My mother and her sister push the old green VW Beetle from the shed down the cobblestone drive. This is their chance to escape the drudgery of Mutti’s home, the endless polishing of wood and washing of wool and cooking of dust. The sun is high and behind them, the house stands empty. Maike, newly out of the Pädagogische Hochschule, wears a pantsuit and sandals; my mother wears a dress, a gift from Maike, one of the first store-bought outfits she has ever owned (You can have this and more, if you work hard enough! Maike promised, as my mother modeled the butter-yellow shift in the mirror at Karstadt.) The women maneuver the car into the street while clouds overhead drift smoothly out toward the Baltic. Though this is midsummer, the air reels with autumn crispness. The engine refuses to start, and so the women get back out and push the VW toward the street’s decline. There is something inelegant about this labor, but my mother and her sister don’t care. They don’t care how they look or what the neighbors think, most of whom have always been deeply suspicious of Mutti’s daughters. They know that the neighbors know that Mutti doesn’t approve of this VW (she often calls it a piece of junk while chatting in the garden with Frau Mortorf). But what does that matter? Maike drives it with obvious pride. Mutti herself drives a used Karmann Ghia, a reckless piece of car that barely gets her to and from the center of the Heikendorf, where she teaches elementary school. She earned that Karmann Ghia, just as Maike earned the VW—but there is something awful, of course, about a daughter claiming the prize in much less time than it took the mother. (Will Maike and Elke ever know what a struggle my life was? Mutti asks Frau Mortorf as they shake their heads in the twilight.)
At the decline, my mother and Maike give the VW a final push, jump back in, and descend the hill. Frau Mortorf opens her curtains and shakes her head. Look at that—the one girl merely seventeen and her sister no more than twenty-two, and a teacher at that! The height of Unverschaemtheit!
My mother and Maike wave at Frau Mortorf’s window as their car zips by, its motor finally engaged! Auf wiedersehen, Frau Mortorf!
They brake at the bottom of the hill to embrace each other and to apply lipstick in the rearview mirror. They can’t stop laughing. But after a minute or so they drive off. My mother and her sister have to make good time if they want to make the festival at Flensburg, which will be starting in a matter of hours.
This was in the late 1950s. I was a student at the Pedagogic College where they trained teachers. To be honest, I was pretty mediocre. My teachers often let me slide when I mentioned that Maike Schmidt was my sister. She was the shining star, the teachers expected me to do well because of her. And I did do well in Germanistik. But basically I slid.
Maike had received her degree and was already teaching in a school. She was not married. My sister was not like other women. Germany in the 1950s, you have to understand.
I wanted to quit school. I wanted a job. I wanted to move out so badly. My parents had just gotten a divorce and Mutti used me as a sounding board. She complained all the time about Papa and his women—I couldn’t take it.
I came out of a generation where there were no choices for women. There were no choices for girls. I wanted to work. I wanted to have my own money. There weren’t even choices for boys. My brother, the highest in his class, was taken out of school to work on the farm. He did all the work Maike had done as a young girl.
After the war, we had mostly food from the farm, but not much. We owned no clothes except that which we sewed. Our sewing was lousy. The seams in our dresses were all off.
Sometimes back on the farm refugees showed up at our door, begging for something to eat. Sometimes a small group of Jewish girls would appear at the door and simply sing for food. They wouldn’t say a word, they would just stand in front of you and sing together for something to eat.
There was always hunger, deprivation. Old men like my father singing American pop songs, only using Nazi words instead of the English lyrics. People all around saying: Why can’t we just forget?
After she divorced Papa, Mutti moved us all to Heikendorf. A small brick house. She moved the kitchen into the basement because she needed the space for six children. She did that by herself.
I was never good in school. But she insisted.
But then, in the summer of 1959, I met an American GI and we began writing letters to each other.
Mutti at first knew nothing.
In the 1950s, everyone is a hitchhiker. My mother’s two sisters have traveled across the continent using only their thumbs: Switzerland, France, Italy. Now that Maike has the VW, she and my mother can travel in style.
