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all the light we cannot seeAnthony Doerr’s sentences are as perfect and precise as the crystals and seashells he writes about. Open his new novel to any page, pull out any sentence, and you’ll find his lyrical perfect pitch. “That first peach slithers down his throat like rapture. A sunrise in his mouth” he says about his protagonist. We could say the same thing about Doerr’s prose.

Motherland_FINALHannesburg, December 1944

 

When Liesl heard the noise from the cellar, her hand shook and the coffee spilled. The liquid spread in claws across the counter, its color neither brown nor red nor black, but some combination of all three, earthen and old. A hopeless feeling rose in her chest. She had discovered the grounds deep in the pantry yesterday, tucked behind a post, in a tiny tin next to a tiny pot of jam, both labeled in the first wife’s hand. It was surely the last real coffee in all of Hannesburg, boiled with the last of the morning coal, the sharp selfish heaven of its scent rising toward her face. Then it splashed everywhere.

JD Salinger Portrait Session

In “Just Before the War with the Eskimos,” a story in J. D. Salinger’s second book, Nine Stories (1953)—his first was his novel The Catcher in the Rye (1951)—all four characters, two girls in their teens and two men in their early twenties, are so vividly drawn and speak in such perfectly rendered idiomatic American English that the reader might be watching them in a movie.  These days the story also has the quality of a faultless antique: a Manhattan taxi fare, for example, comes to 65 cents.

Zapruder Frame 366

The most iconic movie in American, if not world, history was shot on November 22, 1963, with an 8-millimeter Bell & Howell camera owned and operated by the cofounder of Jennifer Juniors, a Dallas, Texas, womenswear company. The movie—which soon became known as the Zapruder film, so called after its maker—is silent and less than thirty seconds long, yet it was effectively squelched for more than a decade. Select frames from the film were published in such magazines as LifeAbraham Zapruder sold the copyright to Time Life the day after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the film’s subject—just as frames were published in the Warren Commission’s voluminous report on the Kennedy assassination, but, except for bootleg copies, the film itself was unavailable to the public. The Warren Commission had concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald, an avowed Marxist and repatriated defector to the Soviet Union, was solely responsible for the death of Kennedy, firing three shots at the presidential limousine from the Texas School Book Depository, where Oswald worked for $1.25 per hour as a stock boy. The FBI had likewise concluded that Oswald acted alone, and many assumed that Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, had established the Warren Commission precisely to corroborate the FBI’s finding and to quiet talk of conspiracy. The scarcity of the Zapruder film had the opposite effect.

While the twenty-third Bond flick Skyfall enjoys its record-breaking box office debut, the auto and lifestyle online magazine Web2Carz is featuring an exclusive interview by Steve Karras with the man who’d shaped the look of the franchise in its earlier years – award-winning production designer Sir Ken Adam.  Adam has seven of the Bond films to his credits in addition to films like Agnes of God, The Madness of King George, and Dr. Strangelove. In the interview Adam discusses his family’s escape from Nazi Germany, his time in the RAF, 007, and his work with Stanley Kubrick.

In the late 1990s, my Dad, who had just turned 70, was being interviewed by a very young nurse. She read in his record that he was a veteran. She asked which war he had served in: “Desert Storm?” No, Dad said. Guess again. “Vietnam?” No. “Well, then, which one?” Dad told her that he had served in the Civil War. “I’ve never met a Civil War veteran!” she exclaimed. Later, my Mom heard this nurse telling her colleagues, “Did you know that Mr. Bieler was in the Civil War?”

 

I live in an apartment in Dijon, France that is centrally located between the train station and the original Maille mustard shop where tourists come to sample the sinus-clearing condiments that the town is famous for.Our home is situated off a pleasant side street that remains quiet even during the bustling hours of the week.We have a view out of our third-floor window onto the gothic Saint-Benigne cathedral with the gold, red and green roof tiles traditional to the Burgundy region.

In the foreground of the cathedral, stands a slightly newer stone building.It’s a residence like ours, but one that also houses the offices of a psychotherapist and a dentist, both on the ground floor.Its north side is covered in lush green ivy.

This building was also, once, the headquarters of the Gestapo.


