Leaf of the Tree

Finding the Divine in the Details


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Along my path of world citizenship

The afternoon train that typically brings me back to my German “hometown” of Wertheim.

I’ve been retracing a path of family history, following portions of the route that brought my parents together in England during World War II and eventually resulted in my speaking German (well, a kindergartner’s “German”) almost as early as I spoke my mother tongue.

Rothenburg ob der Tauber, one of Germany’s most-visited towns.

During the U.S. occupation of Europe after the war, my military family spent two tours in Germany, the last of which holds my oldest memories.

In the winter of 1960, we sailed across the Atlantic to a very new life. As military housing was at a premium, we lived “on the economy,” first in a hotel that I still visit, then in a tiny village 45 minutes from Frankfurt. A family named Geis welcomed us into the ground floor of their home while they squeezed upstairs to make room for us.

My British grandmother visited us in Germany in 1960.

Contrary to popular belief about German-American relations at the time, they were unfailingly kind and astonishingly generous, especially since they had very little after the war. While they no doubt welcomed the money they received for sharing that clean, accommodating space with us, they always felt more like grandparents than landlords to me.

What I remember most is how cheerful and happy they always were. I later learned that Herr Geis, like my family, was a recent arrival in Germany. Before that, his wife and children had waited nearly 15 years while he was a prisoner of war in a Russian prison camp, wondering whether they’d ever see him again. I understand now that after he came home, they saw every day as a new beginning and treated it like something too precious to waste on anything but gratitude and joy.

Along the Main River near Wertheim.

It was during Easter week that this couple and I shared one of my earliest intercultural exchanges. One day my parents had some appointments and errands and the Geises offered to watch me while they were away. My four-year-old self delighted in the day’s pursuits, which actually involved little more than following along behind the couple as they did their chores, preparing their field near the Main River for planting, and helping me discover some stray potatoes they’d missed at harvest time.

After we’d eaten those at the mid-day meal, together with eggs we’d collected from their hens, they introduced me to my first Easter eggs.

We were coloring them when my parents appeared at their kitchen door, bearing some traditional American fare — Hershey bars and a big bowl of popcorn — that they’d brought as an Easter gift and thank-you.

Würzburg, Germany, after the war.

Most Germans had never seen popcorn, since corn was grown only for animal feed in Europe in those days. That bowl lasted for hours as the Geises removed a piece at a time, holding it up and marveling as they named the creature or object that its shape approximated. Eventually, we all began to do the same amid lots of laughter, and a pretty good vocabulary lesson on both sides of our collective language barrier.

This event stands out in my memory because it signals such a perceptible shift in my family’s bond with the Geises, the kind that meant they’d become regular guests at our military-base quarters on-base quarters long after we’d moved from our temporary shelter in their house.

I didn’t know of any other American families who shared this kind of friendship, and after my mother’s horrific experiences during the Blitz in Britain, most anyone would have forgiven her if she’d been hesitant to embrace Germans.

As I travel through Germany all these decades later, I feel eternally thankful for parents who were always able to see the humanity in any situation, above and beyond past history or politics. I realize today what a vital part of peace-building this is.

Adapted from Life at First Sight: Finding the Divine in the Details

 

 

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Reading between history’s lines

bad-homburg-vor-der-hohe-d974I recently unearthed a little treasure from family history that’s supremely timely as I wrap up European scenes in my newest novel, The Munich Girl.

Four small pages of stationery with my mother’s initials at the top are filled with her distinctive British handwriting on all eight sides. A prolific writer, she gathered these snapshot recollections from years when my parents and then pre-schooler sister lived in post-war France and Germany. God bless her. We think about doing such things so often. Now I’m a real beneficiary because she actually did.

“I decided then that you’d probably grow up to be a tactful, diplomatic person,” she describes of the time when, on her very first airplane flight (from London to Bordeaux, France), my sister, then 4, made polite conversation with the two travelers seated across from her and my mother. My mother describes them as “dressed in the full regalia of those who live in Arab countries.”

Among many vocations, my sister was eventually a staff member for three Congressmen and a U.S. Senator, which afforded numberless opportunities to practice both tact and diplomacy. Our mother had a knack for being prophetic that way.

A Pretty Meadow near Ashdown forest 174

Photo: Kathy Gilman

She recalls “Tu et You,” my parents’ nickname for the rustic French farmhouse where they were billeted as a young couple. “Toilet was directly off — almost still within — the kitchen,” she writes. “The septic tank, it turns out, was directly under the toilet,” as she had occasion to discover when said toilet malfunctioned and the horse-drawn “Vidange Rapide” (“quick drain”) cart came to the rescue. The operator, she records, consumed a sandwich during the repair, all while periodically jiggling the leaky hose he was wielding. His verdict: “Too much tissue.” Apparently none was the preferred quantity.

Each weekday, from the time my sister turned 5, two military police would arrive at the house shortly before dawn to escort her to school via military staff car, a ride of an hour each way. I cannot imagine what this meant for my mother’s peace of mind. It explains a lot about why my sister’s probably one of the most unflappable travelers I know.

On some of those schooldays, my mother and a very-pregnant neighbor, also a military spouse, went to the nearby market town to do laundry. My mother handled the French-speaking, at which she was quite adept, and the neighbor provided the transportation. My mother was tasked with planning their route, which she did very carefully, as the neighbor’s Studebaker had no reverse gear.

1011701_514541095267076_944692049_nOn one of those days, Henri the gardener decided to “repair” the coal stove and inadvertently dislodged the stove pipe, which collapsed and blanketed everything in sight, including Henri, in soot. My mother notes that he did not stick around to help clean it up.

