My Mutti once wrote a poem to Papa, when she was young, at home with small children, and he away serving the German army in World War II, possibly in Greece at the time, circa 1942. I would have been about eight years old then, and the family living once again in Kalthof with Papa’s parents, August and Hedwig.
I have this poem still. I call it “Nora Loves Walter.” Once accompanied by photos from their courtship days, which no one has any longer, it is quite romantic and nostalgic, and I share it with you here:
Remember the bungalow by the sea?
Bright colored wildflowers surround;
Gentle waves tumble on gleaming sand;
White clouds to far away places float.
Like they, you are now far away.
Remember back last blissful May?
We spent together a short little while,
We were so happy here,
Arousing the envy of the gods.
Far distant now you are again
Serving in foreign lands;
Alone I lie in sun and sand,
Sad music in my heart,
Thinking of you all of the time
Wishing you back to my side.
How many tears must I shed
‘Ere you return? – Then
Every minute we’ll treasure,
A precious gift every hour.
Countless kisses shower on me,
Be tender and loving to me.
We will be happy and we will know
That I am yours and you are mine.
And when you’re far from me again
And I am lonesome in despair
I will forever grateful be
For the happiness we shared.
My pained little heart, do not despair,
All will be good again one day.
And although time drags slowly on
Hold fast to courage and faith.
With ardent love and deep desire,
This heart yearns and hopes,
Believes firmly in our meeting again,
Though tears of longing too often flow
There must come an end to being apart.
Blissful happiness, my heart, awaits
As you have never known,
When from foreign lands
Your sweetheart will return.
More than forty years later, Mutti and Papa celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. It is 1985, Nora is 74 years of age, and Walter is 75. At Nora’s suggestion, they each write a contemplative letter to share with the other.
Like many, I have written letters at certain times in my life, to cleanse my thoughts and feelings – but then I would destroy them, never meant to be shared with anyone.
I discovered these, my parents’ missives, after a lifetime. My mother’s letter strikes me as confusing, full of self-pity, repetitive, a jumble of emotion. My father’s letter is logical and sounds much like him; I think he saw himself clearly.
What decades of difficult circumstances have done to the young lovers’ relationship is painful to recognize. The war, having lost all in a night of bombing, leaving home and the summer house on the Baltic Sea to live a primitive life – this was not the life that was imagined. Mutti had been fun-loving, outgoing with friends; she loved to dress in the latest fashion – in her mind she had an image to uphold as the wife of a doctor, a standard to keep, a reputation to create. Her hopes and dreams and plans for a bright future and secure lifestyle, with the comforts befitting the social status of an academic, had been destroyed by ill fate. All those years – the fight for survival, the depravation, and the struggle to start building a new existence in a backward village, had taken their toll.
All this was even more complicated by the friction between Papa’s parents and my mother, in the beginning years of our family life, during the war, and after – well, Mutti yelled. When we came home from school, we could hear her from a distance and we warned each other: Dicke Luft (thick air) – in other words, tread lightly! What she yelled about we did not know; at least it was not about one of us, so we tried to stay out of her way. Papa usually took the brunt of it.
Perhaps Nora yelled to let off steam, out of frustration and hopelessness and a feeling of impotence. I think Walter felt at least in part responsible, and he remained a fortress of commitment, devotion, and loyalty to Nora. Although, it seems, Nora did not see it that way.
But as we each live our lives, we see this phenomenon again and again, no more unusual than any other long-married couple encountering conflicts of personality among and between family, friends, and themselves. We have all lived these things. We will continue to live them, as will our children, and their children, and theirs – for generations to come – no matter what the world looks like.
When I think about it, why I still live together with this man, I can think of many reasons. I have said to him: hopes, insurance, promises, aid, little things, tolerance with my changeable temperament, and a few surprises, caresses, and something like “fealty” awakened in me the expectation and confidence that life with such a man could be rewarding and worth all possible efforts. Why am I still with him? Because I have taken my promises seriously and had mobilized all of my forces, all imagination and all energy for this life, and still hope and wait for a small amount of understanding and harmony; because I have five kids, from whom I did not want to steal the image of an intact family home. There are many mundane reasons of many kinds and there is the certainty that now there is no longer any other way.
