Monday, March 26, 2007


My Grandmother – 1901-1988

As I dug my spoon into the spruce tip honey this morning, the image of my grandmother appeared. I don’t see why; she never made spruce tip honey, nor did she use it. She used fir needle foam bath, which had a similar, if more intense fragrance, but never spruce tip honey.

A conversation I had with a woman who had recently lost her grandmother came to mind. She shared how much this loss hurt her, since she had loved no one in her life more than her grandmother. Her grandmother lived in another country, on another continent, half across the globe, and my friend was unable to attend the funeral.

I remembered my own grandmother’s death, faintly, vaguely, because my memories of her alive were so much more potent. In her final years, she had become experiment-happy with potions and spirits, the liquid kind, and made quite a spectacle of herself one afternoon, when my mother came by to bring her dinner.  She found my grandmother in her robe, her long but thin salt and pepper hair flowing around her shoulders, slightly incoherent and with her teeth half in and half out. My mother knew her mother had not become senile over night, so she looked for clues around Grandma’s apartment. She found several bottles of popular life elixirs in the kitchen and asked my grandmother about them. Grandma was all innocence. She had mixed the life enhancing potions from our pharmacy with a quarter cup of red wine and an egg yolk, convinced that this would enable her to become a fit centenarian. She had collected a number of recipes and advertisements from the tabloid magazines she liked to read after my grandfather passed away. With him, the necessity to be a “Gnädige Frau”, an honorable dame of German society, had gone and she rarely wore her collection of “Gnädige Frau” hats.

When my mother told me about Grandma’s latest feat, I thought she was a riot. She was the sweetest old woman, and I loved her dearly.

When I was about six, I stayed with her and my grandfather at their new home not too far from ours. They had moved to be closer to their daughter, because their married son was a concert organist and music professor, who traveled and entertained a lot, and was deemed unfit to burden with their presence other than courtesy visits or family reunions. Their second son, a forever bachelor with a secret girlfriend, was probably too rebellious, even then, for them to feel comfortable with and rely on. He also did not drive, and they did like to be driven around. Neither of my grandparents learned to drive a car.

During my stay, my grandmother took me to the local grocery store, a twenty minute walk from their home. It was a quaint little store, with fresh meats and vegetables, fresh milk and eggs from local farmers, but also cosmetic items such as Q-tips, which were all the rage back then, in the early seventies. I actually remember my grandmother wrapping toilet tissue around a hairpin to clean her ears for years, before she, too, succumbed to the sensible sensitivity of a Q-tip.

The story had a candy isle as well. Round containers, both glass and plastic, held black licorice snails, white marshmallow mice, gummy candy, hard candy and chocolate in different shapes and form. One tub held what looked like hundreds of flat chocolate Santas in tinfoil, which Grandma called Stanniol Papier. I took one, and slipped it into the pocket of my coat. I remember thinking “you have to pull it out at the cashier, then she can’t say no”, but another thought slowly took over. Why even mention it? But I had been taught by my parents and grandparents, and been taught better. The chocolate Santa burned a hole in my pocket and as soon as we came home, I looked for ways to get rid of the evidence. My grandma hung her coat and offered to hand mine as well, but I walked down the stairs to the basement and clutched the chocolate Santa in my hand, telling her I was cold and wanted to keep my coat on. She let me be and started moving to the kitchen, but then she must have heard the crackling sound of tinfoil, because she darted back out and looked down to the bottom of the stairs that led nowhere but to the locked door of the basement. I quickly stuffed the nude chocolate Santa in my mouth and almost choked. I had no idea how nimble Grandma could be, but she was beside me in an instant, grabbing the tinfoil out of my hand and making me spit out the chocolate. She was clearly shocked to see I had stolen this Nikolaus, but she did not make a big fuss about it.
“You can keep your coat on; we’re going back to the store”.
“But I can’t give it back now, it’s ruined,” was all I could get out of my sticky, gooey mouth. 
“We’ll have to tell, and pay for it,” was all she said. This time, she did not hold my hand tenderly, as she always did, in church, on walks, at night by my bedside, she held my forearm tightly and pulled me faster than even she could walk.
Back at the store, she made me confess to the owner, a lady who up till now had been very friendly and sweet. She was very stern when she looked at me, and still stern when she said “I’m sure you just forgot to pay for it”. I nodded and told her I was sorry.

When I went back with my grandmother a few days later, the owner acted like nothing had happened. So did my grandmother, by the way, and I appreciate that she never told my grandfather. It was an important lesson for me, both in humiliation and shame, and in absolution and forgiveness. I will never forget the minutes that felt like hours when I was marched back to the store, having to confess. Needless to say, I never stole anything ever again in my life.

