We opened our Pandora’s box. Unlike the myth, we locked pictures inside it to shelter us from whatever might sap of those frozen moments. Did we do that? We became aware of them decades after the photographer that had shot them, with one of those big analogical machines, had gone back to dust. As we let them enter our minds, we added more information to faces, settings, and we ended up muddled in fear and laughter. Laughter for the moments of sharing and love that shielded us from damaging scenes; fear for the shadows that hovered over us throughout childhood and adolescence. Murkiness brought back thunder when we peeked into that coffer of nightmares that had maimed our hearts.
Pictures can shroud feelings and thoughts we dread to unveil. There are knots to untangle, as we strive to straighten them up like the yarn with which Oma used to darn socks and sweaters. While Tante Ingeborg compared our imposed distress to Sisyphus’ continuous rolling up the same large stone to the top of a hill, Oma replied, “Ich bin müde! Es ist unmöglich…Das Meer ist aufgeregt!”
In those days, it was hard to connect the guy condemned to push up a boulder—the aufgeregt sea, with the people out of whom we had slicked into the world. They incorporated our scenario as a recollection of representations of other landscapes regardless of the hurt they yielded. The puzzle lacked pieces.
Uncle Marteen bought a Hasselblad. Grandfather examined it with the eyes of a specialist as if machines were his responsibility.
Uncle Marteen’s new toy accompanied him to family events, especially Tante Inge’s birthday. We—two small girls in new dresses Granny had sewn at night and a baby sister in an outfit the Other Grandma had knit—with the scent of flowers and fresh leaves flowing through our golden heads, were content because we were together. Oma, our Grandma’s mother, in a new blue dress, held us tight for that haunting picture.
We lived in different houses, one of which we did not call home. The oldest sister lived with her Grandma, whom her heart called Mom; the middle one lived with our biological mother; the little one, with the Other Grandmother (mother’s mother). Those in their grannies’ homes were happy, while the frightened one, in the middle, dreamed of the day she could move to Grandma’s house. While the oldest felt loved, her sister did not know the meaning of tenderness in her cold surroundings.
From time to time we got together in the oasis of Grandma’s green garden, filled with seasonal aromas of grapes, figs, tangerines, papayas, peaches, hydrangeas, sweet peas, rose bushes, red geraniums, carnations, parsley, shallots, and marjoram.
It was Tante Ingeborg ‘s 45th birthday. Party whiffs imparted from Uncle Marteen’s records of that day: vanilla pods, strawberry Jell-O, lemon soda pop, a layer cake called Frankfurter Krantz, coconut pudding swimming in black prune sauce, and tiny sandwiches with country cheese and bologna, topped with little slices of cucumbers. They composed a symphony with the perfumes of the adults—lavender, Mitsouko, L’Origan, L’Aimant, and Palmolive soap.
Uncle Maarten would not be in his wife’ s next birthday. His remarkable contraption closed its eyes with him. Opa Lud blamed his son-in-law for the untimely exit, “Ach, Marteen was dickköpfig und Sehr Bammelich to have the doctor open his guts ” or to “let the knife do the job.”
Uncle would not allow Dr. Franz Rolf to perform the stomach surgery he needed. Eventually, he consented to it. However, he had already lost his battle with pain and hemorrhages. They took him to the emergency room of the local hospital, but most of his blood had already drained away. The catcher of our treasured moments had departed. As we did not see him go, for many years, we believed he was convalescing in the mountains of Saint Francisco.
In one of those snapshots, our baby sister smiles on Oma’s lap unaware she would go away eighteen years later. Although we have witnessed each second of her quiet exit, she still lives in us. These images revive gatherings in which people and events coil amidst the woven yarn we try to spin together.
Our lives continued after Uncle’ s last picture. When that party was over, we went to our separate houses. One day, however, as we got back from school, they told us that the Other Grandmother had left for Heavens. Tante Ingeborg tried to explain—though the brief news about that had served our immediate needs—that our deceased grandmother had just gone straight from the operating table, under anesthesia, to the skies. These words thumped in our heads, and years later, we linked those strange words, anesthesia and operating table, to The Departure. The repetition of these elements brought us to the foggy threshold of a mystery: our loved ones would be safe until such pair of words entered their lives.
We did not attend mother’s mother wake. We did not know her, but for occasional formal visits. She had been six feet tall and wore size 11 shoes; had curly dark hair; was very fair skinned and blue eyed. She loved cooking, and one of her favorite menus was a stuffed roasted chicken garnished with spätzle (a homemade pasta unevenly sliced), followed by a warm Apfel tache with vanillesoße.
From the information we had about her, she loved to knit gloves, socks, and dresses, especially, to our baby sister whom she had raised from the day she had entered this life. We ignore the details of how, why, and when mother handed this baby down to her mother’s arms and heart.
It might seem awkward, but we—except for the sister who lived with her—felt an inexplicable joy, because from that moment on we would have two houses, instead of three. We would be closer to each other: two would stay with the mother, and one would stay home with Grandmother. Besides, we would have more weekends and fun together.
Years later, we ended up together, sharing the comforts and warmth of Grandmother’s home, with Grandpa, Tante Ingeborg, and with remembrances that recover seasonings of events that had cherished our childhood.
The Bible stood on our bedroom shelves as a sentinel. Adults used to quote some of its passages, according to the situation at hand. They used to modify its verses to make them even more resolute. It was not so much what they quoted, but how they did it, with the solemnity of their voices, which opened up our minds to those words. Those sentences from the Book, in their views, constituted a tool for our education: they would keep us in a straight line—in Tante Ingeborg’s words—with respect, good manners, virtue, thoughtfulness, forgiveness, and gratitude. She explained to us the importance of kind words and good deeds with the awe-inspiring nouns she had borrowed from the Book. It became, at the same time, a source of solace and fear.
At Sunday school, we listened to stories and parables. We dreamed of becoming a Good Samaritan, a parable in which a Samaritan felt compassion for a victim of robbers and treated his wounds. Our God was everywhere and was able to see and hear whatever we did or said, so we prayed for mercy for possible misbehavings. Was it wrong to frighten chickens inside their coop? How about hiding Tante Inge’s reading glasses, when she was taking her after lunch nap? We sensed that sneaking in the pantry to seep condensed milk from a can would qualify as a misdeed. Residues of our linkages with what established the great divide between right and wrong contributed to the dark clouds that still linger over our existence.
Those stories come back to us. A particular sound or a tone of voice, the shadows of trees drawing pictures on the sidewalk, a curtain billowing from a window pane on a late afternoon, a distinct perfume only we can feel bring them back. These perceptions revitalize remembrances and a faded mental image is enough to take us to those radiant or foul events.
Illustration by Mausilinda