We told my Uncle Ingo to pick us up “early” which for us, was noon. Unlike being in Africa, our sleeping schedule is much later here because we stay up much later working what would be the appropriate hours if we were back home in Utah. So noon it would be and Ingo is always right on time.
We woke up, grabbed that complimentary machine-made stuff they call coffee and jumped in Ingo’s car. He brought Anna with him and it was nice to see her again although I thought she might get incredibly bored being going on this adventure that was really entirely for me and probably something she had already done a hundred times before. With that in mind, it probably seems like no big deal for my Uncle who was born there and still works there, and Stark was likely just making an appearance out of support and perhaps a bit of curiosity. The idea of being the center of all purpose of the day made me feel even more like I had no idea what I was doing. I had questions, but I didn’t know what they were. I wanted to know something so desperately, but I wasn’t quite sure what that something was.
Wiesbaden is, according to Ingo, about 50 kilometers away from where we were staying in Frankfurt. But with Ingo’s driving, it seemed like only a hop skip and a jump. We heart the autobahn! As soon as he pointed out that we were within Wiesbaden “city limits” I was happy yet not surprised at how green it was. I had no expectation about what I would see there and hardly any knowledge of what it may have been like. I knew only a few minor details, but was missing the big picture somehow. Still, everything seemed like home. It seemed like the kind of place where I could stay as well as the kind of place that I would grow out of. I tried to relate. I tried to put myself in my Mom’s shoes almost half a century later.
At first we parked in the center of the city to go to a place that Ingo frequents for lunch. I took notice of all the buildings – gauging how old they were in order to picture what it might have been like back then. As I had my own thoughts – “Oh that place is pretty!” – I wondered if I was at all like my Mom and if she ever thought the same thing about this building. What was the likelihood that she ever stood in this exact same spot, on this exact same cobblestone and would I know despite the hundreds of thousands of steps that have crossed that same stone since?
The more questions I had, the less I knew what to ask and the more I realized that most of what I wanted to know had no answers so I tried to ignore the very idea of having any questions at all in fear of finding an empty, lost feeling. So I was fairly quiet at dinner. I laughed out of place and spoke nervously, always looking down or at Stark even when I was addressing the whole group. I told stories from only my point of view or asked questions for other’s to answer while still looking at him, as if I needed some sort of help or approval in what I was saying.
I ate a simple meal of bread and mussels in order to avoid anything that might grumble in my stomach and cause havoc when mixed with the “stress unt hectic” that can only be recognized in hindsight. Still, some part of me was aware; aware enough to decide to drink plenty of water and sip my cappuccino slowly.
“After this we will go above the city and look at some things and then we will come back here in time for the tour at three before going to see where your Mom was born and the places that she lived. Is that alright?”
“Sure!” It was my answer for everything so far. I really had no sense of knowing what I wanted or what I was missing so the very act of making decisions was beyond me.
We drove through the forest to the top of a hill that overlooks all of downtown Wiesbaden. Wiesbaden is the capital of the state of Hessen in Germany so it is bigger than can be expected while still remaining small in many respects. According to Ingo, Wiesbaden is the second largest area of Germany to have the oldest, original homes due to very little damage from the war. Wiesbaden was also “home base” for the American army during and after World War II.
From up high the city looked beautiful and there was still so much history in the hills. There was a random, Greek Orthodox church that was beautiful and small built specifically for a the Duke of Nassau‘s wife (St. Elizabeth’s Church on the Neroberg). There were statues, picnic areas, bier gartens, and obstacle courses. Dozens of families were there just hanging out and enjoying the afternoon. After a few photos and pointing out some of the main areas throughout the city, we hopped the fence back to the car and drove through the forest 4×4 style back to the main road for a tour of the Stadtschloss. The tour was entirely in German. Between Stark and Ingo, I received partial information but for the most part I was left to derive what information I could from the tour guide who spoke very quickly in some moments and in a way that I could understand (mostly due to hand gestures) in others. After a while Ingo just handed me Wikipedia where I could read most of what the lady was talking about in a language that I could understand.
After the tour it was time and something about me regretted it. “Do you want to go to see where your Mom grew up now?”
“Sure!” Again with the overly excited and still somewhat passive way of agreeing.
“First I will show you her school and how she walked to school every day and then I will show you where she was born,” Ingo said.
“In a house? Or like the shelter?” Stark asked.
The school still looked like a school – somewhat typical for schools we have seen in Europe so far. The building was flat and not decorated in anyway. The school wasn’t big or small in any way or even obvious. Without getting out of the car Ingo explained that the school was a Catholic school and that the boys and girls were divided, always. This was her first school. As he drove us the route that she would have walked home he explained that across the street from the school was the US Army base. This was the first bit of information that was familiar to me as my Mom explained once that the reason she had a phase of disliking Americans was because when she was very young and in school (walking up hill both ways in the snow) she felt as if she was harassed by the American army – driving their tanks in the streets with absolutely no regard for her attempt to get out of the way. So I tried to imagine this as we quickly drove by and towards her first house.