The Informers coverTHE INFORMERS

I am ashamed to admit that until I read Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s The Informers (Riverhead, 2009), my impressions of the author’s native Colombia came largely from multiple adolescent viewings of the Kathleen Turner-Michael Douglas movie Romancing the Stone.

My father served in the 10th Mountain Division, in the Second Battalion of the 86th Infantry Division from 1943-1945. He participated in the bitter cold February offensive against the enemy position on Mt. Belvedere in the northern Apennines, overlooking Highway 65 into Bologna-a baptism by fire for the newly formed alpine division, which resulted in a decisive victory known by the Americans as the capturing of Riva Ridge.

Belvedere had previously been taken and lost by Allied forces repeatedly. The Germans had the benefit of many entrenchments (including fortified bunkers, trip-wired booby traps and hidden “shoe” mines, not to mention the crucial tactical advantage of controlling the heights. The skills and courage of the 10th Mountain Division in rockclimbing, mountaineering and navigation under extreme winter combat conditions played the key role-and eliminated the threat of anti-aircraft strikes from the ground, allowing bombers from the 22nd Tactical Air Force to fly with impunity, carpeting the region with incendiary bombs (which prompted the Germans to call the situation Die berge in flammen, “the mountain in flames.”

From this success, my father’s outfit was directed to lead the Fifth Army’s offensive to take control of the Po River Valley. In the words of my father’s friend, 1st Lieutenant Frederick Fisher of the 85th Infantry, “The 10th was the only outfit that got any opposition at the Po River. It was artillery fire from about twenty 88 mm guns. We had moved in so fast that air cover couldn’t support.”

It was in the course of this action that my father sustained a shrapnel wound in the leg from mortar fire, for which he received a Purple Heart.

He was born on April 4, 1924 to parents who made their living as commercial artists. The family moved soon after to a gray Dutch shingle house in a part of Minneapolis that was still relatively rural then, allowing my dad the freedom to camp in the woods and go exploring with friends, enjoying a decidedly innocent and adventurous childhood view of the Depression years. One of the only points of contact with his stern and hardworking father was a love of the outdoors and shared experiences fishing, camping, skiing and snow shoeing.

This love of nature and the skills to enjoy it would be heightened when the family moved to a more rural property on West Mountain Road in Ridgefield, CT, where my father later graduated from high school. Although conflict continued between father and son, there was reconciliation prior to my grandfather’s sudden death, and it may be that this reconciliation heightened my father’s passion for the outdoor pursuits they had shared.

World War II began during his first year at the University of Connecticut. According to his diary, “I joined the Enlisted Reserve Corp because my eyes weren’t good enough for the Air Force or V-12 Navy program, and then elected the newly formed 10th Mountain Division because I saw a notice on the gym board, Men wanted for new unit, 10th Mountain Division – skiing and camping experience necessary, rockclimbing helpful.

He went on to train at Camp Hale in Colorado, a newly established military installation at what was formerly a railway stop on the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad near the wild and woolly mining town of Leadville. His diary recalls the ruggedness of the conditions. “March in Colorado is colder than a witch’s you-know-what. 20 feet of snow at 10,000 feet.”

He excelled at skiing (not quite a sport at this point in America) and was in his element with other young men who enjoyed the same things. Rockclimbing in Holy Cross Valley, a turkey roast on bivouac and winning one of the big ski races were happy memories, offset by the suicide of his friend Duke and his being passed over for Sergeant for not having an “aggressive enough temperament.”

Upon completion of the high altitude mountaineering and combat training, his division was transferred to Camp Swift in Texas (just east of Austin), to acclimatize them for large scale national maneuvers in Louisiana. Why an elite unit of alpine trained soldiers would be sent into the swamps of Louisiana was something which baffled many people in America, including of course the young men who were forced to switch gears so suddenly-wondering all the time when they would be deployed in Europe. In real fighting-and snow.

Throughout this military training period he underwent a period of increasing tension-in part of course due to the anxiety of going to war, but also because of a war going on within himself about his religious faith. (His grandfather on his mother’s side had been a famous Baptist preacher and missionary into what was in the 1880’s, the wilderness of Minnesota). Did he really have any faith? What kind? Was it enough? This period of deep searching and increasing stress culminated in one of the most significant moments in his life…as his diary relates.

