It seems as though everyone is talking about Michael Kimball and his new newly released novel, US.  Sam Lipsyte calls Kimball a “Hero of contemporary fiction.”  Blake Butler says US is one of only two books that ever made him cry.  And Gary Lutz says that Kimball is “One of our most supremely gifted and virtuosic renderers of the human predicament.” 

US might break your heart, but it’s a good kind of break-the kind that reminds you how nice it is to be alive.

By Matt Salyer

Essay

Your most recent book, Missing Lucile, is about your grandmother, who died long before you were born and, in your own words, was no one very significant. Surely you must realize that grandmothers, especially insignificant ones, are unusual subjects. Not exactly bestseller material. Did you expect only grandmothers to read your book?

I would be delighted to know that grandmothers were reading my book, but believe it or not, I wrote it for a general audience. Missing Lucile is about my father’s mother, who died when he was a little boy. All his life he missed having a mother—that loss colored his relationships with his wives, his children, his friends, even the choices he made professionally. It was the first thing I think I ever really knew about him: that he didn’t have a mother, had never had a mother as far as he was concerned. And when, at the end of his life, he was talking about obsessively about his childhood, and his missing mother, I decided that I would try to find out about her for him.

 

That’s very generous. But let’s be frank, why would anyone else want to read a book about your father’s mother?

My goal was somewhat more audacious than finding information about my father’s mother. I decided I would try to find her. The woman herself who had been missing for 75 years. Lucile. So you could say this book began as a pair of impossible tasks: 1) that I would “find” a person I had never met, and who had been dead for decades, and who had left little behind in terms of a personal record. And 2) that I would give another person something he’d been missing nearly all his life.

 

What a presumptuous idea!

The presumptuousness of this project was almost as startling as its possibilities for sentimentality, but writers are presumptuous. We presume that what we know, or think we know, or want to know, is something other people will want to hear about. We have to be presumptuous, or we would never write anything. But with that presumptuousness comes the terrible responsibility to be worth listening to, to have something to say that is, actually, worth hearing.

 

It sounds like you had a real battle on your hands in this case.

Well, yes. Because not only was I proposing to write about my grandmother, about whom I knew next to nothing, but I was proposing to write about a woman who, in the eyes of the world, did not “matter.” She was not famous. She was not historic. She had done nothing spectacularly horrible—had not murdered anyone, or been a drug addict, or a child abuser. Nothing spectacularly horrible had been done to her: she was not murdered herself, or maimed by an accident, or the victim of a monstrous crime. Nor had she saved anyone, discovered a cure for anything, painted pictures or been on stage. She had not even married twice. She was a woman from Cincinnati, Ohio, the daughter of a wealthy businessman, a woman of her times, maybe somewhat ahead of her times, because she had gone to college in 1907, had been for a while a businesswoman, and had gone to France after WWI to help with the reconstruction.

She came back to Cincinnati, married, had children. Got cancer. Died.

She was, as Virginia Woolf would have described her, a person to whom things had happened. And this is exactly what I found so monumentally challenging about her. As Woolf puts it in a “Sketch of the Past”: “Here I come to one of the memoir writer’s difficulties—one of the reasons why, though I read so many, so many are failures. They leave out the person to whom things have happened. The reason is that it is so difficult to describe any human being. So they say: ‘This is what happened’; but they do not say what the person was like to whom it happened. And the events mean very little unless we know first to whom they happened.”

And that was exactly what I was proposing to do–to discover this woman, my grandmother, Lucile, to whom things had happened.

 

Did your reasons for writing this book—by the way, what should we call it, since it’s not exactly a biography, or a memoir, or fiction?

Let’s call it an uncertain book.

 

Did your reasons for writing this uncertain book change as you were working on it?

