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.