DANCING ON ONE FOOT
Growing Up In Nazi Germany, A Memoir
The day I would see her again, I departed Hamburg Central Station at six thirty in the morning. The train headed north towards the Baltic Sea. It jerked and rumbled, shaking me in the seat when crossing other tracks. Pigeons in irregular rows gathered on wires along the train track, arranging themselves like notes in a children’s song. Dusty light of dawn powdered the city’s roofs and towers. After leaving the suburbs, the train sped through blooming flax and sand-colored wheat fields. Windmills marked the tops of hills, resembling giant grasshoppers waving their wings above farmhouses with thatched roofs.
I stood and leaned my forehead against the window. “That’s my land, that’s my home,” I whispered. My throat ached with tears in recognition of longing. We passed country roads leading into purple fields of blooming heather. Children on bikes stopped and waved towards the passing train and I returned their greetings. Yes, I remembered these country roads; they snaked through my visions of childhood and awakened memories of warm summer days. My sister, Helga, and I used to gather armfuls of blooming heather for our mother, and once we found a lazy bee tumbling inside, intoxicated by sweet pollen.
Yes, my life was rooted in these forests and fields blanketed by deep sailing clouds, as well as in the beloved city of Hamburg. This is where I ran with kites and climbed trees, where I found fox holes and gathered tadpoles, where I mothered dolls and hid in bomb shelters during air raids.
Crooked pine trees fanned their branches across sandy marshes, shaken by a stiff wind from the Sea. The train headed towards Timmendorfer Strand at the Baltic Sea, where my grandmother had settled after my grandfather’s death. It was 1982 and I was on my way to visit and also to say goodbye to her, two weeks before my move to the United States. At forty-four years of age, I had enrolled in Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to study psychology, eager to understand the workings of the human mind. Born in a country that had imprinted deep traces of shame into my heart, I was wounded by the darkness of my own culture. As I grew older, I felt an urge to uproot my German identity, unable to reconcile with this country’s past. But before I would leave the continent, I traveled alone, without my husband and grown children, to see my beloved grandmother, possibly for the last time. After thirty-five years of absence, I had returned to visit my Oma and my city, to assemble the pieces of my memory into a whole picture, like a puzzle that needed completion.
* * *
My heartbeat attuned to the monotonous rhythm of the train’s wheels and carried me back to the events of the past. All through WWII, when I was a child, we lived on the outskirts of Hamburg and I bonded with the town as if it were a member of my family. At the hand of my grandmother I discovered this city’s glory and secrets, her dark alleys and open spaces, her land and water. Oh, she triggered all my senses and encouraged childish dreams of sailing the oceans of the world. Like a living body she exuded fragrances and sounds that marked specific areas and quarters. St. Pauli and the Reeperbahn were scented with the vanilla from Turkish honey and whiffs from trashcans in damp alleys, where red lamps marked the street corners and shriveled balloons from last night trembled in the morning air. The stench of fresh caught halibut and flounders crawled along cobble-stoned streets of the Altona fish market. Pounding boots of fishermen punctured the screeching of cranes. And when Grandma and I rested on wooden chairs in the park of Planten ‘n Blomen, we watched how downy duck babies bounced on the surface of dark ponds.
After much gawking and walking, my short legs were tired and we settled on the benches near the Binnen-Alster, the inner city lake, watching white steamers and boats with puffed sails, while eating our homemade liverwurst sandwiches. A marionette player leaned against the railing, his hands dancing above the puppet, infusing the little man with life. Currents of air stroked and ruffled the open water in the heart of town, carrying along the unmistakable perfume of Linden trees in bloom. We marveled at the chic hotels bordering the lake and at the women who climbed the stairs to their portals on high heels. The seams of their silk stockings marked a straight black line upwards from their calves to the rim of their swinging dress. And finally, sitting on the deck of the renowned Alster Pavillion, Oma and I drank lemonade out of tall glasses with a tiny colored paper umbrella stuck in the straw. I stared, enchanted by the beauty of women who had their legs crossed, while their hair played across their pencil-thin eyebrows, tousled by the wind. This wind, this Hamburg wind, always blowing and restless, tossing the seagulls around and scattering their cries. Life here seemed arrested in pleasure and the sound of war was a faint drumming.
