My German cousin, Thomas stares at me, mouth opening and closing silently as he organizes English words in his head, “You are quite unusual. I think you live comfortably with two feet firmly hovering over two continents,” he finally ventures.
Thomas the psychiatrist. I raise my left eyebrow at him. There’s more he wants to tell me. And ask me. Let’s see if his curiosity will win out over his usual German reticence, “Well,” he draws out the uncomfortable American word and pushes out his lower lip, cradling a mega-cup of coffee, long legs splayed, brow furrowed. The air is heady with the smell of freshly roasted beans.
“Your life began in Germany, with two German parents, then you were taken to America by your mother and new stepfather, and you…vanished. Since we talked a few years ago, you’re back in our family, building relationships. I see you hovering with one foot planted above each country, straddling the ocean. It seems easy for you, to have two homes.”
Oh, Thomas. Do you know the word Zerrissenheit?
I’m traveling Germany for six weeks, to spend time with my father and my favorite aunts and cousins. A combination of research and love fest. After staying a week at the Tower, that ancient stone sentinel that my great-great-great-grandpa Renner purchased in 1853, and a week in Bad Nauheim where my biological father lives, I’m in Munich now, hugging on Thomas’ two small boys when I can catch them, and drinking wine with my much-loved cousin and his brilliant wife Kirstin late into the night.
Thomas and I met in 1983, the first time I had been back to Germany since the age of seven. At that time, he was a still-gangly twenty-three-old in university and I was a freshly divorced twenty-eight-year-old with a new English B.A. He and I liked each other well enough but didn’t bother to stay in touch.
Then in 2013, he called me out of the blue: we are all getting older and it’s time for family to reconnect. I agreed, and immediately began checking flights to Germany. I called my cousin Michael, who lived closest to the Frankfurt airport and asked if I could impose for a few weeks and could we also visit Thomas. Turned out he hadn’t seen Thomas in years, and yes, we certainly could!
I fell in love with this clean, green land, gemutlichkeit stretching meals into hours of talk and laughter, augmented by non-ending kaffe-trinken or bier prosts. I planned to return the next summer, began an online German language course, studied traditions, the school system, government, ecological attitudes, praxes, and history. Along the way, I learned way too much about Hitler and WWII. Which prodded me to ponder about my mother, my unknown biological father and what might have been had they married and raised me in post-war Germany.
On an extended visit in July of 2016, Michael and I tracked down and rang the doorbell of this long-lost father, of whom I had no memory. It wasn’t until the misty-eyed Walter Harth presented me an album filled with photos of a dark-haired child in various ages that I realized we did, indeed, know one another. Perhaps this child, also a stranger in my memory, knew she could not have this father, and had pushed away the memory so fiercely it fell deeply into an abyss of her subconscious.
In a single conversation, my now-deceased mother had told me simply and finally that she couldn’t stay with him. Now it was his turn to tell me he was pushed out of my life. After an emotional visit that day, we began the careful journey of a 61-year-old daughter and an 89-year old father carefully traversing the stepping stones of the wildly forging river that was our shared past in order to get to the present. Two strangers building the bond of family. We knew it would take time.
Now, I giddily fly back and forth across the pond like I’m visiting relatives in the next town. I pretend nonchalance. But it’s bullshit. The Germans have a marvelous word for this: Zerrissenheit. It translates into torn-apart-ness. Disunity is more concise. And it comes at me in waves. Always has. A bastard child, I was first given to my grandmother as an infant, then taken from her as I was about to start school, plopped into a new world with foreign words and two strangers as parents. As I learned my new language, I also learned to hate my German-ness, and doggedly pursued the chimera of American-ness.
A vague memory plays at the periphery of true remembrance. I’m looking at an angel standing in the doorway of the upstairs flat where I live with my Oma. The angel is silhouetted by light from the foyer window behind her: a cloud of dark hair, sky-blue eyes, and white teeth forming a smile. One of the front teeth is chipped. Oma tells me this is my mother. I think she looks like my favorite doll. Her arms are filled with brightly wrapped gifts. It’s my fifth Christmas.
For my fiftieth birthday, my mother gifted me with a photo album she had recently put together. It included black and white photos of us during this momentous time; we are gazing at each other, me with confused hope, my mother smiling and maternal. We pose with the gifts she brought: a black Fury horse toy and a Joey doll to ride it, another porcelain doll, a scooter with stainless steel wheels,
Shortly after the new year began, my mother left again. What I distinctly remember is that I didn’t pine for her. Now that I had met my mother, I wondered where my father was. Often overwhelmed with a raw feeling akin to hunger and thirst that could not be satisfied physically, emptiness bore into my skinny body, followed by anxiety that would bullyrag me as I grew up. It made me pull the kitchen stool to the front window, straddle it and stare with unwavering intensity at our front walk, willing a man to walk down it, ring the doorbell and claim me. I sat until the feeling passed. Sometimes it seemed like hours. Sometimes it probably was.
My mother returned the following summer and brought me a father, an American Army officer she met in Ankara, Turkey. She had escaped a still-war-torn Germany in a travelling dance troupe headed up by a French artistic director she had met while working as a server in a Frankfurt Gasthaus. Tiny and long-legged, she had grace and rhythm and, from photos I’ve seen, carried herself like a model. Can-can was part of the line-up and the entertainment took place in supper clubs inhabited by Sheiks and oil tycoons. And American military.
Ted McKrill adopted me and I began first grade at Frankfurt-American School #1.