One hour after they depart the sleepy village, the women take a detour through the streets of nearby Kiel—a foolish thing, considering how expensive gasoline has become. They have been through these streets dozens of times—ever since Mutti moved them to the small brick house in Heikendorf from the large farm in Muessen (which, to her chagrin, Papa had gambled away). For my mother and her sister, there is nothing like the freedom of Kiel, and especially on a day like today, when something indefinable is in the air. The trip is an extravagance; it will now cost Maike and Elke their lunch money.
But what does it matter? They are free. They will make it to Flensburg.
Sometime later—after more singing and laughing and getting lost—they stop the car outside of Rendsburg; Maike jumps out to use the bushes for a bathroom. At first they think they are alone on this stretch of highway, but then my mother notices a tall dark hitchhiker standing off to the side, under a large road sign which shades him almost completely. My mother whistles a signal to Maike, who laughs in embarrassment, then runs back to the car while adjusting her pants (and new girdle underneath). Behind her, fields of yellow flowers, Rapsfelder, bend in the roadside breeze. The hitchhiker emerges from the shadow and smiles. The women see he is black.
But his face is so sympathetic. My mother goes for the lipstick.
The stranger waves awkwardly, then removes a military jacket from the duffel bag slung across his shoulders.
So, Maike says thoughtfully, An American soldier.
But a handsome one at that, my mother adds, rolling down the window.
You have to understand. I was ambivalent for so long—I had such mixed feelings. There was no one thing. Finally I just up and ran away to the airport. While I was there I sent Mutti a postcard telling her how sorry I was. My handwriting was a mess. A woman befriended me, took me to the jet. And then a stewardess placed me in my seat. I couldn’t stop crying. But in spite of that, all the time I was thinking: what would my friends say if they could see me now?
After Mutti discovered the letters I had been receiving from Bob, she went down to the post and insisted they not give me my mail anymore, which they did. I realized I would have to get Bob to send his letters to my friends. So they got his letters and passed them on to me, but Mutti found out about that as well. My friends left me in the lurch.
I used to call him collect. Before Mutti made that fuss at the post, he used to send me letters with money—the first money I ever had. I bought a striped dress. I bought a pair of high-heeled shoes. I remember thinking: I never had high heels before.
I kept on spending the money he sent when in reality I was supposed to use it for a ticket. Finally he got mad and accused me of using him. But it was the first time I’d had any money. You have to understand.
I had to get away from Germany. We had no food in the house. I remembered when Bob and I met, how we wound up dancing at the music festival in Flensburg, it was heaven. There was no one thing that made me leave, only that I wanted more of that day in Flensburg.
After that festival, we wound up taking him with us to meet Mutti. She liked him well enough. Then he returned to his base and stayed about six more months in Germany. It was only after he returned to America that Mutti interfered with his letters to me. She stopped thinking of them as harmless.
I took the plane all by myself to America. He met me at the airport in New York. I remember thinking how disheveled he looked. He was tired. I’d been crying on the entire journey. His was a cool reception.
I remember thinking: But what of our letters? Nearly two years of letters, from Germany to America. There was so much romance. In them he said he couldn’t live without me.
The soldier apologizes, telling them he knows it’s unusual to pick up a complete stranger—back home he would never do such a thing—but would they consider taking him along? They don’t know him from Adam, he admits, but really. He wouldn’t hurt a fly.
My mother, fluttering, is unable to say a coherent word and simply holds the car door open for him.
They introduce themselves—another awkward moment—and immediately Maike starts the VW without any trouble.
My mother tries not to look at him, and he tries not to look at my mother. The trip to Flensburg goes by incredibly fast; the old car is on wings. The whole time, Maike is the only one talking, practicing the English she’d perfected from student trips to England. My mother, on the other hand, is embarrassed by her English and thus contents herself to steal glances at the handsome soldier. Why would he think we would be afraid of him? He looks as gentle as a lamb.
