Tuesday, July 18, 2006

A letter to Ernestine Bradley

July 18, 2006

Dear Ernestine (I hope you don’t mind me calling you by your first name. After reading your book, I simply can’t call you “Ms. Bradley”!),

I just finished The Way Home. Immediately upon reading your last words, I did what I have never done upon finishing a book: hardly missing a beat (at 2 AM, with an alarm set for 6:00), I flipped back to chapter one and continued to read, longing for you to bring me back to my mother once again.

Mom was born in Traunstein (near Chiemsee) in1927. Her stories about her childhood experiences were much like those you describe (down to the Griesbrei!). She, like you, lived in Munchen as a young adult, immigrating (with my father) from there to the US in her early 20’s and went on to college and graduate school (at Cal), eventually -- and coincidentally -- also teaching German, French, and Comparative Literature there. (Teaching at Cal in the 60’s… can you imagine?!)

In reading your description of your Heilige Abend, I could feel Mom’s constant longing for her traditional Bavarian Christmas Eve throughout her 35 years here. She tried so hard to duplicate it, but the Weisswurst never tasted just right, there wasn’t the glorious sound of horns and canons in the snow, muffled to make just the right holiday music, and the churches simply don’t smell right in America.

Even Mom’s descriptions of her parents – her feisty, controlling mother, her socialite, show-off father -- are similar to your description of your own parents… and I have a feeling that my own description of my mother would ring true for your daughters as well! (I would so love to hear more about them and their experiences as first generation Americans like me!)

There are so many more similarities – things that brought me to tears and made me laugh, hearing my own mother’s voice in your words… but I’m sure you have little interest in hearing about each and every similarity.

Mom died on Easter morning in April, 2004, four years to the day after she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She was feisty to the core – though the word “difficult” was used at least as often -- never willing to accept her impending death, until her last week when she, like your mother, let go and became completely sweet – a word I would never have used to describe Mom previously! Her last words were a mixture of German and English, descriptions of “floating” on a Alpen lake near her beloved home and of holding her mother’s hand (odd, since her mother was anything but nurturing; that roll came from Odelheid, Mom’s “Tante Betty”).

As I held Mom’s hand in that last week, I thought back to a trip she and I had taken to “her Chiemgau” when she was in remission in 2002. We stayed in Ruhpolding, now my favorite place in the world, for the full two weeks, doing something from her childhood each day -- from our day at the top of the Rauchberg where she described how she and her siblings would regularly “rutsch” all the way down the rock face on their bottoms, only to come home – every time – to a furious mother, yelling about ripped clothes, to our day in Reit im Winkl, where the glory was more in the ride there, stopping at each of many small lakes on the way to hear stories about a bike ride or a hike – or a make-out session in a little deserted Hut that used to be “between those two trees,” to our day at the Herrn Chiemsee and the Frauen Insel, just simply and completely (and finally) enjoying each other’s company… sisters more than mother and daughter.

At Mom’s memorial, I talked about the stages of our relationship and my role in her life – from daughter as I grew up, to sister in Bayern in 2001, to mother during her final year. Like your mother, Mom was “charming and entertaining,” but never nurturing. Like your mother, Mom “cared about all her children deeply, but her concerns were conventional” – and she never allowed anyone else, not even her sons and daughters-in-law, into that most inner circle.

My husband remembers distinctly the first time he met Mom in 1977, in the middle of the energy crisis. He had just driven us to my home in Atherton, California from UC Santa Barbara where we were in college, and instead of a warm greeting and an invitation into our home (as his mom would have done), she greeted Tom “efficiently” and told (didn’t ask) him to “go get gas,” adding, “Carol, you come in.” Tom still reminds me today that he almost drove straight back to Santa Barbara that evening! Mom was always so quick to judge, saying she didn’t need time to get to know people because she knew instinctively and immediately what any person was like, and she always either immediately absolutely adored them or was completely indifferent to them. About Tom, though, she was wrong. He was simply quiet (perhaps like your Bill?), with an inner strength and confidence that was foreign to Mom and she mistakenly mistook his peaceful and quiet demeanor for a lack of personality. She had to admit over the years (and did so willingly after a while) that she was “wrrrr-ong about der Schneiderbauer” (her name for Tom, whose grandfather, the real Herr Schneiderbauer, had immigrated from Austria early in the 20th century, changing his family name for simplicity’s sake on Ellis Island), and she came to adore him precisely for the qualities that had so confused her early on.

I almost brought the family back to Germany when, at the age of 23, I traveled to Germany alone between college and graduate school and, during a stay with Mom’s schoolgirl crush and his family (including a young man my age, of course!) in Nurnberg, I met and fell quickly in love with not the son, but with his best friend, Thomas. It turned my world upside down, partly because I had just been accepted to Stanford so I couldn’t easily decide to give that up and stay in Germany “just to pursue love,” and partly because I had a boyfriend at home (“Herr Schneiderbauer”) who, although not at all demonstrative about it, did (and does!) love me, as I came to realize over the following 18 months when he begged me to come back. (Thomas and I remain dear and loyal – and platonic -- friends to this day.) I am determined to write about that time in my life once I can take some time out from my career and I will take our exchange student’s parents up on their offer to live in their cottage house in Hofgeismar (near Kassel) for a few months and “just write.” I will write that story, as it is an adventure in itself.

…as is the story of my dad, a “Mischling,” whose mother was a gentile and whose father was a Jew in Chemnitz during the Nazi era. But this is his story to tell, as he’s now writing his own book (his second; his first is about his 16th year in a “work camp”) and, like you, he often contacts German officials about not only his family, but the about experiences of mixed marriages in Nazi Germany -- something you touched on, as you described the protest in Berlin at the Rosenstrasse.

I’m rambling now (it’s so hard not to!), but I just need you to know how deeply your book has impacted me. I had hoped to find an e-mail address for you (mine is XX), but the round-about address through your publisher is the best I could find. How I hope this gets to you and that I am able to share my gratitude with you.

With warmest wishes,


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1 comment:

Pam said...

Hi Carol!
Found your blog while surfing around.

Just want to say I think this is a beautiful letter...and I'll be reading more!


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