The gifted photo album included report cards from the first three years. Most telling were the teachers’ notes: long epistles of my improving language skills, offset with ever stronger admonitions that I use my newfound language instead of fists to communicate with my classmates. I don’t remember attending school the first two years. I look at the class pictures and draw a blank. More memories tossed into the abyss. I don’t look any goofier than my classmates— we all have bad haircuts, done by our moms, I think— but I remember feeling like the class dweeb. None of the kids look especially mean, or too cool; after all, we’re talking about first-graders here. And we were all Army brats, essentially nomads.
I chose to blame my ineptness on being German which I learned from my mother’s struggles to fit in. My step-father, Ted was a Chief Warrant Officer; his specialty, tactical cryptography. This
meant his highly mathematical mind was put to work decoding enemy communications for the National Security Agency. It also meant he had high visibility on Post. As did my very German mother, with her heavy, guttural accent and her European clothes. A brutally honest person, she refused to employ niceties while fluttering a delicate hand. The other officers’ wives did more than shun her; they made her life miserable with false kindness that turned into snide rebukes. Not understanding the interplay of adults, I decided it was a blight to be German. I began to reinvent myself.
Being an Army brat has its advantages when you want to try on new personas. We moved every two years and each time became a chance for a new beginning. I gathered the threads to weave a mantle of American-ness, only to pull out all the stitches to start over. I was the cool kid who flaunted rules; I was the aloof kid, too mysterious to have friends; I was the kind kid who attempted to befriend everyone; I was the tough kid who suffered from some unknown tragedy, whatever. My tweens and teens were unending days of anxiety. At eighteen I married and moved many hours away from home.
As the passion of being married fizzled out in my mid-twenties, I headed back to school and spent the next five years immersed in English literature. Now I had a firm identity: student. And after, graduate student with a B.A., a small patch of terra firma to navigate from. When my mother phoned in the spring of 1983 and asked me to accompany her and my half-sister Jackie to Germany for a long-overdue visit, it was this patch of solid ground that gave me the confidence to agree. It was time to readdress the heritage I had spent years dismantling and shedding. I intended to be as American as possible. This meant I would compare the difference in everything, sure that I would find my American-ness superior.
I didn’t. Instead, I fell in love with my German family and their beautiful country, and wanted to return soon. But life got busy. I started a career in corporate sales. I married, gave birth to my son and felt I was settled in at last. An American wife and mother. Every few years, a German relative would get a desire to trudge through Disneyworld, or I would fly over to hang out with my cousin Michael and visit everyone.
In 2016, everything changed when I found my father. The part of my identity shrouded for an entire life, now raised itself triumphantly with a wagging finger. In the time my father and I have spent together, I’ve discovered how German I really am. How well my looks, habits and attitude fit— how comfortable I feel just being me. The time I am spending with him, his family and my old family is a time of delicious ease. It is acceptance. Both ways—mine of just letting me be me and theirs of enfolding me into the family, accepting me exactly as I am.
This is what Thomas sees.
What he’s missing, this Zerrisenheit, is that now I am torn between my worlds. I love life with my husband, son, our dogs; our home on a small lake, our business. I also crave time with my family in Germany. Last summer I rented a flat for a month in Bad Nauheim where my father lives so we could hang out. We wore trails in the perfectly groomed parks, tossed food to the ducks, and slurped coffee in the afternoons. We sprawled in his compact living room, watched videos of his son and grandson, or of him and Anni on their vacations around the globe. When I wasn’t with him, I shopped for fresh food in Tegut, tried on clothes in Markthalle, had my hair done at Modern Friseur. I was here to spend time with my Papa, yes, but I also wanted to see if I could reclaim my German-ness.
When I’m at home in Florida, I have mental conversations with Papa. I run through the time we’ve spent together, how he reminds me he’s my father: gentle chiding for not finishing all the food on my plate (if you had grown up in the war, you would know food is gold), or showing up at my rented flat in the misty rain with a large black umbrella to hold over me as we meander through town. Tiny precious moments.
When I’m with my family in Germany, I mentally share my joys and frustrations with my son and husband, who continue on while I’m gone with the life we’ve built together, in the home we created many years ago. The comfort of our routines, our familiar habits, words, and idiosyncrasies. After a month in Germany, I am not a stranger. Our life picks up where it left off. Like stepping through a door.
What might have been, had I grown up with all the German-ness intact? How different would I be if I had not struggled with my image, my identity? If I hadn‘t felt the need to define myself as someone other than I was? We are the sum of our experiences, our perceptions and beliefs, but also our struggles. Am I richer for mine, or poorer? Mine created anger and pugnaciousness that always propelled me forward, to prove myself. Are accomplishments worth the inner turmoil?
Here is the truth: I will never know. I will neither speak with fondness of the home I had, nor with acrimony about the one I didn’t. Either would be a lie. Home isn’t a Christmas card scene: the perfect family gathered in front of a blazing hearth, smiles oozing love. Home is that place within yourself, that core deep inside. Home is that voice that says you’re okay, no matter where you are or who awaits your return. Those you love and those who love you are the foundation, the walls and the roof. Everything else is up to you. When I was a child, I plucked snails out of my Oma’s garden, piled grasses and leaves into an empty shoebox and watched them for hours. I loved that they were able to carry their homes on their backs, to retreat into whenever they felt the need for safety. I thought about how lucky they were. Now I know that their internal organs are also protected by this shell; without it, they cannot live.
I look up from my thoughts now with a start, to find Thomas quietly watching me. I know he wants a response. I decide I won’t share my thoughts. Not today. As much as I love him, today I don’t want his professional assessment, or his cousinly advice. At least for a few minutes or hours or days, I want to feel the equanimity he sees. I want to keep building my home.
German-born and American bred, Maddie Lock fell in love with words as she learned the English language. Lock has been published in various literary journal and is currently working on a memoir about her scattered roots, using research as a great excuse to travel frequently.