“A critical incident happened on a night maneuver when I was standing watch between 2 AM and 4 AM. I had a vivid impression of a vision of Christ. Jesus comes as one unknown, as of old he came to them by the lakeside in Galilee, and he speaks to us the same words. Follow me…for those who hear in his voice…in their suffering, in their trials and in their silences, they will come to know in their own experience who he is.”

The Louisiana maneuvers were canceled soon after and my father’s division immediately dispatched to the Italian Alps to confront real action and a very real enemy-freezing weather-ruined churches, starving children. His vision on guard duty would go on to have a profound influence in his choice of career-he later became a minister. But it played an even more important role in his war experience. Here are his words recounting the action leading up to his wounding on a chaotic day in April 1945, just after his 21st birthday.

“Artillery fire bursting all around. Mines had killed a large number of men and mules. My best friend Jack was killed by German mortar fire. When I went forward to take his place-seven miles through smoking villages and mine fields…had very little fear. God was with me. When I was hit later that day and started to lose blood, I still knew it would be OK. Days later, waking up in the hospital in Montecatini was almost like being in heaven.”

Of the 10th Mountain Division during World War II, 997 men died and over 4,000 men were wounded in 114 days of fighting. I was pleased to read the following poem at a special gathering honoring the achievements of this unique American fighting force in Washington DC.

AVALANCHE LILIES

Only the keen eye
of a Nazi rifle sight could see
that a seemingly empty alpine meadow
might be deadly
with snowmen-

White hoods moving
in moonlight reconnaissance,
silent except the sudden scrape
of a ski edge striking
a blue spark
of hidden ice.

Of all my father’s stories,
I’m haunted hardest
by the tales of his time
with the 10th Mountain Division-
visions of nightblooming parachutes
and the fear of ambush,
of Riva Ridge and the secret
of sleeping in the snow caves.

I close my eyes and I can see him
bivouacked with his weird patrol
beneath the winter and the war,
reading of Lazarus out loud
from his breastpocket Bible
with the iron cover to keep
bullets from finding his heart.

Too young to be men,
too old to be boys,
they breathed their brightest lives
as ghosts, rising each day
in clouds of flesh
to telemark and stillhunt,
fresh from the deeper
camouflage of sleep.

*For more information on the colorful history of the 10th Mountain Division, visit the following websites.

Hal Burton has also written an excellent book call The Ski Troops, published by Simon & Schuster in 1971.

Puo-puo

By Angela Tung

Essay

I was nervous about seeing my grandmother.

“Puo-puo’s really different now, huh?” I asked my brother.

Greg shifted gears, speeding down the Los Angeles freeway towards our uncle’s house in Fullerton. “Yeah,” he said. “Before she had some expression. Now nothing.”

My boyfriend Alex patted my arm. “At least you’ll have the chance to see her,” he said.

I nodded and didn’t finish: Before it’s too late.

The last time I saw my grandmother was two years earlier at a family reunion in Las Vegas. Even then she was slower, her speech slurred, her movements heavy. But she was still herself, playing the same quarter on slots for hours, scarfing down crab legs by the plateful at the all-you-can-eat buffet, beaming when she saw any of her grandchildren.

Now my parents greeted us at the door. Normally my uncle Wen Meng looked after Puo-puo, but that Thanksgiving he and my aunt were in Boston visiting her side of the family. To help out, my aunt Ping had flown in from Connecticut and my parents from New Jersey.

My brother and I were trying to convince our parents to move to California. Earlier that fall Alex and I had moved to San Francisco from New York, and Greg had been living in L.A. since the late ‘90s. But I knew they’d have a hard time giving up their mass of friends back east, mah-jongg every Tuesday and karaoke on the weekends. For now they’d make do with visits to my grandmother.

As everyone hugged hellos, I glanced around. No Puo-puo. Hearing voices from the second floor, I went up. In one of the bedrooms, an emaciated old lady lay unmoving. Her hair was flat and gray. As I got closer, I saw that most of her bottom teeth were missing. The nurse sat beside her, holding her hand and talking softly.

I gently lowered myself on the bed. “Puo-puo?” I said.

