Altenstadt. Being a small village there was little offered in the way of entertainment; there was sort of an improvised movie house, upstairs in an older building, with rows of plain chairs. Once a year there was the Kerb, short for Kirmis in the Hessian dialect. The Kerb had initially been, as I had been told, an anniversary celebration of the completion of the construction of the Lutheran church. Nowadays it has little to do with church. Every village had their Kerb, and as part of it, a carnival with merry-go-rounds and swings and booths of all kinds was set up, there was a dance at night and much drinking.
Once in a great while a small circus would come, and on this occasion, Hardy and I went to the circus tent. There were acts with horses, of course, and I was thinking how great it would be to travel with a circus, be around horses all the time, seriously considering running away with the circus. Hardy went home after the end of the performance, but I found a way to hang around, without him finding me. Seems that he had appointed himself my chaperone and protector. I found my way to the tent where the horses were stabled, mostly by following my nose, I loved the way they smelled! I snuck inside and sat on a bale of hay in the dark, smelling the horses and listening to their soft snufflings. It was a long time before one of the stable boys came in and noticed me. He sat down beside me. I did not move. Maybe he took that as an invitation to move closer and put an arm around me. I felt accepted for some strange reason or maybe out of some deeper need. But then things got a little uncomfortable when his intentions became clearer. I extricated myself and went home then. It was nearly midnight.
I received a long sermon from Mutti for my waywardness. She was obviously worried by my unexpected behavior; after all, I was almost a young woman at fifteen. She gave me many, but I don’t remember all the reasons why I should not have stayed out that late. Mutti imagined all kinds of situations I could have gotten into. Perhaps she even suspected that I had gotten myself into a situation! I was alternately defiant and silent. Papa was sitting there too, off to the side a bit and silent as I. Never, even in the future, could I come up with any reasonable justification for my actions. Mutti always made such good sense, while I seemed to be always acting out of feelings and impulses.
I am sixteen now. In Altenstadt they offer a dancing class upstairs above the huge hall where the big presses are that squeeze apples to juice in the fall. My parents sign me up. The teacher is a slight, older man in dance slippers. The girls sit on one side of the hall, the boys on the other. There is a shortage of boys. To help with this problem a few older local gents appear. I feel just as clumsy as most pupils. You put two clumsies together and you get awkward in the highest degree. No matter how often our teacher shows us the steps as soon as we are paired up, it is disaster! One of the three older men approaches me and asks for the next dance. I accept and, in his lead, I find the rhythm and all the right steps. His name is Alfons Rheede, and he is 24 years old; we dance a lot together.
With Alfons, I learn the swing, the foxtrot, the waltz and the tango, even the quadrille and the modern samba and raspa and graduate. One Sunday he comes by our house and asks if I would like to go for a walk with him. Surprisingly, my parents give permission, and we walk on the road toward the airport, then take a foot path into a forested area, where the ground is soft and the air spicy with the scent of pines. We sit on the grass in a sunny clearing. He tells me that he works for the forest service, sometimes gets to shoot a hare or deer. Once he brings a hare to the house. He also is one of Papa’s patients. We meet a few more times and then I don’t see him anymore. I wonder what happened and have no way to get in touch with him. It would not be fitting anyway. The only conclusion I can draw is that I am not worthy.
Years later Papa tells me that Alfons had asked for my hand in marriage and Papa refused, because he was too old for me and, anyway, he would likely not be able to support me in the style that I was entitled to. There it is again, this separation of the classes.
Those days, living like a lot of the villagers without indoor plumbing except for cold water, I don’t feel special at all, certainly not entitled. I only feel left out, left out from friendships in Büdingen, left out from associating with the locals. I start looking at the boys. If one looks at me twice, I imagine him as a husband. I hated darning socks, which in those days was necessary often. So, if a boy looked at me, I checked in with myself to see if I would darn his socks. If yes, maybe I’d take a chance. I wonder how many girls these days measure relationship potential on whether they would be willing to darn socks! I expect the bar is the same, just the unit of measurement has changed with the times. How much will you sacrifice of yourself? Have we altogether lowered our bar, ladies?
At school I had gotten friendly with a girl, whose family had also come from East Prussia; she had an older half-brother. He was going to trade school specializing in agriculture. I got friendly with Karlheinz, he was very quiet and shy. His quietude sort of appealed to me, being used to a lot of noise at our house. We went for walks sometimes after school, his and mine, holding hands. He graduated and invited me to their celebration which was going to be held in a Gaststaette, a lounge, on the edge of town. I told my parents about it and asked if I could go: “How will you get there? Will he pick you up?” I answer, “I don’t know, trains don’t run that late, and no he can’t pick me up, Papa could you take me and bring me home again?” After a lot of discussion Papa agrees to take me and collect me from the Gaststaette at 11 p.m. “No later!”
As it turned out, the place was no more than a beer joint, smelly and smoky. There were a lot of single men, some with girls. Everyone was drinking, and records were played for music. “Dancing” was shuffling and smooching, couples clinging together messily. I knew no-one, and I found the atmosphere oppressive. But I was with my guy, even though I barely knew him. I did not fit in, and the evening dragged on for me. I was glad when Papa came to take me home.
