The wooden cabinet is rickety and ancient and at night, when I watch television, it makes creaking sounds, expanding and contracting with the weather, warning that if we ever move to another house, it will stay behind. It was old when we found it, in a Los Angeles antique shop. The cabinet was English, the dealer told us, used for the storage of World War One medical records. As veterans died, the drawers were emptied. For the past quarter century — and until someone I don’t know empties the drawers out again — the file cabinet has contained records of the more recently dead: my family. My mother died in 1969 — my years without her far out-number those we shared. My father followed in 1975, my Uncle Fritz in 1987. Like so many stones dropped into a deep pond, they fall further away each day. Yet the ripples of their lives reach out to me: That is what the filing cabinet holds.Summer comes to the campus I call home, an empty student-free campus, succulent and sullen, and this is when I keep my appointment with the past. I open the drawer on the bottom right. Some of what I find inside is mine, an eighth grade autograph book, a boxing program from the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles. These things of mine are aging along with the papers I’m looking for. The same stream of time that carried my elders off is moving me along as well. Soon I find what I’m looking for and take it to my office, where family photographs are on the wall, photos I’ve been looking at for so long that when I think of my parents, my uncle, all the rest of my relatives — “the whole kit and caboodle” — it is these photographs that come to me, black and white stills. I have photos of Christmas celebrations, summer beer parties, trips to Jones Beach or Florida or Germany, where they were born and kept returning, one more trip, always one last trip. One last trip is what I’m taking when I reach across the desk, see familiar handwriting, vivid as a voice and memorable as the smell of my own sweat.
A retired machinist, living twenty-miles west of the Holland Tunnel, my father wrote his life story in the mid-1960's. Fifty-seven pages long, typed out by a next door neighbor. This Is My Life is the longest and most ambitious of the family papers I have. Also, the most public. My father had a sense of audience, the family that would survive him. And, I’m pretty sure, he had a sense of me. I was a puzzling kid in many ways, bored by garden work, useless when not dangerous around tools. But the old man watched me work on newspapers, go to college and major in English, whatever that meant, go on to graduate school and get to be called a doctor, not that you could bring me anything that hurt or bled. Well, I was smart, maybe. But he’d been smart longer. If I could write, so could he. If Freddy could do it, how hard could it possibly be? There was something else too. He believed that his life mattered. His disclaimer notwithstanding — “Why do I bother, after all I am not an important person.” — he sensed a story that needed telling. “I was the first one to cross the ocean and start a new life over here,” he writes. “Let me try to tell you all about it.”
What follows is straightforward, choppy, lively, opinionated and digressive. In the early going it is interrupted by accounts of friends and relatives who pop up, take a bow and disappear. Later years are dominated by car trips, ocean cruises and trips back to Germany. Still. My old man has his moments. In and between the lines, the lifelong love of three places emerges. The first was Hamburg, where he was born in 1903. His father was a tinsmith, his mother kept a small grocery store. Early memories are vivid: Christmas, his first day at school, standing in food lines during World War I, scavenging the streets for manure for the family garden. There are delicate moments: he recalls the nightly promenade, up and down the street outside his window, of a man with a long stick, reaching up to pull a lever that ignited the gas lamps of Hamburg-Altona. In winter, he loved hopping from one chunk of ice to another along the Elbe. He boarded at an outlying farm while his father served the Kaiser in Alsace-Lorraine. “Pop never fired a shot or harmed anybody.”
Hamburg was a port city and the birthplace of his constant restlessness. He was a German without “sitzfleisch”: he couldn’t stay still for long. “The Elbe was a short walk from my home,” he remembers, “and summer or winter I was always ready to go there ... you could sit and watch the traffic in the river. The Elbe had a strong tide and as I grew up I knew at what time the tide came in. With the tide came steamers, sailboats, fishing boats with their brown sails. I think right here I got the wanderlust. How I wished to be on a fishing boat and go out into the North Sea on one of the big new ocean liners going all over the world...”
When he was young he imagined being a seaman. When he was old he wondered if he shouldn’t have been a landscape gardener. He was a machinist, old-world trained, and there was always a factory that wanted him, even during the Depression. But he begrudged them every minute, spat on the wheels of the car he drove to work building printing presses. At home, his workbench was a mess, tools thrown everywhere, left where they dropped. In gardens, he was a joyful man. To watch him plant a hemlock seedling was to see his tenderest caresses. He wasn’t that familiar around people, not much of a hugger or kisser and when someone told a dirty joke, he faked a laugh, blushed and turned away. He was shy that way, around women. “Those I wanted did not go for me,” he writes, “and many others I had no interest in, so in this respect I was a very lonely boy.”
In Germany, he spent the last year of the war and the first years of peace in a factory. After a dispute with a foreman — “trouble at work,” is all he says — he left for an open-pit coal mine in southeast Germany, near the Polish border. “Here I was, not even nineteen years old and all by myself and a little worried about what to do next. The little village was covered with brown dust everywhere — trees, houses and streets...the countryside was ruined, nothing but sand, hills and holes...It was a terrible place.”