When we got to the house the first thing I noticed was that the address was #22 – like my Mom, like her birthday, like today (or the day that we were there). Stark asked if I wanted to get out and it is good that he did because I would have just sat there, stunned and happy to take a backseat tour by vehicle without really knowing what it is that I wanted or if I might regret in the future not getting out. So I got out, somewhat unsure of what to do. We took some photos, all terrible and I starred at the top floor wondering how big it was and how lonely it was for my Grosmutti at the time. I had been told it was just my Grosmutti and a mid-wife. My grandfather was away at the army. All my life I was told that within hours of giving birth a fire bomb blazed through the roof of their home – where damage is still visible today (especially on the inside according to both my Dad and Ingo). But Ingo said to me that it was weeks later and that when the fire bomb hit, Grosmutti left with my Mom for weeks and he was not sure where they stayed he just knew that after a couple weeks his Dad was able to take a leave from his military duty and my Grosmutti insisted on moving to a new apartment just down the street.
I somewhat laughed at this idea because I knew my Grosmutti well enough to be able to imagine the hell she must’ve given my Grandfather for having a hole in the roof of her home and how the bomb left her house in a mess. Ohhhh how I could imagine how upset that would make her. But all joking aside, what I could hardly imagine was the terror of having a newborn baby, your FIRST baby and being entirely alone with a bomb melting from your roof to the cellar. According to Ingo, the fire bomb was not the type to diffuse. It was there just to catch houses on fire and rather than igniting the house, the neighbors grabbed the bomb and threw it in the garden. For some reason envisioning that made me smile as well as if everyone would be far more upset by their days being interrupted then the fact that a bomb had just hit their homes.
So I wondered what the truth really was. My Uncle is ten years younger than my Mom and I am the youngest in my own family, therefore I understand how we all hear the same stories and translate them very differently. I remember very distinctly the few things my Mom has told me and then there are things that I am not sure how I know – whether I learned them from a sister or an Aunt. Where did I first hear about my Mom’s birth? I was sure she had told me at some point but I wasn’t sure to what extent she had explained. I must’ve gotten the details from somewhere else. Still, my whole life I told a story of how she was practically born in a bomb shelter and how my tough and German my Grosmutti must’ve been to have to run with her newborn child. That was the way I was told the story – it’s not exactly the kind of detail you can forget since it is a story that is so hard to imagine going through yourself. So we asked about the bomb shelter, “Where is it? Can we see it?” and Ingo explained that the bomb shelters were in the cellar of each building but not very many of them here in Wiesbaden. He explained that it wasn’t required. He explained that if there was one it would have a big arrow painted to point out where people would need to be buried out of the dirt if a bomb really had hit. So I tried to piece it together even more. I knew for a fact that my Mom had explained that the hospital was bombed. She had told me that the U.S. strategically bombed public service areas and military areas like this. If the hospital was bombed, then people couldn’t get help. She told me that herself. This is why she had to be born at home although I am sure she probably would have been born there either way considering there was already a midwife. I am positive that she explained to me that there was a bomb shelter and that is where they stayed. Only she could tell me such a story about being crammed in with all of the neighbors and details like everyone feeling a neighborly obligation to take care of my Grosmutti and her new child, my Mom. But before I could even begin to figure out what the real story was, we were moving on.
Their second house was just down the street, within walking distance. This would be the house that my Mom lived in for the next 18 years; the house where all of her siblings would be raised by her side. The house was only two bedrooms or really, in American terms probably more like 1 1/2. There was one bathroom to be shared by all and a very basic kitchen. This house was also on the top floor and it seemed like it may have been nice and probably was big until you stood and imagined having four children in this amount of space.
“Where did her Mom sleep?” Stark asked.
“I don’t know.” Ingo said and I was happy for the honest answer. I thought this was a questions that I knew the answer to. My Mom had said at one point that she often shared a couch with my Aunt Agnes. I don’t know if this was a usual thing or if this was literally how they slept, night after night. Someone in the family also mentioned at some point how there was a fight in the living room between my Mom’s Uncle and her Dad after the war. So as I stood in the living room, I imagined the space. I imagined how much room a couch would take up and my Mom laying on the couch, cowering under the arguments of two grown men and then I looked out the window and wondered if she saw what I saw? What did she see? How did she feel?
Then Ingo took us to the attic. “Did anyone sleep up here?” Stark asked.
