When you grow up with a German grandmother, certain things are canon.
Certain things are absolute, compulsory. There are universal experiences of a German grandchildhood that link so many of us in a complicated daisy chain across space and time: holiday cookies. Hiding an ornament shaped like a pickle on the Christmas tree. Church, specifically Lutheran church. Being early. Raggedy Ann dolls and Hummel figurines and Black Russians and, at the foundation of it all, resilience. Grit.
Masking weakness like a secret, like a ray of shame; hiding the evidence, so that some of us with German grandmothers also have German Great-Aunts, Tante Gretels or Tante Irmas, women who could not hide the mental illness that so often descends through matriarchal lines; women who were kept at home, shrouded from the public, the proverbial skeletons in the attic with TNT lodged in their DNA and self-harm scars on their wrists.
German grandmothers are a breed unto themselves, and a thorough dissection of European History in the Post-WWI era could probably explain why. However, I can only speak to my own experiences, and, thus, I can speak only of my own German grandmother and my memories of her.
She was imposing, and strict. She came to all of our birthday parties and ballet recitals. She hosted annual Christmas Eve dinner and was the one to insist on homemade ice cream every year on the Fourth of July. Things, for her, were done like so, done only the way they were done, and nothing else would do.
Children, in her mind, should be respectful, and proper; also inconspicuous and rather benign. And, thus, the expectations for her children were set, and then for her grandchildren, and then – can you believe it? – she still found most of us lacking. My grandmother was very, very opinionated. She was very, very smart.
To be incredibly honest… she was also kind of a bitch.
My grandmother died peacefully in her sleep in 2010 at the age of 87. A few months prior, she and I spoke on the phone for the first time in several years, our silence due to a student-loan-repayment-related falling-out during the recession of 2008.
At my 2009 wedding, she brought an ornate card in which she had typed… via typewriter… Congratulations. Your present is the $5,000 student loan I paid off after you defaulted and ruined my credit score. This, to be clear, was on the heels of asking my mother, You… really… don’t mind that he’s Jewish? upon learning of my engagement.
In the period after her death, I was just grateful to have mended the bridge in time, in order to speak to her one last time; to tell her I loved her and always had.
However, as time passed, as I grew older and the grief grew older and I had children and they grew older, I’ve often wished that our final terms had been different. I’ve wished I had more time to learn from her the many things I know she could have shown me. I’ve wished I had left her with a better impression of the adult and human being I am turning out to be.
Mostly, I want endless hours to sit and talk and question and reminisce, because one thing German grandmothers also seem to have in common is absolutely incredible backstories. This is yet another link in the chain that binds together all German grandmothers and the impressionable generations that follow them.
And in this, I’m certain, my German Grandmother was so much cooler than yours. Even if she was totally a bitch.
My grandmother was born in a mountain range called the Hohen Tatra, located in what was once Czechoslovakia. She was born into an ethnonational group of Germans living in Moravia, fallout from WWI and the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Without German citizenship and without any land, this group was officially “stateless.” My grandmother grew up there on a farm, and let me tell you how often I heard growing up that she was helping with daily farm chores by the age of five.
This was that nebulous period of time between WWI and WWII, a time when Hitler was rising to prominence, a time when the entire region was rife with tension. My grandmother mentioned once, only once, that Hitler was massively popular during his ascension to power, before the drugs and STDs and sheer madness made themselves known. He was John Lennon during the British Invasion; he was Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential election.
She told my mother once, only once, about the time Hitler kissed her.
She was a young girl, and Hitler was holding massive rallies as his popularity grew. In those days, each little mountain province had its own regional dress, little girls draped in colourful dirndls based on ethnicity and geography. When a rally was held close to Hohen Tatra, my grandmother, traditionally dressed, eagerly attended the event.
Hitler, in an attempt to illustrate the German unity about which he spoke so fervently, drew together an array of young girls, a rainbow of dirndls, representatives of each little town, the broad expanse of Moravia symbolised by these adolescent objects.
Hitler rallied, Hitler was venerated, and then Hitler gave a kiss on the cheek to each of the girls on the stage, including, I’m assuming you’ve guessed by now, my grandmother, who had been selected to represent her region for the rising political star.
I wonder what that felt like, after the fact.
My grandmother attended the University of Prague, where she earned a teaching degree. This was wartime, and the area that was once Czechoslovakia was directly impacted by everything that involves – shortages, bombing, terror, Nazis. No one felt safe. She got a job with the Red Cross, working with children, living despite the world dissolving into entropy around her.
I heard once, only once, about the day she almost died.
She was at a rail station with a class of students, headed to a field trip. Then there was the ferocious roar of planes, and bombs falling, and explosions and fire. She hid the children under boxcars, lying with them in the dirt, praying to her Lutheran God that she would not have to hold a child’s lifeless body that day.
