Over the River and Through the Woods #WeDon’tTalkAboutThat

Just over a year ago I wrote about a play we had seen at the Chemainus Festival Theatre entitled “A Pretty Girl”.about a family torn apart just prior to World War 2. This past weekend we went to another of the Chemainus Theatre’s excellent productions. This one, “Over the River and Through the Woods”, is described on the theatre’s web page as a Family Comedy with the following outline:

Over the River

Over the River and Through the Woods

Meet Nick – a single Italian-American from New Jersey – and both sets of his meddling grandparents over a series of Sunday dinners, as they try to sort out his love life and their destiny through pasta and wise-cracks. This heartwarming and hilarious family comedy plays with old world values, new family traditions and the differences between the generations. Tengo famiglia!

It is indeed hilarious. It was so funny that I would love to return and hear some of the lines that were drowned out by audience laughter. The play also has a poignant ending which caused me to reminisce on my own transitions in life. Nick in the play wants to take up a promotion offered to him on the other side of the country. Despite the fact that both sets of his grandparents emigrated from Italy to the USA to seek a better life they cannot comprehend Nick’s desire to separate from them in order to fulfill his own dreams in a different part of the same country.

Oh, how I wish I could have left my home in East Germany because of a desire to find a better life. Instead I was obliged to flee before finding myself and my family subjected to the Communist regime’s brutal bureaucracy. I escaped to the west without any job prospects, without knowing what life had in store for me, without knowing if I would ever see my parents again. As it transpired I was fortunate. I did find employment and I did see may parents and other family members a number of times before they died.

Granny

Granny

In the Chemainus production there is a moment at the end when Nick implores his last surviving widowed grandmother to join him and his new wife and expected baby in Seattle but she refuses. This scene brought tears to my eyes because it reminded me of my own Granny when we were evicted from our house in Stresow for the second time and she refused to accompany my mother and her four granddaughters. Had she reached the end of her tether? Did she know that at her age she might not survive the long trek on the road to nowhere? Did she just want to lay down and die after all the suffering to which she had been subjected and had witnessed? Would we ever, ever, see her again? You will find the answer to those questions when reading my book “We Don’t Talk About That”

Book Reading Today #WeDontTalkAboutThat

Another pleasant evening with 23 people this time at the Nanaimo North Library for a book reading with some interesting questions and discussion. One lady bought a copy yesterday and read the whole book overnight in order to be informed when she came to the book reading today – another case of “could not put it down”! So many people wondering when the next part of my life will be revealed. Many thanks to Stephen Warren and Darby Love from VIRL who helped to make this event possible.

Granny’s Hands #WeDon’tTalkAboutThat

Durer handsMy treat for you today is reading a chapter from my memoir. It’s one of the many memories of my childhood.

Granny went to church every Sunday and her praying hands left an indelible imprint in my soul. She had grown up speaking mainly Low German and often had trouble pronouncing some words in High German. My parents wanted us to grow up with High German, preparing us for a better education. Granny tried hard to please her son, my father. I once listened to one exchange between her and Dad:

“Mother, – it is not ‘Gesus’, – it is ‘Jesus’.”

“Erich, you told me to speak High German to the children, and then the ‘j’ is pronounced ‘g’ like in ‘go’ and not as it would be in Low German ‘jo’.”

“In that case you are right, Mother. But ‘Jesus” is a name and it needs to be pronounced ‘Jesus’ and not ‘Gesus’. Would you say ‘Gohanna’ to Johanna, would you?”

“Oh, now I understand. I’ll remember not to speak to the children of ‘Gesus’ anymore.”


Many children had the measles and I got them too. My eyes hurt and I was very sick. I felt lousy, alone and sad, forgotten by everyone. The room was dark with the shutters closed. As the sunlight came through the slanted openings, I imagined it as long, silent fingers playing with the bits of silver and specks of brown in the dark blue wallpaper. I could even imagine faces in the shadows caused by the lilac trees outside – here and there a ship, and there was the good Lord himself on a cloud with some angels around Him. He had friendly, old eyes but He wiggled a finger at me attached to a long, sinewy hand. I was not afraid but just kept on looking at the imagery. The hand was white with a touch of pink and I could almost see through it. It was a beautiful hand.

The hand was cool and soft. I felt it on my forehead. It helped my eyes not to hurt so much but I did not want to open them, I wanted to feel those cool fingers. Was I an angel now, like those behind Him? It did not matter. I felt suspended between being and not being, I was floating. Please God, just a little longer….

Was it this plea or was it the voice coming from a distance, “She has quite a high temperature and she is delirious….”

All of a sudden, I was back in my bed, the perspiration trickling into my ears, which hurt, too. The long fingers and the streaks of sunlight were gone. There were no faces, no ships, no God, no angels on the wall, just that dark blue wallpaper with bits of silver and specks of brown. This used to be my father’s room. My bed was a black ebony sleigh bed. My father had told me proudly that it was his before he got married.