In a company town where “you had two strikes against you for not being Polish,” the teenager from Hamburg worked and saved. He was always careful with money, even in later years, when he didn’t need to be. From a barracks where he slept with the lights on because bed bugs got busier in the dark, he sent money home. Worthless money, it turned out: runaway Weimar inflation turned his savings into waste paper. Rescue came from a relative he’d never met. Uncle Bruno Otto had left for the U.S. at the turn of the century, worked in a Michelin tire factory in New Jersey, quit when the plant converted to war production against Germany. By the 1920's he worked as a superintendent of a series of Manhattan apartment buildings. Every year, he brought a greenhorn over from Germany, giving them a year as a janitor in his building before they moved out into America. In 1923 my father’s turn came, his life’s first voyage, Cuxhaven to New York, with a night in Ellis Island.
“Next morning I was called into the reception room,” he writes. “My papers were in order. I was told that my uncle was here. ‘Can you see him?’ I had never seen him except maybe a picture once, I am not sure. So looking around I see a man smiling at me and somehow I know that was him. The ferry brought us to the Battery and at nine o’clock that morning I stepped onto U.S. soil for the first time.”
The next years of his life — two dozen pages of his story — are much the best. There’s an openness to experience, a love of story: sleeping next to the boiler in the cellar, sharing space with a colored elevator operator who taught him English. “I can still see Larry laughing, grinning from ear to ear and at time almost going into a fit.” My old man couldn’t resist rummaging through the discards that came down the dumbwaiter, “almost new clothing,” shoes with lots of wear left in them. He got his first suit off the dumbwaiter and a dozen pairs of ladies shoes. “At least some of them would fit my sister.”
What I like about these pages is not that they reunited me with my passed-away father but that they carry me back to a time I couldn’t share, a stretch of years I’ve only heard about. My parents were both 39 when I was born. I missed a lot. There he is stepping out of a machine shop at the foot of 138th Street, his first pay envelope in his hands and a pushcart loaded with fruit just outside the factory doors. “I liked bananas very much ... so I bought a dozen of them and on my way home I ate every one of them.” There he is in Brooklyn, renting an apartment with five other greenhorns, accommodating stowaways and illegal who drifted through. “If one of us had a girlfriend and wished to be alone with her, all he had to do was pay the movie admission for the other five.” There he is, dark black hair, prominent nose, barrel-chested and bowlegged, cruising Eastern Parkway in a new motorcycle, crashing into the fence of the Brooklyn Museum, bribing a cop who asks to see his license. “I liked my job. I liked everything. Each walk I took, being very careful to remember how many blocks I was away from home, I saw something new...” There he is, meeting a German nanny wheeling someone else’s baby in Riverside Park: my mother.
My father was a hectic worker, an on-time traveler, an outgoing talker. He sped through life, as though rushing to get to the ending of a book, to discover the moral, the meaning. No place could hold him: he was always planning the next trip. In 1924, the trip was from New York City down to Florida. Of all the trips he took without me, this is the one I miss the most. By the time I was in the car, in the 1950’s, it was interstates all the way and the New Jersey state sport was seeing how fast you could escape to Florida: rest stops were pit stops, it was all about filling gas tanks, emptying bladders, and racing south in fast cars on fast roads. Back then it was different: the old man was discovering America, potholes, ferries, breakdowns. When he and Bill got to Jacksonville, they contacted my Onkel Hans, a shipboard musician who arranged for accommodation, food and shower on ship. On the last day of 1925, he drove down a narrow brick road called the Dixie Highway to Miami and the subtropical Florida he would love for the rest of his life.
“The first day in Miami, I thought I was in Paradise,” he remembers, “warm sunshine, orange trees, grapefruit, bananas and flowers everywhere.” He awoke at a relative’s house, smelling fried pork chops and potatoes. He wrote to my mother, Maria Ensslen, to come down and on May 29th, 1926, they were married in the Miami Courthouse. Almost immediately, the dream of Florida fell apart for him. The Sunshine State was going from boom to bust and the factory he worked, manufacturing automobile sparkplugs, quickly failed. They lived in a place called Lemon City. “Things got worse from week to week. I don’t think my Maria was very happy out there in the middle of nowhere. We started to make a small garden but the sand all around us was not good for anything.” Then a hurricane struck, not a bad one, but enough to send them north. “About twelve miles north of Jacksonville, I hit a wagon loaded with pine trees and pushed my radiator in,” Pop says. “Somehow my brakes did not hold or I was too fast.” They slept in the car and lived on hot dogs, limping north, stopping at rivers, wells, farmhouses to get water for the leaking radiator.
Hamburg was behind him, so was Florida, but only to the extent that he ever left anything behind. In fact, he returned again and again to Germany and considered moving back there in his old age. He died in Florida: the last picture I have of him, he stands next to an orange tree, beaming with pride, as if he’d hit life’s jackpot. This pattern of returns runs in the family, the farewell tour, the last look, a presentation of your older self the places you knew and, more important, that knew you when you were young. Why else do I read his journal now, except to hear his voice, even just to be able to refer to him in the present tense, as if his ashes hadn’t been scattered at sea — off of Florida — more than twenty-five years ago?