I begged Grandma “take me to watch the boats and cranes,” and she nodded. We would always end up at Hamburg’s harbor to observe the ocean-going ships unmoor and sail down the Elbe River, heading towards far away exotic countries. The ship’s ropes, as thick as my arm, squeaked when stretched by the ships’ rocking and leaning. The dark Elbe River, waxing and waning with the tides, breathed in the rhythm of oceans. Salty tasting winds rippled the murky water and whipped the funnel smoke above the ships, a revolving crowd of boats, small or gigantic, always moving, arriving or leaving, barnacle crusted, expelling steam and blasting sounds from big chimneys or small pipes. And often there was fog like wet veils above the river and around the swarm of moving ships and cranes, and all was rocked in the lap of the ancient river goddess and her mother and her grandmother and their fish-finned daughters.
I longed to sail away on one of those rusty freighters or fly like a seagull behind the moon where, as Grandmother told me, the wind slumbered.
On Sundays my sister and I used to swim near Blankenese, along the shallow shore of the enormous Elbe River, which provided a generous link from Hamburg to the North Sea and the rest of the world. After its long passage through the eastern regions of Europe, it moved unhurriedly now, like an old woman. Little did we know that years later, on May 8, 1945, along this very river the Soviet and American forces would meet to declare the end of World War II. From that day on, this mighty river carried the burden of marking a hostile border between the Russian and the Allied troops that occupied Germany after the war, dividing the country into Eastern and Western Zones.
* * *
The train stopped in Lübeck. The town of Marzipan, I remembered, and then it continued with high speed towards Timmendorferstrand, where Grandmother was awaiting me. My childhood was encapsulated in her existence like a small fly or plant in translucent amber. I envisioned her mighty back. It was round like a mountain weathered by the climate and the history of the land, by rain and storms. She carried herself with a towering presence, nonetheless. What an artist she is, I thought, an artist of life. She knew how to deal with catastrophes, like the war, in straightforward ways. But she also knew how to lift ordinary events to the level of celebration.
Sitting in this rattling train, I remembered such an event when I was about six years old and we travelled to town together. The Hamburger Stadtbahn jangled and jerked from left to right; I leaned backwards against Grandma’s belly, pressing her hand toward my chest. The train’s wheels pounded and screeched. We had no seat. People around us stood crowded, their heads stooped over. Nobody talked. In the field of my vision was a poster showing a woman smiling and stretching a box of laundry detergent toward me. Persil wäscht weisser als weiss, the woman stated, ‘Persil washes whiter than white,’ the words bubbling out of her open mouth. The edges of the poster were curled upward as if somebody had chewed on them. A dull stench wafted from the coats of the passengers and sifted down to the floor, where I stood, so short that I had to look at bulging crotches and frayed knee patches and torn shoes without laces.
We rolled through the suburbs of Hamburg towards the center. Smoke swirled upwards from some areas where the fires from the previous night’s bombing still smoldered.
We left the train at Bremertor station; it was now called a subway because its tracks ran underground. These tunnels meandered through the guts of town and offered escape routes for people during air raids. We had to climb many steps to reach daylight. The edges of the granite stairs were worn by the boots of travelers hurrying up and down. I wondered at how jam-packed it always was here. If people died every night in this town, I thought, there should be fewer and fewer of them. Where did the new and alive ones come from, all those who now congested the station?
I held onto Grandma’s thumb as she steered in the direction of Bremerstrasse. She was quiet and observed the pavement to avoid stepping on blackened bricks and rubble that spread into the streets from the fallen houses. Trümmerfrauen, women scouring the rubble, scarves around their tired faces, scavenged the ruins for whatever seemed usable. Grandma negotiated the obstructions along the way like a big ship with me in tow.