I certainly had my personal reasons for searching for my grandmother—I wanted to try to make my unhappy elderly father happy, to give him what he had been missing for 75 years, and by doing so give myself some of what I had been missing as his daughter. But I had my own pressing artistic reasons as well. And to be honest, these artistic reasons were my real motivation for writing this book.

What I wanted to address is the presumption that lies at the very heart of memoir and biography: That by telling the story of another person’s life you are capturing the person herself.

As Virginia Woolf also said, and this is from Orlando: “A biography is considered complete if it merely accounts for six or seven selves, whereas a person may well have many thousands.”

How on earth can you capture the many thousand selves of another person?

I managed to find a lot of facts about the things that had happened to my grandmother Lucile. I had a box of small objects that had belonged to her, which I tried to use as a kind of historical DNA to reconstitute her. I had photographs. I had a letter she had written, a few pages of diaries, statements other people had made about her. I had her college transcript. I had her wedding ring. I had my own genetic relation to her, and the shadow of her that had hung over my childhood. But I did not have her. I never had her. Even for an instant. And I knew it.

 

So is that what this book is about, not knowing someone?

Yes and no. Because once I accepted that the subject of a biography—the person to whom things had happened–is always going to be missing, I had another question: So what? Does that mean you have to give up writing about her? Can you write about someone anyway—even someone who doesn’t “matter”–and do it honestly, even when what you don’t know vastly overshadows what you do, like a magic mountain looming behind a boulder in a meadow?

 

You could have written this book as fiction, that seems a fairly obvious answer to your question. You could have made up what you didn’t know. Why didn’t you just call the book Missing Lucile: a Novel?

That’s true. I could have written this book as fiction—but had I done so, I would not have directly addressed another question, which began to seem more and more pressing to me: What if you really do want to find the person herself, what you can find of her, that person to whom things have happened? And what if you want to claim that this person, this ordinary, unimportant person, did matter, if only because she was once alive, as alive as you yourself are now?

 

So what can you do? Is there an alternative?

That is what I wrote this book to find out. And though it is highly debatable that I succeeded in writing a book that would satisfy a reader looking for a biography, or a reader looking for fiction, I did put right at the center my own uncertainty about who my grandmother was. And right beside that uncertainty I put my desire to try to know her anyway. And in the end, this is what I found out: That it is in the act of wondering about another human being that we may come to know her best. Wondering about someone else, looking for clues based on the things that happened to her, and a few things she said, or did—that she liked the word “ribald,” for instance, and read the poems of Heine, and raised chickens, and didn’t wear jewelry—musing about patterns and inconsistencies, that’s what you can do. If you want to find another person, that’s where she is—present within the act of being wondered about. Because as soon as you start wondering about someone, she’s not altogether missing anymore, whether she’s been gone for 75 years or just since yesterday afternoon.

 

But it seems there must be catch here somewhere.

The catch—and it’s a big catch—is to stay honest about what you don’t know, about what you wish you knew, and about what you imagine you know about another person. The danger of any biography is losing sight of how much fiction is going on when you try to write about someone else. It’s fiction we can’t help—we are always going to project ourselves onto other people when we try to understand them. But it’s fiction we should stay clear about.

If we can stay clear about our own uncertainties, then we have a chance at a three-dimensional image of that person we’re trying to understand. Or at least a more nuanced image.

 

Are you saying that focusing on what you don’t know about someone else may be the best way of trying to understand her? That’s a rather radical claim, don’t you think?

A book isn’t worth writing unless it’s radical in some way, though it can be quietly radical. And who’s to say that writing about your grandmother can’t be as radical as writing from the point of view of a cockroach or writing a novel in pieces that a reader can arrange in whatever order she likes? There’s nothing more boring, in a book as well as in life, than something that proves to be just what you think it is. If I have devoted my writing life to anything, it’s to writing books that appear to be one thing and are not really that thing at all.

 

But back to being radical—and perhaps we should point out here that you are a suburban middle-aged woman with a husband, two children and a dog, who votes in every election and believes, more or less, in a two-party democratic system—how are you defining radical, at least in terms of your book?

