My mother was as moody as our weather, which, in our small town in Lower Saxony, could be cold even on an August day, and often sent dark rain clouds over our garden and house. She could shrug off the loss of a scarf in school, hug me and tell me we’d get a new one. But an ink stain on my homework could make her tell me how much of a disappointment I was, and opening a box of liquid-filled chocolates on the wrong side and breaking the thin, lemon and orange sticks on our kitchen floor could contort her face and end all conversation.

She was a good-looking woman, short and plump, with brown hair and eyes and a pretty face. Yet her silences were hailstorms and barn fires, and I was grateful for days when she only berated my stupidity. Even my father knew of no way to change her violent moods. Once he had loaned a record to his friend at work and received it back after a few days. My mother played it instantly, claiming it skipped, claiming there were scratches on the vinyl, new scratches, never-been-there-before scratches. My father talked to his friend – he hadn’t even played the record, he said, hadn’t found the time. But my mother wouldn’t have any of it. She requested that my father go back and ask for a replacement. And he did, and he did get a replacement, and he looked terrible when he got home that night. It was a 45, and he did not play it again.

***

Our house was the only one on the street behind the factory and set into an old warehouse that had held ammunition before and during the second war. Sacks of sugar and chocolate powder were lifted from trucks one day and driven to the factory by forklift another. The other side of the street was forest, and forest began right behind our house. Looking up and down our street, it was hard to believe that this was our town’s industrial suburb.

We had moved to this street when I was four, and when I started school at age six, there was no one living nearby with whom I could have ridden my bike into town but my sister. She was two years older and I don’t remember much of her. She was always there and we fought or played with her dolls or watched a children’s show after five in the afternoon. Yet when I try to remember her, there’s nothing left, just a vague feeling that she and I were not of the same parents.

I had two friends in school, Thomas and Thomas, and to keep them apart, and also to emphasize their different qualities, one of them, a blond, gentle, befuddled boy, remained Thomas, while the other we called by his last name, Cramm. Thomas was well-liked, though not very popular. He gave me two of his eggs we had to bring for making Easter decorations, and I took his only white one. I had forgotten to bring any, and Cramm wouldn’t let me have a single one of his.

Cramm was an altar boy, the only Catholic in the classroom, and a good friend because not many people liked him. His clothes were cheap and worn, and his pant legs were always too short. Yet he was fierce, and he never believed that anybody was stronger or smarter than him. He died at age twelve, collapsing at the altar during mass, hitting his head on the marble and not waking up again.

In first grade, Thomas, Cramm, and I hung out in the schoolyard with two of the girls who didn’t mind that we weren’t the popular kids. They weren’t popular either and I think we all knew in some half-conscious way that we had no other choice. We pretended to take pity on one another.

My mother had lost her teeth after my birth and what she believed made her a woman, to hysterectomy. She hardly ever played with me and my sister. Rheumatism, low blood pressure, a bad back, those were the things that kept her from playing ball in the garden, or from swimming with us on hot summer days.

Her ailments didn’t keep her from cleaning the toilets every day, cleaning the shower, washing and ironing our towels every day. They didn’t keep her from ironing bras, panties, and socks to get rid of the germs, and she washed the windows every week, standing on a rickety chair outside in the flowerbeds.

She kept the refrigerator and giant freezer stacked. There was always too much food on the table and nothing was thrown away. She begged us to take second and third helpings, begged dinner guests to reload their plates. “Have some more, please,” she’d say. “Don’t you like what I cooked?”

She’d been born just before the outbreak of World War II, and her mother had escaped with her two daughters from East Prussia in January of 1945. After the war, they were outcasts in the West, poor devils, unwanted, harassed. Over dinner, my mother told us many times about moldy pasta, moldy bread, and sour yogurt, then asked us to eat more food.

She experienced one of her worst humiliations when, at age five, I had to take a test to prove I was fit for attending school. I passed easily, but before I was allowed to leave, the doctor who had weighed and measured me and checked my throat, heartbeat, and temperature, said to my mom that I was underweight. “He’s awfully skinny,” he said.

My mother did not reply. She cast her eyes around, as if all the other mothers tending to their small girls and boys were ready to point well-manicured fingers at her. That day, after lunch, she made me eat half a bar of chocolate, and every day at school, there were cookies, chocolate, lollipops, or mint wafers in my lunch bag, and I was not allowed to bring any of my sandwiches back home and too afraid to throw them away.