On New Year’s Eve at the luxurious Grand Hotel in Bordeaux, the elegant doors to the rooms for “hommes” (men) and “femmes” (women) opened into the same restroom. “And the very fancy chicken entrée still had most of its insides,” my mother notes. As she so often did, she came home afterward and sat on my sister’s bed and shared the evening’s details, including descriptions of the most fashionably dressed women.

Next stop in their tour of duty was Frankfurt, Germany, where most military families had maids, in part because so many postwar Germans needed the work. Ria, the first, asserted her influence with furniture: “Every weekend, your father would rearrange the gigantic German furniture, including piano, and every Monday, Ria would put it all back. ‘Nein, nein — das ist besser’.”

Harriette favored “snail and Crisco sandwiches,” and Olga, who had been a Russian prisoner of war (and suffered who knows what atrocities) hadn’t seen a flush toilet before and thought it a fine device for cleaning vegetables, my mother was horrified to discover one day.

My father, who tended to be the family storyteller, regaled us with stories like these for years and no matter how many times we heard them, they sent tears of mirth rolling down our cheeks.  LAFS6377506

My mother’s dry summaries, rendered with British wit, certainly did too. Yet there’s something that speaks volumes between their terse lines. My father, more often than not, came home to hear about these experiences, while my mother, with a battlefront whose local dialect kept changing, actually lived them.

Humor was obviously a very big part of how she managed that. And while she may have had to dig deep, some days, to find that humor, the effort itself is still a kind of healing balm, even all these years later.

Adapted from Life at First Sight: Finding the Divine in the Details.

http://www.amazon.com/Life-First-Sight-Finding-ebook/dp/B00B5MR9B0/ref=tmm_kin_title_0/181-3985550-85


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The ties that truly bind

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A long-anticipated visit with my sister this month can’t help but bring me close to family history, as so many scenes in my novel do these days, too.

Born ten years apart, we were both “only children”, aside from the six years we actually spent together in our parents’ home. My arrival doomed her to a role of perpetual baby-sitter. In my little psyche, she was also a surrogate parent, an adult-like being – unfailingly elegant and unbelievably smart – who actually saw me, when the atmosphere in which we lived could make a lot of things seem invisible. More, she remembered me, and continued to accompany me, long after the early get-away she made when she was barely 18.

Though we’ve really gotten to know each other as “grown ups”, I feel as though I felt her company all of my life – before, during, and after my arrival here.

She has written of her own experience: “I felt almost apologetic for my own childhood, which I viewed (correctly) as an enormous household inconvenience, something to be conquered quickly and forgotten, like chicken pox or diarrhea.”

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Our first stop in 1960 as Army Brats in Germany.

But with the arrival of a younger sister, she notes, “I seized the opportunity to Be Older, taking charge of her needs, protecting her from my own tadpole experience. … I heard my orders from a Higher Power, beyond parents, to guide this little person safely past the treacherous shoals of childhood.”

“I decided that you’d probably grow up to be a tactful, diplomatic person,” our British mother once described of her when, on her very first airplane flight (from London to Bordeaux, France), my four-year-old sister made polite conversation with two travelers seated across from her and my mother. My mother describes them as “dressed in the full regalia of those who live in Arab countries”.

When my sister turned five, two military police arrived each weekday shortly before dawn to escort her to school via military staff car, a ride of an hour each way. It’s no wonder I’ve always perceived her as leagues ahead of me in worldly wisdom and experience, rather in the style of Jane Goodall or Agatha Christie. SKMBT_C28415052810290_0001

By the time I was four, she’d already won first prize in a national U.S. magazine’s annual writing contest. She was 14. Her teen-age years are the ones my child self remembers best, some of the sweetest in my memory, set in a fairy-tale German town, no doubt so sweet because she was there.

She’s given me more gifts than I can count, but one of the most meaningful came recently with her instant inner understanding of The Munich Girl, the novel I’ve been working on since our father died in 2007. Hearing her intuitively wise thoughts about the deepest intent of this book and its story was vindication that my soul, however much it aspires to write, hardly knows how to put into words.

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The ship that carried her away from Bremerhaven in 1962.

In my writing hours, when I want to evoke heartbreak, I think of how I felt on the day after she left Germany for America — or the day after she got married – when realization caught up with me that she wasn’t ever coming back to sleep in the room we had always shared.

I suppose it was inevitable that the book on which I’ve spent so much time, and love, would become a story of separations and reunions.

She tells a story of how, before she boarded the ship that took her away from Germany, I pressed a note into her hand with the instructions that she not open it until she was “home”.

Once in America, this 17-year-old military brat who had skipped not one, but two grades on her path to a scholarship at Boston University “suddenly felt as alone as I have ever been”. SKMBT_C28415052810300_0001

Then she remembered the note. At six, I was a writer of few words, none of them very neat, though pithier than I tend to be now. The note read: “Rite Sune”.

And, she says, she was home.

As I am, wherever she is in the world, whether I’m with her or not.

This, I’ve decided, is what “family” truly means. As a character in my novel observes: “So often, the ties that truly bind us the most have nothing to do with being related.”

But when they do, it is light upon light.

 


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The freedom in forgiveness

Happy to have some thoughts up at BoomerCafé this week.

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This stage of life brings a continual sorting through others’ belongings – and an invitation to forgiveness I never expected.

I put off this task after my parents’ death, as many of us do, simply stashed the boxes out of sight. Then I woke one day with the urge to unpack one.

I was plunged into stirred-up memories and stored-up feelings, not all of them easy or pleasant. As if whispered into my thoughts, an idea I’d encountered years ago in the work of psychologist Erik Blumenthal echoed: The person who comes to understand his parents can forgive the world.

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