Here was the time in my life when my teenage attitudes started to get me into trouble. I had always been a bit bull-headed, and the tiniest bit of a black sheep. I had the idea that when I graduated, I would be running off to America to join Roland (which I did eventually do, and that story will come, dear Reader).
Now that my head was full of dreams of love and adventure, time could not move fast enough, and I had the notion that I was outgrowing the parent house.
Mutti and Papa had recently joined the tennis club in Büdingen. This brought into my life some limited extracurricular activity. I enjoyed the sport of tennis, and with it came the promise of social events the club held on an annual basis. It was at these events, for instance, the Christmas Ball and the costume dance at Fasching (Mardi Gras) in February, that I began to pay more attention to how married couples behaved. I had the opportunity to observe the less constrained behavior of adults in a relaxed environment.
There was wine and smoking, laughing and joking, dancing and fun. Couples intermingled, switched dance partners, sometimes found a hidden corner and smooched with someone else’s husband or wife. I assumed this was accepted conduct. Frau Kolb, the wife of a prominent attorney, when she had had enough wine, would take her top off, baring her buxom self from the waist up – she’d do this in the middle of the dance floor. Her husband had to take her home.
Here I knew most people, not like at the dance of the medical association where I debuted. This was a less formal affair as well, no evening attire, but cocktail dresses. I was having a lot of fun. I was a good dancer and enjoyed it. Observing how married couples behaved in party mode, dancing and joking and laughing and flirting amongst each other, I saw nothing wrong with having been a bit uninhibited with Roland at our meetings. Being involved with the club opened a door that had previously been closed to me. It gave me a fresh look at the adult world I was beginning to be part of. I took on a bit of an all-knowing swagger, regardless that I was not of an age to make any serious decisions about my life.
There was not much interaction with my parents around life’s decision-making. Yet when I did something I was not supposed to, or something that was not expected of me – like I should have known better – Mutti would be the one to deliver a sermon that was forever long. I would sit and listen, but not hear, or not want to hear. I dreaded these long interludes of course, but I was never able to say why I had done something. I never tried to explain, probably because I didn’t know myself what I was thinking.
Papa was not a man of many words, especially when it came to juvenile female behavior. His quiet presence at Mutti’s sermons was more for Mutti’s support and confirmation of her assessment, rather than an opportunity to discipline or provide guidance. There was however one interaction I had with him alone, during this time, which surprised me and showed me another side of him. We were entering the house together, and I don’t remember what the occasion was, but I made some sort of smart, impudent remark, and he hauled off and slapped my face hard enough to make my ears ring, without saying a word.
Oh, my parents! They were very opposite personalities, and I frowned at both at different times for different reasons. I spent a great deal more time with my mother; she was the one who assigned the chores. This made it seem that any time spent with my father was more special, but as far as teaching us her skills, Mutti was as patient as Papa.
Papa taught his children many things about mushrooms and edible plants, about camping and kayaking and sailing. He taught me how to drive a car, even though I was too young to get a license.
He was always wonderful at explaining, at encouraging anything any of us showed interest in. Once he and Hardy worked together at building components for a radio.
Mutti had ideas about making furniture, ideas that Papa would make reality, like building a sectional couch from apple crates and mattresses.
In his practice back then Papa did blood work, the type that laboratories do today, on his microscope, using dye to make smears on the slide that give each blood corpuscle definition. He taught me how to read the slides, working in a grid, to identify and count the different blood corpuscles. He used this blood count as a tool for his diagnosis. I became fascinated with the microscope, and he would show me what the fungus or mold that makes cabbage into sauerkraut looks like, and other things like that. I became proficient at doing the bloodwork for him, but before he trusted me completely with it, he redid it himself to make sure I had done it correctly. Eventually he paid me one Mark for each one I did. Papa gave me books to read and suggested that I look into the field of microbiology as a career; this was about the time electron microscopes came into use, which had much greater magnification power.
He also employed me as his bill collector. Private patients, the ones with no insurance, were sent a bill for Papa’s services and sometimes they were a little tardy in paying. Papa would take me along when making house calls in the other villages, leaving me with a stack of bills and directions to find the right addresses from which to collect. Sometimes I was attacked by geese – or rather, the gander – and barked at by mean dogs tearing at their chains, but most of the time I was able to collect, and my payment for this service was the amount of postage saved.
