“Es gibt im Leben manches Mal Momente, Wo man dies und das und jenes machen konnte.”
In life, there are a number of moments when one could do this and this and that.
My mother checks the roast in the oven, while I mix a batch of Passover rolls for my two younger children, Anna and Daniel. In the past three days, I’ve been making non-bread, non-leavened items for Passover for my kids while trying to explain to my parents why certain things are kosher and others (like corn) aren’t. It’s complicated, translating my life as a converted Jew in New York City to my Christian family here in Indiana.
While the rolls bake, I open the folder of recently discovered, thin-papered letters written between 1952 and 1955 from a strange man in the Netherlands to my grandmother that begin, “My dear Helene” and sign off with “With my kindest regards to you, Your friend, Michael.”
Their letters end there, perhaps because their relationship had no place further to go.
My grandmother grew up in Hamburg, where she met and married my American grandfather after World War I. She hardly knew this farm boy from Indiana, but ultimately decided that life in the United States would be better than remaining in Germany where a wheelbarrow full of money bought a loaf of bread. A city girl, she was completely unprepared for her new life in the three-room log cabin on a farm in Haysville, a hamlet in the rolling hills of southern Indiana. It was a world in which farmers sat in her kitchen and chewed tobacco, spitting at the spittoon and often missing. When her mother-in-law told her to “water the chickens,” Grandma understood this to mean to throw water on them. And so she did. But in time, Grandma learned English, learned to hitch the mule to the plow, to sow soybeans, shear sheep, and to make a tender roast with rich brown gravy. But my fair-skinned, city-bred grandmother, who sang in the church choir and who fed the chickens while singing “Stille Nacht” and “What a Friend We have in Jesus” in a perfect, soaring, soprano voice that trilled through the silence of summer afternoons, never liked her new life.
Walking to church on Christmas Eve in 1946, my grandfather was killed by a drunk driver, leaving Grandma widowed at the age of 44 with three children and a 120-acre farm to run. My 21 year old father, recently back from World War II, and my Uncle Robert, found my grandfather in a ditch, next to the cemetery by the parsonage. Not believing he was dead, Grandma insisted on being taken to the ditch to confirm that the man was indeed her gentle, pipe-smoking husband. She was a few years younger than I am now when she became solely responsible for her Indiana life.
The only potential suitors out on the Kellerville Road, where cows were more plentiful than men, were married and my grandmother would have none of that. The word “boyfriend” is hard to imagine in conjunction with the short, stout, white-haired woman who I knew as “Grandma.” So it comes as a shock that Grandma had inspired in this man, Michael, feelings strong enough to endure, over time and distance, and to somehow, despite everything, continue to hope.
It is the hope that gets me.
None of my family had ever known of the existence of this man, Michael, until this past spring. But the letters reveal that he had met my grandmother in 1921 in Hamburg, before my grandfather’s first trip to Germany. In 1952, when Grandma returned to Hamburg from Indiana to visit her family for the first and only time, she apparently wrote to Michael, but failed to give him the address where she was staying in Hamburg. This did not deter him. Michael’s first letter was addressed simply to “Helene Himsel, Haysville, Indiana,” and in it he wrote:
“...I try to contact you in this way and if I have success I should be very pleased if you would inform me about same...I tried to find out where I could find you and this is all I got. I hope this letter will come into your hands and I am awaiting your news. Kindest regards, Michael”
In the envelope was a card that he’d received from some German official, and on which about ten Helene Konigs were identified, only one of whom had immigrated to America. So began their correspondence.
In a letter from 1953, referring to a photograph she had sent him, he writes,
“...I must confess frankly that I would never have recognized you if we should have met. I don’t think it is astonishing because I only remember you from our time and we change during the long years. Nevertheless I often thought of you and I never forgot the earlier days. One of the things left is still a Textbuch of Mascottchen. Do you remember? When I was in Hamburg in March last year I stopped before the House Theater, thinking of Mascottchen and not having the slightest idea that you yourself were at the very moment in Germany! I enclose this Textbuch, you may keep it; do you remember the Refrains, pages 19 and 23! I have read the cutting of the paper you send me about the death of your husband in 1946. It must have been a terrible time to you, but now it is already more than six years ago and life goes on!...
Enclosed in the parchment-thin, light blue, airmail envelope is a yellowed libretto entitled Mascottchen Operette in 3 Akten, Textbuch der Gesange (Mascot operetta in 3 acts, libretto of songs), dated 1921.
When I think of Grandma, I hear her humming or singing German songs as she went about her day, picking blueberries and tending her garden and gathering eggs from the nests in the shed. She sang German songs that came from a childhood far removed from the pot-bellied, red-faced, bib-overalled men and coarse-handed, reserved women who surrounded her now. When chores were done, she would sit in the living room and listen to records on the ancient gramophone. I imagine that through music she wove her past into her present. It is this woman whom Michael knew and remembered.
