When my beautiful, German-American daughter agreed to guide me to Germany the first time I would set foot in the country, we decided to contact her former host-mother in Nuremberg. This was “the other mutti” who had befriended Gelsey on her high-school German trip. Gelsey was extremely fond of Frau T. who had made her feel entirely at home in their modern townhouse not far from the ancient city walls.
I was both eager and anxious about meeting Frau T. I had so much riding on this trip. It would be our last mother-daughter tete-a-tete, I sensed, before Gelsey headed off into her own adult life. The trip was also an offering to her for what I then perceived as my negligence in the period after I divorced from her dad. When Gelsey agreed to write Frau T., I secretly hoped that she might invite us to stay with them for a few nights. My decade as a single-mom had left me with very little extra cash; our travel budget was very tight.
After a month, however, when Frau T. had not responded, I decided to send another letter, this time written by myself. Still no answer. I began to worry that I had offended her. But shortly before we flew to Germany, a heavy embossed envelope arrived in the mail: we must cancel any hotels, she insisted, and stay with them.
Standing on the doorstep, watching as Frau T. embraced Gelsey, I was struck by how much they resembled each other, far more than Gelsey and I did. Both she and Frau T. were tall and willowy, with regular features. But Frau T.’s hair was yellow blond and cut in a spikey modern style, while Gelsey wore her ash-blond hair long and flowing. Plus, Frau T.’s eyes were turquoise: was she wearing tinted contact lenses? Gelsey’s brown eyes gave her a bit of my father’s Italian-American softness.
Almost immediately, Gelsey and Frau T. launched into German while I stood to one side, amused and enjoying their mutual appreciation. Soon, we were seated in Frau T.’s woodland living room, drinking hot, American-style coffee and biting into Niger Kuss. The name of this sweet initially sent me into a paroxsym of resistance. Surely it was a racist slur! No, no, Frau T. assured me, offering the box of domed chocolates topped with chocolate sprinkles. “In German what would not be good to say is die Schwartzen.” Then as I bit through the hard chocolate to creamy marshmallow, she offered one to Gelsey. “In France these are called Tetes du Negres,” she added, “because of the…” and she looked at Gelsey and said something in German. “Because of what you would call in English the ‘kinky’ hair.” Meaning the chocolate sprinkles just that moment dotting my blouse.
Perhaps it was this crack in our reticence that pushed me forward. As we sipped our coffee, and she asked about our travel plans, I blurted out, “When we are in Munich, we must visit Dachau, don’t you agree, Frau T.?” Then plunging ahead, afraid of offending her but also determined not to pretend the Holocaust hadn’t happened, I added, “I am part German. It is also my duty to remember what happened there.”
Frau T. drew herself up and placed her hand against her long slender neck. Suddenly I realized a long scar roughened a ragged part of her neck. What had happened to her? Was it a childhood accident? And I flashed on a girlish form, tipping over a pot of boiling water, then crumbling to the floor. With regal bearing, Frau T. regarded us with serious concern. “Yes, you must visit Dachau,” she answered. “Especially for us Germans it is a duty we dare not forget.” Then relaxing and lowering her hand, she regarded Gelsey: “You went there with the German students, nicht wahr?”
Gelsey was sunk deep in her chair. “Yes we went, and I don’t think I can do it again.”
“Oh, but we must!” I insisted. But when I saw the pained expression on her face, I realized that if I attempted it, I would have to do it alone. (To be continued)