Leaf of the Tree

Finding the Divine in the Details


Going with the flow

hw-2011-01-11-0010As I return to the German town of my childhood, I’m reminded about the enduring values of resilience, acceptance, and pragmatism.

Wertheim is nestled between two rivers, the mighty Main with its bustling shipping traffic, and the quieter Tauber, which can still kick up a good flood given the right circumstances, such as rapid snow-melt or excessive rainfall. Iceland and Mexico and Spring 06 Germany 287

As a child here, I was fascinated by the spectacle of “Hochwasser”, that inundation of Wertheim’s streets by the waters of one or both rivers.

As with many towns in Europe (and elsewhere), flooding is a part of historical experience here. There are markings on many of its buildings, showing the years when water had its way, and the only thing there was to do, beyond what pumps can accomplish, was wait for it to recede.Wertheimhochwasser1619349_10152215498052641_837893055_n Thankfully, after major flooding five years ago, the town has mostly had a reprieve from this annual assault.

Yes, it’s terribly cliché to say that folks here go with the flow, yet after hundreds of years of doing just that, I can see how it has shaped the character of this place.

Perhaps it’s part of the reason that those who flowed in from other places — people like my American military family, and thousands of US servicemen, and those who’ve sought refuge from places that had been turned upside-down, or rendered unsafe by war and other calamity — have always found an easy welcome here.

Or perhaps it’s the experience of what the water washes away that has made this a generous and forgiving sort of place. hwsw1-2011-01-11-0059

And the pragmatism?

Well, when the flood waters do rise, and one major thoroughfare becomes a sort of tributary, these canny locals erect raised metal platforms that act as a network of pedestrian paths that thread through the streets “above it all”.

I think this may reflect something of an inner attitude, too.hochwasser






My first teacher is still 21

Photo on 2-17-14 at 7.48 PM #2My mother didn’t have a “real” birthday except during leap years, which means that even when her death certificate recorded her age as 80, she was still technically only 21.

Mothers truly are our first teachers, which may explain why we can feel so inexplicably alone once they’re gone. With each passing year, so much of what I value can be traced back to my mother, a military spouse whose life didn’t turn out anything like her 21-year-old self imagined it would.

MumDuring the years that the war ravaged Europe, my young British war-bride mother held down the fort in her family’s home in England’s remote north. She cared for my newborn older sister, along with an elderly relative who was in the end stage of cancer, plus several children who’d been evacuated from London. Somehow, she also found time to hook rugs in order to generate income to compensate for the meager wartime rations on which her crowded household had to subsist. She had compassion for those young evacuees, both because they’d had to leave their families, and because she knew the life they’d face back home. Her own face already wore nasty scars from her service as a fire warden during the infamous “Blitzkrieg.”

If anyone modeled for me how to welcome change gracefully, it was this woman who came to a new culture to meet her Boston-Irish in-laws, then proceeded to make a home for her family—over and over—in locations all over the world, wherever her husband’s military orders took us next. Her dedicated “nesting” efforts gave every place we lived that consistent feeling of home, however often we were uprooted and forced to start over.

Schwan73586_10201817493622394_728135709_nLife in a military family meant I had to keep making new friends and my mother, as with most everything, encouraged me in this and did her best to turn it into an adventure. She made it easy to nurture friendships by always welcoming playmates at our house and charming them with her warmth. (They usually loved her accent, too.)

Because she was such a canny yet unobtrusive ally in assisting our friendships, my sister and I now find it easy to make friends wherever we go, to be the one to go talk to someone standing alone at a party, as we often saw her do. With her lively mind, she always had friendly, interesting questions that would gently coax people into the nicest conversations, even if she had to ask them in a language she was struggling to learn.

Long before the days of what would come to be called Women’s Lib, military spouses were already demonstrating versatility and capability, offering strong models for their children. Their spouse’s presence was often shadowy and intermittent, which tended to make these wives adaptable and decisive, and give their children resilience, as well. That’s very likely why I wound up marrying the son of such a mother.IMG_0433

Among her many gifts, my mother was able to listen in a way that made you feel as though listening to you at that moment was the most important thing in the world, the only thing in her world. She also taught me how to value and use my own time—not just to be efficient and accomplish things, but also savor and enjoy something worth enjoying.