Slowly she turned towards me. Her eyes were on me, but I didn’t know if she saw.

#

My grandmother was born in Weihai, a small port city on the northern tip of Shandong province. The youngest of four, she was the family favorite: vivacious, charming, and always ready with a story. She was enormously clever, or neng-gan, as the Chinese said. She read books lickety-split and drew characters as well as any calligrapher. She stitched the finest embroidery and wrapped the most delicious jiao-zi. She could kill a chicken with one swoop of an ax.

By eighteen, she had grown into one of the most beautiful girls in town. It made sense that the handsome youngest son of the richest family would want to marry her. She didn’t even care that he was only a teacher, and would never make much money himself.

During the Communist Revolution in the late 1940s, my grandfather was imprisoned and tortured. He was released, but as a wealthy intellectual, he’d always be a target. He had to run. First he fled to his sister’s house in Qingdao, a larger city across the peninsula. A year later, my grandmother and their children joined them. It was a long and difficult wagon ride.

“The sun was so hot,” Puo-puo liked to say when reminded of that time. “I was holding your uncle Wen Meng and had to cover his face with a blanket, or else he’d have been burned.”

They all hid in Qingdao for another year, my grandparents and their three children, my mother included, crowded into my great-aunt’s small house. Still somehow Puo-puo managed to get pregnant again. Aunt Ping was born right before they left China for good.

On the month-long boat ride to Taiwan, everyone was seasick every day. “Many people died,” said my mother, who was seven at the time. “Puo-puo wouldn’t let us out of her sight.” They made it to the small island. Poor as peasants, they scrimped and saved and worked hard, and eventually, one by one, Gong-gong and Puo-puo’s five children left to make their fortune, via grad school, in the States.

#

Puo-puo came to the U.S. in 1972, the year I was born. My father was finishing his PhD at UC Berkeley and my mother was working at a bank in downtown San Francisco. I spent so much time with my grandmother that I picked up her Weihai accent. A shy child, I clung to her when confronted with a roomful of strangers.

When I was two, we moved to New Jersey, where my father got a job as a research scientist. A year and a half later, my brother was born, and Puo-puo joined us once again, as she would off and on for the rest of my childhood.

By the time I knew her, my grandmother was fat, though that didn’t stop her from criticizing me when I gained weight. Her sparse hair was permed into tight curls and dyed jet black. When she went out, she wore powder and lipstick, and draped herself in jade, pearls, and gold. Once I caught her trying on a fancy sequined black dress in the middle of the afternoon, in preparation for an upcoming party. She giggled at her vanity.

My grandmother was also fun. While my mother was grouchy and often yelled at me and my brother, Puo-puo liked to laugh. Once I told her, “Close your eyes,” and put on her hand a fake mouse on a string. As I moved it, her face puckered with curiosity and she looked down. Seeing the mouse, she screamed and jumped away, then broke down laughing when she realized it wasn’t real.

She never learned to speak English, except thank you and hello. She was a great mah-jongg player and a terrible karaoke singer. “Puo-puo’s singing sounds like a cat being microwaved,” a cousin once said. After more than fifty years of marriage, Gong-gong still trailed her like a love sick school boy, first from Taiwan to the U.S., then back and forth between the coasts.

“Puo-puo visits us,” my mother once said. “And Gong-gong follows.” A decade later my grandmother would stand crying at his grave, while her children left offerings of flowers and his favorite foods.

Her hands were strong. She often stood at the counter rolling out dough for dumplings, steamed bread, and scallion pancakes. Sometimes she took the extra dough and molded doves for me. (I was always disappointed when they’d start to crack and harden.)

When I was losing my baby teeth, I had one that was particularly stubborn. My parents kept saying I should let them wrest it out, but I refused.

“Little Gem, let me see it,” Puo-puo said, calling me by my nickname.

“Don’t pull it out,” I begged.

“I won’t,” she promised. “I just want to look at it.”

As I went up to her with open mouth, she promptly grabbed the loose incisor and twisted it. Hard.

Crying out, I yanked myself away. I didn’t know what I found more offensive, the pain or Puo-puo’s bald-faced lie. I locked myself in the bathroom and blotted my gum with a tissue. I inhaled, and the tooth came out. I emerged triumphant, excited about receiving another dollar from the tooth fairy, having already forgotten what my grandmother had done.