As I sit here today, I realize I am older now than either of my parents lived to be. What would I say to them today if they were alive?
I am so very different from you, where you are sensitive, I am inconsiderate, where you are delicate, I am hardheaded, where you are logical, I am erratic — you act from reason, and I act from emotion.
But you have taught me every skill, sewing and cooking, reusing and repurposing things with imagination, frugality and creativity, lots of practical life skills. What was lacking was any kind of sex education, which now seems astonishing to me, especially since you yourself got pregnant with me at a time when I think you had not planned on starting a family. It seems you should have wanted to keep your daughters from the same fate by at least teaching us about contraceptives. Having brothers, I knew what a boy’s penis looks like, but not a man’s and how it gets ready for intercourse. You showed me how to handle menstruation but did not explain anything more than that it made my body able to have babies. I knew nothing of these inexplicable senses of urgency in my body at times, which were part of the physiological female nature, like a dog being in heat. I did not know how to handle them. You branded me “man-crazy” because of it, because I seemed to respond to every boy’s advances. Maybe you did not feel this as strongly in your youth and could not understand.
I used to think that your marriage was a happy one, the way you and Papa worked together at making a new living for us in Altenstadt after the war. Although we all sensed that there was something not right, we had no way of knowing that the poisoned relationship with Oma, our father’s mother, was the deep-seated reason for your bad moods and angry outbursts, so we just steered clear. I promised myself I would never lose my temper like that. I noticed how you oftentimes shrugged it off when Papa tried to caress your shoulders and neck. I knew I did not want that in my marriage. I longed for touch, for tenderness.
I admired you in so many ways: the way you got us all safely out of Königsberg in time, the creative way you made that old house in Altenstadt into a cozy home, despite how primitive everything was — no indoor plumbing, only cold running water, close quarters for such a large family especially after you took in Oma and Opa too, all the while making do with very little.
I regret very much that we were never really close in adulthood. There was always that biting criticism of yours that kept me from confiding in you. You were right about the men I chose. I know now they were not right for me, but I was never able to tell you of all my heartache because I was afraid of your “I told you so” attitude.
It was impossible for me to just come over for afternoon coffee the way you used to go back to your mother’s house in Königsberg sometimes. I remember those times and the laughter in your mother’s house.
I have been told that I take after you in some character traits: introverted, stoic, taciturn. I remember you in my life when I was five and six years old, your eldest child, when you showed me caterpillars, took me kite flying and taught me skiing on my first short skis. After that time, because of the war, you were not present much in my life until we ended up in Altenstadt. Once we got settled in the house on Haupt Straβe and your medical practice got going, I remember you reading entire novels to us in the evenings while I was knitting, and Mutti was busy with some hand sewing.
You taught me how to do the bloodwork for you with the microscope, you had me help you with bill-collecting in the outlying villages. We never talked very much, but I liked that I was able to do these things with you, and especially the part where you paid me a small amount of money for doing it. It made me feel a little grown-up, being able to do something that was worth being paid for. And you were a different person away from the family.
I remember playing mixed doubles at tennis tournaments with you and messing up a lot of serves. You could have done better with someone else, but you chose me as a partner.
I am sorry if I disappointed you in not choosing to go to college and pursue a career in microbiology, as you suggested. I know it would have been a good choice with the electron microscope having been invented, making important progress for medicine. During my school years in Büdingen I did not find a special talent or skill or passion in myself that made me want to go to college at all. And it seemed to me that the main reason a girl went to university was to find a suitable husband. That made sense to me, living in Altenstadt, since there were no suitable young men available there.
But I had someone — someone I know you did not approve of for me – but someone who wanted to take me to America. I never felt at home in Altenstadt, not the way Königsberg felt to me, as a child. I believed I was grown-up enough and confident enough to take the big step, to move away from home. Anyway, I thought a wife’s place was with her husband, wherever that might be. And in my years in Germany, the challenges and difficulties our family faced in those hard years after the war taught me much and made me anxious to start my life away from the parent house.
I think the times you came to visit me in America, you saw that I was doing things I was passionate about, close to the things I learned as a very young girl in Kalthof with Opa; the caring for animals and the growing of food, making a healthy living in harmony with nature. And you were proud of me, Papa!