With his return north, my father becomes more like the man I used to know. After a 1927 trip back to Germany, the Kluges settled in Philadelphia where they lived in a small bungalow — all their houses were small — and worked a series of machinist jobs. My brother Jim was born in 1929, followed by two full-term and stillborn infants. I came in 1942. By then they were living in New Jersey, twenty miles west of Manhattan, in a rolling, wooded area that went from sticks to suburbs while I grew up. “Looking back for a moment,” my father says, “the next 26 years we lived here were the happiest in our life. Here for the first time we had a home of our own, a great big garden to work in and a beautiful spot on top of the Watchung Mountains.”
The years were good, I’m sure, but something drains out of Pop’s writing in what amounts to the middle of his life. Maybe it’s my fault, because this is where I came in, this is the part of the movie I saw. The fifties: my father’s father sleeping upstairs, the Brooklyn Dodgers breaking my heart, the constant gardening that was so joyous to him, so tedious to me, squatting at the edge of the lawn, hand-clipping the grass along the sidewalk that the mower missed. Edward R. Murrow and Uncle Milty and the Friday Night Fights, summer beer parties, onkels and tantes from three states coming down our driveway, horseshoes and German songs and listening to the men begin to wonder if the labor unions hadn’t gone too far. But little of this is in his pages and that’s the problem. He is a success story, a self-made paradigm, a man of opinions about the New York Yankees, the Catholic church. From the Daily News he’s graduated to the New York Times and he likes to test himself against others, a “friendly exchange of views,” always quoting Voltaire on disagreeing with others but defending to the death their right to speak. That Voltaire quote kept turning up ahead of arguments; the old man used it the way people say grace before a meal.
Now the early sense of wonder is in the past, the discovery of new places, the first taste of tropical fruit. Visits are summarized, relatives come and go, current events are stipulated. And so much is missed. My mother and father were Germans living in America while relatives fought and died in Hitler’s armies. Two of my uncles were lost, another had his health ruined, a fourth — an SS lieutenant — was held by the allies for two years. My father’s mother died in an underground hospital in February, 1945. How did it feel, when newsreels reported the incineration of Hamburg? And the world cheered while his loved ones were lost? “Our loyalty was never questioned,” he says. “Of course having families over there was a constant worry for us but no one, at least in our family here or our circle of friends, was hoping for a victorious Hitler.” Fine. I’m not looking for divided loyalties. But are mixed emotions too much to expect, intimations of pain and loss?
After the war, his traveling began in earnest, out west, down south, back to Germany. Reading about my father’s travels tires me out. I remember how it was whenever we took a trip. I’d be sitting in the car and after a while my father would join me and both of us would be itching to hit the road. And my mother would linger behind, back in the house, staying behind forever, unaccountable, the morning draining away while we sat waiting at the starting line, hungry for breakfast down the road, eggs, bacon, orange juice and what was she doing inside. What’s the big hold up? She was checking the doors, the windows, rechecking the stove, watering the African violets, walking through the house one last time to see “alles in ordnung” and what was out-of-ordnung was the horn-blowing from the driveway, which was my doing, though the old man could have stopped me, and both of us would be giggling when she came out of the house, furious or pretending to be. And then we hit the road, the two of them in the front seat, me in the back leaning forward, more than ready to cast a tie-breaking vote on where to stop for breakfast. Then or later, but not much later, when the idea of death came to me ... of their deaths, that is ... I pictured them driving forward in the car, talking now and then, watching the countryside pass by, the way they did when we went to Pennsylvania only I would not be with them, they’d be driving on — and away — without me. Actually, the trips without me already had begun, when school or summer jobs prevented me from joining them. They were already headed down the road.
My father traveled like a driven man and what propelled him was the search for something else, something he’d discount as the years rolled by. He went faster all the time, barreling through the years, his pace accelerating even as his descriptive powers thinned. They were captions for a slide show now; the language went flat. “Beautiful days” on a voyage from New York to Rotterdam, a pass in the Tyrolean Alps that was “perhaps the most beautiful spot I’ve seen,” and then an evening in Venice, listening to music in St. Mark’s Plaza, that was “a wonderful experience,” after that “little Lichtenstein ... very quaint.” In 1959, Mitchell South Dakota, the Badlands, the Black Hills, Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons, Banff, Crater Lake Yosemite, a beautiful spot here, a wonderful something there, a world famous, colorful etcetera etcetera, it goes on and on, pronouncements and endorsements, another trip to Germany in 1963, out west again in 1965 and then, in 1966 off to Germany again. “Our last trip,” he calls it and he was half right. “Maria was twice more in the hospital,” he writes. “A low grade cough was the reason each time. Twice a bronchoscopy and biopsy revealed no serious sickness and our doctor saw no reason to cancel or postpone the trip.”
I remember my mother’s cough, small and stifled, a kind of pleural hiccup that embarrassed her and annoyed my old man. Why can’t you stop that, he seemed to say, giving her the kind of glare you aim to someone talking in a movie theater. He was retired now, escaped from the hated factory and what happens? What does she do? She gets this little nothing cough that doesn’t go away.