They arrive at the festival by afternoon and park at a beach where musicians are busy setting up their equipment. A phonograph plays through ancient loudspeakers, Peter Alexander and his syrupy songs on eternal love; all around, young people mill about distributing fliers, talking, smoking, singing. The air is warm. The soldier at once asks my mother to follow him down farther along the beach, where they can be alone and maybe find a spot to dance. Maike laughs, a little out of jealousy, but urges my mother to go. The soldier promises to bring Maike back something to drink, a soda pop or something, whatever they drink over here in Germany. Maike grins dourly and waves them on.
My mother follows this handsome stranger along the crowded stretch of beach, where at every step, newer, flightier throngs of teen girls and boys dance and laugh and chuck the fliers to the ground. In the distance, yachts glide in and out of the harbor. Closer by, gulls dive in and out of garbage bins. Eventually the soldier finds a somewhat secluded dune—only one other couple there, lips to lips—and pulls my mother into a makeshift sort of dance.
(My mother wants to ask for a Limonade but wonders if it is the right moment. With the music playing, his eyes sparkling. This is, after all, love at first sight.)
The soldier whispers in my mother’s ear, tells her how lovely she looks, that she is the loveliest in all the land—he whispers under the drone of the loudspeakers, Peter Alexander crooning, “Ich weiss, was Dir fehlt,” and the soldier’s breath on my mother’s cheek is like a miniature fire, a roasting anticipation of love; and just when my mother thinks she can handle no more, when she feels she is about to combust with happiness, the soldier steadies her with his hands, looks her in the eye and says, All I’m doing is trying to find a way out.
My mother nods, not understanding.
He is, of course, talking about the army, the subject foremost on his mind, but my mother can’t really know that. She doesn’t understand most of his words, though what she has comprehended thus far has electrified her. She wants to hear more—no one has ever before told her that she was the loveliest of them all. Ich weiss, was Dir fehlt—my mother swoons to the music and to the eyes of the handsome soldier and suddenly loses track of the world—of Maike, of Flensburg, of Heikendorf, of Mutti. She wants to be a fairy tale for the rest of her life.
He whispers again, I need a way out. That’s all I’m fighting for.
And my mother gazes dreamily into the eyes of this glorious stranger and sings along with the song on the loudspeaker: I know what you are missing.
You have to remember. This was the fifties. Someone once said the word orgasm in Mutti’s presence and she went berserk. This, after having nine pregnancies.
Bob took me from the airport to a hotel in Brooklyn, a true fleabag hotel. My first impression of America. When I pulled back the sheets, bedbugs scurried everywhere. He left immediately for work, and I was alone. The subway was next to our window. Everywhere you heard women and children screaming. We stayed for a week. I was so lonely, I didn’t dare venture out. I cried every day out of loneliness. Soon I told him: we can’t live like this.
We went to his mother’s apartment in Brooklyn, which was stuffed with furniture and roaches. She was married to Bill, a drunken philanderer. After the births of my first three children, in 1962, 1963, and 1965, Bill always found a way to tell Bob that their skin was too light, that I must have had an affair. And Bob actually asked me whether that was true.
But when could I have found the time for an affair?
After I arrived in America I was immediately pregnant. It was taken for granted that we would have a family, though at first Bob didn’t want to get married. He wanted to live together and raise children. He didn’t consider marriage necessary, but I insisted.
So. 1961. We rented an apartment on Avenue I. Roaches everywhere. We had nothing, no furniture. Bob controlled all the money, and what he liked to do, for fun, to keep me from crying, was go for long drives. I always wanted to stop somewhere and walk. But he never stopped.
Mutti’s letters came all the time. I was so unhappy, I couldn’t speak the language, I had no one besides him. And he didn’t want to hear about Mutti. All that was left behind.
Going back to Germany was no longer an option. I told myself, I did this to myself, I have to stick it out. I had fought for my freedom so ferociously. There was no turning back. You have to understand. There really was no choice back then.
