Death, Love and German

How did I become interested in German?

I’ve never been one of those savants who have an “ear for languages” or accents, though I’ve always been able to assemble strong vocabularies. Nor do I thrill to the hard work of constant repetition and drilling.

Nonetheless, German drew me.

This started with my Oma.  My great-grandma, “Oma”, was a fixture at family gatherings for my first 10 years, and she spoke mainly in German to my Grandad, or English with a thick German accent. She was short and a little stout, somewhat sharp and brusque, with dark grey-blue eyes and a high purple wig. She and my Grandad sang “O Tannenbaum” together at Christmas while my Dad and his four younger siblings, who grew up in the Vietnam era and had disavowed their German heritage, rolled their eyes and winced, or said things like “Ok, enough Schmaltz” as my cousins and I looked on. A shy kid, I was initially frightened of my Oma, with her high purple wig and strange accent. When we visited her in assisted living, she always offered us sugar cookies or cake with coffee in fancy European teacups while my sister and I waited for the wooden cuckoo clock on her wall to strike the hour so we could see the parade of small figures dance out of its top. My uncles recall moments of neuroticism, when she wouldn’t answer the door after living in the U.S. for 60 years having emigrated in 1923 because she was afraid it was the Gestapo. Whether this was true or an exaggeration I’m not sure. What is indisputable was her love of pickled herring.

When I was 10, my parents left on a ski vacation to Europe, depositing my sister and I with my grandparents for a couple of weeks. This coincided with Oma’s final hospice days. My grandma made the executive decision without consulting my overprotective parents that I needed to say goodbye to her, and, as the eldest grandchild at 10, was the only one who was ready.  This was my first experience with death; even our increasingly cloudy-coated goldfish had been lovingly deposited while still alive in the lake of Washington Park because they had “gotten old enough” to swim freely. It would be 15 more years after my last visit to Oma before anyone else in my family or even close to me died.

By the time my grandma brought me to see my 91-year-old Oma, she had stopped eating. It was the first time I had seen her without a wig, withered and bedridden, her legs dark from lack of circulation. I don’t even know to what extent she registered me; I barely recognized her. I dutifully said goodbye as instructed by my grandma, and within a day or two she’d died.  My grandma informed me that my usually warm and gregarious grandad was deeply sad and needed to be left alone for awhile. Thus, this also became my experience with someone I loved who was in mourning, an untouchable grief.

What her death meant to me was the vanishing of a world and language I had never really even begun to understand, but one which underpinned my family history. Suddenly, rather than rooted firmly to the Colorado soil, my family seemed unmoored from something important.  I inherited my Oma’s gold Edelweiss necklace, her engagement ring, and a teacup. I learned a little about a place in Germany called East Prussia that no longer officially existed, and about Junkers, who had a bad reputation.

As I grew and learned, I was at once fascinated and repelled by the German language and history.  Across the years, I asked about and listened to what anyone remembered of German-related stories about my Oma’s and my great-grandfather’s lives and those of my paternal grandparents. War stories, love stories, travel stories, estrangement stories.

Oma had arrived in the United States in 1923, accompanied by her brother. My great grandfather, a baker from Southern Germany to whom she was engaged, had preceded her. He was a younger son who would not inherit land outside of Konstanz, in an arboreal valley with the alps rising behind it, but who had won awards for his baking. He joined or was conscripted into the German navy, which allowed him to travel the world, and it was on a navy-related tour or furlough in northern Germany that he met my Oma at some event or soiree. He emigrated to the United States without warning his family in southern Germany, and eventually sent them a postcard that he’d moved to America and gotten married. This was devastating news for his mother. He never returned to Germany, even for a visit. I’m not sure at what point after reuniting in New York my great grandparents married, but I’ve been able to find them on different passenger lists: Cuxhaven to New York, where my great-grandmother traveled under her maiden name. At some point there was a falling out with her brother, who then built his life in New York and fell out of touch. My great grandparents wound up in Chicago, where my great-grandfather became head baker at the Palmer House. They had a cat named Boots and lived among other Germans. My grandma remembers him as a sweet, kind man whose priority was to further his only child, my grandad.