People stood in clumps together, bartering, exchanging goods with whispering voices. A man took position at the corner, trying to hide a living chicken under his coat. The chicken hung upside down and struggled frantically.
“Oma,” I turned to her.
“What do people eat? People who don’t have a garden or rabbits, like we do?”
“We are lucky, min Deern,” ‘my little girl,’ she said, using a term of endearment grandmothers frequently apply here in the north. “Hunger’s the thing. Everybody’s hungry. It’s the first worry in your mind in the morning and the last thought in the evening. Our garden helps to get some peas, and potatoes and see, we’re still alive.”
I remembered our rabbits. We ate one or two every month, with red cabbage from our garden, and later my mother made gloves out of their fur. My sister and I fed them dandelions to fatten them, but we didn’t make friends with the rabbits, because you can’t eat your friends. Hunger was our steady companion, familiar and almost dear because it was such a delight when you finally ate something and filled the gaping black hole inside your guts.
When we turned the next corner I detected the pink and blue sign of Herr Ackermann’s store. “Ice Cream Salon,” my grandma spelled out loud. Those letters pretended to melt into sugary drops made from glass that wiggled along the lower rim of the sign. Herr Ackerman’s store was still intact, and he stood behind the counter, growing a pleasant smile on his face when he saw us. He nodded while polishing silver spoons and goblets by pushing them under the purple colored stump of his left arm and rubbing them with the cloth in his right hand.
We climbed two marble steps into the shop and Herr Ackermann shook Grandma’s hand. He wore a white jacket and a matching cap with blue rim. He was the captain of his store in town, but his home was in our neighborhood and his daughter Uschi was my sister Helga’s best friend. Grandma and Herr Ackermann talked about the garden and about his wounded brother and how he had repaired his bike, fixing a new wheel into the old frame. “Ya know, my dear Frau Henschke,” he said, “when a family has a bike that works, they are like kings and queens. That’s how I feel.” He always said ‘my dear,’ to everybody.
Herr Ackermann offered eight different flavors in his parlor, displayed behind glass in eight metal barrels slightly tilted towards the customers. Each of them had a name clipped to the edge, written in the colors of the ice cream in the barrel. I couldn’t decipher the letters yet, so I looked at the color and texture, making my choice by imagination. All the surfaces of the various ice creams showed smooth spiral indentations on the top, because Herr Ackermann knew the art of scratching his scoop along the upper layer in a way that left it decorated with the pattern of a snail house.
I chose the greenish cream that tasted like peppermint and left a cool feeling in my mouth, even half an hour after it had dissolved. My grandma stepped behind me and placed her hand on my shoulder. She said, as if following a sudden impulse, “You know, Elke, today you can taste all of the eight flavors. All of them! Yeah, all of them.” Her voice sounded raspy and, for a moment, she seemed to me like a strange, enormous fairy.
We sat down at one of the small round tables topped with cold marble. The edges were rounded so that they didn’t leave imprints on the underside of my arm when I leaned against them. Herr Ackermann carved into each barrel with his scoop and dipped it into a glass of hot water in between the flavors. All eight balls were artfully arranged when he walked around the corner of the counter and placed the silver goblet in front of me with the peppermint flavored ball slowly sliding over the rim. Water drops formed on the outside of the metal bowl and zigzagged down, leaving shiny trails in the foggy surface.
I ate without haste. My tongue compared flavors and mixed them, judging each for its distinct character and texture. I fed my grandmother spoonfuls and we selected our favorites. My whole body filled with a melting, engrossing pleasure. It expanded, and seeped through my skin and into the space around us and out through the door where it stretched into the sky and lingered, a quivering silver and pink cloud above the town and beyond the black smoke.