“Had I only known what was going to happen,” he writes, “had I known how sick my Maria was, I certainly would never have made this trip.” He sounds defensive, on the edge of an apology which he retracts. “On the other hand, people told me why not — she had one more beautiful trip in her life. The point can be argued back and forth and we will never have the answer.”
Madeira, Tangiers, Majorca, Sardinia, Geona, Canna, Monte Carlo, Barcelona: there’s my father pressing forward, my mother trying to keep up and not ruin his dream. When he remembers her efforts his voice sounds strained and formal, the language of a deposition. “I do believe,” he insists, “that Maria, up to this point, had enjoyed our trip but there was no change with her little cough. Her appetite and outward appearance was good, but long walks were out and the often windy weather with some dusty streets had to be avoided.” Geneva, Roma, Florence, Venice and Germany at last, a spa town in the Black Forest where my mother’s brother ran a bed and breakfast. “For our stay in Lenzkirch I had a lot of hope for Maria,” Pop contends. “It was known for its healthy air, with pine forests all around us and, with a lot of resting in good air and sunshine, I thought she would surely be better soon.” It was raining all the time, it seems, and Pop busied himself in his brother-in-law’s garden, planting trees, while my mother stayed indoors. Their American doctor had suggested x-rays be taken in Germany. They went to Freiburg where one test led to another. “A week later Dr. Wohlfahrt told me, ‘Mr. Kluge, your wife has cancer of the lung and has no more than a year to live.’”
“It will take time but you will get better,” he tells my mother. They return early to the United States: bad weather is their excuse. Eight months after coming home, my mother is dead. Pop vows never to marry again, to have lost the fear of death, to take a renewed will to live on. And, on the last page of his life story, this bravado combines with an odd note of remorse. “Let me at this late date apologize to all of you I may have hurt in one way or another. Nobody is perfect, least of all me.”
I wonder who he has in mind. I can guess. He doesn’t say and this is one of many places where I wish he had gone deeper. Sometimes, his journal brings out the professor in me. I could make a list of missed opportunities, evasions, avoidance. My mother is a shadowy figure, a mother, fellow-traveler, gardener, a good cook. What did he see, the first time he saw her. What ... what on earth ... did their courtship amount to? Did they fall in love? Every child has a hard time picturing parents as young lovers but my perplexity goes deeper. Does a concept of romantic love apply to them? Did they have it? Did they miss it? Does it matter? On love, on war, on death, my father is reticent. Too many large things escape him, and small ones too. His claustrophobia ... which I share ... blinding panic in confined places: he always wanted a seat on the aisle. His constant movement, movement as proof of life, working, walking, running; well into middle age he challenged me to foot races, sprints I never won. What about his moments of relaxation: how in winter we put chaise lounges on a concrete apron in front of the garage, where we lay down under blankets, tanning ourselves in what Pop called his “Florida room.” And, on Sunday afternoons, full of roast pork (rind on, please), spinach and spätzle, he and I would lie down on the living room floor, on the carpet, napping with our rumps against the radiator. What about his odd love of opera, especially La Boheme, which I can’t listen to without thinking of him. What about that time I came home from college with a beard. He glared, stormed, putted, offered me money to shave it off, ten or fifteen bucks. Hair as a cash crop. I refused. I tried to reason. I cited Christ, I cited Marx, all in vain. He couldn’t be reasoned with. Till the morning when my mother’s surprised shout interrupted my sleep. “Oh, Pop,” she exclaimed. I jumped out of bed, rushed downstairs ... was it a heart attack? — and when I peeked into the kitchen nook, there was my father, holding his hands over his eyes, not wanting me to see him crying. The beard went that day. Being right wasn’t everything.
All this is missing. Still, the manuscript doesn’t fail, at least it doesn’t fail me. Or him. Remember me, he pleads and I remember. I resisted looking at photographs while reading what he wrote. The whole point was to get past the photos, if that could be. But now I turn to four pieces of cardboard at the front of his journal, pictures of his parents’ grave, his boyhood homes, the Elbe River, the school he went to and a nondescript cobble-stoned plaza. His handwritten caption breaks my heart: “In this little park, I played a lot.” I remember the touch of his. A factory injury resulted in a raised, stiff tendon that kept a finger in a permanent crooked position that I ran my hand over when I was little. I feel it now. I remember his reading, mostly historical novels, “The Cruel Sea” and “Captain Blood” and the “Horatio Hornblower” series over and over again. I remember his coming home from a Jewish delicatessen in Plainfield with a pile of herring he’d cut and curl, shape into roll-mops he kept in a brine-filled clay pot that was in a cool cellar closet along with apples and onions. I remember how he organized our Boy Scout paper drives, nothing like it before or after, squads of kids moving from house to house, going into basements, tying up stacks of newspapers and magazines, carrying the bundles out to the curb for collection the next day. Fighting over nudist magazines. I remember my old man.
