RANA was my snowy-haired mother-in-law. She happily lived out the last years of her life, into her 91st year, in her “nest” in Hurworth almost incognito, blending into her street of bungalows, quietly keeping herself – and her cat – to herself behind a magnificent magnolia.

Only the trace of a foreign accent when she called you “darlinck” gave a hint that her story – which concluded with her funeral last week – had its beginnings not just a lifetime ago but half-a-continent away.

She was born in Parnu in Estonia, and amassed a treasured store of snow-filled childhood memories: of skiing to school and skating on the front lawn.

All was shattered in 1939 when war broke out, and independent Estonia was invaded from the east by Russia. Rana’s family were driven from their homes and factories – her father owned a boatyard and her mother ran a herring-packing business – and they ended up with nothing in a camp in Poland.

In 1941, the Germans swept in from the west, driving out the Russians. The Estonians welcomed the prospect of freedom.

It didn’t last. In 1944, Germany crumbled and retreated. Russia came in from the east once more, pushing a tidal wave of Baltic humanity in front of it. For good measure, the British bombed the retreating Germans from the air.

Sixteen-year-old Rana was down below. Her most vivid memory was being in the basement of a burning building bombed by the British. Members of the Hitler Youth movement came and saved her life.

Then she had to escape. Her goal was to reach a family friend who had made it to Lubeck, a German port occupied by the British. Amid the mayhem of war, she said farewell to her family and cycled to safety through a thunderstorm, with all her worldly possessions in a cardboard suitcase strapped to the frame of her bike: a few clothes, a little Steiff dog, a cake, and rolls of money hidden in the suitcase handle.

As she cycled, she wore a black and white coat, the buttons of which had been handmade by her mother: they were gold Russian rouble coins covered by cloth – my wife showed them to Fiona Bruce on Antiques Roadshow a few years ago.

Incredibly, Rana made it to the border where she sweet-talked her way past the British guards. The poor soldiers on duty didn’t stand a chance – Rana would haggle even in Marks & Spencer so there was no way she was going to let them turn her back.

But she never saw her mother again. As the iron curtain fell, she got trapped behind it in East Germany, and died before they could be reunited.

In a new country, Rana made a new life - a life full of hard work and loving family.

Towards its end, in her “nest” in Hurworth, she would look out from her “garden room” at the trio of silver birch trees she’d planted to remind her of her childhood home, and hope for the magic of a snowfall to bring her memories dancing to life.

Tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of people died in the aftermath of war – Estonia lost a quarter of its population - and somehow Rana made it through and had a further full 75 years. We shouldn’t feel sad or cry; we should celebrate – but still the tears will flow.