My grandmother nevertheless made no secret of the fact that I was the favorite grandchild. Both she and my grandfather enjoyed having me visit. My grandfather took me for long walks, always scouting out deer and wildlife of the area. My grandmother cooked my favorite meals every day I was there. I think love equals feeding someone in my family; my mother followed in her mother’s footsteps, and I in hers.
Sometimes she made Sauerbraten, a beef roast marinated in vinegar, allspice, bay leaves, pepper and juniper berries for at least three days, and then cooked so tenderly that the meat fell apart when served. She cooked potato dumplings with this, and red cabbage. My favorite dessert at the time was “Kräbbelchen”, something we might liken to doughnuts today, although it was much more delicious. She prepared choux pastry, formed little dumplings and cooked them in hot oil for a few minutes, then rolled them in sugar. When I think of them now, my gallbladder hurts, but as a child I was in heaven when she made them.

When my parents went to Greece for their first vacation in forever, my grandparents agreed to live with and take care of us for four weeks. My two brothers and I must have driven them nuts, but they took it in stride. From stories told later on I know that they both mellowed out considerably in life’s last trimester. Back then, in the early seventies, they already seemed so much nicer, more relaxed than our parents.

One day we played house in our bedroom. We took it to an extreme that put an end to all house play indoors. After dividing the room in three sections –the sleeping area, the living and eating area, and the washing area- we schlepped a bucket of water from the bathroom across a long hall way to our bedroom. This was supposed to be our “outhouse”. We crafted a divider, a blanket stretched from a bed post over a hat stand, not really fastened but at least partially secured with heavy volumes of Grimm’s Fairy Tales and other literary treasures that were holding the blanket in place. We then also used this outhouse diligently; however, we had to “flush” with water that we hauled again from the bathroom, and our privy bucket soon came close to overflowing. While this is already a fairly repugnant visual, imagine our efforts of schlepping the full-to-the-rim bucket across the long hallway (haul-way?) back to the bathroom in order to empty it in the toilet. If this is nauseating, expand this visual a bit to the accompanying sounds – of water splashing on the linoleum floor of our hallway. We lost water so often, and so much, that our grandmother called down to us from the living room upstairs to ask if we were ok. She thought we were slapping one another! After each of us had had a turn in hauling the bucket from one room to another, my little brother slipped and fell, which brought Grandma down the stairs immediately. We finished playing house very realistically that evening by cleaning up our mess just like big people, and with a permanent and irrevocable Verbot of ever playing with water in the house again. For the rest of my grandparents’ stay we played outside.

I think I was six when my father’s father died. Grandpa Eduard had a wooden leg from the war, and he lived with us, but I did not feel close to him, nor did he spend much time with us other than family meals. When my parents took him to the hospital six days before he passed away, I remember thinking he might not come back. A few days later I asked my father about Opa Eduard, and my father just smiled and said “Opa Eduard will go with the Lord Jesus soon, but he said that he regrets not being able to hug his grandchild Kirsten one last time”. I did not understand. Why didn’t my father take me to the hospital to grant Opa’s last wish? We did not discuss it further and I trusted that my father had made this decision from a heart full of kindness and love for both his dad and me. When I heard that Opa had died, I wondered what would happen to his wooden leg. “No, you can’t keep it,” explained my mother.

I went into the room he had lived in for all those years, and I did not come across anything magical or fascinating. A few weeks after the funeral, my parents told me I was old enough to have my own room, and they moved me upstairs into Opa Eduard’s old room.

There was no felt grieving process for me or my brothers after Opa Eduard’s passing; after all, we still had our maternal grandparents who were closer to us despite living half an hour away.

Things were different four years later, when my mother’s father suddenly fell ill and died within a couple of weeks.

I was with my best friend, at her house, playing some silly make-believe games, when her mother came upstairs and told me that Grandpa had passed now. We giggled, because we knew we were expected to cry, and we both did not know what else to feel. At the funeral three days later, the adults seemed matter-of-fact, detached from the whole scene, but at the same time they went through the motions of condolences, hugs, and black attire.

No one started crying until we were assembled around his grave. Many of the women started to sob softly and I felt that I should cry as well. After all, I had loved my grandfather tremendously and crying would show just how much he meant to me. But no tear wanted to fill my eyes, and I was embarrassed that I could not even cry knowing he’d never again take me for walks to the Hochofen, never again take me out to see deer, and never again sit at the harmonium playing Bach for my edification. I resolved to start sobbing softly. If it didn’t come naturally, then I would have to pretend, because after all, he was my favorite grandfather.

Soon I had sobbed myself into such a frenzy, that my godmother, a fashionable platinum blonde with too much make-up to this day, squeezed my arm too tightly and harshly told me to pull myself together. By then, real tears were streaming down my face and I couldn’t have stopped them if I had wanted to. I don’t remember much comfort from anyone then, except my girlfriend’s mother, who hugged me gently and told me that she knew how much I will miss my grandfather.

