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I remember my fascination as a young girl of six or seven, laying on my parent’s king size bed watching my mother comb out her long, light brown hair. My mother was always different than all the other moms. Sure, she was sweet, made cookies and drove us to the mall. But her life is a story about surviving, about preserving your heart against hurt. My mother was born in a suburb of Frankfurt am Main, Germany called Hoechst in 1941, two months before Pearl Harbor and the official United States declaration of war. The war had already been going on in Europe for years.
She was still a toddler when the bombs were dropping on Germany. Her mother, my Oma Gerda, would wake her and her brother, Lothar, during the dark of night as air raid sirens wailed their warnings. They would dress quickly and run to the basement or the bomb shelters to wait it out, and sometimes my mother would fall asleep in Gerda’s lap despite the destruction around them. I try to imagine the terror my mother must have experienced growing up during that unique era in world history, and the horrors over the years that followed in post-WWII Germany. My mother’s family lost everything of value, experienced poverty and the dissolution of their family. My mother’s childhood lacked the security and unity of an intact family, and what she faced as a young girl is hard for me to imagine.
My Oma Gerda was 30 years younger than my Opa, Ernst. They married just after the death of his first wife, Gerda’s older sister, of blood poisoning. Ernst worked in construction in Germany up to the start of the war. They had two children, my mom Roswitha and her brother Lothar.
I have an old photograph of my mom and Lothar taken in a city park; she was perhaps four or five, and he six or seven. My mother always says they waited for hours in line to take the photo, their tired faces reflecting the long afternoon and hungry bellies. I see something more behind their tired eyes. A dullness, perhaps, or glimpse of sorrow in eyes tragically robbed of their childhood innocence having lived through the trauma and stress of those bombs dropping in the night.
The instability of the times and the new poverty the family experienced after the fall of Germany probably strained my Oma’s marriage, and they split up just after the war. Ernst had lost what little wealth he had owned and found profit dabbling in the black market. To make a living, he traded goods with the newly stationed and comparatively rich U.S. servicemen eager to send home mementos from the war. Sometimes he would barter the family’s own food for profit. Later, Ernst remarried a bipolar alcoholic with whom he had another son. My mother took care of the baby while her stepmother was on binges and Ernst traveled. There was no family life with her father, and Mom was mostly sent by her stepmother to buy liquor. At times, she had to keep late vigils to prevent the woman from killing herself. Mom’s brother, Lothar, was already on his own by the time he was 13, living a hard-scrabble life having been without the discipline and love of their remote father.
After the war and the breakup of Gerda and Ernst’s fragile marriage, my mother drifted back and forth between the home of her hard-working mom, Gerda, her grandparents and her distant father and alcoholic stepmother. Every time she was brought to her stepmother’s, Ernst would tell her “This time we will go away together, just you and I.” My mother would dream about escaping with her father to a new life, but it never materialized, and as soon as fighting erupted between Ernst and his new wife, he would disappear, sometimes for months. My mother rarely saw him.
At some point during this time, my mother was walking to the store one day and was picked up by German Health officials implemented through the Marshall Plan and put in an orphanage. In the early post-WWII years, most German children were surviving on extremely low-calorie diets that bordered on starvation. My mother was no doubt thin and malnourished, as were hoards of other children and orphans sent to institutions to regain their health. My mother spent months in the orphanage, encountering lice infestations and bullying, and no doubt also developing her deep resolve to find a better life. Infrequently visited by her mother because of her cafeteria job for the Americans, my mother was alone and living with strangers at the age of 12.
Eventually, my Oma met an American soldier and had another child, my late Aunt Helen. The family moved to America in the mid-1950’s and began a new life in Virginia. Lothar was left behind, unable to live under the same roof of a new father when he had lived without one all his life. My mother would never see her real father again. She was a teenager when she dropped into school in the American south and struggled to adapt. Her math skills excelled because her English was only basic, and she had to learn it on the fly. She still has a unique combined German and American southern accent.
Eventually, she met my father at a military dance where my father was enrolled in the Army through college. She was 17, he was 24, and they were soon married. It would be seven years before they would have their first child, my sister, and then two years later and six weeks premature, I arrived.