I had given up opportunities—the Pädagogische Hochschule, the chance I would be a teacher like Maike. Having my own money. I was totally dependent on him, for everything. It was just like being in Germany with Mutti.
One day Bob said to me, “It’s time for you to go to work.”
“What do you mean?” I asked. “I have a home now, I can do whatever I want.”
That’s how I had always imagined it. That was what was always told to me: marriage, home, and children.
But soon Bob took me to fill out an application as a nurse’s aide.
Dancing barefoot in the sand, my mother and father concentrate on the lovely racket of their own breathing. Would they know, as evening slowly came on, and as the wind picked up heft across the water, and as some of the ships furled their sails in the purple dusk—would they know that I was not far away, following their every step?
Before my mother left Germany, Mutti had warned her: if you ever have children, we won’t acknowledge them. By “we” she meant herself, and my mother’s brothers, and my mother’s father who, though not directly in the picture, nearly died when he learned that his favorite daughter had run away to be with a black man.
After my mother became a mother, Mutti would send endless reel-to-reel tapes to the apartment in Brooklyn and then to the house on Long Island. Every inch of her voice burst with the hard nails of her tears. Mutti would narrate her suffering in great detail, how there was nothing left for Mutti to live for, how my mother had destroyed the hopes of the entire family. What had she worked all her life for, she wailed into the tape, if all she got in return was a selfish, selfish daughter?
Would my parents know I was there already, on that day in Flensburg, looking back toward the future?
That first year, before you were born, was the worst.
Eighteen years later, in a mall parking lot in Massapequa, Long Island, in the middle of a pitiful afternoon, I’m supposed to be in love.
I’m sitting in the front seat of Rob Richman’s souped-up Chevy, listening to his boyish tears, feeling guilt sweat from my skin. Rob is spoiled, self-indulgent; but I can no sooner walk away from him than I can fly to the moon. In his most urgent voice he tells me that he wants a baby, that he wants us to marry, that he can’t live without me. He does not apologize for punching me in the ribs just the day before, in front of my mother’s house, the one she bought after her divorce. He does not say he’s sorry because today is different from yesterday, and with Rob, the wisdom has always been: don’t look back.
I’m supposed to be in love; indeed, everyone thinks I should love him, especially a few of the popular girls at school who’ve never taken an interest in me until now. How often do you get a guy who is clearly so crazy about you that he’ll follow your every move? I wish I could be loved like that, one of them (until recently an arch enemy) tells me as we sit in the library, flipping through college guides.
And Rob does follow me: throughout the hallways at high school, to the library, to the door of my best friend’s house. To orchestra rehearsal, to concerts, to classes. To parties, to practice rooms, to corners where I think I’m alone. There he is, in love. The only choice I have is to reciprocate.
And until this afternoon, I have done a good enough job. But today, something made me jump in his car, the way I usually do after every single school day, rain or shine, and borrow his wisdom. Right in his face I announce that I’m leaving and not looking back.
Because until this afternoon, it doesn’t seem to matter much that his parents hate me. A month or two before this, his father politely let me in their house, led me to the closed door of Rob’s bedroom, and then quietly ordered Rob to “get this nigger the hell out of here.”
Until this afternoon it doesn’t seem to matter much that I know that Rob’s own mother has stood crying every day at her cash register at the Grand Union Supermarket, bemoaning the fate of her beloved boy, the straight-B student. To her everything has always been plain as day. A girl like Carolyn? With a German mother, no less! What else could she be after but a home and a husband?
I will use him, she believes. I will get pregnant and ruin his name.
I am trouble, his father tells him. That’s what their kind is like.
Now all that is moot because I’m leaving and never looking back.