In the late 1920s/early 1930s, my Oma took my 13-year old Grandad on a trip to Germany to meet his relatives. He remembered bicycling with cousins, eating pretzels with mustard, and seeing how the political situation splintered his family there into all sides of the events of the time. He never returned to Germany, though he retained contact information of the surviving relatives there on both his mother’s and father’s sides, who I was later able to resume contact with, even meeting some of the same cousins he’d known at 13 who were in their 80s when I talked with them.

It turned out that German had also importantly been the catalyst for my grandparents’ first meeting.

My Grandma, raised in Virginia, was the only female Economics major at Ohio State University after entering college at 16 or 17, where my Grandad, raised in Chicago, attended medical school. She was taking German classes and needed tutoring. My Grandad, who needed pocket money, became her tutor. While she didn’t get terribly far in her German studies – certainly not far enough to satisfy my Oma’s requirement that my Grandad have a native German or at least fluent wife – her and my Grandad’s relationship blossomed and endured. 

They moved to Chicago, where my Dad was born. My Grandad became a naval psychiatrist and was often abroad. Eventually they moved to Denver, where my Grandad set up a private practice where he deployed Freudian and other methods while my Grandma managed their 5 fairly obstreperous kids.

The effect this had on me – especially when starting to date – was to make the mere prospect of German tutelage somewhat ticklish with possibility as a personal landmark of a successful love story, issues of interpersonal chemistry, life choices and trajectory, or academic success aside.

Some of the memories and retellings of the stories of my paternal great-grandparents actually came to me through my Grandma, perhaps because she had more time to spend with me while babysitting me on occasion while my Grandad worked, and also in the years after his death when I was trying to piece more information together.  She also informed me of the stories of her side of the family, though she was inclined to be less rather than more disclosing around subjects like slavery.

It turned out that I also had German heritage on my mother’s side. Of this much less is documented. My grandpa, raised in a small Wisconsin town, grew up in poverty and was often left in the sole care of his older sister as a child. He received little education but what he did receive all took place in a 1-room schoolhouse. He was able to support his family and send my mother and her sister to college by working as a tax collector. He had a mischevious gleam and though he didn’t gamble was a talented card shark. He and my grandma taught ballroom dancing classes in their basement for fun and danced competitively. They loved Strauss and also the foxtrot. As I learned German and occasionally visited when he was in his 80s, he suddenly began to speak fluent German to me. At first, my mother, completely unaware that her father spoke German, accused me of speaking gibberish with him until I interpreted for her what he’d said. It turned out that he’d spoken German until he was 5 with parents or grandparents who came from Pommern, which I have assumed means Pomerania.

Spanish, French and sometimes Latin were offered throughout grade, middle and high school.  I skated easily through my language requirements with Spanish, with the occasional quasi-immersion family vacations afforded, not needing to work too hard to do well. It didn’t get really interesting for me until we started to read Spanish poetry and fiction, grapple with social issues like the Desaparacidos and dive into Mayan archaeology. But I had little personal context for it.

In college, topics like literature and more literature, archaeology, and others of wide-ranging interest along with requirements left little bandwidth in my college schedule to undertake a new language. But it pulled at me in the background, and I was curious about Konstanz after seeing pictures of it. And of course, what better way to rebel against my dad’s generation’s fairly blanket anti-German sentiment than by finding and forwarding some beauty in a heritage that we could then be proud of rather than embarrassed by, an idea that my concurrent experience growing into gay pride and the claiming of my lesbian identity after coming out at 18 provided a pattern for doing. My parents refused to send me to a German summer program I’d found in Konstanz, so instead of this I took an intensive German summer class in Boulder between my first two years at a liberal arts east coast college. I didn’t excel, but I passed in a humbling way, perhaps distracted by training to climb Mt. Rainier, which demanded hours on the stairmaster, or by observing the troupe of lesbian athletes in my dorm who had to take summer classes to play catch-up academically, or by the Shakespeare Festival productions, or by the stress of my deli job at the health food store. I don’t remember if I even bothered to try to transfer my credits; when the new academic year started, I didn’t at that point have the confidence in my German skills to believe I was ready to pursue it successfully at the intermediate level amid the demands of my other classes.

So I didn’t; my German interest stayed in the closet.