My grandmother put her hand on my head and then she let it slowly slide down over my shoulders and towards my fingers that held the spoon. She licked the last drop, and we two were very quiet. She leaned back and rested her hands on her belly. Her golden wedding ring made a deep indentation around her swollen finger. I was so satiated with delight that I arrived at the boundary of enough. I had not known enough for years. It was calm and serene at that border and there was no more hunger or even desire. I encountered the end of wanting, surprised by the stillness of this amazing place. Time stopped breathing.
We stayed a while before rising and saying goodbye to Herr Ackermann. As my grandmother and I walked towards the Altona fish market, we stepped over rubble and a blackened tin bucket with holes in the bottom and a single baby shoe inside. The sole was burned away and one could see the rusty bottom of the bucket through the opening in the shoe. I gripped my grandmother’s hand and we exchanged a hasty glance.
* * *
Born in 1938, I had lived through WWII with the attitude of a child. My innocence was a protective shield; it allowed me to interpret reality with curiosity instead of judgment. I had no comparison and was not familiar with a life without war. The surrounding events of total destruction seemed like a normal backdrop to my childhood. There was always a sense of play and a strand of light braided into the darkness of those days. I delighted in being alive and vibrated inside with a sonorous hum of happiness. Throughout my life I have preserved a sense of naiveté, committed to joy—like a child or a sage. The presence of war did not reduce my love of life. An intrinsic delight buffered the harsh reality of my young years.
Living in a society of women, I trusted the strength and ingenuity of my mother, grandmother, aunt and sister. The men were at “the front,” absent and estranged from their families. It was the women who sustained life at home in all their straight and crooked ways. Surrounded by those women, I felt safe in the midst of chaos.
The men had gathered somewhere in the mysterious place where the war happened. That’s where they loaded the airplanes with bombs and where they shot at each other. My father was probably one of them, and I wondered what he really did in this war. The “front” was an uncanny and puzzling location where the war turned into something real, where people died and got wounded.
In the Hamburg subway, when I was still very little, I observed a man in uniform who had lost one whole side of his face; it had disappeared as if fallen out of his head. There was only brown and red rough skin with scars all over and nothing was left that looked like a human face. My stomach clenched tight and my throat hurt from the pressure of not crying out loud. I noticed that most people looked away and I tried as well, but my eyes always turned back to the face that was no longer there. My heart ached and I was surprised how one person could feel so much the pain of another, even if he was a stranger.
So, that’s what happens at the front I thought. Why would anybody go there to leave half of his body behind? Were the parts of his face still there on the ground, for other soldiers to step on? Would dogs eat the nose or chin? Would flowers grow through this man’s severed ear? What happened to this man’s torn-off face, somewhere far away?
* * *
Later on, I observed Hamburg as it fell apart during the fire bombings of 1943 to 1945. The heartache I experienced about Hamburg’s destruction occupied a dark corner of my brain, locked away from recognition. I needed distance from the haunting images of rubble and lonely walls that stood like rotting teeth, monuments to people’s destroyed lives. As a child, I had felt helpless observing her ruin, like sitting at a dying person’s bed, emptied of words. I had to grow to adulthood before I could face the grief and open the door to scattered recollections. A renewed encounter with the past was the purpose of the trip I had now embarked upon.
The train slowed with screeching brakes, huffing and puffing white steam. I caught my meandering mind and came back to this moment of reunion. Leaning out of the window I saw my grandmother waiting for me at the station platform. She appeared hunched and a bit shorter than I remembered; her hair was hidden under a scarf, a habit from times of war. She stood with feet apart, like a captain on deck of a ship. I jumped down the stairs of the still moving train and into her arms, laughing and sobbing. “Oh, min Deern,” she cried, “min Deern.” I had come home into the fold of my own childhood. Every cell of my body remembered Oma’s comforting touch and the smell of her skin.
