Monday, January 15, 2007


During the war, Oma traded her gold wedding band for a loaf of bread. A single loaf of bread. She was a woman who placed high importance on tradition and propriety,yet she gave away her ring. When Opa died, she wore her modern day widow's weeds for a year and took to wearing his ring along with her own, which had been replaced when fighting was replaced with peace and refugeeism with a home.

It would have been unthinkable for her to do anything less. She was a traditionalist. Yet, at the same time, she was a pragmatist. She would not have thought too long when faced with the choice of keeping her ring ("It's not the only ring in the world," she would say) and feeding her family, because even more than being a traditionalist, she was a loyalist who was fiercly protective of those she loved.

For sixty years she was married to Opa. She loved him, even though his behavior was not always exemplary. In the early years after they fled to the West, he drank. I think he must have done it to forget. He had seen some horrible things during the war. Once, when he was still driving trains, a guy he worked with was caught having stolen a handful of sugar from one of the many bags that were being transported. Over this little handful of sugar for his kids, this man was shot in the head. That was one of the stories my grandfather shared many years after the war was over. The bad ones he kept to himself.

My grandfather was a man who was brilliant, observant, funny, stubborn, generous, opinionated, proud, persistent, infuriating, selfish, and temperamental - often all at the same time. The alcohol did not do much to augment the parts of his character that were good. When he drank, the generous man who bought ticket after ticket for his girls to ride the merry-go-round, telling my grandmother "Just let them ride until they fall off, they haven't had much fun in their lives", disappeared to be replaced by someone darker. Things were said, sometimes done, that created an hurt and bitterness that sometimes overwhelmed the love my grandmother felt for him.

No one in the family ever called him an alcoholic. They would have said "He enjoys a good drink", but the a-word was never used. Still, I have to think that when drinking starts to affect one's relationships and safety, there is indeed a drinking problem. He almost killed himself once, crashing into a tree on his motorcycle. Then there was the time the police stopped him as he was slowly driving home after an evening of libationary celebration. That escapade cost him a month in jail. He was angry at the police, but too embarassed to tell the truth at work, so he asked for vacation with the excuse that he was taking a trip to Italy. When his "vacation" was over, he returned home only to be mercilessly teased by my grandmother about his lack of a tan after such a long sojourn in the Southern climes.

For all of his flaws, my grandfather was a good man, and a very principled one at that. He never joined the Nazis during the war. After it, he never joined the Communist party either, despite the fact that it cost him his job. When "invited" to join, he boldly told recruiters "You're not any different from the Nazis, your oppression just comes under a different name". When his girls were sent home from school with literature encouraging membership in the jungen Pionieren (think Communist scouts), he instantly forbad it. When his invitation to live and work in East Berlin was rescinded after an unpleasant incident with some border guards, he, at great risk to his own self, snuck back in the middle of the night to help his wife and children escape.

By the time I came along, Opa had already lived a long life. He was a different person from the drinker of those early years in the West. When I was young, I didn't always understand the tension that sometimes existed in my grandmother's demeanor toward him. I thought she was unfair to him. This was the guy who would secretly take me to the ice cream parlor across the street to buy me ice cream cone after ice cream cone. He was the guy who (despite my grandmother's hearty objections) introduced me to that international phenomenon that is known between grandfathers and children everywhere as "Pull my finger." My grandfather (who had himself wanted to be a teacher, but was prevented from it by a father who felt he shouldn't "waste" time and money on education when he could be earning a living) was also my first language student. He would signal the beginning of each lesson by extending his large hand (he had such large hands) to shake my then tiny one as he smiled and said "How do you do?" He was the man who taught me that there is no question I might have that the library cannot answer (and often with a variety of answers).

By the time I knew him, he didn't drink at all anymore. It had been decades. He was just my Opa, who was filled with interesting stories, devoured books like candy, never believed anything without first doing some research of his own, and seemed to know something valuable about everything.

It was only later that I began to understand how much my grandmother really did love him and that they were at heart alike in the ways that really mattered. They were both decent and kind. They just had different approaches to life. While my grandmother's was to wait and help whoever came to her door, my grandfather went out in the world looking for adventure, sometimes dragging it home with him.

There were times when my grandparents bickered like two old balcony muppets. They had very different personalities. Opa wanted to wander out and see the world, while Oma preferred to stay home, content to feed it when it came to her. Even 50 years after emigrating to Berlin, she remained a small town girl, while Opa's heart was cosmopolitan. When Opa finally did make it to Italy, Oma did not go with him. Not being overly adventurous, her response would have been something akin to "Italy? What do I want in Italy? It's the same as here, except for they drown everything in marinara sauce." So, one day he hopped a plane on his own. He came home a couple weeks later tanned and wearing shorts, only to be teased about his skinny legs. Still, they loved each other deeply, sticking together through many situations where other people might have called it quits.

When I look around me, their commitment seems something special. In this world where we all want and have grown used to receiving everything so quickly, sometimes we don't allow time for our love to really blossom. I think of people I know who are barely out of their 30's and have already been married multiple times or those who hit a snag only throw up their hands to say "That's it. I can't live like this anymore. It's over". While I in no way advocate staying in a situation that drains a person's soul and causes fundamental unhappiness, in our fast times we sometimes do not treat love lovingly enough.

We try to make all these rules about love - who can marry; when to pick up the phone; how much notice is required for us to say "yes" to a date; women are like Venus, men are like Mars; etc. Yet love is not about rules, it is only about love. Look at all the people who seem far too preoccupied with how expensive a ring they can finagle based on some heinous three month salary "rule". Look at the money we spend on extravagent weddings. There are so many people who seem to spend their lives looking, pining for someone to just love them, yet for every one of them there is another who takes the love she has for granted.

Is that love?

When I think of these people, I think about how lucky my grandparents were. Despite the problems they encountered over the years, they each got to spend a whole lifetime with someone they loved and who loved them back just as much. Commercials tell us that love is a tennis bracelet or a diamond the size of your fist, but that is not love. Love is trading a simple, gold wedding band that means the world to you for a single loaf of bread, another day, another hour to just be together.


Anne said...

I hope you can keep posting so often for more than just January. It has been great reading!

Martina said...

Thanks, Anne! It's been a really good experience. It's interesting what you can come up with when you make yourself. There have been days when I've sat down thinking "I really have nothing to say", but then ended up writing one of the better posts. It's kinda fun!