Despite all the hopes and illusions, efforts, dedication, and loyalty have led to no other conclusion as to ensure that all parties have accepted and benefited from the results; still more inexhaustibly expected and demanded–not kindness, encouragement, let alone recognition mustered; however frequently being criticized and enduring defamatory comment… I remained… Well, there are five children whom I did not want to impair or harm in body or soul. Only after all this was over it turned out that in him, the characteristics of his parents are joined, on one hand — Heartlessness, selfishness, greed, treachery; on the other hand, rudeness, insincerity (for instance, minimizing the situation, encouraging me to go on; trying to pacify me, engaging in 2-3 days of good behavior; who would not mistake that for good-naturedness or understanding?) until everything went back to the same style. And always new hope, new courage, new efforts by me… for decades. Occasionally I would run away out of desperation, but always returned… with new use of all reserves — for the children! All that could change and help was missing. The partnership demanded dedication yet he would never say anything to bring order and clarity, even at the expense of conflicts and possible attacks on himself by his parents for providing understanding and sympathy for the wife and mother of his children; he should have personally intervened on behalf of his wife and provided protection for his own family against the interference and hatefulness, meanness and sabotage of his own parents, including their influence upon the children to alienate them from their mother. A neutral spectator, the Doctor, who stands socially above all, could muster no sign of recognition that they (the parents) have destroyed a life and the hope for a rightful existence and have turned everything that was good and positive into bitterness, rejection, hostility, distrust. . . eventually resulting in indifference, apathy, isolation, misery, resignation.
The catch: Even after all these years the promising partner does not want to come out of his comfort zone… and wants to know what in detail, where in detail, and how in detail, he at sometime, somehow, or somewhere should have said or done.
Conclusion: No understanding, no empathy, lack of engagement despite ongoing dedication in relation to daily trivia, no dialogue and exchange of thoughts, only the final word.
What partner could be satisfied or at least have the feeling of being taken seriously? The consequence for the wife… a slow destruction and waiting for the end of this hopeless existence. Maybe she was a problem without a solution for those around her, but she still seemed to be useful and usable, and toward the end, a welcome whetstone for his own shortcomings, mistakes, failures, frustrations, disappointments, prejudices, resentments… which is pretty useful, too. Only that this whetstone had a sensitive soul which was slowly destroyed and finally used up and left nothing but a repulsive pile of rubbish. That is the resumé of a once hopeful, life-embracing, accommodating, unselfish existence which ended in bitterness and disappointment. The rubbish heap made many mistakes, but the biggest mistake was, despite all the negative experiences, the continued willingness to be there for others. One should learn from mistakes. So I will finish what I started, no one should feel guilty.
Maybe convenience, inherited cowardliness, sloth, or egotism are to blame. Let that be a lesson for you; expect nothing from others. . . from no one . . . trust only yourself and use your own strength. Don’t count on understanding or acknowledgment; only on everyone’s vanity and love of self. Shield yourselves against deception and insincerity. Hold on to your own personality. Don’t spend your life but live with understanding and common sense so you do not end up as a good-for-nothing heap of rubbish but with the consciousness that your life was worthy. Guard your soul, your feelings, and your independence.
Who am I?
My 75th birthday has passed. Guests, children, and close relatives assure me that they enjoyed it in the circle of the large family. Only Katharina was missing. My mute but never to be forgotten sorrow is the feeling of guilt concerning the severe injury to my wife, Nora, whom I love so much that tears come when I think about this, like now, but it can never be made good again. Who am I? How am I? I have an idea of how others see me because I can sense it in conversation and attitudes. I was an only child, so it was never necessary for me to assert myself against siblings. That may be one reason why I am always lacking a quick answer or reaction and my reactions are often misinterpreted. My answers are slanted and can be taken totally the wrong way. Then I am dismayed and rendered speechless. Explanations are then futile. I am often guilt-ridden because I have evoked reactions to my attitude which I did not want or expect or counted on. All this is only for my immediate circle, for with strangers I appear confident and must be that way as a physician; how else would anyone trust me? In that regard, I have longstanding experience of conveying trust and confidence by drawing from examples and my own expertise and personal experiences.