“No. No.” Ingo said. “This was just a space I liked to be. It was very cold in the winter and very hot in the summer,” he said as he pointed to the tiled roof. I was amazed at the idea that there was absolutely nothing there to protect from the elements other than these red shingles. No insulation. No additional boards or slats. The rain could come in easily and the snow could weigh heavily. There was one small window that was cracked and worn. Small animals obviously could get in and out and some had even died up there. I thought about how I used to hang out in the attic in our home in North Carolina. I had a phase where I was obsessed with The Little Women and the idea that they would hang out in an attic-like space. I used to take the house phone up to the attic where I had a stack of books, a rocking chair, and a blanket. I would read for hours, trapped up there. When I wanted to come down I would use the home phone to beep the receiver downstairs and my Mom would know to come take down the stairs so I could get out. I understood how Ingo felt in his own desire to go to the attic. But then my thoughts turned back to what little I knew about my Mother. I knew once upon a time she explained something about being obsessed with a musician and sneaking out onto the roof with her best friend once to try smoking. I looked at the small window in the attic and wondered if that was how she got on the roof or if there used to be more of a roof somewhere else that she could crawl onto? When did my Mom ever tell me that story? Where were we? I couldn’t even remember that moment. I knew it was while we were in North Carolina but where did she tell me and why? What was the context? Were we sitting in the kitchen? Was I listening in on a conversation or was she speaking to me directly? I couldn’t remember. I didn’t know that I would need to remember these things – that it would be my last chance to ever hear that story and that it would matter so much to me so many years later.
We spent quite a while talking to the neighbor. The very same neighbor lived below even while my Mom was there. Everything that was being said was in German. Ingo and the neighbor talked with obvious emotion about my Mom’s death, how his sister’s were doing, where everyone was now, his parents divorce, and a general update of what happened in the years after living there. But none of it was translated. They spoke quickly and with great concern over many subjects, filling in the years it has been since they last saw each other. It was only in the first moment of silence that Stark and I could interject with a question, “Do you remember my Mom?”
“Yes, of course.” But that wasn’t entirely what I meant. I wanted to know if she had any specific stories. So I waited. I waited for the next moment to throw a question in there which came long after. We had gone from the apartment down to the cellar where we entertained ourselves with WWII memorabilia of her husbands and a brief understanding that none of these cellars were ever used for anything other than storage. It was only when we were outside, half way between saying goodbye and a foreign discussion on what it all used to look like back then. “Do you remember any stories about her? Anything about her?” I wanted to know the little things – more than just a story about her coming home from school or doing something kind for a neighbor. I wanted to know if she seemed tall; if she seemed skinny. I wanted to know what color her hair was back then and when it finally went dark. I wanted to know if she was shy? Was she nice? Did she brush people off like a typical teenager would today? What was she like?
“No. No…” was all the neighbor said. “Nothing.” It was in that moment that my Uncle looked at me in a way that seemed as though he somewhat understood. He understood in his own way and for a moment I wondered what way that would be. Then I started to piece together the random emotions that could be depicted from the brief update he was giving the neighbor and the small bits of translation I was getting from Stark. Ingo had already pointed out several times that everyone was gone by the time he was 19 and that he stayed in Germany and was in the military at the time. Although he made the choice to not go to the states with the rest of the family, in an unspoken way I could understand that the choice was bigger than a country. The choice was to stay with his Dad or go with his Mom. The choice was to be somewhere familiar and hold onto good memories that he may have or to completely move on. He was 19 when he felt left behind and abandoned by everyone who, in his mind, distinctly made another choice. I was not quite 17. In that way we weren’t entirely different.
It was only after going to the third house where Ingo pointed out there last home together before everyone went their separate ways. He didn’t have to say so much. Instead he talked about fond memories of jumping the fences and climbing the trees. He said that the house was twice as large as the last one and very, very nice in comparison. He pointed across the alley to where his father’s business was and reminded me that it was a landscaping business. You could tell by the way that he revisited the memories that he loved his Dad. This was a side I never saw in my Mom so I was in awe. It started to dawn on me that neither Ingo nor myself knew my Mom any better although we knew her differently and that perhaps my time here was not so much about learning about her as it was to get to know my Uncle before it was too late and before the distance kept us apart much longer.
“When was your Mom to the states?” he asked to be sure he had the dates right.
“I think it was in 1966 that she moved to the states.” Previous to pointing that out, it was Ingo’s memory that my Mom left when he was 8 rather than 12 (what he should have been in 1966 if they were indeed 10 years apart).
“Ok then it was 1964 I think when we moved here. Your Mom served her mission…”
“Ya I think that would have been ’62 when she was 19.”
“Then Agnes followed.” And in my understanding that was 1968. “Then my Mother and Ilse went to visit and Ilse never came back. Then my Mom. Everyone told me to come and said it would be so great but when I visited I said no. I did not want to go. I lived in this house until I was 22 or 23.” I quickly did the math. He would have stayed in the same apartment 4 years after my Grosmutti left based on his story about being alone by the time he was 19.