***

One gray afternoon in May or June, when I was in second grade, the doorbell rang, and Thomas and Cramm stood outside, asking if I would come out and play.

I shivered, my throat tightened and I squeaked, “Mom,” and kept staring at my two visitors. My friends had come to see me. They lived two miles away in downtown Wedersen, and Cramm didn’t have a bicycle. They’d walked all the way to the candy factory to see me.

I boxed them in the chest, I jumped up and down in our hallway, ran outside in socks, then came back to put on my old playing clothes and shoes. I took a coat, then brought it back because it was too warm to wear one, and my mother said, “Calm down,” in a voice that stopped me cold. “Can I?” I asked, because I had forgotten to do so.

“Leave your clothes by the door when you come back in. I just cleaned everything,” was her answer.

I was out of myself that afternoon, walking ahead of Thomas and Cramm through our garden. I wrestled Thomas to the ground, tripped Cramm. We played soccer, took penalty shots, looked for long, straight willow branches and sharpened the tips with Cramm’s knife and went hunting in the surrounding woods with our spears.

We climbed an old oak and let us fall to the ground as dramatically as we could, just like our favorite Western stars. That cowboys didn’t climb trees was of no concern to us.

When it was already turning dark, the gray sky changing to a slightly more merciful color, Thomas, tied with invisible ropes to a tree, died an especially gruesome death being tortured by Apaches for stealing their horses. He writhed in pain from countless arrows piercing his body, but with no cowardly moan coming from the lips of this one tough paleface, when, without warning, he crapped his pants.

Thomas opened his eyes. He stood still and opened his mouth slowly without saying a word. We continued firing our arrows and spears, yelling in our highest voices. Yet when Thomas took one tentative step away from the tree, Cramm and I knew something was wrong, and after approaching Thomas and asking and asking, he finally told us what had happened. Cramm and I didn’t laugh.

It was a long way to my house and Cramm went ahead, through trees and underbrush to clear a way for his friend, and I trailed them, out of a sense of responsibility and apprehension.

My mother opened the door, and her face was calm, composed, and I knew I had a chance. I went up to her and explained in a hushed voice what had happened.

“Why are you whispering? I can’t hear you,” she said. “And stop fussing around.”

I explained again, this time louder, loud enough to make Thomas blush even more, if that was still possible.

With her quick, brown eyes she scanned the two boys, then let her curious gaze linger on Thomas’ red face underneath wispy, blond hair. “And what am I supposed to do about it?” she said.

“Maybe,” I said, trying to come up with as clear a thought as possible, “Maybe we can give him one of my undies.”

“You can’t come in,” she said, shaking her head. “Look how dirty you all are.” And I looked down at my mud and grass stained pants and at the equally soiled clothes of my friends.

“He needs to go home,” I said. “He needs…,” my voice trailed off.

Our sky-blue Opel Kadett stood in its garage at the other end of the warehouse, yet I never dared consider asking my mom about driving Thomas and Cramm home. It would have taken all of fifteen minutes to drive to town and back, yet that thought was too horrifying to be thought. All I wanted was a new pair of underwear for my friend.

“I can’t give him any underwear. That’s out of the question. I’m sorry, Thomas, we can’t spare any.” My mother was serious, there was no need to yell and shout. “And Stefan, you have to come in soon, it’s dinner time. Your dad will be home in ten minutes.” Then she closed the door.

We stood in front of my house and looked at each other, Thomas, Cramm, and I, and nobody said anything for minutes, it seems. Finally Cramm said, “Let’s go,” and they started walking down our street toward the candy factory, Thomas making awkward, tentative steps.

I didn’t have to ring the bell again. My mother opened the door before I had made up my mind. She walked to the curb and looked at the boys walking slowly down the road.

I erased the memory of my friends’ visit quickly and cleanly. I didn’t dwell on how easy it would have been for my mother to help Thomas clean up, take the car and drop him off at his house. All that I didn’t imagine, and only a sense of guilt lingered, guilt over having asked for help in the first place and causing Mom trouble.

At dinner, it was Mom who told my dad about the boys’ visit. “You should have seen him,” she said, meaning Thomas. “He walked as if he had a brick in his pants.” She laughed, and my father laughed, and I laughed too, happy that Mom had left me out of her tale. Laughter made me one of them, laughing kept me safe. Childhood was still a new thing, I couldn’t hold my breath for it to end.