The rest of the afternoon is spent driving in circles around the shopping mall parking lot, where Rob continues to cry and beg and wheedle; he attempts to crash into a huge trash bin, but he loves his souped-up car too much to actually carry out such a threat. After an hour he drives over to Marjorie Post Park in Massapequa, the place where all the indiscreet high school couples make out. He puts his arms around my neck and wails. He tells me his parents never loved him, that they never expected anything great from him. Sadly, his older brother Mike is the success. Married at twenty, with a child on the way at twenty-one, and a scholarship to Nassau Community College in hand, Mike is his parents’ golden dream.
Rob grabs me by the shoulders. Why can’t you expect something from me?
A little while later he drives me back to my old neighborhood, to the house where I lived for fourteen years with my parents and siblings. I barely recognize the place. We could move back here, Rob suggests timidly. The house and lawn are neatly manicured but shabby all the same. Someone has told me that since we moved out two years ago, it has been burglarized five times. This neighborhood, full of black people who stand at their curtains and watch for the next thing, frightens Rob to death.
He takes off for the other side of town, the white part. At the gates of Amity Beach, early evening stars pave the sky like brilliant bricks. I would be the best husband, I promise. I’d never make you cry.
I roll down the window and stick out my head in the chill air. I swear I can hear the sound of laughter somewhere far away.
You can go to the community college. We can go together. Why do you need to go away to college?
He knows I won’t wait for him. The college I have chosen is an hour away from here, in Rob’s words a “sleepaway” college; he knows I won’t look back. I won’t visit, I won’t write. I won’t dream of his fairy tales, the future he imagines for us. When he suggests, as he does that afternoon at the beach, that we move in with his parents and give our love time, I almost vomit.
Rob will not stop his tears—he expects them to get the job done, despite my stony face, despite the fact that I have opened my door and am already out on the sand. This whole afternoon isn’t what he has bargained for. People at school tell Rob he resembles John Travolta from Saturday Night Fever, and he loves hearing that. He loves hearing he is a catch, that he would be voted Most Attractive Male if it weren’t for all those black fool boys who turn the teachers’ heads. He loves worshiping me until I can’t take it anymore, me, his first dark-skinned girlfriend. On days when he isn’t crying, Rob plays drums and smokes pot and lines his bedroom walls—much to his mother’s chagrin—with Playboy centerfolds.
You don’t love me! You’ve always used me! My parents were right!
He is the first white boy I have ever dated.
A man and a woman walking nearby stop and stare at us, perhaps taken aback by the screaming. Don’t go, please don’t go! I’ll kill myself if you go!
But I do move on, closer to the water’s edge, where I look up once more at the clouds drifting across the brickway of stars. I can just make out the studded silhouettes of my parents as they touch each other’s hair with their hands. A gentle gesture, one that will rarely come again.
Rob comes charging after me, not caring if this couple will try and stop him. But they do nothing but stare. A baby would make everything all right! Why don’t you love me?
Once I begged Bob for a pair of nail scissors, then another time a tube of sunburn cream. We had gone to Coney Island and I was so burnt. I was homesick. But nothing. He refused to buy me those things. It took months before my personal effects were shipped—via boat—from Germany. Mostly books, some clothes. I read Goethe when I wasn’t crying.
For a few weeks after that day, I will not know how to leave Rob. Eventually June rolls around; and on my graduation day I see him, to my great shame, standing in the bleachers on the school lawn, cheering me on. My teachers have pretty much given up on me—this in spite of the fact that I’ve been accepted to Sarah Lawrence College on a full scholarship. They see how Rob tails me. They notice my textbooks scarred with his name in every corner.
But when my teachers ask, I don’t talk about Rob. I tell them I am planning on becoming a writer, that I’ve dreamt of becoming a writer since I was a little girl, when my mother handed me a brown marbled notebook and told me to put my poems in it.
In reality, it would take that evening, and another boy—a tall, muscular thug who crashes my best friend’s graduation party—to finally drive Rob away. At the party, this thug will get a little drunk and hurl insults at Rob; and later on, he will dispose of my boyfriend in a good old-fashioned black boy–white boy fistfight. My best friend’s father (who has been on the phone with his mistress and has gotten sick of our interruptions) eventually comes outside from the basement bar and kicks the three of us out.