“A father and mother endure the greatest troubles and hardships for their children; and often when the children have reached the age of maturity, the parents pass on to the other world. Rarely does it happen that a father and mother in this world see the reward of the care and trouble they have undergone for their children,” the Bahá’í writings acknowledge. “Therefore, children, in return for this care and trouble, must show forth charity and beneficence, and must implore pardon and forgiveness for their parents.”

After my mother’s death, the one thing I heard most consistently from the many who loved her was how much kindness and help she had always shown them. It’s very clear, therefore, how I can best honor her memory. Her kindness and generosity are the most important lessons my first teacher ever gave me.

So, thanks for everything, Mum. You’ll always be twenty-one, to me.


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



Our daily Brötchen

EB pix Germany and more 002When life sends you sleeplessness – or any other waiting game — you can churn in frustration, or create an adventure you’d never otherwise know.

That’s what my husband and I did when we last visited Wertheim, my German hometown. At 4:30 on our first jet-lagged morning, rather than continue to toss and turn, we decided to go out for a very early-morning walk around town. The public-works employee we kept encountering as he emptied trash dispensers around this tiny heim only looked surprised the first time, then was friendly each time we met up with him under streetlamps and moonlight.

When an irresistible aroma wafted our way, we followed it to where a column of fragrant, bread-scented steam was rising in the dark in a little alleyway beside a bakery’s kitchen. We stood inside that steamy column and inhaled deeply, as if eating.Broetchen7742-8797_106_2_det_001

In a flash, we had our plan: as we walked around, we’d check the opening times for the bakeries in town and conduct a sort of taste test of Brötchen – those rolls of our childhood like mini loaves of crusty bread with exquisitely soft doughy centers. We’d begin with the bakery that opened the earliest, which turned out to be the one that had been sending out those lovely smells. It was also the hands-down winner – and, it turns out, is right around the corner from an apartment with which we would later begin to fall in love.

The runner-up of the four we sampled was a bakery in the market square that my mother shopped at 50 years ago, owned by the same family for 13 generations. A woman is now its master baker, something highly unusual in Germany when she took the helm there 20 years ago.

As the first train of the day rolled into town, the bridge across the river where we waited at the crossing gate had the sun coming up on one side and the moon setting on the other. It was a little slice of unexpected heaven as we sipped our coffee and nibbled the last of our buttery rolls.EB pix Germany and more 094

All along one of the bridge’s railings was a sudden gallery exhibit: dozens of intricate spider webs illuminated in the morning sun, dewdrops glittering in them like crystals. It brought to mind those words of Kafka’s: “The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.”

Of course, preceding those words, he asserts, “You do not need to leave your room” … but only sit solitary and listening. In our adventure, of course, we had to accept what we could not change and then go out and see what we could do with it. Or what it would do with us.

But as with most of life, we had to be in motion for any of it to happen.

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Not what we were expecting

Happy to share some thoughts and memories at BoomerCafé this week:


On my family’s first visit to the Hotel Schwan in the small German town of Wertheim, we found the entire staff assembled out front in two lines on either side of the door. Even at age four, I could recognize this as the red-carpet treatment.

The telegram that had advised the hotel manager of our military family’s pending arrival had carried the words “General Alexander Patch” at the top, the name of the humble Liberty ship that brought us from New York to Europe in January of 1960.  Hotel Schwan-2

This general’s troops had liberated most of this region and neighboring France at the end of the war. Our welcoming committee was eager to meet this celebrated visitor who’d help put an end to the miseries of the Third Reich, and treated Germans fairly in that process. They were no doubt anticipating a line of dark vehicles with noisy accompanying entourage. When our travel-weary family of four with whining child (played by yours truly) rode up in a battered taxi, they must have been very disappointed indeed. DSCF3564

The weight of those next few moments was palpable even to a distracted kindergartner like me. I can imagine how much more my parents felt it, and my (10 years) older sister. There are things silence conveys so much louder than words. Phyllis & Nan

Read the rest here at BoomerCafé: