I sat at the foot of his old recliner, my sister on his lap and my hand crushed inside his much larger one. Ever since the stroke, which had happened before I was born, the feeling in his fingers was not very sensitive, so the force used by his clumsy, large hands was much more than my little fingers could easily bear, but, despite this, the three of us sat around the old recliner and watched Sesame Street.
We were his owls. I was his big owl and my little sister was his little owl. He would mumble it throughout anything we were watching.
“Na, kleine Eule? Ihr seid gewachsen.”
As the years passed, he started calling us that less and less. It coincided with his dementia. Slowly he forgot, first he forgot which of his children was our parent, then our given names, he never forgot our pet names though. His stories started circling in on themselves. His conversation was replaced with moans about his pain and comments that he wanted his life to be over. Even so, he always came back to his childhood memories. As the thoughts of his great-grandchildren and grandchildren slowly faded, they were replaced by recounting of his childhood, memories easier to keep after decades of studying them, running over them in his mind, clinging to those thoughts, however painful, that reminded him of his family.
He was the middle child then. He was the oldest for most of his adult life. Now only his youngest sister remains.
Herbert grew up on a farm in Prussia and, as the oldest boy, he took a lot of responsibility. He took care of the animals, milking the cows, feeding the chickens, learning at a young age how to slaughter and prepare a pig. Raised with a very German attitude of efficiency and respect, he did his duty and he did not talk back to his elders, especially his mother.
She was a strong woman, taking care of the farm and the three children, especially after his father went to war. It was a hard time in Germany, growing up during the end of World War II, but at least at the beginning of his childhood Herbert did not really notice. Life was what it was and he enjoyed working on the farm. He enjoyed the responsibility as the man of the household – an attitude that he would hold for the rest of his life.
He was thirteen years old, barely more than a child, in the late fall of the fateful year. The letter arrived while he was out in the fields and his ever-strong mother sank onto the bench in her kitchen. It creaked under her weight. She had already lost one man in her family to war. She resolved not to lose another.
By the time Herbert came into the kitchen, after having taken care of his morning’s chores, the letter was lying flat on the table; the wrinkles were all smoothed out; the only trace that remained were the tear blotches. His mother was composed, stirring the pot of soup that would be their dinner. He grabbed an apple and kissed his mother’s cheek, picking up the letter.
“You are not going.”
“What do you mean, Mama? How can I not go?”
“You are not going. That is final.”
He did not discuss it. He was a proud young man, best and strongest among his friends, but when facing his mother, there was no argument. She was always and would remain the one with the upper hand.
He walked to school that day, walking barefoot on the dirt road. Like every other morning his friend, Andreas, joined him.
“Did you get a letter too?”
They walked in silence, kicking a stone down the road in front of them.
“Your mother letting you go?”
“Neither is mine.”
When he arrived home that afternoon, the farm was in an uproar. The kitchen was warm and smelled like dough. It was stuffy, the heat packed in and held by dozens of loaves of bread. The maid was wrapping them in the linen, packing them up, first in the dishtowels, then the tablecloths. Outside the manservant was preparing a cart, hitching up their two horses to the front and tying the best producing two cows to the back. His brother and sister were already helping, loading the bread, the silver wear, and the china into the back of the wagon. They put their bed cloths on all the open surfaces, making the inside soft and warm.
“What is all this?” he asked his mother when he came inside. She waved him off and he turned to the maid.
“The Russian army is coming. They will be here soon; it is time to leave.”
That day he helped pack up the entire household, at least everything worth saving that they could fit in their one small wagon. That evening they set off. The maid returned home to her family. They had their own flight to plan, but the manservant stayed with them. That night the manservant sat on the front of the wagon with his mother, while he lay on the back, holding his brother and sister in his arms and listening to their muffled conversation.
He leaned back in his armchair, the old recliner. He had lost his train of thought, his dement mind circling around that day, not quite able to grasp onto the thoughts and the memories that meant so much to him. They went back to the silence between him and his friend, the soft exchange that neither of them would be going to serve in the German army.
Back then those stories meant little to me, merely the mutterings of an old man. However the years passed and as his memory grew dimmer, my desire for the stories increased.
Now so many years past the way, so many years after sitting at the foot of his chair, quite some time has already passed since his death. I was not there when he passed. I was not in the country, neither then, nor for his funeral. That’s the way it goes when you live on the other side of an ocean. I have a few of his stories. This one, the one about his brother mistaking a grenade for a ball and playing catch in the forest. That one does not end well. I think back on him and the stories he told and regret starts eating in on the edges. Why didn’t I ask him more? Why didn’t I record his stories, back when I still could? I’m left with more questions about his life than answers. As a german-american, middle class, liberal queer girl, I find it hard to understand my grandparent’s involvement in Hitler youth and even harder to understand what it means to live through that war. My grandmother saw the firebombing of a German city. She says she thought the falling bombs where colorful pine trees, raining down. She says it was “schön aber grausam,” beautiful but cruel. Luckily I can still ask her what exactly she means by that.