My mother was a beautiful girl, then woman, with very European features, high cheekbones, and almond-shaped green eyes. Always meticulous about her appearance, my mother would do her hair every day when I was a child, taking out her curlers one by one, then winding and pinning her hair into a tight up-do. Lying on her bed watching, I would marvel at the way she combed her long hair, which I rarely saw down, with a black wire brush, the red rubber base holding the close bristles. She would begin by teasing it up in sections, then spraying thick clouds of hairspray and teasing it again.
Mom would spread out all of her beauty tools on her dresser, an untouched lit cigarette growing a long flute of ashes in the ashtray. She had started smoking when she was very young, just barely a teenager. It had been the style back then, used as an accessory to beauty to indicate maturity and sexuality. My mother had these in abundance, and her smoking habit would ultimately be the catalyst for a future unfortunate event.
Always wanting the best for her daughters, my mother allowed me to go away to college, undoubtedly unaware that I would choose to stay away. I left home at age 17, just like my mother, and I would never live at home again. My sister stayed nearby and has been caretaker and companion to my parents. I left home to test my limits against the hard, strange world. Leaving home was one of the hardest things I have ever done, and I vividly remember the pain I suffered in being on my own. The loneliness of that initial journey has stayed with me all my life, and only in recent years have I come to understand that my leaving was a moment of loss, the end of a childhood that would never return. It was the symbolic end of being my parents’ child and the beginning of being an adult. I still miss my parents.
I have never asked my mother how she felt about my leaving. But as a mother myself now, I think it must have broken her heart just a little. Every parent wants their child to be independent, but also to stay near. And I think, too, about all the loss, all the separation, all the fear and heartache my mother experienced as a child and young adult, and I can’t help but to feel selfish for growing up. In becoming a mother, my mother finally had unconditional love, the love of her children. After a life of disappointments and heartaches, I think having young children was the joy of my mother’s life. Somehow, without trying, I contributed to her heartache because I went away. Youth is selfish, and understanding only comes with time. And sometimes, with a terrible event.
One afternoon almost fifteen years ago, I received a telephone call from my father. My mother had been working in her back yard garden, digging a post hole for her deck, alone in the heat of the day. At some point, she had suffered a massive, near fatal heart attack. My father had been mowing the lawn in the front yard and would not have found her in time, except for a mysterious phone call. A friend of my parents was at the house helping with repairs when a telephone call came and, being the only one in the house, he answered it. The caller asked for the man or woman of the house. The friend called for my dad but looked out the front window and gathered that my father could not hear. So he walked out back to get my mother. She lay in the ditch, white foam on her lips, unnaturally hunched and still. Screaming for my father, he began CPR. Emergency was called and arrived on the scene. They rushed my mother to the hospital. We never found out who had called on the phone.
My mother’s heart had stopped beating. My beautiful mother’s heart. The heart of the little child, whose childish fears were comforted by her mother and grandfather when the bombs were dropping overhead. The heart whose pain at being separated from her mother in an orphanage could not be measured or ever forgotten. Her heart, which had borne the loss of her country and her brother, and left to begin life as a stranger in a strange land. The same sweet heart that my father fell in love with. The heart whose beat I first heard inside her body and then at her bosom as she rocked me to sleep. The same heart I broke when I left, and broke again and again, carelessly in my youth. My mother’s heart had stopped, and my world stopped briefly with it.
I rushed to board a flight and arrived at the hospital where my mother had been successfully revived but was still unstable. I was too shocked to cry. Everything that happened during those first days in the hospital is now a blur, and I don’t usually spend much time thinking about it because it creates a feeling, not unlike a sob inside my chest. And it forces me to think about the next or possibly, the final time, my mother’s heart will stop someday. And I can’t bear it.
What is the value of a life and how many people can be touched by just one heart beating? Some people’s lives seem unfairly filled with struggles and pain and heartache. My mother is still a child at heart, and I think sometimes it’s because her childhood was cut so brutally short. She has always been young at heart and has had a good life. But even a good life can hurt a sensitive inner child. She has lived her life well, she has survived, and she has loved my sister and I as much as anyone can love. No life is perfect. I can’t imagine going through all she did. I can’t imagine the burden put upon her young heart from the lack of a secure beginning. One thing I do know now that I am older. I learned perseverance and strength by watching my mother. And, I am my mother’s heart, as are my children. Her heart will beat as long as love remains within us.