I stared into the murky gloom outside my kitchen window while sipping on a cup of coffee. The milky fog partially obscured the dark shapes of trees and buildings across the street, but the weather report said it was going to clear up later in the morning – another typical San Francisco day. Headlights from passing cars going up and down a steep Telegraph Hill street cast luminous beams into the haze. A lone, hunched figure shuffled along the sidewalk in front of my place, stopped for a moment as if lost, and then continued walking on into the mist.
I usually wasn’t up so early, but woke up from a rather pleasant and poignant dream and couldn’t get back to sleep. The dream was about a time in my youth when I took train trips from a Munich suburb to the city with my mother and sister. During these trips, I always sat in a window seat so I could wave goodbye to my grandmother as the train slowly pulled away from the station; except in this dream, she was the one in the train and was waving goodbye to me from an open window.
I rustled up an omelet, listened to the news on the radio, and ate at the dining room table. Soon I had a notion to take the day off work from the newspaper, especially since it was a Friday and I could wrap the day around the weekend. A minute later, I decided to do it. I’d grown to dislike working there anyway and didn’t care what my bosses thought.
After breakfast, I topped off my cup, flopped down on the easy chair, and started to plan the day. First, I’d walk up Columbus Ave to City Light Books, maybe buy a book or two there, have lunch in Chinatown, pick up the Bay Meadows Racing Form, and handicap the Saturday card in a Grant Street Coffeehouse.
In the meantime, I started reading a book but set it down after a few pages. I couldn’t help thinking about my grandmother, and now felt compelled to go down to the apartment’s storage area and open a box of childhood photos that I was meaning to put into an album. I set aside the photos from my last time in Germany and gazed at them, one by one. There was the picture of me climbing an apple tree in my grandparent’s yard, and another one where I was sitting at the dinner table next to my uncles and grandfather. I chuckled at the photo of me in the driver’s seat of my uncle’s Mercedes sedan with my hands on the steering wheel, pretending as if I was driving and with such a wild and goofy grin. And most precious of all; sitting in my grandmother’s lap as she read me a story from a big book.
Now, more memories burst forth about my grandmother – or Oma, as my sister, Aline, and I lovingly called her – and the last summer I spent in Germany when I was ten years old. The first thing I recalled were the times we all walked together along the dirt roads of the rustic Obermenzing neighborhood in the mornings, passing by old houses with spacious yards sheltered by shrubs and trees - some with chickens, roosters, goats, or pigs - until we arrived at the train station.
“Hey look, Oma!” I said, pointing up the tracks. “Here comes the train!”
“Ja Ja,” she said. “Ich sehe es.”
“Do you see it too, Mom?” I asked.
“Oh yes, there it is,” she answered.
“What’s the big deal?” Aline said. “It’s just the same old train.”
“I wish you were going with us this time,” I said to Oma.
Oma shook her head because she didn’t understand, so mother translated my words to her. Afterwards, she nodded to me with a smile.
I stared at the dark shape of the locomotive as it rounded a curve in the far distance, and couldn’t take my eyes off the single glimmering headlight. Soon, I began to feel lightheaded as the locomotive got closer, and only snapped out of it when the platform shook a little as the train shuddered to a stop.
Today we were going to the Zoo; that was going to be fun. I jumped onto the train and sat down in one of the window seats facing the platform so I could see Oma. We were off on another adventure! Even though we’d taken the same ride many times before, I always liked looking at the scenery as we passed the farms and countryside, the roads and autobahn, the villages and small towns, and then the larger towns, the outskirts of Munchen, and finally the bustling railway station. There was always something new and different to see each time.
Aline and I waved to Oma from the window, and as soon as the train started to move out, I lifted up the window and waved to her again. She waved back with that same warm smile, and with eyes that looked like they were crying. I looked back and watched her standing on the platform for as long as I could, until the train rounded a bend and she disappeared from view.
I watched Oma chop vegetables while I cracked and ate nuts on the kitchen table. As usual, she wore the same black floral dress, covered in the front with an apron, with buckled shoes and thick leg stockings. It seemed like she was always in the kitchen preparing food for the midday and evening meals; the kitchen was her kingdom. I noted the concentration on her face as she cut the carrots and potatoes and other vegetables with such precision.
“Oma, can I help?”
She looked back to me with a surprised smile. I knew she understood English a little but could barely speak it at all.