On Holy Thursday in Indiana, my daughter Anna sits next to me in a pew in St. Joseph’s Church where we’ve come to watch my niece, Andrea, who is serving as the cantor. Andrea stands in front of the packed, cavernous church, her voice ethereal and sweet and true as she leads the choir and the congregation through the chants and hymns. Anna glances at me in surprise when I offer the traditional handshake to the congregants around me after the service, with the softly intoned greeting, “Peace.” My children rarely see me within a Christian context and it is undoubtedly strange, like hearing a parent speak a language that you had no idea she knew.
Anna had already told me that I am different in Indiana than in New York.
In what way? I asked her.
“In New York, you say, ‘Hey’ really abruptly when you answer the phone or see someone. But in Indiana you speak more slowly, ‘He-ey.’ And you drop the endings of your words in Indiana,” she said.
The two worlds that I inhabit surface most often in my speech. When I exclaim, “That’s for the birds!” I have to translate the idiom for my kids. Likewise, when I complain to my parents that it’s such a schlep back to New York, I offer “long haul” as a synonym.
Grandma’s two different worlds were written on her legs. I remember once, when she bent over the hoe in the garden, and her long dress rode up in the back, I thought that her legs were a map of her life’s journey: Above the knees, her legs were German-white and pale where the sun didn’t hit them, but below, they were brown and leathery from constant exposure to her new life on the farm plowing, baling hay and sowing beans.
Instead of parchment-thin letters, my correspondence with Kevin, an old boyfriend, has been conducted by e-mail. Our words are not quaint and courtly, but familiar and friendly. We have sporadically sent each other silly, sometimes ribald jokes. This time, when I made my plans to come to Indiana, I’d e-mailed him my cell phone number and told him to call me if he wanted to get together for coffee.
Two years ago, Kevin and I had sat together at our 25 year class reunion. With neither of our spouses in attendance, we strolled around and, as if we were walking the high school halls, commented privately and bitchily on who looked good, who’d lost a shocking amount of hair, who’d gained a shocking amount of weight, who had been an asshole in high school, who remained one today.
Kevin had walked me to my car. When I turned my face to him, I took in his half-smile and noted that his hair was now sprinkled with grey. For a split second, I imagined kissing him as I had decades ago, more out of curiosity and a funny kind of longing, not really sentimental exactly, but uncomfortably close to that terribly clichéd yet powerful emotion. But we’d simply leaned forward and kissed each other on the cheek and said, “G’night.”
Now, thoroughly a New Yorker, I’m having cappuccino in the new coffee place in town when my cell phone rings. Kevin’s baritone melts away the past 30 years, and I am 14 years old and living on the Portersville Road, thrilled to banter with the brown-haired, green-eyed guy who sits in front of me in homeroom. “He-ey!” I answer the phone, realizing immediately that my daughter is right. Kevin says he can’t get away to meet me for coffee and besides, his wife would be upset, and he doesn’t want that. Understood. There is something about a former relationship that is a potential Lorelei. It shouldn’t be – but might be – threatening to meet someone whom you knew when you were a giggly 14-year-old and who you sat next to in biology class learning about meiosis and mitosis.
I finish my cappuccino, order another one, and Kevin and I catch up by cell phone. When I hang up a half-hour later, I am smiling. Unlike Grandma, who was never entirely comfortable in her new world, and who perhaps second-guessed the choices she’d made, I had always been gazing over the horizon, way past the quiet cornfields and cow pastures, dreaming of being in some city that buzzed and hummed, and with a man who used proper grammar, didn’t drive a pick-up truck, and didn’t want me to help him clean the fish he’d caught. Even if I sometimes feel that, in leaving, I’ve given up the comfort of having family close by, of having the day-to-day interactions that my siblings take for granted, I’ve never regretted my choices. But talking to Kevin (who doesn’t fall into the above categories), is like holding up a mirror and reminding me of the girl I was, and still am, though changed.
As I pack up to leave the café, I find myself wondering what other people do with their private affairs. Keep them bundled up in letters? Tell them to a psychiatrist? Or keep them inside themselves, never to be revealed in their lifetimes or after, because they are pieces of themselves that they own and that they don’t need to share with anyone else? Are these the wombs they return to when they need to escape? I think about the choices Grandma made and the consequences of the choices that we all make. You move away from home, and you define yourself as someone starkly different from who you once were: a farmer’s wife and mother; an urban Jewish wife and mother.
When Michael wrote in June of 1955, my grandmother already had two grandchildren. As a grandmother who saw her seed continuing into the future, as a woman who had put down roots in this new country and who was not going to leave her American family behind, as she had 30 years before in Germany, she would have opened the letter and read, in part:
My dear Helene,
It is about your birthday, I believe, so this is a good opportunity to take up my pen and to write you after a long interval of silence...Let me begin to wish you a good birthday and many happy returns of that day. I should like to send you a little present but I do not know what I could give you. I hope you will give me a little hint about some specific wish! I miss our new year correspondence. We did not hear from each other but I hope everything is alright with you and your children. How I should like to come over and see you. I intended already too long to do it, but the trip is very expensive and that is the only trouble that prevents me to decide to go...