I am talking about changing the way we think about biography. I am advocating uncertainty as a way to write about someone else. When I see a book described as “the definitive biography of so-and-so” I feel faint. Given the multiplicity of informational sources we have nowadays, most of them contradictory–from blogs and Facebook and Twitter to CNN and Google and Wikipedia to self-interviews–one might be forgiven for thinking that the conventional, unilateral idea of biography would be falling out of favor. But most of us still expect a single product when we read a biography; we are expecting “the life” of the subject. And we want a story “worth reading,” which often means survivor stories, celebrity tell-alls, exposes, confessions. Stories, frankly, that we already know. Those stories have their place, of course, but there is room for a more questioning attitude when it comes to biography.

 

Questioning how?

In the act of wondering about someone else, we take a step out of ourselves for a moment, we step forward to encounter another person. What a radical thing to do! Especially when we acknowledge that it is not the person herself standing there, but a kind of shadow based on who we want to know. A ghost. A silhouette. Our idea of that person.

That idea, that shadow person, has its own dimension, its own vitality, its own ability to shift and change based on how well we’re able to question our perceptions. That idea is animated by our desire to know the person it’s based upon, and that idea is equally animated by our frustration and despair when we’re forced to admit that we cannot, ultimately, succeed.

 

Why despair?

Despair because if we can’t fully know another person, it stands to reason that we cannot fully be known ourselves. We are all mysteries. And perhaps that, finally, is the real job of biography–to acknowledge the mystery of being human, again and again and again.

 

Jesse had brought a rock-hard, stained futon mattress into the marriage. It took me two years to convince him to buy a new one. In what proved to be a last attempt to save our crumbling marriage, one Saturday morning we found ourselves at one of Bushwick’s few furniture stores. Next to the elevated railroad tracks on Myrtle Avenue, across the street from where the MTA once left 50 poisoned rats to decompose on the sidewalk, royal red polyester couches competed with golden vanity tables and rococo bed frames. As we curved our way past particleboard TV stands, a beer-bellied man with a comb over approached us. The salesman swiftly led us to a mattress adorned with a royal golden pattern against a shiny black background. He praised the mattress as if it were his first-born son. There’s no better quality for the price! It’ll last ten years at least! Maybe 15, he added, sensing my doubt. A special! A real special! Just as I wondered if he was paying for the mattress to go to college, I noticed that it had inner springs.

In Germany, innersprings went out with the Kaiser, or whenever it was that they invented foam. The last time I slept on an inner spring mattress was as a child at my grandmother’s house, and the bed still reeked of mustard gas from World War I. The springs poked my back and my chest was weighed down by a two-foot thick down blanket, so heavy with feathers that I felt like Leda gang-raped by a flock of swans. My Nazi grandmother put me up in her guestroom, a large, dark, wood-paneled space cold as a morgue. After tucking me in under the suffocating blankets, she sang Guten Abend, Gute Nacht, a lullaby based on a German folk poem. Provided with roses / Covered with flowers / Studded with nails / Slip under the blanket / In the morning, God willing / You will wake again.

Despite its funereal overtones, I requested the song frequently. I felt that if I considered the possibility of never waking back up, death might spare me. Catastrophes don’t happen if cautiously considered. If I only continued obsessing about the possibility of death—my own and the death of the people around me—I might be let off the hook.

Twenty years later at the furniture store in Bushwick, Jesse and I helplessly decided on the black innerspring mattress with the golden flower pattern, the one the salesman had called his best. I can’t claim that the mattress hastened the end of my marriage, but it certainly didn’t help.

After only three months the mattress began to sag, and for the two years that followed I slept on an incline with a continuously increasing slope. At first my left leg was wedged against the wall, only one inch higher than my right leg. But over the course of the next few years, the slope’s angle gradually increased to 20 degrees. With the advancing pitch, my marriage declined.