Rob walks to a local Carvel, where he calls his mother to pick him up. The next time I see him is in the middle of a later night, when the police are called to escort him from my mother’s house, where he is weeping on the steps.
But for now, I am saved. As I drive the thug home, he kisses me on the neck; I am now his. He doesn’t cry or wheedle. He simply states the facts in that kiss. He fought for me. I should be his. It is only fair.
Luckily the thug is not interested in marrying or having babies. There are places you can go, he will whisper in my ear, as we sit on the couch in the den of his house and listen to his parents scream in drunken rages. His fingers will twirl the lock of hair just behind my ear. If I gave you a baby, you wouldn’t have to keep it.
In the background, oblivious to everything else, his parents travel up and down the stairs, throwing glasses, bottles, car keys at each other, cursing the day they ever met. His mother has just lost her job of eighteen years at Grumman Aerospace, where she worked as a secretary. His father’s landscaping business flourishes, despite his nonstop boozing.
But the thug’s fingers will remain in that caress, his eyes will remain on me, almost until the day I leave for Sarah Lawrence. Trust me, baby. There are places you can go to get a baby taken care of. If that’s ever the case.
I worked as a nurse’s aide until I was five months pregnant. Only after David’s birth in 1965 was I finally diagnosed with severe anemia. I kept fainting with each pregnancy and was told I was simply tired. One doctor told me everyone fainted, that I was not special.
At the hospital, I met doctors who hated me. One of them, from Poland originally, called me a Nazi. He got the other doctors to dislike me as well.
I stayed on, working with a kind nurse, a woman from the West Indies, Mrs. Henry. She helped me because I still couldn’t speak the language well. When I got home, I gave all my earnings to Bob. He then gave me $10 a week for expenses. Food. Clothing. Medicine.
Bob moved us out to Long Island after the roaches became too much. They were actually crawling in your crib at Avenue I.
We got the house in spring of 1963. The real estate agent told me, “This development is just for colored people.” But the house was like a dream come true.
Even though I had no money for plants, I found seeds, and started a garden.
I had one baby after the other. I had to rise each morning to make him breakfast at 4 o’clock. Even when I came home from the hospital with a baby. Breakfast at 4 was just one of my jobs.
On North Ronald Drive I was the only mother who stayed home. Mostly the other women on the block—all black women—were nice to me. But they all had jobs and they needed a babysitter. I would say yes, and then some would leave their kids with me for days. They took advantage, but they were never mean.
Sometimes I would get a note in the mailbox—“You think you’re so special.” People would lose their houses in the blink of an eye. But many of them saw me as lucky, because Bob was the provider. And not everyone on the block was married.
Once a relative of Bob’s came out from the projects in Brooklyn and called me “Cinderella.”
But if you had to name my story, it would have to be called, “No Choices.”
Everyone could have one. Every cheerleader, every homecoming queen, every honor student, every plain old average girl. All you had to do was look in the phone book. The 1977 yellow pages of Suffolk or Nassau County—it was all the same. If you didn’t look in the phone book—if you were too country to do so, or too poor to know better, or so utterly uneducated that you actually believed you should keep the baby, then that was your own damn fault.
But everyone had an escape hatch. Everyone had an opportunity. This is what made us different from our mothers. We could escape a lifetime of bitterness just by lying on a doctor’s table in the space of a lonely gray afternoon.
Three children in bottles. Three children in diapers. I used to go into the bedroom and cry. Bob would come in—”What’s the matter?”
I would say I didn’t know, then I would say, “I need a break!”
“From what? You don’t do anything around here.”
All around me women went to work. I wanted to as well, and soon filled out an application at a local factory. They wouldn’t hire me because of my language.
A friend from back in Brooklyn once asked me, “Why don’t you get a tubal ligation?” But I had no idea what that was. One of the neighbor women on Long Island advised me to use a douche after sex. That way I could stop the babies. But I was afraid to try.