TAGS: , , , , , , ,

STEFAN KIESBYE is the author of Next Door Lived A Girl. His second novel was recently published by Tropen/Klett-Cotta Verlag in Germany; the American edition, titled Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone will be released by Viking/Penguin in 2012. Stefan lives in Los Angeles with his wife Sanaz and their dogs Dunkin and Nozomi.

48 responses to “Behind the Candy Factory”

  1. Ben Loory says:

    i’ve been trying to think of what to say here, but all i can think of is: this was great. if you wrote a book about your childhood i would read it. and not just because i have met you in person a few times.

  2. Irene Zion says:

    Stefan,

    This is devastating.
    I can hardly breathe.

  3. Richard Cox says:

    Wow. Dude. I know those moods. From sunny skies to tornado warning in an instant. I’ll never understand it. Never.

    Amazing writing.

    • Stefan Kiesbye says:

      It forces you to read the signs of coming weather like a farmer, always on the alert. Strange enough, for the longest time I would search for people like this, who would be volatile and hard to live with.

  4. Matt says:

    Wow, this was heartbreaking. Poor Thomas.

    I agree with Ben, I’d plunk down the dough for a Kiesbye memoir in a heartbeat.

  5. Anon says:

    Stefan. It is useless and unnecessary to say – water under the bridge and all – but I’m sorry.

  6. Zara Potts says:

    God, Stefan.
    I am shedding tears on TNB like crazy this morning.
    This is breathtakingly poignant. You draw your mother so well. I have so much sympathy for her and for Thomas and for you. You paint the picture so incredibly carefully and with such grace.
    Just beautiful.

  7. Stefan Kiesbye says:

    Thanks, Zara. I wondered if I had turned her into a fanged demon, glad I didn’t.

  8. Simon Smithson says:

    Stefan: oh my God. Amazing piece. And to me, you didn’t turn your mother into a fanged demon at all, rather someone who has left me with an incredible impression.

    I know what you mean in your comment above to Richard about learning to watch for signs in the weather. That strange childhood awareness of reading faces and situations and learning to run for cover.

    • Stefan Kiesbye says:

      good to hear from you, Simon. And yes, reading faces is the difference between staying out of trouble and getting into it. To quote that old pop song, “when your word means nothing at all.”

      • Richard Cox says:

        It’s a difficult thing, when you’ve had a bad experience with a parent, rendering them believably without demonizing them. I’ve tried to write something similar for a while now I and I keep abandoning the piece, a la Ben Loory. I just can’t seem to get it right.

        As far as I can tell, you did here. Again, wonderful piece.

  9. Mary says:

    To echo what everyone else is already saying: Oh. My. God. This piece was stunning. There is so much to be said for perfectly rendering a terrifying character… as well as a heartbreaking one … especially when they overlap. Despite your mother being really and truly scary, I got the feeling there is more to her, even if it’s not all explained on the surface. Poor poor poor Thomas, though. And Cramm. I want to know more about him, too. And your sister. Everything. Good god, man, write more!

    • Stefan Kiesbye says:

      That’s nice that you got the feeling that there was more to her. There are several cans of worms, fierce and beautiful moments and lot of never-faced fears. In a family like mine, Freud and anything connected to psychology (plus the Beatles and Stones) had just never happened.

  10. Angela Tung says:

    this is amazing. i love your description of your delight and surprise at your friends showing up unexpectedly. so perfectly kid-like.

  11. Don Mitchell says:

    Stefan, this is very good. You’ve told me about your childhood, but never with such force and and, at the same time, grace. It’s terrific.

    • Stefan Kiesbye says:

      Good to hear from you, Don. Glad you liked it, especially since you’ve heard some of the stories.

      • Don Mitchell says:

        And didn’t I meet your Mom? I think I did.

        She had no English and I no German, so there wasn’t any way to talk about your childhood. I could have checked out some of your stories.

        I see in your response to Marni’s comment that your mother still “eludes” you. Yeah. I think mothers do that; I know mine did.

        • Stefan Kiesbye says:

          Fathers, too, actually, but in such different ways. It seems that mothers hold a vastly different spell over us, as though, in fact, they were hiding behind cups and saucers, the washing machine, behind the linens. It also seems to me that women exert(ed) a lot of willpower to keep everything and everyone in line, in their realm. As a kid in a “traditional” family (traditional not much longer), meaning middle-class, stay-at-home Mom, I was largely excluded from the power sphere of my dad, but of course at home, my mom ruled supreme.

  12. Marni Grossman says:

    That you manage to have sympathy for your mother says an awful lot about you.

    This was just breathtaking.