After Jesse finally moved out, I decided to buy a new mattress, opting for a larger one this time. If I got screwed again and the mattress sagged after only a few months, at least I would have enough space to disappear into it with my future boyfriend. But disappear where, exactly? Never again between innersprings. Coils and box springs are for losers. It’s the 21st century! When I think of coils and box springs, I think of straw and fluffy little baby chicks covered with potato sacks; I think of barns and alternating sleeping shifts.

Tempurpedic™ and its Swedish, (but puzzlingly) NASA-designed memory foam technology had caught my attention long before I considered buying a new mattress. Staying up late on my saggy incline while Jesse was out getting drunk, I felt oddly reassured by Tempurpedic’s infomercials. I still felt like hanging myself, but knew that one day in the future, I would be able to rest in peace.

According to Tempurpedic™, the mattress’s visco-elastic foam completely adapts to your body contours, releasing pressure from your spine and the heavier parts of your body. “This phenomenon,” Tempurpedic™ explains, “is similar to pushing your hand into the surface of a bowl of water and feeling the water flow to fill every contour and curve of your hand, then return to its original shape once your hand is removed.” Sounded like a dream to me. Never saggy, never sore! Completely resistant to permanent change! My heavy heart floating in a bowl of water—what could be better?

I knew I couldn’t afford a $2000 Tempurpedic™ mattress, so I tried to satisfy myself by taking the announcer’s advice and calling for an information kit. The package that arrived a few days later contained a video—which I never watched—and a memory foam sample the size of a teeny-tiny pillow, just big enough for my cat to rest her teeny-tiny head on. I briefly considered ordering enough 10 square inch foam samples to build my own mattress, but abandoned the idea after Tempurpedic™ kept bombarding me with intimidating brochures. The envelopes read like little death threats: “Open this envelope right now, Sabine Heinlein! This is your last chance!” What would’ve happened if I had ordered a few hundred samples! (Or if I wouldn’t have opened the envelope.) Covered with flowers, Studded with nails, Slip under the blanket… I wanted to burn those thick brochures, but instead started to use them to line my pet rabbit’s litter box.

Mr. Rabbit has certain preferences when it comes to his litter: It mustn’t be too soft, it has to be highly absorbent, and God forbid if I don’t arrange it neatly. My rabbit and I had both come to appreciate the thickness of the Sunday Times, but we were thankful for the little extra absorbance the generous mailings from the Tempurpedic™ folks provided. That is, until he began acting a little nervous. Was it the aggressive tone of their pitches? Or dreams of drowning in space-age foam? Whatever the case, I went back to using just the Times.

Rather than purchasing the Tempurpedic™ with funds I clearly don’t have, I decided to follow a more modest route and visit Sleepy’s. I entered my first Sleepy’s in Midtown Manhattan through an elevator that took me up to the show room on the second floor. Strangely, the worst thing about buying a new mattress isn’t the wealth of choices; it is the mattress salesmen.

Of all the salesmen I encountered on my mattress crusade, I liked this first one the very best. He did the store’s name some credit for he was actually asleep when I arrived. If he had been peacefully snoozing on one of the memory foam mattresses it would have clenched my choice. Unfortunately it was his office chair he was snoring on. Being a considerate shopper, I sneaked back out of the store on tippy toes. From there I went to another Sleepy’s just a few blocks down.

“Welcome to Sleepy’s! My name is Steve,” a wide-awake young professional greeted me. He asked what I was looking for and swiftly led me to one of his cheaper memory foam mattresses. He urged me to lie down. But naptime was over when I told him that I didn’t need a foundation because I already had one. “How high is your foundation?” he wanted to know. I pointed about three feet off the ground. His eyes widened with incredulity

“Noooo! That’s too high!”

“It’s worked for me so far,” I responded.