“As I start this new book I wonder how everything and everybody is when it is filled up.” The date is January 1, 1963, the handwriting is my mother’s and the journal is a pocket-sized volume with a red leatherette cover and a metal clasp, a Christmas gift “to Mom from Fred, with love.” It’s intended as a one year diary but my mother made it last for nearly five and she left room when she stopped. It’s her last diary and seeing it recalls what a lot of the German old-timers said, when they made a post retirement purchase, a lawn mower, a suit, a car: “This will last me out.” Said with a self-satisfied smile. “This will last me out.” As if what was on display showed their lifelong shrewdness, not their imminent mortality. “This will last me out,” not “This will outlast me.” Control of the endgame, their last wish.
This is not the kind of journal you see creative writing students carrying around, filled with rampaging solipsism that not even a mother could love. Nor is it my father’s autobiographical look backward, garnished with opinion and conjecture. These are the notes of a housewife writing a line or two at the end of the day, it’s hard to say why or for whom, but there she was each night, in bed, making an entry before turning to her apple, her square of chocolate and an article or two in the Reader’s Digest, notes on who came to visit, on shopping and gardening and mail, on trips they took, with marginal asides on the cost of things, gas and tolls. When my parents took me to Kenyon College for instance: “We had breakfast at Howard Johnson, fair; lunch again at H.J. fair. The countryside is very nice.”
Her early journals, trip journals, document the life I remember. But this last red-leatherette volume is darker. Sure, some entries are like what I enjoy remembering. “Another perfect day. I cut the grass and worked outside all day pulling weeds.” Or, in May 1965: “Thirty eight years with my Pop.” But age and sickness and disappointment start showing up. Love, too. But love isn’t everything. And I’m at the center of it, whiplashes from page to page, generating feelings I never knew, pride and disappointment. It was a no-win situation. Like most mothers, especially — I suspect — immigrant mothers, she wanted me close, she wanted me happy, she also wanted me to go out in the world, the unfamiliar world of college, university, journalism, publishing and make her proud and marry a nice girl along the way. As soon as I was gone, whether for a year of college or a Saturday night in New York City, especially in notorious Greenwich (pronounced Green-witch) Village, her pain began. “A lonely day without my kid.” “I miss Fred so much.” “Took Fred to the airport; feel very lonely and blue.” “Ho ist unser Junge?” She had my father at home, my brother and his wife a mile away. That only made things worse. Mom’s expectations for letters and phone calls was endless, not just for communications but for intimacy, sharing, confiding. Consider a week in January, 1965. I am at the University of Chicago, cobbling together a Ph.D. thesis. I am worried about the draft and, though I have a generous fellowship, I’m not so sure about graduate school. I seem to be too academic for journalism and too journalistic for academe; this is a problem, by the way, I’m still trying to solve. Another thing: no love affair. And I tell all this to my mother, in her dreams. 1/5/65: “Fred did not call. I don’t know whether to worry or be mad. Will he ever change? It’s cold out.” 1/6/65: “Still no mail from Fred.” 1/7/65: “Could it be that my kid just doesn’t care. God it hurts.” 1/7/65: “Fred just called and I am so relieved. He seems happy and got straight A’s. Mild tonight.”
When I came home she rejoiced. 3/21/66: “It is so nice to have my boy home.” 3/22/66: “I wish I could turn back the clock and have my kid home again.” 8/25/66: “It’s wonderful to have our Fred home.” The good feelings didn’t last. 6/6/63: “Our Fred is so maladjusted.” 6/11/63: “Fred is lonely and irritable.” 9/7/63: “I can’t find a way to reach my boy.” Did she expect me to try out my Ph.D. thesis on her, my musing about American expatriate writers, on the paradox that as they left home they distanced themselves from their best work? Did she expect me to discuss finding a girl, a good girl, a bad girl, any girl at all? She looked perplexed when she caught me listening to doo-wop. Was an explanation required? And, I admit, when I picked up a book while lying on our tiny back porch it was more than once to shield myself from her hurt and wondering eyes. In her journal, I am most on stage but my old man comes in for collateral damage too. Though he holds forth in his memoirs on the waste of World Wars I and II, when Vietnam revved up he shared none of my doubts. 1/8/66: “I am terrible upset. Fred gets no more deferment and Pop does not understand. I swear all he thinks of is himself.” and now, the beard. Forty years after I found him sobbing and shaved my senior-year-of-college-just-won-a-Woodrow-Wilson-Fellowship beard, I get mom’s account of things. 3/14/64: “Fred came home around 8 p.m. with a beard. Pop is upset. Our first robin.” 3/15/64: “I am very upset, not over Fred, but Pop.” 3/16/64: “A very nice day. Pop is more like himself.” 3/17/64: “Average day. Pop is getting around but I can’t help feeling he is narrow minded about Fred.” 3/18/64: “Fred shaved, thank God.”
In 1964, she stops worrying about me so much. A series of small, stubborn physical complaints disturb her. 10/16/64: “I’m tired. Will I make the year?” She has a job as a cashier at the local high school cafeteria; she stubbornly persisted as her pains compounded, her leg, her back, that pesky cough. My father was exasperated. She was reneging on their retirement plans, jeopardizing their golden years. 3/12/65: “I don’t feel good and am blue. Pop is impatient and I am hurt.” 2/25/66: “It snowed all day. I cough a lot and Pop is upset over it.” 4/6/66: “I am back in the hospital and sick at heart over Pop; he just cannot accept it.” 3/14/66: “Pop painted at Mrs. L. He is so mad because I cough. I am disgusted with him. After all, I can’t help it.”