That same year Puo-puo slipped and fell in our dining room, breaking her wrist. It was night time, after dinner, and she had been carrying a load of laundry. Now she lay groaning amidst the previously folded T-shirts and underwear. My mother hovered tearfully while my father called 911. From the living room, I brought over a large pillow, as though that would help.

The ambulance came. I was surprised at how bright the lights were, how they blinded me as I stood in the cold doorway. The next day the kids at the bus stop, who never talked to me, asked what happened. I was surprised that they had seen the ambulance too, that it wasn’t contained in my own small world.

#

Many years later, when I became engaged to a Korean man, I knew Puo-puo didn’t approve. I was never sure why. Was it really only because she didn’t find him handsome enough? That at five eight, she thought he was too short? Maybe too she sensed his distance: he thought his family was better than ours. Unlike my mother, his was soft-spoken. Mom’s cooking was too salty, our background wasn’t prestigious enough. His parents were doing me a favor by accepting me.

When we divorced four years later, my mother couldn’t bring herself to tell my grandmother. Instead she told Aunt Ping, who unlike Puo-puo, kept her judgments to herself. Mom allowed Ping to tell their mother.

Puo-puo was horrified. Not only had my ex cheated on me, but the woman had gotten pregnant.

“Who is she?” she kept asking Aunt Ping. “Some Korean woman?”

Aunt Ping wouldn’t relay the details about the random neighbor my ex had forged a seemingly innocent friendship with over the years. Puo-puo’s imagination churned.

“Little Gem deserves someone so much better,” she said. “She deserves someone who’s her match.”

Three years after my divorce, I fell in love again. Tall with a shaved head and goatee, Alex resembled an ex-convict, but his blue eyes warmed when he smiled. He was a computer programmer who played jazz guitar. He cooked good southern food and was nice to my mother. After just a few months, we moved in together and started talking about kids.

My mother loved his jokes and friendliness; my father admired his handiness around both software and a socket wrench. Quickly he became like another son to them.

I couldn’t wait to introduce him to Puo-puo. I knew she’d love him, that she’d think he was my match.

#

Now I leaned down to her ear. “It’s Little Gem!” I shouted. Half deaf for years, Puo-puo didn’t even bother wearing her hearing aid anymore. “It’s Little Gem!” I pointed at my nose, Chinese style.

Her eyes locked with mine, but she didn’t speak or smile. My brother said just a few months ago, she had smiled at him. Did she recognize me? Later I’d try to introduce her to Alex, but couldn’t tell if she had heard, if she understood what this strange Caucasian man was doing there. I didn’t know if she saw how we nestled together on the couch, how he kissed me freely in front of everyone, how happy I was now. I didn’t know if she saw now that I was okay.

Slowly she reached her hand towards mine. I grabbed hold of it, and found that it was still strong.


I confronted eschatology too young. Although benign compared to some beliefs, my Catholic upbringing placed me at the sidelines of Armageddon—strange references to a kingdom come, the Second Coming, Judgment Day. I got queasy at the mention of the Book of Revelations. Sermons and syntactically-strained Bible readings led me to infer a tremendous destructive end to all life, human, animal, insect, plant. There were drawings in books, filled with fire, angels and demons, a sea of the damned. For a child, it’s impossible to reconcile a loving Father with one who will kill every one of his children with wanton violence. Children also don’t grasp metaphor.

The stories start right after Sunday lunch.

We are all crammed around our tiny kitchen table – me, my brother, my parents, my fraternal grandmother, and my maternal grandfather. The table only fits four, so my Dad is sitting on the office chair brought out from the living room and I am sitting on a small, red leather stool that’s usually in the hallway. I am wedged between my brother, my grandfather, and the dishwasher.

Our Sunday lunches – golden chicken soup, Wiener schnitzel with potatoes and cucumber salad, brownies – start late and end quickly. Toward the end of the meal the others know what is coming and they start to scramble towards the living room right after the last bite of dessert.

It is probably my position at first – too far from the door with no obvious escape route – that makes me the perfect audience for my grandfather’s stories. Later I feel too polite and too invested to get up and leave with the others.  