  13. Lenore says:

    for some reason when a person is told to “calm down” the effect is far more dramatic than you’d expect. it’s oddly hurtful.

    that’s why it stopped you, probably, when your mom said it.

    • Stefan Kiesbye says:

      If someone would say it nowadays, this “Calm Down,” I’d might punch that person (though I’m not known to brawl). But yes, when someone you adore and you depend on says that, it’s a different story. It is hurtful, as you say, and you know that anything that person might say next is only going to be worse.

  14. Quenby Moone says:

    I’ve been chewing on this post for a while now. I don’t actually know how to respond. I know that there are times when as a mother I make some bad choices, not “send a kid home in crappy pants” bad, but ones that are inadvertently hurtful. I think it’s inevitable.

    But your Mom was clearly an ice queen to not be moved by the plight of your poor friend, and I would have been similarly relieved once the situation moved off into satire around the dinner table. The whole piece is so awkward and painful, and really raw. There’s no real relief or resolution, no redemption for anyone, and that’s what makes it so complex.

    It’s a jarring but ultimately satisfying memoir. Kind of like a tooth extraction: god knows you don’t want to do it, but dammit if you’re not glad to have the rot out of your mouth.

    Anyway, cheers.

    • Stefan Kiesbye says:

      When you are “in charge” you will screw up, But I agree, there are different levels. The fascinating pasrt to me, and the hurtful one, is just how “off” my mother often was, how her moods and rages could so easily get the better of her and her judgment.

      “No redemption for anyone.” I love that you said that. I have a big aversion against redemption. I think we are who we are, and we will not make anything disappear no matter how hard we try. This doesn’t make us worse, and it doesn’t move us beyond forgiveness, but we are the accumulation of what we do, and in a strange way, there is no need for redemption, because we exist as ourselves, and that’s simply all there is to that. We have to live with good and the worst decisions we make. All of them.

      • Quenby Moone says:

        That’s the nail on the head, right there. Redemption is a gift that is giving too freely, when redemption isn’t deserved. It’s incredibly painful to admit that we’ve made the kind of mistakes that your mother made with your friend, one that might not deserve forgiveness. Maybe that’s unkind? Uncharitable of me?

        But gestures of simple humanity, of letting a young boy go home with what little dignity he could muster after such a humiliating event, are poignant. She wasn’t Hitler, or Stalin. But damn, she sure betrayed Homo Sapiens Sapiens.

        • Stefan Kiesbye says:

          The thing is, that while I hope that some people can and will forgive mistakes I made, I still made them. And while new and maybe a few better deeds will look good, those old mistakes still exist. And I don’t mean it in a “burn in hell, mofo” kind of way, just that the concept of redemption might have been overused.

      • Anon says:

        “We have to live with good and the worst decisions we make. All of them.” That sentence jars me utterly. This sentiment has hounded and haunted me for years but especially since I became a parent. We couldn’t be who we are if we weren’t who we were – the trick is making sure that the former is an improvement to the latter. And that can be a difficult trick under the best of circumstances.

        I, too, am prone to sudden rages and stern overreactions. Knowing that has helped me control but not eliminate them. My proudest achievement as a parent is that I tell my daughter when I was wrong and apologize when it has been hurtful.

        • Stefan Kiesbye says:

          I agree, it’s a tricky thing to control yourself and your own moods, but as you say, to know when you’ve been hurtful makes all the difference.

          I think it’s a worthy experiment to become a better self, but no matter how much better I think I can react nowadays (and I can still be very stormy), I’m not sure that can redeem me. I guess what I’m trying to say is, the concept of redemption is getting in the way of what you’re striving for, to be better than before. Redemption is this cheap, Get out of Jail Free card.

        • Anon says:

          Oh, I quite agree re: redemption. There is no need to be “redeemed” – it doesn’t undo scars, make other’s memories vanish and restore to them whatever was lost. But you can make amends, understanding there are limits, to both others and to yourself. And you can do your damnedest to avoid repeating the same mistakes. This is what I mean by “improvement” – learning, striving, knowing there will likely be a next time but, if you can catch it earlier, eventually… who knows? There may not be.

          That’s how I eventually stopped killing those hitchhik – Um. I mean. Um. Gotta go. (:

        • Stefan Kiesbye says:

          and this to an old hitchhiker. boy, way I lucky not to meet you earlier in your life 🙂

  15. Erika Rae says:

    Stefan, you’re a brilliant writer. Your pieces always stay in my mind long after I’ve read them. The one in Berlin with your Goth gf watching the East German soldiers crawling through the night. The one where you and your fam were in the car listening to that German song (can’t think of the name). But this piece is extraordinary, even for you. You have such a gift. Wow.