I can picture my hyperactive father escorting a neighbor woman to the movies, inventing errands, walking with neighbors, losing himself in his own and other people’s gardens while my mother stayed inside. No wonder that last trip to Europe occurred to them, a change of scene, sunshine, piney air, a death sentence my father didn’t share. “If Pop is telling me the truth, I should be satisfied.”
Her last New Year’s Day is January 1, 1967. “Hede made a delicious sauerkraut dinner and brought it down.” Impatient when not in denial, my father does chores while mom charts her decline. I am in Chicago; a bound copy of my Ph.D. thesis sits on a bed table beside her deathbed. Mom continues her journal. For what purpose? For what audience? 1/4/67: “a nasty, foggy day.” 1/7/67: “now my left arm hurts.” Her handwriting is going, not the shape of the letters but their size — they’ve shrunk — and her pressure on the pen is lighter, the words are indistinct. 1/16/67: “I don’t feel good my bladder.” 1/26/67: “again it’s my leg.” 2/7/67: “we awake to snow again.” 2/9/67: “my bones ache.” 2/10/67: “very quiet, my back is bad.” 2/15/67: “not so cold.” 2/16/67: “I hurt again.” 2/23/67: “more snow about 4".” Now her writing is faint and tiny. I can hardly make it out. 3/2: “Opa took Kathy to see ‘My Fair Lady.’ He liked it.” 3/3/67: “warmer today but very boring.” 3/10/67: “Dad took Fritz and Hede for a ride. I loved it.” That is her parting line. She stopped writing then and died a month later. In her diary there was room enough for another two or three years.
There was one word that terrified him, ever since he learned its meaning when he was little. That word was never. He talked to me about it. Never was his death sentence, mine, everybody’s. It suggested the finality of death, the total loss of everything. What claustrophobia did to his body, the word never did to his mind and spirit. He writes about it in an otherwise bland addendum to his earlier manuscript. “I will give you but one word,” he says. “‘Never.’ Think about it, its real meaning. We use it so lightly every day. Never to see your family again, our children and all we love so dearly, never, never. Just think about it once in a while.”
Now as each year brought him closer to the edge of never, my old man sold the house he built, lived briefly with my brother and his family — a mistake — then headed south to the New Jersey pine barrens, to a retirement community where a dozen friends and neighbors had settled. It was mostly a German place: you could tell as soon as you drove in off the highway and saw ceramic elves peeking at you from carefully tended yards. Life might have wound down comfortably in the Lakehurst walking along the nearby beach, fussing with postage stamp gardens, checking out the early-bird specials at local restaurants, waiting for visits from children, scrutinizing each other’s health, and will the last one left please turn out the lights. The old man wasn’t ready for that. He married again and this time he married a female version of himself, replacing my mother’s depths and silences with Else Kaiser’s hearty, strenuous cheer. My father was a talker. She talked more.
Now it was his turn to keep a journal of the sort my mother kept, several years of life compressed onto a page the size of a postcard. Unlike my mother’s slanted tracings, my father’s handwriting is spiked and upright. The back of the page feels like Braille: he pressed hard. They have one thing in common, though: their preoccupation with weather, highs and lows, rainy days and dry. Why all this fuss, I wonder. Then I get it. Weather is what they lived, the flow of days and years, their daily adventure, the very embodiment of time. 1/1/73: “Hi 80, lo 60, none (no rain). Nice warm day, had lunch and dinner on patio.” One day after another, gardening, shopping, trips to the beach. Then he invents a new measure. The old man was sensitive to northerners’ conviction that, inviting as it might be in winter, Florida was un-shirted hell from April to September. So he assessed the quality of each day. A perfect day was “100%.” One follows another, they go on for weeks. “100% day watering. Cut the front hedge. Went for a dip.” “100% day clear, went to ocean in morning beautiful.” In June of 1975, his streak is broken. “Hospital.” On June 10, he returns home, rushes out to the yard. “Lots of work, cut both lawns, watering.” One “clear warm day” trails another, as if Florida were endorsing his decision to move there, to this little subdivision in Melbourne. In September he flies to Germany, visiting relatives, gardening on their property, walking in the Black Forest, taking a train to Hamburg where he visits his parents’ graves. The next day, almost as if he expected something to go wrong, he writes: “Had a lot of pain. Time to go home. Feels like rumatic but not sure.” On September 30 he was back in Florida, on October 2. “Hospital again, what is it?” On October 4 he’s upbeat. “Eats and nurses fine, all very friendly.” October 5: “Can’t pin it down.” October 6: “I must be healthy all my organs work but still pain.” On October 7, pop gets some good news. “It looks like arthritis.” They send him home and he plunges into work, writing letters, transplanting crotons but the pains continue, over and now comes the saddest part because there’s all that good weather out there, and it’s like a party he can’t join. October 13: “100% day I am sick.” October 14: “100% day, had a bad day and night, such pains. October 17: “100% day the weather I mean but what a night.” He goes to a chiropractor, an acupuncturist. October 26: “100% weather what a shame to stay home.” He’s going to a doctor every day now. It isn’t his style, this discourse with doctors. The old man always avoided doctors. They cost and arm and a leg and for what? Mother Nature was the best doctor of all. One of us could come home with a half-severed arm, we used to joke, and the old man would say “It’s okay, the body heals itself.” He believed that illness reflected a bad habit, a weakness of character. You drank too much you had a hangover. Like that. But wild-card cancer didn’t play by his rules. The pancreas? What did he do to deserve that? On November 4 my father’s writing stops and someone else is tending to the diary. Her entries are concise: “hospital.” “chemotherapy.” After a while she settles for the letter “h” to indicate where the old man is. It’s as though language itself is failing. On December 11, Else writes the last entry. “Walter ist(um) 4 Uhr von seinen Leiden erlöst worden.” At 4 o’clock Walter was released from his suffering.” And the word he feared is passed on to me, the heart of my inheritance: never.