Not long after, Karlheinz told me that he was emigrating to Canada. I saw him again before he left, and he promised that we would write, and we exchanged a few letters by air mail. Presently, he wrote that the daughter of the rancher for whom he worked had taken a liking to him and he would not write to me anymore.
Many years later, after I was already married and living in the United States, my parents forwarded a letter from Karlheinz. . . he wanted to “pick up with me again; the involvement with that other girl had not worked out.” This missive, had it come earlier in my life, may have changed the path upon which this young woman ultimately embarked.
Papa’s practice is growing, his patients come from several villages within a circle of about eight kilometers and he makes house calls when needed as well, even in the middle of the night. He belongs to a medical association with a membership of doctors in the larger district. This organization now sponsors an annual dance, and the first one is to be held in Bad Nauheim, a resort town with natural springs with healing properties. Papa receives an invitation. This is a welcome event for Mutti, something that she has been dreaming about, something more suited and fitting her position. This is also the occasion on which I, as a sixteen-year-old young lady, will be introduced to society, it will be my coming-out party. So that’s what had been planned with the dance lessons earlier that year!
Mutti, always fashion conscious, starts to buy fabrics and patterns to sew our evening dresses for the dance. I remember my dress: the material is taffeta, shimmering sea-green and pink threads interwoven, with pink polka dots. It has a rounded neckline with a ruffle of the same material around it, the same ruffle finishes the bottom hem of the ankle-length dress. No heels for me though, I get some new white flats and a small white evening bag for comb and handkerchief. On the day of the dance Mutti and I go to the hairdresser. I get my hair washed professionally for the first time. It was cut short and curled. I feel extravagant.
We are introduced upon arriving at the dance hall, and my parents quickly strike up a conversation with the other couple at our table. Wine is served, the band begins to play. It begins with a polonaise around the room with more and more couples joining in as we go. Mutti and Papa make a striking couple on the dance floor, they dance beautifully together and Mutti visibly glows. A gentleman makes his way toward me. He is middle-aged and of a portly build. He asks me for this dance: a waltz. I am delighted but a bit nervous. He leads me to the middle of the dance floor and puts his right arm around my back and starts to lead me first slowly, then twirls me faster in right circles and left circles and this way and that. He is so sure and light on his feet and he takes me along effortlessly, my feet seem to barely touch the floor. And around and around he twirls me. It is the best and easiest waltz I have ever danced!
Papa dances with me; I also get asked a lot by other men. One young man was a student at the University in Giessen, studying to be a veterinarian. We danced many times and talked much of the night. At the end of the evening, he promised to stay in touch, but I never heard from him again. I was probably too young and green for him. It was such a disappointment for me!
The heart of a young girl is a puzzling thing, muddled with idealism, dreams, imagination, yearnings, and expectations. She is uninhibited, yet unknowing that these are the headwaters of the stream that will take her to the pre-destined purpose of the female being, to be fruitful. Searching for an answer to these questions in day-to-day reality only leads to disappointment and disillusions. Did I know what I wanted or needed from a boy? No, I did not. But it seems that what I got was not enough.
I was too in love with the idea of love to realize what love’s realities are. I didn’t know that what I needed were tenderness and closeness, a connection of “being,” not just an occasional connection of bodies. As a girl it is frustrating being in search of something, not knowing what the “something” is, and not knowing how or where to find it. Do you find it in yourself, or do you find it in a partner? Do you find it in a place, or do you find in a situation, or an occupation? What you are really looking for is yourself. Who are you? How are you? What are you capable of ? What are your principles? Do you have any principles? What are your limitations? What is it that you need to make you complete? Could it be motherhood? No one has a real explanation. They say, “you are too young;” they call it “growing pains;” they say, “stop dreaming.”
In a book I read a story of a young couple on a lonely beach entwined, “and the earth moved under them.” That is the way I wanted it to be, I wanted the earth to move!!
Then I read a story that tells of a couple being married, an arrangement by their parents; after the celebration they go to bed. The young bride falls asleep and is awakened in the middle of the night by a brutal attack upon her body, the new husband claiming his right. The innocent naive girl is frightened and appalled, her mate now fast asleep and snoring. Had she not read the love poems and odes of love to adored ladies? Are we girls being misled by those sweet words, being spun into a web of promises?
In later years I “hang out” with another local guy, with nothing going on except making my reputation worse. I enjoyed it, maybe needed it when a boy showed interest, and I responded without hesitation. Most of the time that did not last long, and he was discarded without thought, other times the boy’s interest was not what I thought it was. There were two fellows, at different times, both avid photographers who were only interested in taking my picture, but that was flattering too. I was trying boys on like a piece of clothing to see what fit, what suited me. I was not averse to some fondling and kissing, all this on a purely sensual level, no emotional or intellectual involvement. At the same time, I tried out my own body’s responses.
This exploration spread out over years, and in the meantime, I wondered vaguely from time to time, what others were thinking about, how their lives were being formed; a foggy perception of life after school continued to allude me. I just drifted from one day to the next, without looking much further than the next day or the next week, or what would come after graduation.
My realization now is there is no way you can know yourself as young person. Life is evolution. You learn, you grow in body and mind, you change, events and people change you, your attitude, your capacity for empathy and tolerance. This can work in a positive or negative way, depending on the influences exerted on you over time.