“But how you gonna get up there?” What did he mean by that? I’m not obese, I wasn’t using crutches. My feet and hands are beautifully shaped, if I may say so.

“I jump,” I said. He shook his head in disbelief and asked what I was keeping under my bed, a question I found a bit inappropriate. Who knows what some people keep underneath their mattresses? The space under one’s bed is nobody’s business. It is reserved for nightmarish creatures, undeclared earnings, useless crap and sometimes bunny rabbits. Before I could respond he added, “Drawers?”

“No drawers,” I said. “It is a hollow wooden structure. I store things underneath. Anything I don’t need on a daily basis. Suitcases, my ironing board, a surfboard.” I lied. I don’t have an ironing board or a surfboard, but I wanted to say something that made me sound neat and athletic. I also wanted to spare him the details about a rabbit who considers that space his own kingdom and turns into a monster if anyone reaches under the bed without knocking first. I proudly added: “I built it myself,” which clearly had the opposite effect I intended. I detected pity and deep sympathy in his eyes.

I quickly realized that it was hard to endure any mattress salesman for more than 10 minutes at a time. I decided to expand my research territory. After all, like 7-11’s in the rest of the country, Sleepy’s lurks on every corner in New York.

But before I moved on I noted down the first three conclusions as follows:

1. There are numerous companies producing memory foam mattresses for less than $2000, and they all have slightly incestuous names like Posturepedic, Therapedic, Posturetemp, etc. etc.

2. What the memory foam does is always the same; what varies is its thickness and the thickness of the supporting conventional foam layer underneath.

3. Mattress salesmen are curious people, sometimes asleep, sometimes awake.

The next Sleepy’s was located only a couple of blocks west. Again, a clean-cut gentleman rushed towards. “Welcome to Sleepy’s. My name is Jerry. How can I help you?” I briefly explained my situation, and he unexpectedly informed me that it was Father’s Day. “Really?” I said wondering what that had to do with my choice of mattress. He continued, “For our Father’s Day Sale everything is 30% off.” Father’s Day Sale! Noticing my skepticism, Jerry added, “And since you are my first customer today, you can get this mattress here for—” He punched the big keys of his old-fashioned calculator. “For $750, taxes and delivery included.” He looked up from his calculations with the eagerness of a child at Christmas. His excitement lessened when he saw that I was still not completely convinced. Where was I? On a souk in Marrakech? I was once forced to buy a carpet on a street market there. What started as a friendly negotiation ended with a knife on my ex-boyfriend’s neck. Ever since then, special, special offers make me very, very suspicious. But the mattress salesman had another trick up his sleeve: “If you leave a $25 deposit today, we will hold this offer for you for 60 days. Your $25 are fully refundable if you decide not to buy the mattress.”

Every day is Father’s Day for a measly $25! Or at least for the next 60 days. And of course after that there will be Easter, then Chanukah, then Labor Day, then Christmas, then Memorial Day, then Mother’s Day, then Kwanza and then, once again, Father’s Day (not necessarily in that order, though). What it boils down to is that you could be getting your fucking mattress any day for a reasonable price; and on those rare days that celebrate no special occasion you would be paying far too much.

After some fretting from me and some reassuring talk from Jerry, I laid down the deposit and decided to sleep on it. My old coils and the mattress salesmen had worn me out, and I simply didn’t have the patience left to make a choice. The next day I returned to Sleepy’s, where I encountered yet another mattress salesman. Where did Jerry go? “I laid down a deposit for a mattress, but I have one more question…” I started. “Yeah, what is it?” the new salesman growled as he pulled up my file. “Oh, nothing.” I gave up and handed my credit card over. The man, who never introduced himself, continued to sigh and moan.

I felt appropriately sleepy when I got back home.

There was a voicemail waiting for me from Sleepy’s. “Hi!” the salesman said cheerfully. “My name is Paul. I wanted to thank you for shopping with Sleepy’s, the mattress professionals. If you have a moment give me a call back and let me know how you experienced shopping at Sleepy’s.”

I apologize for not calling you back, Paul, but your mattress professionals exhausted me. But if you must know, Paul, I really like my new mattress. It is as comfy as a bowl of water, as a cloud, as… I’m sorry, but I’ve run out of metaphors for the moment. I need to lie down and rest.

Epilogue: Paul wasn’t the only one who made an effort to keep in touch. A few days into my new mattress experience I received more mail from Tempurpedic™. Hesitantly, I opened the envelope. “I hope you’ll understand why I’m so disappointed,” Dany began despairingly. (Dany made it sound like I had promised her love but then, with no warning, kicked her out of bed.) Evidently she is so disappointed because I have not yet bought my Tempurpedic™ mattress. She helpfully lists what might be jeopardizing our once promising relationship:

1. Inadequate description of the advantages of Tempurpedic™ mattresses.

2. Misunderstanding over the money-back-guaranty.

3. Insufficient communication about Tempurpedic™’s real affordability.

A fourth possibility never occurred to her: I had been cuckolding her with some mattress salesmen.

Mattress professionals are eloquent, utterly persistent, yet vulnerable people. Dany, Paul, Jerry and Steve, this is to all of you: Live your life on or under your own mattress, be it visco-elastic, box spring or latex. As for me, I have to go find the right pillow to rest my tired head on.

She’s in her wheelchair
when we first see her,
her frame too frail to support
a precipitous weight gain.
With her back to us,
she looks through a picture window,
unmoving as we enter,
our steps cautious, voices low.

It’s my boyfriend and I,
my dad and stepmother.
Our greetings rise in pitch
and my grandmother turns,
smiles: “Oh, well look at this.”
I hug her sloped shoulders,
place a kiss on her cool cheek;
others do their version.

We chat about the usual—
where we’re living these days,
folks we’ve seen, “those darn
Mariners, just can’t catch
a break.” I circle the dim room,
pausing to handle and remark
on the odds and ends
that line every available surface—

The sock monkey, Beanie Babies,
plastic Kewpie dolls; model cars
and a tiny 747, testament
to my grandmother’s Boeing days.
And the bulletin boards!
Old news clippings,
photos of first husband
and every child and grandchild,

Reno and Maui trips
with her last love, long dead.
“I don’t know how I wound up
with all this junk,” she says,
her bright eyes a giveaway
(she knows, loves it).
Then, with conversation steering
to a close, comes a story

Of a pregnant cat my grandmother
would watch for hours at a time
some days, sit at her window
and just watch this cat
as it slunk around the bushes
across the street. Until one day
last week when she stopped appearing—
poof, gone.

“I’m just sure she went into those
bushes to have her kittens,
see. And I’m worried about her,
because you know I just haven’t
seen her and I’m afraid some-
thing might have happened.
I tell you I’ve been at that window
every day just waiting for her.”

We say our goodbyes shortly after.
From the parking lot, I glance
up to find my grandmother back
at her window, waiting anxiously
for that cat of hers to reemerge
a mother, as she, Grandma,
is a mother, as she will always
be a mother, even in dying.

I was seven months old when I attended my first Mardi Gras parade. It was cold by New Orleans standards, so I was bundled up like a teeny tiny Michelin Man. From what I can tell from the photos, I couldn’t bend my arms, much less catch beads. I’m sure my grandmother took care of that for me anyway.

Mardi Gras nuts run in my family. My grandfather and great grandfather both rode in multiple parades each year. My grandmother’s house was right on the parade route, and her porch was THE place to be. She’d cook tons of delicious food throughout the Carnival season. She dove for beads and dabloons like a woman half her age and kept an ice chest of cold beer at her side to trade for the most prized throws.