Lying there in the dirt, smoke in her lungs, adrenaline in her blood, she probably never imagined she would go on to create my mother, who would go on to create me; she probably never thought she’d need to discipline a child or encourage their growth or soothe their fears or support their dreams.
My grandmother was strict and stoic and not very loving, but maybe she is to be forgiven for that. Maybe she lost the ability, that day lying in the dirt, to truly parent her children, to nurture their emotional selves as well as their growing bodies; maybe she switched into survival mode and never left it.
Maybe that’s where my mother learned it.
She met my grandfather, a Polish Catholic, in the mid-1940s in Austria. She was 23; he was 30. They were both working in an office building in Salzburg, a nondescript structure surrounded by identical nondescript structures with a quaint courtyard and fountain right in the middle.
My grandparents used to lunch at this fountain during their courtship; they would meet to flirt, and to share fruit, and to smile at one another while butterflies filled their stomachs and dopamine flooded their nervous systems. It was at this fountain that they became engaged.
Have you seen The Sound of Music? If you have, you’ve seen the fountain of which I speak. It is the one around which Fraulein Maria and the children dance while singing Do Re Mi, laughing and filled with joy.
I’ve never been there, myself.
It was probably at this fountain that my grandmother told my future grandfather the problem. My great-grandparents, you see, didn’t want their daughter to marry a man who was a Catholic. They were German, Luther-loving, Original Sin-proclaiming, quietly anti-Semitic Lutherans, and a Catholic just would not do.
For so many, in this time after Hitler went mad and so many were suffering, it would have been understandable if that had been the end; if my future grandfather had accepted the inevitable and gone on to marry another woman and I would, then, by the rules of evolutionary biology, never have been born at all.
But he didn’t. He converted to Lutheranism, a formal process that must have been Herculean while he recovered from military service.
My grandfather had been a prisoner of war, festering in a cell, surviving only because of his proclivity for language; he would translate for the guards the myriad of tongues spoken by the other prisoners, obtaining cigarettes of thanks from his more generous captors and trading them for anything he needed to stay alive.
Thousand-yard stare aside, he managed to come back, and get a job, and meet my grandmother, and fall in love. And, after all the emotional energy that must have taken, he then completely changed his entire spiritual ethos, the foundation of his faith, for the woman he loved.
They were married in June of 1947; that same year, they received sponsorship from a cousin in the United States to emigrate. Like so many before and following them, they came through Ellis Island. My grandmother taught herself English from the television; they acquired a home and children and the American Dream, because there was still an American Dream to be had. And they lived together that way for 50 years.
I like to imagine what coming to America was like for them, that first view of the Statue of Liberty, water splashing, sun shining, salt in the air and in their teeth.
It must have like being reborn; it must have felt like a second chance.
I got an ancestry.com account a few years back. Well, to be honest, I signed up for the free trial and cancelled before I was charged. But, in that month, I dug up a lot. And the most significant thing I found was the Alien Passenger Manifest for the S.S. Marine Flasher, departing Bremen on September 22, 1947, arriving in New York on October 2, 1947. It was the ship my grandparents took from Europe to American, and right there, plain as day, history in real-time, were my grandparents’ names.
My grandfather’s Nationality is listed as “Polish” in thick, dark ink next to his name. However, with the creation of Czechoslovakia in 1918, the German ethnonational group of which my grandmother was a part ceased to exist; she was “stateless,” and that’s exactly what is listed next to her name on the manifest.
My grandmother had already died by the time I found this information. Seeing it hit me almost as hard as hearing she had died, for some reason. It made her real again, I think; it made her life something almost tangible, resurrecting her voice and accent and laugh for me the second my brain began to process what I was seeing.
I learned a lot about my grandmother in the years after her death. I learned so much, put together so many stories and anecdotes, that it completely reshaped my view of her as a person. Instead of the boredom I used to feel at her endless Sunday dinners, instead of the existential pain a child feels when forced to sit still, instead of irritation with being corrected and cultured and criticised, I felt respect; I felt awe.
My grandmother lived the sort of life they make made-for-TV movies about, and I’m a bit ashamed that I did not realise this until after her death. I’m also grateful for every second I spent with her, and the memories of Christmas cookies and ballet recital flowers make me smile even now, so many years later.
So I know you might have your own grandmother, and she might be German, and she might have had a mind-blowing story of her own. But I guarantee my German grandmother was even cooler.
About The Author
Shannon Frost Greenstein resides in Philadelphia with her children, soulmate, and cats. She is a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee, a Contributing Editor for Barren Magazine, and a former Ph.D. candidate in Continental Philosophy. Shannon served as writer-in-residence for the Sundress Academy for the Arts and was selected as a NASA social media intern for an official launch from Cape Canaveral. Her work has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, X-R-A-Y Lit Mag, Cabinet of Heed, Spelk Fiction, Scary Mommy, and elsewhere. Follow her at shannonfrostgreenstein.com or on Twitter at @mrsgreenstein. She comes up when you Google her.
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