My mother was a liar.
Yet, somehow, I can understand and maybe even admire her for it, although perhaps she was – at the same time – politically correct and incorrect, too.
Let me explain.
It was politically correct (in the civic sense) to lie to the German officers who arrested her when she was a young woman of 24 and involved in the Warsaw uprising of 1944. She had fought hard, together with her friends and colleagues from university, her family and her patriotic neighbours who did not want to see Poland destroyed by the German occupation.
But they lost.
My mother was marched, defeated, bedraggled and without any possessions, into Bergen-Belsen, a prisoner-of-war camp, along with all of the others who had been captured. There, following the meticulous Teutonic mentality of the time, she was made to identify herself, by name and birthdate. Although by our standards, my mother was still a young woman, it was different then. By the mores of mid-20th century society, she was beginning to edge closer to being a spinster, an unpopular category. Despite war, bombing, the starvation she endured, and despite the loss of family and friends, she was aware of this superficial fact.
So, when directly asked her birth date by the German officer, she lied.
And left the office a few years younger than when she had entered it.
Fortunately, the war ended less than a year afterwards and she was liberated by the British army who collected all the paperwork processed by the Germans and prepared their own British documents based on that information. My mother became a student in London and finished a degree in architecture. She met my father, fell in love and married him; there was no need to change the British identification, even when they decided to emigrate to Canada and her papers remade her into a Canadian citizen.
My mother did not volunteer any new information, either to the government, nor to my father, who never learned of the true age of his wife.
As was more common in those days and despite her education, my mother felt her life fulfilled as a housewife and mother. If asked about her age or her date of birth, she would act confused and say that “it was a language thing” because the method of counting was different in Poland than in Canada. One did not ‘become’ 20, as an example, they ‘finished’ it.
I believed her. There was no reason not to.
Then the tragedy of my father’s death changed her life yet again. It became financially necessary for her, as the sudden head of the family, to dust off the degree she had earned 25 years earlier and she successfully applied for her first ‘real’ job.
It was not easy to join the workforce at her mature age, whatever it was at the time.
However, it was only when she was nearing retirement that – while the false younger age in her papers served her well for many years – it would have the unfortunate consequence of postponing her retirement.
At that point, she had the audacity to notify the Canadian government that, after 40 years, she had ‘just’ noticed a discrepancy in her papers.
“Really?” asked the slightly suspicious clerk in the office of the Canadian Immigration. He checked all the documents that she had brought to the government office where her age was listed over and over: her citizenship papers, her passport, even her faded German-minted identification papers.
He told her that she needed to find her Polish birth certificate to initiate the changes at a bureaucratic level. She explained that the church in Poland had been destroyed, as had so many other buildings, during the war. He said that all she needed, in that case, was a notarized legal document from two citizens who knew her when she was younger and living in Poland, testifying to her true age.
This was duly accomplished and the Canadian government was satisfied. My mother was able to retire at her suddenly-uncovered true age.
So never ask a woman to reveal her age. She might truly not remember it. She might have the wrong one. She might, indeed, give you the wrong one.
And it really doesn’t matter, does it?