* * *
The following morning I woke from a dreamless sleep. The first thing I noticed upon opening my eyes was my Grandma’s red high-backed armchair squatting in front of the window. In the dim light, it seemed like a sleeping elephant dominating the room. To the right of it stood the dresser with a mirror that reflected the memorabilia she had neatly arranged in front of it. There were pictures of her grown children and grandchildren and a much loved photograph of my young mother, Isolde, taken a year or two before she died. How I missed seeing her growing old. How I wished I could unravel with her the chaotic family stories of war and peace, I thought Next to her smiled her sister, my aunt Margarete. My grandfather once told me that he gave his daughters these dramatic names, like Isolde and Margarete, because he loved opera. As for my mother, she was really called ‘Dolly’ by all who loved her. Yesterday I had brought yellow roses, and they extended an umbrella of colored light over that gathering of familiar faces. The assembly of people leaned towards each other like plants in orderly rows in my grandmother’s carefully tended garden. She was old now and all these relations grew and arranged themselves according to their own rules; she just watched and mused, but she was not involved through actions or opinions. She was living her life with the hard-earned detachment of old age, filled with quiet contentment.
A warm down duvet nestled around my body. There was no cover in the world that provided such a feeling of safety and comfort like a German Federbett. My grandmother, too, had been a comforter for me as a child. She had embraced, given warmth and shielded me from the harsh and fierce reality of war.
* * *
I heard my Oma move around in her tiny kitchen, and then she opened the door and entered the room, a broad smile on her face. Her features were not imprinted by wrinkles, but arranged in soft folds. She didn’t wear her dentures because “they hurt my gums,” she had explained. “I only put them in for your welcome yesterday; now I can be comfortable again and leave them in the bathroom. You see, my dear, teeth or no teeth, I’m a crusty old beauty,” she grinned and showed her gums with glee.
She stacked the pillow behind my back as if I were a small child, then placed a cup of tea in my hands. It was elegantly shaped with blue flower patterns on the surface. “Delft,” she said, “I love those colors. See how the flowers dance. It’s like music. I admire it every day and imagine it’s made for me.”
She pulled a chair towards my bed and sat down, folding her fingers and resting them gently on her belly, such a familiar gesture. Brown blotches and blue veins marked her skin, as if gnarly roots crawled along the surface of her hands. “Oh, Oma, I’m so glad to be with you for the whole week, there’s so much to talk about. I believe you know stories and secrets which you didn’t tell Helga and me, when we were children.”
She nodded, bending towards me like an intimate woman friend.
“Secrets are the ghost in our family,” I said. “We didn’t talk about things; so many questions scramble around in my head. I want to hear your stories, Oma, the real ones and those you made up, too.”
I slid down a bit until the rim of the comforter covered my chin.
“I’m happy, min Deern,” that you haven’t forgotten your old Oma. You’ve come all the way here to visit. I can’t believe you’re going to America, but that’s what young people do today; your children grow-up and the mother flies out of the nest. Being independent. I remember, when you were little and we watched the big ocean steamers in Hamburg Harbor, you always had those wild ideas of going far away across the big waters.”
She looked at me with her straight and firm gaze. The deep folds beside her mouth spoke of a long life full of grief and laughter. They darkened in the dim light of this morning and reminded me that I had inherited those lines from her. I stroked along the contours of her strong fingers and across the creases in her palms. I lifted her hands toward my face and leaned my forehead into the gnarly shape. Oh, this Oma of mine, how I loved her.
This down-to-earth woman had at old age fulfilled a dream that she kept alive and sheltered in her heart: to live and die near the Baltic Sea. It unfolded late in her life, like a neglected plant at the outer edge of a garden, finally receiving nourishment. After my grandfather’s death she settled into a small apartment close to the water, where seagulls sailed overhead and called out into the wind, where feathery clouds stroked along the edge of the horizon and the air rubbed the taste of salt on her lips. She took long walks along the shore and was free of any responsibility for others. She enjoyed every moment.
“Tell me about the time when you were young, Oma, I know so little about that,” I asked.