I definitely got the Mardi Gras genes. At the height of my participation in Mardi Gras, I was in four parades and made nine costumes, including one for the dog. I bought my house in 2001 partly because of its proximity to a particularly choice portion of the parade route. When I decided to leave New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, I set the closing date for the sale of my house after Mardi Gras so I wouldn’t have to find another place to stay.

I’ve been a NOLA expat for nearly four years now, and I’ve only been back for Mardi Gras once, the first year. I met other expat friends down there, and we had a ball. I did all my usual things, but it was different.

Since then, I’ve had really good reasons not to go back. In 2008, I had just started a new job. Finances were tight as I was still paying for the adoption of my daughter who would be coming home later that year. I teared up a bit in my cube that day. Last year, I was a new mom and not ready to take on the Mardi Gras crowds with my baby. We went home for St. Patrick’s Day instead. As I boarded the plane to return to North Carolina, I swore that I would be back for Mardi Gras this year.

The economy has caused me to tighten my belt quite a bit, but in all honesty, I could have afforded to go home this year if I really wanted to be there. Fact is, it just didn’t seem that important. As the time grew near and I knew I wasn’t going to be there, I waited for the homesickness to rear its ugly head but all I felt was, meh…

Mardi Gras is a magical time, but it’s more magical when you live there. Waking up in your own bed, wading through the glitter and feathers covering your house to find your costume, and making your way past neighbors who are dressed as butterflies, giant crawfish, or demon George Bushes is what makes that magic. Once you’ve had that experience and you go back as a tourist, it just doesn’t measure up to the memories of having Mardi Gras happen in the middle of your regular life. 

I don’t feel sad that we aren’t down on Frenchman Street this afternoon. I grieve that my daughter will never know what it’s like to run into her teacher dressed as a cancan dancer in the French Quarter. And beyond Mardi Gras, she’ll never be playing in the back yard on a regular Saturday afternoon in the spring, hear a brass band leading a Second Line parade in the distance, and run through the house to the front door to join the folks dancing behind the musicians. She won’t go around the corner to a neighbor’s house to get a lucky bean or delicious Italian cookie from their food-covered St. Joseph’s Day altar. Even though those things are really wonderful, New Orleans lacks many of the other things our multiracial family needs. Despite all the magic of the City, I’m not willing risk my daughter’s future on a place as fragile as New Orleans.

So it’s two o’clock in the afternoon on Mardi Gras, and I’m in a coffee shop nowhere near New Orleans working and writing an essay. I’m okay with that.

In her last years my grandmother Ida Mattern, when visiting my parents in the small town in Lower Saxony, could be seen sitting neatly dressed on the brown plush sofa, her back to the tall windows. A crocheted kerchief in her hand, she read the yellow presses and did crossword puzzles. She had taken to Boris Becker and tennis, and if he was playing, she watched the match on TV. Once every day, my mother took her on a short walk around the candy factory where my father worked, or to the nearby woods.

Past eighty, Oma Ida was frail, yet when I sat down next to her on the sofa, she grabbed my hand and squeezed it ferociously. I have the nose of my grandmother, a big nose. Sweaty hands run in our family. When we were done watching Boris, we sat in silence, with damp hands and eyes.

On photographs, she wears a grim expression, even in moments of familial harmony. Her highest compliment on her daughter’s cooking – and my mom was able to show her love only through cooking and baking – was “the hunger drives it in.” This was meant as a joke, and it always failed. Since her fifties, Oma Ida hadn’t spoken to her sister who lived nearby in the city of Hanover. Why she refused was not entirely clear to any of us. Maybe it was because Bertha was the more flamboyant, more successful one. She had a grand apartment, her daughter was a well-known dancer, and unlike my grandmother, she still had a husband. Oma Ida forbade her daughters to contact Bertha and never relented.

In a sad twist, my aunt and mother replicated the elders’ relationship. In the summer of 1977, when I was eleven, we went on vacation to Denmark and forgot to call Nadi on her birthday. We had celebrated in advance, just before we left, but Nadi never forgave my mom, and we were not allowed to ever set foot in her house again.