Things changed when my fourth baby was born in 1969. Bob got sick with the mumps and had to leave work. We had no money for a while. Then he took me to the local community college and signed me up. I didn’t even know my own social security number. But in 1971, I went back to school. And that was my real beginning of my emancipation.
My mother and my father didn’t notice Maike approach them on the sand. The light was nearly gone. They both sat up and giggled, completely giddy. My mother’s dress was ruined with wrinkles. There was not a trace of lipstick on her lips.
Maike worried about making it back home that night. They could not afford a hotel. And what of this GI? After she was so nice to him, a perfect stranger? He hadn’t even bothered to buy her a Limonade.
Time to go, she whispered to her sister, turning in the direction of the car.
One professor raved over the first essay I handed in. I’d written it about my brother Uwe, who’d just died in an equestrian accident. The professor told me I was such a good writer. I couldn’t believe my ears!
Though he had put me in school, Bob made sure to tell me: You can’t make it without me. He was beginning to have regrets.
But then. I got a 100 in Anatomy Lab, and a 98 in Physiology.
It was so hard for me. I would put the last baby on my bed with a lot of toys and close the door. Then I would open the dictionary and write words down. It was so hard for me, the education. But I would go to bed at night and think about formulas in chemistry.
I remembered Mrs. Henry. How I used to admire her. But becoming a nurse was like a dream to me back then.
I was realizing how you grow when you get schooling. I thought: my God! The world is opening up!
It’s not that I didn’t enjoy having my babies. I did. But I suddenly saw myself as a nurse.
There is nothing like emancipation.
Another eighteen years go by. I am driving my small son out to Long Island to Grandma’s backyard, where he will kiss her many times and read many books in her lap and sing along to all the German songs she remembers from her childhood.
In another few years I bring out my new daughter to join in. By then I am a little over forty years old—twice the age my mother was when she first had me. I am a writer, a professor of creative writing at my alma mater, and married—happily—to someone I’d met in graduate school.
What if my parents had seen me back then? What if they could’ve heard me cry out, like some sort of heady savior? If I’d reached my arms towards the stars where they most certainly sat, and shook them hard? What then?
The children help grandma tend her garden; this is her day off from the hospital, where she works full time in the ICU. She has worked as a nurse for more than twenty years, and now dreams of teaching nursing to others. She has even gone back to school to earn credits toward a bachelor’s degree, though the grandchildren are taking up more and more of her time.
Ben gets a small patch to call his own, a circular area of earth around the sour cherry tree where he and Grandma plant a few petunias. Later, he helps his baby sister Karina slide down an old plastic slide to get into the wading pool, where they both shed the morning dirt in water that cascades over the edge and into the grass.
And even later, after lunch and baths and early pajamas, my mother takes out her book of German children’s songs and points to the pictures and begins to sing, the kids curled up in her lap on the chaise longue. And there is no sweeter sound, no sweeter picture—but all I want to do is interrupt her. I want to ask my mother if she remembers that large cherry tree in Mutti’s backyard. I once climbed it when I was visiting Mutti for the summer. I remember experiencing the worst stomachache after a day in its limbs, indulging in the fruit, attempting to talk to the crows that were eyeing me from the gooseberry bushes. The tree was a true majesty, looking out over rooftops at the Baltic Sea, at the very beach where Mutti used to make the girls swim every morning before school, rain or shine.
She believed it would build character. She believed it would save them from something she refused to define in terms the girls would truly grasp. Women just needed to be saved, she would say. Not only from men, but from the world. Leave it at that. (To which her daughters would laugh and call their mother hopelessly old-fashioned.)
But what did that laughter matter? Mutti brought her daughters out to the rolling surf each morning before school and ordered them to swim in and out at least two times. Despite their complaints, their constant begging to be allowed back home, to sleep in, just this once.
She was so terribly old-fashioned, the girls moaned, stepping into the icy water. Why didn’t she listen to them, why didn’t she forget the past, why didn’t she just let them live their lives—just this once