“Oh, min Deern, I was so naïve and there were so many things I had no idea about. We were eight kids and we all worked hard and my parents were tired at the end of the day, there was not much talking between us. When I married your Grandfather Otto, I was seventeen and I didn’t know ‘bout men. Your grandfather was my first. So when our doctor told me that I was pregnant, I was perplexed and asked him where the baby would come out. He washed his hands at the sink and then he turned around slowly, looked at me with big eyes and mumbled, ‘Good woman’, he said, ‘where it came in, that’s where it’ll come out, too.’ That was the whole instruction.”
We looked at each other and burst into laughter.
“After we had those two girls, your mother and aunt Margarete, I’d gotten an idea about sex and that it was sweet like honey in my whole body, from the top down to my toes. I thought it was one of the best things in life. Yeah! But your grandfather was so much older than I, and one day he just said: ‘That’s it! Sex isn’t necessary. One does it to make children; we have two girls and so we can stop it now.’
“I wouldn’t believe him! I begged and cried. But you know your grandfather and his stubborn ways, when he made a decision, not even God could change his mind. So that was the end of sex in my marriage. I believe that’s why I got those horrible migraines.”
Yes, I remembered her in the bedroom during the migraine attacks. The curtains were pulled, her face was red and my mother placed wet towels across her sweaty forehead. During those days she was eerie; a ghost that groaned and sighed in the dark like a sick animal.
“Oh my God, Oma, you didn’t have sex in all those years? Did you still love Grandpa?”
“You know, min Deern, that’s the last question we’d ask in those years. We women folk did our duty and had our daily chores to deal with. Every woman was worrying and sweating to keep her children and family fed and alive during the war and after. But if we had a minute in between the worries, we women had some fun and laughter and slapped our thighs and got a slice of sweet life wherever we could steal it. Your Mom was so good at having fun and she just had a natural gift for enjoying herself, even when life was rough. She always pulled us up when we sank into a dark place. She baked some cookies, or somebody had a rare cigarette to share, she grabbed me and twirled around in the kitchen or slapped my behind. What a women she was! She could turn tears into giggles.”
Grandma rubbed my hand between hers.
“Remember our trips to hunt for food?” she said grinning, exposing her gums.
Yes, I remembered how we went out to visit the farmers, and she had a big backpack strapped to her shoulders. She looked like a knight going into battle.
“You knew how to crack jokes with those farmers and how to barter,” I said. “We exchanged our china and mother’s jewelry for butter and eggs and ham and I walked beside you for hours. And sometimes it rained and our shoes were so full of mud that we couldn’t see them anymore. We had to cut the dirt off with a knife.”
She sighed, “You know, my dear, we women had our ways to survive. The men were out there killing and bombing, we saw them so rarely. But we women at home made new babies and kept them alive using our womanly tricks. The bread we ate was earned with our bodies, like with the baker at the corner. He met me in the forest between the bushes and trees.”
I looked at her, stunned. Herr Finkelman, I thought, that smeary guy with black fingernails and hair on the back of his hands? He touched my beloved grandmother? He groped with those hands underneath her dress, on her belly and her breasts, in the forest where I played hide-and-seek?
“How’d you stand that?” I whispered.
“That didn’t matter much. I would lift my skirt standing up against a tree. I would close my eyes and he’d be done soon and then I’d go home, happy, with loaves of bread rolled into my apron.
“Come, min Deern, put on your boots and warm stuff and let’s walk a bit along the water. You see, I don’t regret anything, no, I don’t. Finally, in my life, I have all I always wanted: my little cozy apartment, my warm bed with down comforter, a big old grandmother chair with red velvet and lace, and china with blue flowers on it from Delft. And the best, you know, the best is the sea and the seagulls and the wind with salt in it.”
“I don’t even put my dentures in,” she grinned, “I am so happy! So happy!”
Nobody in our family had known that grandfather was rich. My grandma had been so accustomed to living a frugal life, constrained by war and her upbringing. As the couple grew old together, even after the war had ended, she still habitually scratched the butter into a thin layer on every piece of bread. My grandfather was secretive. He was a stranger wrapped in his own myth. When his will was read to my grandmother, after his death in the 1960s, she was informed, to her and the family’s great surprise, that he had secured one half a million German marks in stocks for her, stocks with the most desired companies, like Mercedes Benz and Deutsche Bank. My grandmother, this practical and hardworking woman, was suddenly showered with options she never had known. A door opened to all her humble dreams of comfort and beauty. She began to create some glorious years of old age for herself, providing her with deep satisfaction. My Grandpa Otto, whose early life was as crippled as his crooked leg and forged by poverty and tenaciousness, had secretly created a soft pillow for his companion, this women who was a foot taller than he and stood by his side throughout all those years of war and hunger and finally through his struggle with colon cancer, leading into death.
When we stepped into the street, a blustery gust came from the Baltic Sea, and the scent of salt and seaweed spiced the air. We walked towards the beach where my sister and I had played during our family vacations. Red brick houses with thatched or tile roofs lined the sidewalks. Climbing roses arched over the entrance to tidy gardens. The windows were small to keep the weather out and framed with lace-rimmed curtains. My grandmother and I leaned towards the wind and towards each other, holding on tightly.
* * *
The door of the church along our way was open. I followed my grandmother into the dimly lit oval space. “I often sit here on that bench and look back at my life,” she pointed to a corner. “I remember my Dolly, your Mother, and I hurt when I think how young she was when she died and that we still don’t know how it really happened, because your father never talked about it, especially not to me.”
We sat down beside a burning candle and she turned her head towards me. “Just before all of you left Hamburg in 1947 and moved to Munich, your mother mentioned to me, ‘My period is late.’ I asked her, ‘Is it his baby, is it your husband’s?’ and she nodded. She was sure about that, and your mother never lied.
“So, I wonder,” my grandmother sighed, “I wonder if she was tired of her marriage and didn’t want another child with your father. It might have been an abortion that killed your mother. But women don’t have to die from an abortion any more.” Although a grown woman now, it was still painful for me to talk about the darkest time in my childhood, the bitter cold winter, when my beloved mother suddenly died. My grandmother’s thoughts unfolded, and I shared her struggle to unearth the truth. I had not seen her for many years and we rarely talked about my mother’s unexpected death. It was a shameful family secret, and we all colluded in that silence. And now we carry the unfinished story, like a ghost that cannot rest.
“I need to finally find peace and know what happened, Oma,” I said, “I’m going to visit my father before I leave for America, and I will dare to ask THE forbidden question. Yes, I’m scared, but I’ll do it, I have to!”
Sitting beside her, in this place of family history, allowed us to linger in a safe enough space where monsters could unveil their faces and angels might step forward unexpectedly. I had no answer about this mystery, either. Secrets are burdens and they keep us stuck in the past; we carry them like an iron trap around our ankles. They are neither dead nor alive, but make us bleed from time to time. Secrets don’t sink to the bottom of memory to be washed away by the outgoing tides.
“I’m old now,” she said. “I let those questions rest in God’s hands. He knows why my Dolly was taken so early, and maybe one day he’ll let me know, too. It’s so hard for a mother to survive her own daughter, it never heals, the scar stays.” We sat beside each other for a long time, without words; the murmur of waves along the nearby beach stitched sounds into the web of silence.
Leaving the church, we followed the trail to the shore of the Baltic Sea. Our shoes sank into the white sand and the sharp dune grass scratched our legs.
“Time and again I walk to the shore and look at the water,” my grandmother mused. “ I love—I just love—how it moves and sings and whispers its tales to me. The ocean’s stories are forever; ours are so short.
“I know all the trails. I stroll here alone but I’m never lonesome. I have my whole long life to think about and, after more than eighty years, there’s so much still to find out. I look at my life like the big ol’ Elbe River as it rolls along, and I’m sad and happy and all is right just how it is. All is right.”