Sweaty hands and depression run in the Mattern family, and Oma Ida, on Christmas Eve of 1972, went into the infamous Landeskrankenhaus Lüneburg, a mental institution, and spent two more extended periods there, never fully shaking off her demons. Oma Ida was seeing skulls, was the message we received over the phone, and hours later – it wasn’t even dark yet – we celebrated Christmas for my grandmother’s sake. I feared that this mysterious illness was contagious. When my uncle and aunt drove Oma Ida off to the psychiatric ward, I was convinced I would be next.

From the few photos she was able to save from her past, young Ida with a large face, large eyes and thin blond hair is awkwardly smiling at me. It’s the late thirties in East Prussia, and in some of them, she is riding a bike. No one in the family had a car, and you either walked or rode your bike to town.

What I remember best, though, and later stole from my parents, is her wedding picture. My grandfather Willi, whom I never met, is balding at twenty-four. There’s a sweetness in his face, around the shiny brown eyes, that makes him look gentle, a sweetness my mom inherited. What the picture doesn’t show is what my mother never got over. She had already been born, and this wedding only sealed the family shame.



My grandfather, a waiter, and his family, had not wanted marriage, and hoped that the baby, my mom, would die before birth. Yet there must have been love between Ida and Willi. What kind I can’t fathom. Two years after my mom, Nadi was born. A year later, in 1942, Willi, who had been drafted, was shot dead far away from his village in East Prussia. My family has always been vague on details. I learned early on in childhood that these questions were taboo. They caused my mom to break down and cry at the kitchen table where she had been cutting beans. They caused my grandmother to lower her head and fall silent, to stick out her chin and knead her crocheted kerchief in her hand.

There was a strength in Ida Mattern that still frightens my mother. Oma Ida is never mentioned lightly in my parents’ house, as if she could still overhear us. When toward the end of the war, in the winter of ’44, the Russian army advanced, she left the house with her two daughters to never return. Their bus was attacked by fighter planes, their train was bombed, but she kept on going until she arrived in the West. After ‘45, poor and never welcomed by her new neighbors, she earned her living as a seamstress, before she finally received a small widow’s pension.

In 1998 she died at eighty-three. Because I was traveling from New Mexico back to Buffalo, NY, I didn’t learn of her death until a week later. In my mind she remains unburied, though I have since visited her grave.

Sweaty hands, depression, and a belief in the supernatural run in her family. Oma Ida maintained that there was more “between Heaven and Earth” than you could know all her life, and she had her reasons. My mother too, though trying at times to be religious, was drawn to her pagan side. In her teens, a wise woman read her palm and predicted she would marry and have two kids. “And she was right,” Mom would say importantly, having my sister and me for proof.

There must have been love between Ida and Willi. She never married again—never, as far as I know, even considered another suitor. In 1942, the death of her husband was too much to bear for my grandmother. She was twenty-eight, neglected her children, who often had to stay with relatives. Her house was tiny, built by an uncle and his men, and at night she sat outside on the stoop and cried. A week after the burial, she called out for him, called his name. She blamed her husband for his death, blamed him for abandoning her and the daughters. “Willi,” she cried. “Come back.”

And he came. My grandmother described the apparition as a whitish, milky light, not unlike a fluttering shawl coming toward her. She said she was frightened, and at the same time felt consoled. She couldn’t bring out a word until the light was almost upon her. Then she stammered an apology. “I’m sorry, Willi,” she said. “I won’t cry anymore. Go back. I’ll be okay. I won’t cry. Go back to sleep, dear.”

She had a strength that frightened us. She never let on how much she missed her husband, her sister, or the peace between her daughters. She never talked about her hospital stays. Only once in a while she said she was too tired to go on. “Let me die,” she said, and we would look at her in silence until she fell silent too. In most pictures, she wears a grim expression.