Fritz Ensslen, my mother’s brother, lived just a mile away from us, worked in the same factory as my father and later, brother, and along with his wife, my Tante Hede, spent every Friday night of my youth playing pinochle with my parents. I could hear them in the dining room, while I watched Paladin and Gunsmoke in the living room. They drank, they shouted, they slammed cards, my father and Hede against Mom and her brother Fritz, who played quieter hands. The two couples were inseparable. They shopped together, took vacations, celebrated Christmas. Like my father, Fritz had married a German nanny, like my father, he worked as a machinist, but their talents and training differed. Fritz had an artistic bent, his watercolors hang in my house today. Also, a socialist, tangling with proto-Nazis in street rumbles, rescued from arrest by another brother who eventually served in the SS. Tall and dark, Fritz must have been a lover too; he left an out-of-wedlock child behind in Germany. Sometime in the 1930's, there’d been talk of bringing Fritzle — little Fritz — to America. Everyone who knows the story is dead but they decided to leave the boy in Germany, with his grandparents. Handsome and wistful as his father, Fritzle died on the Russian front in 1942.
Fritz Ensslen should have been making medical instruments, putting such a skilled tool and die maker on the floor at Wood Newspaper Machinery Co. in Plainfield, New Jersey amounted to assigning a surgeon to operate a meat grinder. Fritz never complained. Among my father and uncles, the loud and hearty crew who gathered at our house on summer Sundays, full of opinions about the Yankees and Joe McCarthy, he stood quietly aside. He ate, drank, sang, danced but never, it seemed, had much to say. Now I confronted the book he authored, day by day.
They are similar volumes, yearbooks, one for 1952 which served him until 1963 and a 1964 yearbook which ended in 1982. The journal boils the decades down. Fritz was not prolific. He didn’t wrestle with feelings, articulate grudges, emote or confide. At the back of the book, neatly printed is a list of purchases and repairs, medical appointments, Christmas card recipients and, at the tail end, the three dates on which his wife was issued speeding tickets, i.e., going 64 in a 55 mile per hour zone on Staten Island, July 18, 1961.
The rest of the book is mostly weather, a daily log of temperature at sunrise and sunset, sunshine and rain. “Hede saw the first five robins,” is the first true sentence. Now and then my uncle’s careful printing is interrupted by larger, shakier letters: “Fog all day, heavy in the morning,” January 15, 1952. I know what is happening, I can picture the scene. At the kitchen in back of the house, where you look out at the rock garden, a hill of flowers, stones, mosses and ceramic elves my Uncle periodically repaints, right there in front of the icebox with the radio on top that brings us the Brooklyn Dodgers, right there my cousin Jackie sits in a wheelchair. My uncle holds the book steady with one hand while the other fits a pencil into his son’s hands. Jackie was born with infantile paralysis and years later my aunt allowed that the doctors should have “let him go.” Still, once he was a part of their lives, they loved him.
Pages of temperature roll past, color coded. At the top corner my uncle summarizes the behavior of particular days: four times, March 16 was clear, three times cloudy, once rainy, once snowy. Birds come and go as spring 1952 rolls in, the first robin on March 13, a fox sparrow on March 22, and my cousin is in and out of the hospital in April and May. No drumrolls, no foregrounding. On July 11: “Jackie don’t feel good,” and, for the next week, “Jackie still sick,” on July 18, “kränky.” Any one can see the end coming; it was never in doubt, not in any of these pieces. But why am I so moved when my uncle Fritz tells me that fifty years ago, on July 21, 1952, the sun rose at 5:42, the sun set at 8:23, at 7 a.m. the temperature was 70 and at 77 p.m. 72 and “Jackie died. 4:50 in Hospital”? A few days later, he lay in the first coffin I’d ever seen, wearing a Brooklyn Dodgers uniform and holding a baseball hat in his hands. Fifty years. I haven’t thought about him lately. I don’t think that anybody has. Except for me, except for today: I remembered.