I opened my eyes just a bit and looked right into Granny’s wrinkled face. Her one hand was on my forehead and she took my hand in her other one.

“Did you have a nice dream, my girl? You smiled and you looked so happy.”

I just nodded – thinking she would laugh at me if I told her of the things I had seen. I felt that she belonged to Christel. She always hugged her, cuddled her, held her on her lap, stroked her wavy hair, and comforted her when she was crying. I was only allowed to just sit beside her, close enough, but never on her lap. She never stroked my hair.

Tears were stinging my eyes. I closed them again. Granny’s hand felt so good on my forehead and I wished she would not take it away. I thought of how beautiful her hands were, even though they were wrinkly or maybe because they were wrinkly. Her face was beautiful and wrinkly too. Often I had looked at her, wanting her to hug me so badly that it hurt. My mother did not hug me either, nor did my father. There was just a handshake and a light formal, “Good Night” kiss – nothing else. But I could not let anybody know or show how much I wanted to hug or be hugged – only babies did that. I was a big kid now, a kid ready to go to school. Maybe it was good to be sick. I could feel the hand on my head and it felt so good. I did not want it to stop.

“I want to look like Granny when I am a grandmother,” I decided.

My ears got worse and Dad had to go to pick up the doctor from the city. It was a good thing that he still had the motorbike. Granny had to put special drops into my ears at frequent intervals. The drops felt cool and tickled as they ran down into my ear canals. I asked where Mom was. Granny explained that she was not allowed to come close to me because I was contagious. Mom had never had the measles and when grownups get them, they could die. She also explained that the measles were dangerous for a new baby. Which new baby I thought but was too tired to ask.

“Don’t worry,” she said, “your mother often stands at the door and looks at you. She hopes you will get well soon.”

During my whole childhood, I had recurring ear infections and my ears are still very sensitive. Noise hurts, even drives me to tears, and I cannot stand windy days without a cover.

Time for me to take a look at this world

Big expectation for my entrance: The heir has to be a boy. The first born is expected to be a boy. The names of my Great Grandfather and my Grandfather, “Friedrich Wilhelm” frightened me and I decided instead to be a girl. At least they picked a name I liked and there was no other girl called “Gisela” in my village. I liked the shortened version even better and listened when someone called “Gila” or “Gillala”.

Gisela summer 1935

A new pram just for me

Siegfried, Lisa and baby Gila

My father’s youngest sister Lisa, who became my “big sis” and baby sitter and one year older cousin Siegfried, my second love, after Dad.

Lisa & Gisela

Maybe this was the reason I always liked geese, alive or crisp out of the oven (we never had turkey!)

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When I was one year old they shaved all my nearly black hair off. Superstition was that I would get really beautiful new hair

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Surprise! I became a blond girl. Do blonds really have more fun?

Charming village life

WWI Memorial and behind it was the pub.

WWI Memorial and behind it was the pub.

During my early life I thought we were quite well off or even rich. After all, there was that box with billions of Marks in a corner of our attic.

We lived like peasants in medieval times, compared to village life today. My feelings must have been triggered by the love and protection our parents gave us, – we never wanted for anything, except perhaps candies, cake or cookies every day, these were just for Sundays. But, we did not know better. We accepted life the way it was. We did not know that water could come out of a faucet on the wall instead of going to the pump outside. We did not know what it would be like to have constant warm water without starting a fire and heating a kettle.

A view over the Stresow Lake where I almost drowned

A view over the Stresow Lake where I almost drowned

We did not know what a toilet within the house would be like because our outhouse had a box under the seat that “things” just fell into. We played tag, we played hide and seek, we skipped rope, we played hopscotch, we played ball against the house wall in a certain sequence with different movements, we played with marbles (the glass ones were very special and were traded carefully), we played with a spinning top and we rolled and ran behind a hoop with a stick. We were kids, in the truest sense of the word. No radio, TV, no texting, no electronics. During winter evenings our parents had more time; it was a time of storytelling, sing-alongs, and board games.

The approximately one-thousand people in our village all lived a similar life. Sunday Church was a time for meeting and talking to the others; the male folks would go to the pub; the women would go and water the flowers on the graves of the dearly departed. There they would chat, and exchange the latest gossip. The big time politics in the cities would not affect this laid-back life. Nobody was divorced and nobody lived “in sin” or had affairs. We also had our “village idiot”. That is a term not acceptable today either, – just as all those other activities have no place in our society anymore. I dare to say all the Stresow families were happy, just like we were.

Breaking News

A lucky escape

Our sister Edith sometime after he supposed drowning

Our sister Edith sometime after her supposed drowning

Here is a piece of my family history of which I was totally unaware until after I had written “We Don’t Talk About That”.

Edith is my youngest sister and was the baby that barely survived our trek on the road to nowhere. She recently celebrated her 70th birthday and when I spoke to her on that occasion I mentioned the fact that my book had just been published. In that conversation she asked if I had included the story of her drowning. This was the first I had ever heard of this tragedy.