She held my hand firmly in hers.
“Life is like dancing on one foot,” she said. “One foot is on the ground and the other is up in the air. You hobble and jump and sometimes you fall, and the dance jiggles your belly. But there is music inside you, humming and singing, always music.”
* * *
The talks and silences between us, during this day after my arrival, were rich and warm. The presence of my grandmother elicited vivid memories of the past. Sometimes, during this visit, I wished that I were not so encapsulated in my love for her. I felt myself falling back into childish needs, wanting to be tucked in and protected. At times she got on my nerves with her never-ending caring and concerns that I would eat well and dress warmly, and both of us got so overly entangled in our closeness that it seemed sticky, like spiders’ webs.
But when I stepped back and watched her walk or stand quietly, I was amazed how clear she was. Her womanly authority was simple and straightforward, resembling a big old tree planted into the earth hundreds of years ago. She was the one who stood firmly at the center of my childhood. Her female lineage reached backwards and into the future. She had given birth to my mother, Isolde, who gave birth to me, who gave birth to my daughter, Esther, who gave birth to my grandchild, Sophia—a long and winding river of woman-power that reaches into the next generations and beyond my granddaughter who already carries the tiny eggs for her own children warmly packed inside her body.
My grandmother and I arrived at the Baltic Sea and stopped. “Look here, min Deern,” she pointed, “look at this long Timmendorfer Strand landing bridge. It’s here where your father saw your mother for the first time, almost fifty years ago. She jumped from the highest point of the bridge with an elegant dive into the water. She was so beautiful and strong and wild, my Dolly, and Hans fell in love with her just there and then. When she climbed back up the ladder, he talked to her and that’s how it all started. That’s the beginning of your story.
“And you see, min Deern, mine’s going to end here at the Baltic Sea. All is well! All is well!”
I imagined my mother standing there at the very end of the white bridge, a young and vivacious woman who fell spontaneously in love with my father at exactly that spot. And I saw her also on the beach as Mother, teaching me how to swim, her hair yanked and twisted by the wind caressing her face. I trusted my mother and would dare to move into the deep water where I could not reach the ground underneath my feet. From my mother’s arms, I would observe the ripples of light that the sun sprinkled onto the bottom of the sea, a net made of sunshine pulled along to catch shells and sea creatures and mermaids and children who could breathe under water.
I thought about the many summers spent here with my parents, my sister, and I. When our grandparents joined us, they kept their city clothing on and sat like queen and king in our Strandkorb, watching us children play.
After all that talking, my grandmother and I fell into a delightful silence. Time moved slowly. She turned and looked at me. “My dear, I want you to know something. After I die, I want to be burned and want my ashes to be gathered in a small brass urn. And then I wish that our Pastor will carry the urn out on a boat into the open sea and put it into the water with a blessing and let it sink down to the bottom. I imagine how it sits there between the sea weeds—fishes swimming nearby and the sun moving in golden sparkles all around it.”
“Yes, Oma, my dear!” I said. “How I love your idea. And you know, it makes me so glad to imagine that you’ll be a part of this big water which reaches from here to America.”
We stood in silence. I put my arm around her shoulders and felt the deep hum of joy vibrating in both of us, like the purring of big old cats.
Nobody knows what makes the Soul so happy!
Maybe a dawn breeze
has blown the veil
from the face
The wind softened. Seagulls gathered in one straight row along the railing of the bridge. They cleaned their feathers and readied themselves to sleep, hiding their heads underneath their wings. The setting sun left faint streaks of pink on the crest of the clouds. The imprints of our shoes were still visible in the sand along the lacy edges of the waves, but they, too, would soon disappear.
The next day I took a long walk along the water. Childhood memories flickered around me like light on the waves, eliciting sadness and joy. Soon, I would be leaving this continent. My life was shifting like tectonic plates in an earthquake. But this place pulled me back into the past; I needed to untangle the strings before I could go forward.