    I think I did exactly what Quenby did after reading this: examine my own flaws as a mother. Believe me, they’re plentiful. I actually crawled into bed with my 6-year-old last night because this post scared the crap out of me. Ha!

    I have a mother with strange, asperger-like tendencies, myself. She has the peculiar case of not being from the Old World (she’s from Sacramento), but she seems to THINK she’s from the Old World. She speaks fluent German (spoke it at home with us and was a professor of German and French) and is constantly reminding us of our freedoms in this country. Her hallways are filled with black and white photos of our ancestors back to Lincoln. A large hand penned family tree hangs in a frame in the midst of it all, which goes back to Charlemagne. She is afraid of everything. Men on motorcycles. Aspartame hidden in her food. Inept handwashing by the communion administrators in church. Kissing, in her world, causes cancer due to transmission of parasites. The list goes on. I’ve been – quite frankly – afraid to write much about her because I know if she ever read it, she would be deeply hurt. My father (who loved to laugh and tell stories) passed away 5 years ago. I feel like I can write about him. I know he would have been able to laugh at himself. But my mom – not so much. I’m wondering: is your mom still alive? If yes, do you worry about her reading your stuff?

    • Stefan Kiesbye says:

      Oops, I think my previous comment didn’t make it as an answer to yours, technologically, that is. So there is another answer below this new one.

      The subject of writing about people you know is really a tricky one, and ultimately, you have to decide each and every time if it’s good to do it or not. I’m sure there’s no government agency recording all our confessions, but even so, the level of precision we apply to our musings makes us quite transparent. For anyone willing to read. That scares me at times.

      But yes, ultimately, one has to pick one’s allegiance, and writing isn’t a “nice” activity, so if feelings get hurt, I guess I have to shoulder that and hope that all my talk about non-existent redemption might be wrong.

  16. Stefan Kiesbye says:

    Erika, your mother sounds fascinating, and after your paragraph about her, I would love to read more.

    What I tell my students regularly is that writers aren’t supposed to be nice people, that in fact, to write is to betray. My sister, for example, doesn’t appreciate my writing at all (at least as “memoir” is concerned). My parents don’t know much English, so there’s a barrier. But even if they would read my stuff, I’d still write it.

    There are aspects of writing and memoir that I find dangerous. No spy could do the work we do freely ourselves, and memoirs get more and more intimate. I’m not sure I like it, but on the other hand, I’m still doing it. So there’s a conundrum.

    • Zara Potts says:

      To write is to betray… So true.
      Does that then mean that to not write is to betray yourself?

      • Stefan Kiesbye says:

        maybe not necessarily, but then your side of the story will never be seen, and in that sense you lose ownership (oh, what a capitalist thought) of your life, leaving it to others. Writing is also an act of arrogance, but, oh well, I take that charge any day over silence.

        • Zara Potts says:

          Hear, hear!

        • Erika Rae says:

          On the ownership aspect: I like how you put that. Sometimes in writing about something that happened, I have felt somehow like I have taken over the memory from those involved. It feels – in some cases – like an act of arrogance. I’ve never put that feeling into words before. Hm.

        • Anon says:

          Hm, indeed. I guess I don’t see it. You are merely telling it from your viewpoint. Should anyone else to do the same, they would have their own perspective and slant on it. Would this in any way take over the memory from you?

        • Stefan Kiesbye says:

          Well, yes. If someone would write about memories involving me, and I had no attention to write about this myself, then for everybody reading these memories, they’d be true.

        • Anon says:

          Yes, but this does not mean the memories have been co-opted or the telling arrogant. If a crime is committed, the police ask, “What happened here?” and only one person in the room responds, has s/he stolen the memory of the event from the others in the room? Or from the silent witness across the street who chooses to remain in the shadows?

          Then again, perhaps I’m just so arrogant that I don’t recognize it as such since it’s my baseline behavior in human interaction. (:

  17. D.R. Haney says:

    I’ve been meaning to read this ever since it went up. I saw Ben that night, and he told me it was an awesome piece of writing. It did not disappoint.

    I once pissed my pants as a kid, and I was forced to go to a church dinner without be able to change my pants. I tried to hide the stain by taking off my jacket and tying it around my waist, but I’m sure it didn’t work, though no one said anything.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *