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.

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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.

2 responses to “A Thousand Words: Ghost Story”

  1. […] Hall of Fame In an essay entitled “A Thousand Words: Ghost Story”, author Stefan Kiesbye reflects on his grandmother, Oma Ida, her lost husband, Willi, and the […]

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