“Helfen? Sie mochten uns helfen? Selbstverständlich, kleine Bertie. Selbstverständlich.”
She handed me some already-peeled potatoes and carrots and then gave me a large knife, while saying something in German to me, only a little of which I understood. I tried to cut the first potato with the same care that she did.
That evening, we all sat in the dining room for the evening meal. As usual, my grandfather – or Opa, as Aline and I called him – sat at the head of the table. The main course was the oxtail soup full of the vegetables that I helped cut.
“Mmm sehr gut, Mutti,” Rolf remarked as he ate.
“Ja. Das Fleisch ist zart,” Wolfgang said.
“Mmm, you’re right, uncle,” Bert said. “The meat almost melts in my mouth.”
“Kleine Bertie half mir heute, Sie wissen,” Oma said
“Wirklich? Wie?” Opa asked
I remembered some German from the time I was there two summers before and was beginning to understand the language better each day. “I cut some vegetables, that’s all,” I answered.
“Good for you,” mother said.
“Probably the ugly mushy ones,” Aline retorted.
“Oh shut up. I did better than you could.”
“You two stop fighting or else no dessert for either of you,” mother said.
I listened to my uncles and Opa chat during the rest of the meal. Today, my uncles casually discussed their jobs in a bank. Other days, they talked much more animatedly about how the Bayern Munchen soccer team was doing. As they talked, I noticed my uncles and Opa soak up the last of their oxtail soup with pieces of bread, and so I did the same
“Aussehen,” Wolfgang said, as he watched me soak up the soup with my bread. “Bert ist essen wie ein Mensch, nicht ein Junge.”
“Ja, Ich bin ein Mensch!” I answered, holding both arms up to show my muscles, “nicht ein Junge!”
“Und er ist auch ein komisch!” Opa said, with a laugh.
“And smart,” Rolf said, who liked to speak English more whenever he could. “Your German is good,” he said to me.
“Nicht so gut,” I answered.
“Do you give them lessons?” Rolf asked mother.
“No, he just listens well,” she said.
“Ja, er ist sehr klug,” Opa said to Oma, “wie ihre Bruder.”
“Hast du ein Bruder?” I asked Oma.
“Ja, aber ich habe noch vier Bruder.”
“Wow, you have four brothers,” I said. “Hast du Schwesters?”
“Nein, ich habe keine Schwestern,” Oma answered.
“Oh, no sisters,” I replied. “Wo wohnst deine Bruders?”
“Drei in Stuttgart and eins in Ulm.”
“We’re going to visit her brothers in Stuttgart soon, you know,” mother said.
“Wann haben Sie sagen, wir werden sie besuchen?” mother asked Oma.
“Am nächsten Wochenende,” Oma answered.
“Next weekend? Are we going by car or train?”
“By car,” Rolf answered.
“Yay! On the autobahn!”
I was so glad to ride in Rolf’s fast Mercedes with Wolfgang on the way to Stuttgart. The rest of the family rode in Opa’s Opel sedan. We left in the morning and both cars rode together until we got on the autobahn, and then Rolf sped off and left the Opel behind. The plan was that Rolf would pick up Gerhard, one of Oma’s brothers, in Ulm and then drive to Stuttgart later in the afternoon.
Rolf had taken me on short trips on the autobahn before, so I knew he liked to drive fast. I sat in the back seat and watched with glee as Rolf passed almost every car on the autobahn. The only time he ducked into the right lane was when those funny-looking Porsches roared past us.
Around noon, we arrived in Ulm and picked up Gerhard, a distinguished-looking man with a well-trimmed white beard who walked with a cane and wore a long black coat and a round black hat. On the way to Stuttgart, Gerhard spoke in rapid German to Rolf and Wolfgang, but said nothing to me after a brief introduction.
We arrived in Stuttgart in the early afternoon, but stayed in the residential areas. Rolf maneuvered his way into a woodsy neighborhood with large and stately homes and eventually turned into a long a driveway that led to one of those homes. After he parked the car, I got out and gazed at the house in awe, which looked as big as a castle.
A butler greeted us at the door and led us through the house. All the rooms we passed had rich woodwork and high, beamed ceilings, and there were many old paintings of landscapes and portraits hanging on the walls. After we passed the busy kitchen and a room full of many books, we emerged into a spacious backyard where groups of adults and children were socializing.