After the family reunion, which funerals were in our family, because few of our great aunts and uncles were driving, I expected my grandmother to unite with the husband of a recently deceased lady with whom my grandparents had enjoyed to socialize once in a while. Her answer was quick and curt: “I loved your grandfather too much to do that”.  I just meant well; after all, shortly after my grandfather’s passing, unknown powers started harassing my grandmother with increasing frequency. We suspected that whoever was calling and ringing her bell late at night wanted to scare her into selling the house. I think she held out for almost a year, but things got worse and my parents, along with my mother’s two brothers and their respective partners, convinced Grandma that she’d be better off in a condo or duplex closer to our home.

Once she moved, I visited her often, but not always with altruistic motives. My grandmother was a very generous person and would slip any of us money for the tiniest little favor we did her. I went shopping for her and she always gave me a lot more money than I needed, but she insisted I keep the change. She encouraged me to not only buy the items on her shopping list, but get anything for myself that I wanted. I think I gained a lot of weight during those years, because my grandmother had a fridge and a hutch full of treats. Often I just sat in her living room watching TV. She said she did not mind, as long as I’d rub her back with a special back ache ointment before I left. Maybe it felt less lonely, having me there like my grandfather years ago, sitting in another room watching TV, but I feel guilty to this day for not spending more quality time with her, for not talking more to her while she was still around.

When I learned how to drive, I took her places, sometimes to the city, sometimes to the doctor’s, sometimes to meet with old friends or relatives that lived further away. I am amazed that she got in the car with me; I still see her pretty little hand with the round and short fingernails clutching the door handle at times, the same hand that had held mine so often when I was little and we were both in the back seat of my parent’s car.

My grandmother had been a widow for over ten years, had loyally supported me during my school years and loved me long distance in letters when I was traveling in the U.S. after graduation, and was 85 years old when I told her that I was pregnant. It seemed that she initially did not understand what I was telling her. She was old, she was my grandmother, and I did not know what to expect when I told her, but I knew that I would have to tell her gently, and feed the news to her in small doses.

I don’t know why I felt that she was too old to really care about my not getting married, and about the father of my child being an African-American soldier. Was I making an ass out of u and me by assuming that she’d have my back, regardless? She had been the ever-giving, ever-loving picture book grandmother in my perception. Also, I was so happy to be pregnant despite the circumstances that I expected her to be happy with me, or for me.

On one of my subsequent visits I interrupted her writing a letter to an old acquaintance in Wattenscheid, where she had lived with my grandfather and their three children after fleeing from post-WWII Weimar. I faintly recalled the name of the lady she was writing to as the wife of one of my grandfather’s colleagues at the city whose finances he controlled. The letter was in draft form, on graph paper and expressed how shocked she was to learn that I was pregnant by a Black man who was an American soldier.

I stopped reading; I should have never sneaked a peak at this very private piece of writing in the first place, but I did, and it told me that there is a side to my grandmother that I did not know, and never would know.

Should I ask her why she never told me that my news shocked her? Should I ask what shocked her most, the premarital sex, the illegitimate pregnancy, the father’s ethnicity, the fact that I had crossed a racial boundary? I held back, feeling guilty once again for reading her words.

Her answers I will never know.

After my grandmother peacefully passed away as great-grandmother of my nine month old son, I told my mother about this letter and asked her whether my grandmother had ever confided in her how she really felt. My mother then revealed that my grandmother herself had been conceived illegitimately, and that she had felt shame about this throughout her life. She had been so grateful to my grandfather for marrying her nonetheless, and for treating her with what she received as honor, dignity, and respect.

Shocked she might have been about my news, but only in light of her own life’s story, maintained my mother.

“Don’t dwell on the letter so much. Remember how she held the baby for just a few minutes, maybe ten minutes, and then went on to tell the world that she held that baby in her arm for 45 minutes total, and that he smiled at her all the time?”

That I remember, and the Kräbbelchen, and her smile, and the Tosca perfume she used on special days, when 4711 cologne was too harsh and straightforward, and her soft hands, and the fir needle foam bath, and the long hair she rolled up into a bun every morning, and so many of her stories from her world-war-one childhood and her world-war-two defiance, where she reportedly refused the outstretched arm for a Heil Hitler by keeping it in a sling as if injured, all the while having one of her children on the other arm. My grandmother never romanticized those dark days of the past, but she instilled in me the deep faith in perseverance and resilience.
While I still don’t know why I suddenly remembered her this morning, as I scooped my partially crystallized, partially liquid spruce tip honey out of the jar into my coffee, I feel grateful for the memory, the memories connected to her, and appreciation for having had my maternal grandmother around for 22 years of my life.


facts: Martha Schneider, geb. Krajewski, Geb. 24.3.1901
Geburtsort: keine Ahnung;
Wohnhaft in Weimar, spaeter Wattenscheid, dann Obersdorf/Roetgen bei Siegen, zum Schluss Wahlbach, bei Gontermans in der Stöckerstrasse. Viele Geschwister, im Krieg vermisst ist Onkel Heini; andere Onkel und Tanten sind Hanna, Amalie (Malchen), Gertrud (Diakonisse), Onkel Willi/Tante Elli (weiss nicht mehr, wie die zusammen gehoeren und wer BruderSchwester ist).