“Did you live there with your Dad?” I knew absolutely nothing about my Grandfather. He had died before I was born and always stayed in Germany. My grandparents divorced but I do not know when. I do not even know why, exactly, although it can be assumed.
“No.” By this time we had left the last apartment and were on our way down the road. “It was the same apartment, one down. He lived there next to me.” This little bit of information made even more sense to me – knowing how my own relationship with my Dad became drastically different when it was just the two of us, when my Mother had “abandoned” me and my siblings were all gone. I imagined that he was very close to his Dad. I wondered if anyone came when he passed away. It seemed, to me, that Ingo was the only one who maybe had a positive opinion or memory and to him, in some way, the girls rallied against them and left them both behind. Of course these things don’t necessarily have to be fact or even logical, this is the one’s emotional story to tell based on how they felt about something just as my “emotional” story feels that my Mom abandoned me in many ways although my logical side knows that she did not create her own death. Realizing so much, we spent the next several miles completely silent. I stopped thinking. I listened to the radio and wondered, “Is this Queen? This is totally Queen. Awesome. I’ve never heard this song before.” Then I would look out the window at the passing scenery as it started to grow more dim outside.
Ingo drove us to what I think was the Mainz area of Germany – at what he described as the widest point of the Rhine river. We watched barges struggle to go up river while other barges would glide quickly down the river. Ingo gave facts about how fast the river went in certain areas (45mph) and that these large, flat barges were called ships in Germany while small ones were called boats. He asked what we call them and I wanted to get far more technical about it while Stark explained that more or less, it was the same although the term “boat” could be used informally about any size craft. He took us up to Germania and explained that most visitors want to come here and then hike the rock that overlooks the Rhine. He described it as sort of a tunnel that the Rhine had carved out, but neither Stark nor I had considered Germania or even knew about this famous rock. We shrugged our shoulders and insisted that we could do whatever. I was happy where we were. The sun was low in the sky, fading quickly and it was getting very, very cold very, very fast. Anna shivered with no jacket and I could only imagine how could it was for her as I stood there with a sweater and a jacket on, still shivering in the wind. The view was spectacular. The sky was slightly pink. Small villages lined the side of the Rhine in clusters. To one side there were trees as far as the eye could see, across small hills and to the other side was a scattering of vineyards and villages. Ingo explained that all along the Rhine were castles who used to take tolls from the barges that would travel the river. As we drove back towards Wiesbaden, we saw two or three castles lit up alongside the river and everything seemed like a fairytale.
I wasn’t sure how I felt about the day. When he asked, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go back to the hotel or if I wanted to go back to Wiesbaden. I didn’t know if I was hungry. I really couldn’t calculate anything in that moment. I was far more interested in other people’s point of view and what it was they needed so we went back to Wiesbaden and spent quite a while deciding what to eat. We were sick of mediocre German food and we certainly didn’t want any Italian (which seems to be the default restaurant around here, they’re everywhere!) anymore. After a while we found a local, Indian restaurant and sat down for some curry-flavored dishes. I think it was Anna’s first time having Indian and Stark was proud to be able to introduce someone to new food even though he’s far from his usual influence at home.
I didn’t have much to say at dinner. It seemed to be another rendition of lunch where I was quiet and had one-way conversations. But I did have one final questions. “Was she nice to you? or mean? What kind of sister was she?”
Stark added the “Be honest!” as Ingo nodded as if to say “of course.”
“Uhhh she was very nice here when growing up. And uhhh she was not so nice once she was gone, when she got older.”
That was an answer I could relate to – something that made me feel like I did pay attention and I did know her well enough to expect such an answer. I knew that in general, she was a very nice and giving person. She was exemplified for such a trait and people love her to this day because of her willingness to serve. But I also knew that despite her German nature she could sometimes wear her emotions on her sleeve and that she took other people’s choices and trials very seriously, as if they were her own. I knew that she spoke to her siblings often at times and how those conversations left her, struggling internally somehow with a desire to fix things. She was the oldest. I am sure regardless of where you are from or how you were raised that the oldest always has some sense of responsibility for how their siblings lives go. So she stressed and I tried to give back a small sense of reassurance to Ingo as I explained, with fond memory, that “My Mom used to always worry about you and her sisters. Not always, but sometimes I should say. And she would often go around the house and say outloud ‘stress unt hectic!'” as I made the motions that my Mom would have made to describe whatever emotion she was taking on in that moment. Ingo smiled at me with the same eyes my Mom smiled with. He had that same star-like crinkle around the curve of his eyes that doesn’t come with age, but rather, comes with many nights of laughter. His eyes sparkled as if he had an urge to cry, only for a moment just like my Mom’s eyes would have sparkled and in that moment I knew that somehow we were healing and somehow without answering any of each other’s questions, we knew more than we ever had before. We knew each other, but most of all, we knew that my Mom was there… in each of us.