Most of the men were gathered in the partially shaded patio holding large mugs of beer. Rolf and Wolfgang quickly headed toward them, leaving me by myself. The yard was interspersed with fruit trees and bordered by pruned shrubs. Aline played on a swing with two other girls. A group of women sat on a table with mother and Oma in the shade under a large tree. On the other side of the yard, three boys about my age kicked a soccer ball around. I was about to join them until I saw Oma walking, with a slight limp, towards me.
“Ah es gibt sie Bertie,” she said. “Sie können sich meine Brüder jetzt - deine grosse Onkle.”
She led me to a festive group of men. One of the men broke off his conversation when he saw Oma and me approaching.
“Auch Schwester,” the man said to Oma. “Wer ist dieser hübsche junge Mann mit ihnen?
“Das ist Albert, Doris' Sohn,” Oma answered, “aber wir nennen ihn Bert.”
“Ach ja,” the man said, with a smile to me. “So you are my nephew - no, my grand- nephew.”
“Bert, das ist Eckhard, einer von meinen Brüdern,” Oma said.
“Gutentag, Eckhard,” I said.
“Gutentag, Bert. Sprechen Sie Deutsch?”
“Nur ein bischen.”
“That is good enough,” Eckhard said, with a hearty laugh.
Just then, a few other men gathered around Eckhard.
“These are my other brothers,” Eckhard said, pointing to two men behind him, “Friedrich and Werner.”
Both of the men nodded and gazed at me with fixed grins.
“How do like Germany?” Friedrich asked.
“I like Germany very much,” I answered. “I also like this house very much too. It’s so big”
“Yes, it’s been in our family many years,” Eckhard said.
As we talked, I noticed one of the girls on the swing race across the yard and stand next to the men on the patio. She had blonde hair with long braids and stared intently at me as I spoke to my granduncles.
“Would you like to see more of the house?” Werner asked.
Friedrich then interjected something in German to Eckhard and Werner that I didn’t understand. Friedrich punctuated what he said with a wink to both of them.
Eckhard put his hand on my shoulder and led me into the house. The granduncles and others followed, including Oma. After we passed a large, open stairway that led to the upper rooms, they stopped in front of the dining hall.
“This is where we will all eat soon,” Eckhard said. “I hope you are hungry.”
“Ya”, Ich bin sehr hungrig.”
Next, we went into the library, which had a large globe in the middle of the room. Most of the books were behind beveled glass doors, and a few of them looked very old, judging by their well-worn covers. Some weaponry hung on another wall opposite the books: swords, bows, and long, sharp instruments I’d never seen before.
“Come now, Bert,” Eckhard said. “There is one more painting I want you to see.”
When we emerged from the library, I saw a few more people milling around the main room, including the girl with braids. Eckhard led us to this room, which had a huge fireplace that looked ten times bigger than the one we had in Seattle. We stopped in an alcove along the main room and in front of a large portrait of a man with dark features, a stern expression, and long sideburns that connected to his mustache.
“This is Reinhold,” Eckhart said, pointing up to the portrait. ”He’s the one who had this house built over three hundred years ago.”
“Some say this painting has magical powers,” Friedrich whispered into my ear.
“What do you mean?”
“If you stare into his eyes and walk back and forth, you might see them following you,”
“Just to some people,” Werner said. “Try walking back and forth to see.”
I stared up at the portrait and into Reinhold’s eyes. First, I walked a little to the right and then to the left; Reinhold’s eyes followed me both times. I walked a little faster across the painting, but Reinhold’s eyes followed me again, as if he was alive in the painting.
I stopped in front of the painting while staring up at Reinhold and began to feel a tingly sensation on the back of my neck. Everything else around the painting seemed to be a blur. I was barely aware of the subdued laughter of others in the room, which sounded distant and like an echo.
The spell was broken when I felt an arm on my shoulder. I looked up and saw it was Oma.
“Es ist in Ordnung, Bert. Alles ist jetzt gut,” she said.
“You’re part of the family now,” Eckhart said to me, with a smile.
The rest of the group followed Eckhart into the Dining Hall.
“It’s just a trick they play on kids,” I heard a girls voice say behind me say. I turned and saw it was the girl with braids. “They did it to me last year. My name is Gretchen.”
“Hi. My name is Bert.”