In his second book my Uncle Fritz is even more concise: a single line for every day, a circle left un- or half- or fully-shaded, depending on cloud cover. There are highs and lows of temperature, rain and snow. He catches fish in Florida, “3 trouts,” and birds appear, finches, first robin, fox sparrow, robin staring next, young purple finches, robin 3 eggs, cuckoo 3 eggs and so his life rolls by, year after year. But not forever. At the end of the book is a graveyard with room for all of us: a list of nearly a hundred names, everyone I ever knew or heard of, a family reunion, some born in 1950, some hundred years later, lost grandparents, distant cousins, sweaty hugging tantes, muscular beer-drinking uncles, all there, with the date of their birth, then their death date, followed by a carefully drawn cross. My uncle, my recording angel. First on the list is his brother — my uncle — a Luftwaffe pilot killed in the last weeks of the war. Last on the list is my wife. We’re there, the whole bunch, the whole kit and caboodle and by the time he stopped writing half the names had crosses. When Fritz died in 1987, his widow Hede wrote the date and made a cross. And now I do the same for her: 3/29/98 and — it feels awkward — two lines make a cross.
The journals sit on the corner of my desk, waiting to be returned to the file cabinet and it is anybody’s guess when, or if they will be taken out and read again. I don’t even want to guess who’ll put a date and a cross beside my name. I have been in the company of the dead for around a week and it’s hard to say whether I have been visiting them — as my mother would have wished — or they’ve been visiting me. My father and mother would be a hundred years old next year. If there’s a statute of limitations on mourning it has surely passed and anyway, we were a pretty dry-eyed bunch in front of strangers. I cannot weep for them; I’d be weeping for myself. But I miss them, oh how I miss them. Is this permitted, after so long?
Returning from past to present, I glance out at the same campus — Kenyon College — where my mother worried about my happiness. I own a home now and, incredibly, I keep a garden. Mom! I weed, I mulch, I edge! I married and stayed married, true to the saying my brother often quotes: “German Americans are like pumas, they mate for life.” I married a woman my mother never met but my father lived to see her a time or two. Five minutes after they were introduced, while we headed to one of the few German restaurants surviving in Manhattan, he took her elbow, slowing their pace while his wife and I proceeded ahead down the sidewalk. He’d tossed and turned for three nights down in Florida when he heard my girlfriend was black. It wasn’t as bad as my coming home with a beard but angst-producing nonetheless. Now, alone with my wife-to-be, he pops the question. “Well,” he said. “Do you love him?”
I’m a writer, it’s what I do, and there are some then to see, some books and magazine articles and a couple of movies based on my work. Granted that piece in Playboy — “Why They Love Us in the Philippines” — about strip clubs, brothels, foxy-boxing emporia around the Subic Bay Naval Base might have given Mom some pause. And, as for the novels, I’m sure the old man would have urged me to write something more upbeat, more gem�tlich, like those old Horatio Hornblower novels. Whatever else he said, I’m sure he’d tell me that no matter whether he disagreed with what I said, he would defend to the death my right to say it.
For a few weeks each summer, this campus fills up with writers — two simultaneous workshops, one for high school kids, one for adults, so there are all kinds of people walking around with notebooks, sitting on front porches, under trees, scribbling during the day, jamming into readings at night. The place is lousy with writers. Looking up from my desk this minute I can see one ... no, make it two ... writers in the college cemetery, using tombstones as backrests. I’ve taught in this summer program, I teach fiction workshops in the fall. I talk about voice and pace, time and tone, chronology and closure. I tell people that the point in storytelling is to show, i.e. dramatize, rather than tell. It’s the oldest cliche in the business but that doesn’t stop it from being true most of the time. Against all these crafty standards and others — breaking experience into scenes, offering a sense of place, identifying significant dramatic transactions — what I took out of the file cabinet falls short. My father’s account is choppy and self-centered, my mother’s journal way too narrowly focused: the one time she steps off the property and out of the car is November 22, 1963: “What a day. President Kennedy was shot. Hede is in the hospital. Leslie is three.” As far as my uncle’s nearly hieroglyphic journal of weather, birds and death ... well, there’s no escaping it, this stuff isn’t publishable, it’s not literature and there’s no way that these things will matter to anyone else as much as they do to me. My relatives weren’t interested in entertaining an audience of strangers, which is what I teach my students to do. I ask them to use their lives, their experience, their memories as a point of departure. I invite them to imagine, conjecture, speculate, to take what is true to fiddle with it. The moment always comes when I ask them ... require them ... to lie in the service of truth. My folks had a different approach. They reduced, they distilled, they boiled down language, narrowed focus, lost the kind of audience they never wanted and drove a stake through my heart. An audience of one. What is, and will be litter to anyone else is literature to me. At least it does, just barely, what literature is meant to do. It takes the reader to other times and places, it shares secrets and jokes, it confides and hides, links the dead and the living and for a while anyway, cheats death. My never-fearing father, my worrying-while-weeding mother, my sunrise-sunset recording uncle Fritz — they all live again. Even my so long lost cousin: “Jackie died today in the hospital.” Well, Jackie dropped in on me this week.