So I load the dishwasher and sit back on my little red stool and prepare myself for a long afternoon.

Most of the stories I already know by heart. There is the story about my great-grandfather who sold jewelry to patrons of a gentleman’s club and then bought back from the ladies who worked there.  Or the story about the time my grandfather hid in an attic for three months from the Nazis, living on water and beans while Budapest was being bombed. Or the time he took 25 orphan girls from Budapest to Romania on a cattle car right after the war by tricking other passengers into believing that they all had typhoid fever.

There are many, many stories about my grandmother, who walked for three days in November 1944 to the Austrian-Hungarian border on the way to Dachau Concentration Camp.  He talks about their life once the camp was liberated by the Americans. My grandfather made his way there on falsified Russian military papers to find my grandmother alive, working as a translator for the Dachau War Criminals Tribunal. There is the story about Maxi, the Peugeot 202 they bought after the war in Dachau for 60 Marks. About the BMW motorcycle they brought back to Budapest in a wooden crate and sold to buy furniture for the apartment where my little red stool is now my perch in the kitchen.

So many stories, they are hard to keep straight. Times, names, places change as he tells them the third or fourth or fifth time, but I am 14 and I don’t bother with the details or inconsistencies. After a while, it all seems like one big fairy tale – parts of it true, parts of it fantasy about a long-gone era and people, including my grandmother who died of cancer when my mom was 18. The questions I do have – like why did he prepare a hiding place for himself but not for my grandmother or how he knew that she was alive – seem too sensitive to ask.

My grandfather’s stories, his 28-page memoir and my grandmother’s brief description of the war tribunals make Dachau sound like a place where American soldiers hand out Hershey bars and nylon stockings.  My grandmother has detailed descriptions of how many cigarettes the SS officers – by then prisoners of war held by the Americans – received per week during the trials. But nothing about what she saw or went through before the liberating troops arrived.  There are no personal side notes, no observances, no reflections about the place and the time and her role in it.

For a long time I don’t really know what it all means and I am not really sure what to do with the stories. As I get older, leave home, and move to the U.S., I feel a vague sense of responsibility to remember what my grandfather told me. There are details that not even my mom knows about, as we find out after my grandfather’s death. I also have a sense that my life in some ways is turning out the way my grandmother would have liked hers to be – the American troops in Dachau did offer her and my grandfather a visa to come to America, but they returned to Budapest instead. It’s a decision that from what I know, my grandmother always regretted.  And now here I am, a U.S. citizen. I feel like this is more than coincidence; that something in my family’s history propelled me to be here.

Almost twenty years after those afternoons in the kitchen, when I first come across this photo on a website about Dachau, I am not even sure it is my grandmother sitting in front of the soldiers, wearing glasses. The pictures I’ve seen of her were taken during summer vacations with lakes and mountains in the background, not with a group of former SS soldiers. The picture was taken during the Malmedy Massacre trials in Dachau, where German soldiers were charged with the killing of 84 American prisoners of war. During the trial, my grandmother was a translator for the defense.

After I find the photo, I am taken aback by the fact that just by typing “Dachau” into Google I find something so personal, something that only existed in anecdotes told over coffee and brownies. The photo makes all of the stories and the people in them real. There she is, my grandmother, who survived Dachau, and who helped to put the bad guys away. It’s real; it’s on the Internet.

The photo also makes me ask whether I am living up to the people behind the stories; whether my story will be worthy of telling someday after a Sunday lunch. I am not really sure. And as much as it felt like a chore to be polite and to listen to my grandfather, looking at the picture I am relieved that I did, that in a way I was a witness to my family’s history – and to mine.

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.

“So many out-of-the-way things had happened lately, that Alice had begun to think that very few things indeed were really impossible.” – Alice in Wonderland

Being a pin-up model was a little like falling down the rabbit hole.

I arrived with bushy hair and a clean face, wearing a t-shirt and jeans, and within an hour I was transformed into a woman from a different era altogether.

There was this sense of disassociating from the moment, of leaving behind the Meghan who is Director of Research and Planning, the Meghan who is modest and self-conscious and self-effacing.

It was like creating a set of characters all my own, like having multiple personalities captured on film.

It was amazing…