“I hear you’re from the United States,” she said
“Yeah. We’re just visiting our relatives in Munchen. Are you from the U.S. too?”
“No. My family lives in Heidelberg.”
“It’s just that you speak English so well.’
“My brother, Dieter, and I go to a school here that teaches it. Come, everyone is going to the dining hall. We can sit together and talk some more.”
The grownups all sat on the main table, while I sat in the middle of the smaller table next to Gretchen and three other boys. Aline sat with four other girls on the other side of the table.
“Dieter, this is Bert, from the United States,” she said to a boy across from them. “He’s visiting our relatives in Munchen.
“Hi, Bert,” Dieter said.
“I saw you playing soccer when I came here,” I said.
“Soccer?” Dieter asked. “Oh, we call it fussball here.”
“Football? We have another sport called football in the U.S.”
“Was sagts er?” a boy next to Dieter asked.
Dieter muttered something in German to the boy, who responded with a laugh.
“Do you play soccer, Bert?” Dieter asked.
“I play with some boys in Munchen.”
“Good. Next time you come here you can join us.”
I spent the rest of the meal talking mostly to Gretchen while the others spoke amongst themselves in German. As we all feasted on roast chicken, potato pancakes with gravy and a cabbage salad, we exchanged many little stories about what life was like in each other’s countries. I liked Gretchen. Even though she was a girl, she wasn’t too girlish.
The next morning, I sat on the kitchen table with mother and Aline eating sausages and eggs and fresh bread, thinking about the fun I had after the dinner with the other kids when we all went down to play in the large cellar of the house. To get there, we went down a long, narrow flight of stairs that ended in a large room that stored many racks of wine and barrels of beer against the wall. We also explored the dimly lit passageways that branched out from the main room, and later devised a little game of hide-and-seek. Gretchen and I hid together behind a trunk near the end of a long passageway and whispered to each other about what was in one of those locked doors behind us: ghosts, skeletons, monsters, and other scary things. Gretchen clutched my arm tightly as we whispered in the semi-darkness, and then I felt a peck on my cheek – a kiss.
I stared at her with a wide-eyed grin in the semi-darkness and kissed her back on the cheek. Afterwards, we both tried to suppress a laugh. Right after that, one of Dieter’s friends heard us and discovered our hiding place.
“What are you thinking about, Bert?” mother asked. “You’re so quiet this morning.”
“Oh, just all the fun I had here last night, especially in the basement.”
“You know, Bert,” mother said, “Werner told me after the dinner that you remind him of one of his brothers, in the way you look, and even in the way you speak and act.”
“One that is not alive anymore. His name was Herman. I remember a little about him, but not too much.”
“So Oma had another brother? What happened to him?”
“He died during the War.”
“Was he a soldier?”
“No. He worked on a newspaper. Sometimes he wrote things that certain people didn’t like so —”
She let the words hang, then went back to eating her breakfast. I noticed that she had the same troubled expression and tone of voice as when she talked about the war at other times.
“Do you think we can come here again before we leave?” I asked her after a long silence.
Both of us knew that was unlikely because it was already the middle of August and we had to fly back to the States in less than three weeks.
After breakfast, we all said goodbye to Eckhart and his brothers and headed outside toward our cars for the drive back to Munchen. I looked back to the house before I got back in the car and held my gaze on the second-floor balcony where I stood watching the sunrise over the rolling, woodsy hills surrounding the neighborhood. I wished we could’ve stayed in the house another day or two because I felt so good just being inside it. It was similar to a feeling I had in the Munchen house, but even more so. I stood there for some time and couldn’t take my eyes off of the house because I felt that if I did, something important would be lost to me forever.
“Let’s go, Bert,” Rolf said, from inside the Mercedes. “It’s a long drive back.”
Reluctantly, I got in the car and said little during the drive home, torn by confusing emotions I didn’t understand. It seemed to have something to do with what Eckhart said about being part of his family. Maybe that’s why I wanted to stay so much; we were leaving too soon!
I tried to get to sleep but my mind was on other things, mostly the fact that we were going back to the States in a few days. In a way, I looked forward to the exciting plane trip, but the strongest feelings I had were ones of disappointment and sadness because of all the new friends I was going to leave behind. Gretchen was the first girl that I really liked, and I was also going to miss Dieter and his friends too. Another was Rovie, the boy next door, who I played with the most. We explored the trails in the nearby woods, and played soccer together with the other neighborhood boys.