My sister Christel escaped from East Germany after me in 1956. As was required by the authorities she surrendered her East German passport pending issuance of a West German one. During this interval she received first a telegram, then a letter, stating that “Edith has drowned, come home immediately”. Without travel documents she was in no position to “go home” but was, quite naturally, most upset to learn of our youngest sister’s demise.

Shortly thereafter my father who was, by now, allowed to leave East Germany because if he failed to return it would be one less pension to be paid went to visit Christel in Hamburg. Christel met him at the train station dressed in black as she was in mourning for Edith. Father asked why on earth she was dressed all in black whereupon she burst into tears and said it was because of Edith’s death. Father was astounded to learn of his youngest daughter’s drowning since he had, only that morning, left her at home. Christel explained about the telegram and showed him the letter. He was able to recognize the writing as that of a neighbour living in the attic suite above my parents’ home and it became evident that this neighbour was a Stasi agent.

The telegram and letter had been a ruse to try to get Christel to return home where she would have faced 30 years imprisonment for having defected to the west. What a lucky escape she had. Why have I never heard about this before? Is this another instance of “We Don’t Talk About That”?

My Family Tree

Family Tree - Mother, Father and four daughters

Family Tree – Mother, Father and four daughters

On purpose I just put the last four generations in this “tree” in order to avoid difficulties in looking at it when reading my book “We Don’t Talk About That”. I hope it will help you to place a particular person within the story. I could have gone further back – or forward for that matter. Going “back” does not add anything of interest now and going forward comes in the sequel of which you can read an excerpt at the end of my present book.

Weddings of Three Sisters

Erich and Elsbeth married in April 1932

My parents - Elsbeth and Erich

My parents – Elsbeth and Erich

It was a difficult courtship because Elsbeth was promised to another man by her father and Erich was simply not good enough. She did not give in to her parents and finally their wedding day came. Erich was teased about his inability to give his wife expensive gifts… and it came to the point when they got up and left the wedding party.

Johanna and Robert married in March 1933

Aunt Johanna and Robert S wedding

Aunt Johanna and Robert S wedding

Robert was welcomed into the family with open arms because, unlike Erich, he came from a wealthy family. He could give his wife a horse if he wanted too while Erich could only afford a whip.

Emmi and Erich L. married in 1929 (?)

Aunt Emmi and Erich L wedding

Aunt Emmi and Erich L wedding

Looking at this wedding photo one would think of rather a different party – certainly not a wedding. Notice the black dress of the bride? She was not allowed to wear “white” because she was pregnant. Her Erich was also “just a tradesman”, maybe pregnancy was her way of getting her own way.

Meet the Players

My Mother’s Family

Grandma and Grandpa

Grandma and Grandpa

Grandmother and Grandfather – my mother’s parents were a very unlikely couple. He was stern, introverted, always sat thinking in his beloved pergola, his chin on the cane he held in his hands. The pergola was attached to the very old city wall that ran through his gardens. Whenever we visited, always on Sundays, that’s where he could be found. Grandma would send us to say “hi” to him, but he never smiled, just looked at us. The pergola was totally covered with green climbers. I remember the sun shining through the leaves and as a child with an active imagination I often thought he was some kind of a saint because of the sun giving him a halo.

Grandmother on the other hand was outgoing. She cooked the best jam I ever tasted. I loved it with a passion. Black currants and plums cooked for a long time. She knew that it was the only thing I wanted when visiting. When the rest of the guests had coffee and cake I would get her home baked bread with this jam! My mouth would start to water before we even left home. She always served it with a big smile to me and stroked my hair. That was as far as expressions or gestures of love ever went.

Grandma with 3 of her daughters, Emmi, Johanna and Elsbeth

Grandma with 3 of her daughters, Emmi, Johanna and Elsbeth

I do not have a photo of all Grandma’s children, my aunts and the only uncle. In this photo taken sometime in the early 1940’s we have my mother Elsbeth (right) with her sisters Johanna (centre) and Emmi (left). The youngest sister Elisabeth (the princess) was always off somewhere and Carl made himself scarce by finding work in the barns.

Chapter 2 continued

Paternal family continued

My father, Erich (left) with his younger brother Curt

My father, Erich (left) with his younger brother Curt

The first photo is of the two brothers, my father Erich and his younger brother Curt. I especially placed it because I wanted you to see it. It is one of the photos I rescued from the manure pile. The Russians had emptied our big silver bowl containing all the family photos on that unlikely place. It is one of the very few photos that exist of our family before the end of WWII. Of all the ones I rescued, this is in the worst shape. No, we did not have it restored for sentimental reasons.

Paternal Grandmother with her five children. Left to right in rear: Curt, Lisa and Erich. Irene on Granny's right and Gertrud (Tutti) on her left.

Paternal Grandmother with her five children. Left to right in rear: Curt, Lisa and Erich. Irene on Granny’s right and Gertrud (Tutti) on her left.

The second photo shows my Granny with all her living children – but taken about eight years after the war. I have none from the time before 1945.

Stay tuned for one more to complete my paternal family