“Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.”
Prologue— Getting to the truth of a sixty-year old story requires me to assemble a series of moments rather than craft a traditional narrative that would move from problem to resolution. I researched my life without having my deceased parents as a source, reconstructing my migration story from my mother’s letters home, photographs, and my brother’s memories. The result is a series of moments—”a string of pearls.”
And so it begins . . .
The adults laughed louder as the martinis and sun settled. Children played, confident there would be enough food and fun to go around day after day, wherever they might be. There were gifts of champagne, a silver chafing dish and cigarette lighter. The ship-shaped cake we’d consume after the ham-with-pineapple-slices, the Jello mold, and the green bean casserole.
I was five years old, my brother eleven, when my father excused us from the great American dining table to move to Wiesbaden, Germany, a country the Allies had defeated in WWII, its land mass the spoils of war, divided into east and west, rebuilding but endangered still. Our ship would depart the day after Thanksgiving, from New York Harbor. It was 1960. John F. Kennedy had just been elected—a dark time for my Republican parents. They would leave the USA in the hands of an upstart Democrat.
Our move only fifteen years after the end of WWII was a blatant act of upward mobility. My father was to be the first USA salesman, marketing Wilson Sporting Goods to the United States Air Force in Europe, where officers played golf and tennis on base, biding time while waiting for a Soviet invasion. “This will be a great adventure!” my father said. I imagine his salesmanship to my mother, promises of exotic travels and (someday) a fully equipped kitchen with one of those newfangled electric dishwashers.
A photo on the tarmac of the SS United States shows my mother wearing an A-line skirt and pumps, a tailored coat, and a pillbox hat on her chestnut hair. Her lips are a Revlon-red with fingernails to match. She has put on her face.
The ship rolled and pitched in the wintry Atlantic. Overstuffed chairs in the library slid across the room. Seasickness was epidemic; many tables in the dining room vacant. Waiters poured pitchers of water on white tablecloths, preventing dishes from sliding and crashing to the floor. I did not yet understand how much my mother disliked boats.
There were twenty suitcases and a steamer trunk. It was dark on the train ride from Bremerhaven to Wiesbaden. Mom would have recalled WWII newsreels, the ones in which Nazi soldiers transported Jewish citizens to concentration camps through these same train stations. I remember Mom’s tears on that train, the first I had seen since our migration began.
My father soon began his travels across Europe, confident that his wife could navigate Wiesbaden in a VW beetle, to schools and markets, with two children, while using the guttural language. There were a few glitches. In her effort to enroll me in a German kindergarten, Mom stopped at a kinderheim. The nun’s wimple bobbled as she shook her head, “Nein! Nein!” We had knocked on the door of an orphanage.
We were civilians. No privileges. No commissary. No English. Ich kann nicht verstehen. I cannot understand.
Eine Kleine Weinbergstraße. One small vineyard street. Our first home was in a mansion turned into apartments. The home had once been home to the Prince of Hesse. High ceilings swallowed our kitchen table. Out front was a crumbling statue of a centaur playing a flute. Out back was a rock garden without the garden, and dog kennels without the dogs.
The sink is the thing I remember—porcelain, hand-painted with roses, smaller than a china washbowl, big enough for two hands. Hard to imagine a macho Hessian prince washing his hands in this tiny bowl, so out of place in this once-grand mansion.
My mother learned Berlitz German. My father hired a translator and a salesman, a former Nazi. How could it be otherwise? My father brought the Nazi home for dinner.
Parcels from the States arrived. Each contained our tangible yearnings for home— baked beans, corn, pineapple, peaches and pumpkin, jars of peanut butter, and cigarettes for my mother. We posed for photos, holding these items aloft if they were trophies.
Mom wrote on tissue-thin sky-blue airmail stationery:
Dear Jeri—I seem to have my share of trouble with the Politzei (sic). They love their authority anyhow so anytime you signal wrong, they’re after you. I went right past one yesterday when I should have stopped and that didn’t make such a hit, but I just say, “Ich Kann nicht verstehen” and look stupid, which isn’t hard, and so far I’ve missed being put in a concentration camp.
Dear Jeri—Of course, with the Berlin Situation the way it is, it’s hard to tell where I’ll be by Christmas. . . Jim wouldn’t come [back to the US] and we’d be leaving so much here. . . I put a can of peanuts in the evacuation box, and Jim said he’d die of thirst, but I was only thinking of ways to make him happy in case of disaster. After the German election on September 17, I’m afraid things will boil up again . . . . Have another beer, Priscilla.
Mom arranged weekly beer delivery. Dad preferred martinis, vodka, very dry, no-fruit.
Back home in the states, American children hid under their desks, practicing duck-and-cover. Adults built bomb shelters. On August 13, 1961—one-month shy of my sixth birthday, the Soviets closed the border in Berlin, between east and west. The Democrat president chose not to fight the wall. “A wall is a hell of a lot better than a [nuclear] war,”JFK said.
Otherwise, life progressed as normal. Normal. Mom put on her face each day.