In fact, I was going to miss everything about Germany: the countryside and farms, the old and stately building in the city, the different kinds of cars, riding on the trains, and just the way all the people talked and acted. Germany seemed like a place that I just felt more comfortable and at home in - so much more than in Seattle. Of course, I was going to miss my uncles and Opa and Oma most of all.
I tossed and turned but still couldn’t get to sleep so I finally crept downstairs to see if anyone was still up. Wolfgang was reading a book by the fireplace and Oma sat in the other side of the room knitting something that looked like scarf.
“Bertie,” she said. “Was ist los? Kannst du nicht schlafen?”
“Hier kommen dann,” she said, patting the chair, “Ich lese Ihnen jetzt ein Buch.”
I went to a nearby shelf and pulled out a familiar book: a large hardbound collection of The Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales. It was my favorite book and she had read stories to me from it several times before.
“Welche soll ich Ihnen vorlesen am Abend?” she asked.
“Ich weiß es nicht, Oma.” A new story.
I sat down on the chair next to her and settled my head on her shoulder, soft as a pillow, after she opened the book. The pungent, musty aroma of her dress and the odor of her body seemed to transform my imagination even deeper into the book as she turned the pages. I’d seen and read many of the stories and their corresponding sketches before: The Frog Prince, Hansel and Gretel, The Enchanted Stag, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood, The Clever Elf, Rumpelstiltskin, and others. Finally, she came upon a new story that I guessed was titled: The Young Traveller.
“This one,” I said, pointing to the page.
“Ah, Der Junge Riese.”
I could only understand a few words as she read to me in German, but it almost didn’t matter. I gazed upon the sketches on each page and simply imagined what those words could be and what they meant. In a way, that was almost better than reading it in English. Soon, she finished the story and paged through a few more stories until she came upon one that had another good sketch. I pointed to it.
“Dieser?” she asked.
“Ja Oma, das ist gut.”
As she read Der Verlorene Sohn, I felt myself starting to nod off. I tried to stay awake because it felt so good being in her comforting presence and in the fantasy world of the book; however, near the end of the story I couldn’t fight it off anymore and drifted off to sleep.
I sat in his easy chair for some time thinking about this, and the other memories of my last time Germany. I walked toward my bookshelves, picked out a version of The Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales that I bought many years before, and browsed though it until I came upon the last story that Oma read to me: The Lost Son.
I set the book down and chuckled to myself with a new realization. So maybe that’s where it began; Oma reading this book to me.
When I returned to school that year, I started going to the local library a lot more. The first books I read were the ones from Robert Louis Stevenson, and then Jules Verne. In high school, I liked the stories from Mark Twain, James Fenimore Cooper, Victor Hugo and many others. In college, I developed an interest in creative writing and graduated with degrees in English Lit and Journalism.
The next Monday, I was back at work on the newspaper, banging on the typewriter as fast as I could. The piece I was rushing through was an extraction from the police blotter that came in on the wire over an hour late.
“Hey Bert!” I heard Gus shout from the other side of the office
“Pick up line four. It’s your mother from Seattle.”
“Oh Bert,” she said, in a distraught voice. “I’m sorry to call you at work, but it just couldn’t wait, and sometimes you don’t answer your home phone.”
“Is everything alright?”
“No. I just got a call from your Uncle Rolf in Germany. It’s my mother – your Oma,” she said between sobs. “She passed away.”
“Oh, no, I’m so sorry.”
“He tried to call earlier but a storm disrupted the phone service there, so I just found out about it today. It’s just that there’s no one around here in the family. I feel so alone.
“Did you call Aline?”
“Yes, she’s driving up from Portland today. That will help.”
“I’ll see if I can take a few days off to drive up there.”
“That’s very thoughtful of you but there won’t be enough time. I have to catch a flight to Germany Wednesday for the funeral later this week. Oh, this is so unexpected. I just got a letter from her earlier this month,” she said, breaking into sobs again. “Everything seemed alright with her.”
“Gosh, mother, I wish I could join you. You know, I was just thinking about her too the other day. In fact —” I was going to tell her about the dream when I felt a strange emotion begin to stir within me. “When did it happen?”
“Just last week.”
I was about to ask which day, but then it hit me; I knew exactly which day it was.