answer. He asked his recipients what he should have done. Opinion was divided. Over years the doctor wrote to more and more people, an Ancient Mariner, burdened by his own feeling of self-dissatisfaction, a species, perhaps, of guilt. He published the replies he received.

 

 

 Last week this story came to me and stayed with me. I recalled the good woman who cut my hair. I recalled my response. I had said: “It is not for you to apologise to me; it is not for me to forgive; it is for both of us to remember.” Today I feel more dissatisfied with my response than I did forty years ago. I should have added: “It is for all of us to teach.”  How was I to know how the deep ocean of Jew hatred would gather again its force, how it would rise again to the mighty wave we see today?