My kindest regards,
From their correspondence, it would appear that they did discuss visiting one another, but this reunion never took place. Grandma never returned to Hamburg, and Michael never visited Haysville. In one letter from 1953, Michael recounted a recent visit to Hamburg and wrote Grandma:
“...It all looks so far and even near, but there is one failing: you! How I lived in old times, long ago, again. I will not be sentimental, but I can say: it were happy days indeed and how much has changed after the brief encounter and in the whole world...There is a possibility of a crossing into the states – very vague. But although I hope it will succeed, I am not at all sure it will...My dear Helene, I hope to hear from you and to get good news.”
Carrying a few of my Passover rolls in a Ziploc bag, I drive my kids to my Aunt Lindy’s farm on Easter Sunday. Throughout the afternoon, my cousins and their spouses, children and various boyfriends and girlfriends fill up the kitchen, living room, basement and shed.
My son is starving – everything is breaded, certainly not kosher, and the chocolate chip cookies and puddings with cookies crumbled in them and cakes and pies look incredibly tempting to him. My aunt Lindy urges him to try her trifle, but I say no, we can’t have it, it’s Passover, and she simply says, “Oh, okay.” He eats another Passover roll and some grapes.
Daniel and Anna show me the basket of colored Easter eggs they found in their first Easter egg hunt. In early evening, the kids form two long lines facing each other in the front yard, and compete in an Easter egg toss. My kids pair up with different cousins in a never-ending toss, and emerge, laughing, with egg yolk on their jeans and shirts. The orange horizon flares beyond the fields and woods. In New York City, buildings butt up against each other, no space in between, no horizon. This broad-vistaed, crickets-chirping life is the life I might have had. A life surrounded by family who understand me, without translation.
Michael’s last letter is dated December of 1955. He writes:
My dear Helene,
It is long ago since I wrote you and since I got your last letter, but in the mean time you received the promised parcel of the bulbs. They are all tulips, 10 different sorts, that will bloom at different times.
...How are things at yours; how are the children and will you celebrate the coming Christmas days together!
I send you my best wishes for the New Year and hope you all will have a happy Xmas!
With my kindest regards,
I return to New York City and, with Passover finished, throw away all of the leftover Passover items. Laboriously, I translate the passages of the German libretto Michael referred to in his letter. He has drawn a thin, red line in ink in the margins to indicate the section.
Page 19 reads:
“In life, there are many moments where one could do this and this and that. Many men, many women are afraid, because the man is in the end indispensable....A woman of spirit – often herself doesn’t recognize, in the moment, in the moment – in the right moment.”
On page 23, the male character says:
If you are happy, my treasure, tell me! Whatever your heart wishes, I give you, because I have so much love for you, that I want to consecrate to you alone my entire being.”
To which the woman responds in like kind, but changes the final two lines to say: Small pieces – we alone – in it for a second, You and I will be too late.”
The last few years of Grandma’s life were spent in a nursing home. She suffered from dementia and didn’t recognize her children. She was practically incoherent, speaking both English and German, but we were all astonished that she could still sing entire songs in German. Compared to the belting during her chicken feeding and watering days, her voice was now a bit muted, but her notes were on pitch, and she retained a slight vibrato. She often sang “O, Tenenbaum,” perhaps an unconscious nod to my grandfather’s Christmas tree business, though at times the words of the song were incomprehensible. I like to think that my grandmother’s fixation on this song, which spoke to her of her faith and love in Jesus, was an indication of her own hopefulness.
When Grandma read through the libretto that Michael had sent, I can imagine that the words appealed to the romantic in her who watched soap operas faithfully, sighing when a couple kissed onscreen. I can imagine it brought back memories of a time when her future stretched out with limitless possibilities. I can imagine that she felt a bittersweet longing for the life she might have had, and for this man who had been, and seemed to still be, smitten by her, but who was “too late.” I can imagine her weighing up her options: go back to Germany, and bet the farm, literally, on this new life without her children, or stay in America which had become home, too, and forego the possibility of being with someone who might really understand her.
My husband and I attend his law firm’s dinner downtown. We kiss people hello, how are you, how are the kids? I whisper to my husband, “Who’s that? I can’t remember her name.” Then he whispers, “Didn’t they just have a baby?”
In the taxi home, my husband and I talk about who looks good and who has aged. Riding up Broadway, the neon lights of New York City challenge the black night and call into question the divisions we make between night and day, yesterday and tomorrow.
On Park Avenue in the spring, tulips are planted in the divide between the uptown and downtown sides of the avenue. They are Indiana-sunset-orange. They are the gold of the braided Havdalah candle that separates the Sabbath from the rest of the week, but whose braids hold both past and present together.
It is not the tug of unattainable love that pulls me in, nor even the musings of what might have been, of what we leave behind and what we take with us. No, it is the strains of an enduring love song; and the vigilantly tended Dutch tulips that blossomed in an Indiana garden that give me pause.