Sure there are always situations in the family, from long life experience in dealing with the relatives (with a good memory for all the little details) which contradict what is now current. But I also see what I don’t like in others… what makes me feel uncomfortable. But I cannot dispute that or reproach a person if it involves something that could damage the family in some way unless I have been asked for advice. I don’t think getting involved in the intimate matters of the children without being asked is useful. Generally, a person is sensitive or aggressively rejects unsolicited advice except when he is in danger or a similar situation. Besides, after 50 years of life experience in a large family, one had to find out that well-meant advice at an earlier time proved at a later date to be not useful or even detrimental. C’est la vie! Laissez faire! It seems each person has to gather his or her own experiences in order to learn. If I give advice which later on proves to be disadvantageous or detrimental, it is my fault. If I do not offer advice which was not solicited, then again, I blame myself for my attitude and again I feel guilty. Where is the right way for us? I don’t see one but that does not make me unfeeling or egocentric. I don’t presume to be a judge or a rule-maker. I am basically a helpless person. My seeming authority as the head of the family stands on very, very shaky ground. I am not even conscious of it, even when I seem to assert it, as I am told. Perhaps this is a subconscious shield against vulnerability which I suffer from. But even that scars over quickly enough and leaves no pain, at least not consciously. I am not a hard person. I am easily moved to tears when I encounter good deeds and empathy. Dealing with my patients I have always been able to hide this, because a physician who cries with the family can hardly be helpful. But it was always really hard.
And if I react that way toward strangers, it is even harder in the family. Tears are useless when only practical help is needed if one knows how to help. But how to know? I have never been fond of making decisions. In the bottom of my being, I am always doubtful. My brother-in-law always said, “first, think about it long enough,” and that is probably subconsciously a basic trait of my character. Only a few times in my life was it necessary for me to make quick decisions. Shooting a guerrilla, for instance. Looking at the situation from a danger point of view, it was not absolutely necessary, and it only bothers my conscience in a small way because it was a combat situation. I am not a hero in any area, I don’t want to be one or even seem one. I do not feel myself as above others. I get joy from knowing that our children made something of themselves… all five… and I am proud of that, not because of me or my contribution to it, because they are what they have become out of themselves. I only played a small part in that… Their education, advice, and guidance. And when I talk about the success of my children in conversation with friends, it shows my joy and pride, but not as a declaration of my own accomplishment.
I acknowledge how inept I am in many things of daily life and feel only able with physical work. It has just come to me that I am a Libra… I always see two sides of everything and try to keep both sides in balance. I do not believe in astrology. I do not believe in God. I only believe in man, and here we are in the area of politics which should be left unsaid. Is man by nature good or bad? It seems that he is bad. The animal is neither good nor bad; it is natural, as he is driven by instinct to survival. Basically, that is also true for man, only his ability to reason forces him to think ethically. Such is the duality between natural instincts and man’s ability to reason created. And each must decide that according to his predisposition. It is never good nor bad; both are natural, both are not human, but primal.
Nevertheless, two souls live in my breast (quotation, Faust). One is egocentric, the other is… Well, what is the opposite of that? Not altruistic, but societal. Maybe. I want to say about myself that I am not egocentric. Maybe I don’t even possess a healthy ego because I am compassionate. And out of this sense of compassion, I never do, or leave undone, what is necessary. If that makes me a good person is doubtful. I don’t see myself as a good person, but neither as a bad one. Just common, average. I have no outstanding abilities except to be able to perform physical labor. Is that a merit? So, I am as I am, but do I know myself how I am???