Our house hosts, a German couple, Peter and Giesla, lived upstairs in the old stucco house that had been converted to hold six different apartments. In the backyard we had a beautiful vegetable garden that Peter tended to almost daily. In Germany, I learned that placing a small bowl of beer into a little dug out, to be flush with the earth, would attract slugs and this would drown the little destructive suckers. Of course, beer is plentiful in Germany. In fact, I learned much of my gardening skills in Germany. My love of gardening was cultivated in Germany.
Peter and Giesla never had children and they were now in their 60's. All of their family had long moved to America. Their parents, their siblings, everyone close to them lived in America. And here was my husband and I, in the same boat. All the people we loved were in America. So, we all adopted each other. Every holiday, we'd get together and spend a few minutes crying together in our grief from separation, then we'd celebrate like no one can imagine! Mostly, this involved watching German TV together.
When our car broke down, Peter loaned us the money to buy another little used car at the local German auto dealer. He went with us and argued vehemently, as if he were our father, to get us the best deal. That car was probably the best car we've ever owned. Every month, along with the rent, we'd pay our little car note.
Giesla loved American clothes. My mother would constantly mail me warm clothes because she was worried about me moving from Texas to Germany. She would send Walmart colorful sweatsuit outfits. Of course, my mother always saw me larger than I actually was, so the size would be much too large for me, but perfect for Giesla. I'll never forget this tough German woman walking around in her hot pink cotton sweat suit with a flushed expression flooding her face, as if she were a ballerina with stage fright.
One day, Giesla had to drive me to base and I was terrified because I soon discovered that she was completely drunk. You see, she hadn't PLANNED to drive that day, but she did. Another lesson I learned the hard way, don't ask a German to drive.
I never drank, it's not to my liking, but obviously, she did more than her fair share of tipping the glass behind closed doors in our early days of knowing each other. Along the two lane highway to the base, she began to wildly weave, crossing over the side stripe until she hit a tall wooden highway marker. It jolted both of us into new awareness. What had I done? I'd never, ever, ever ask her to drive me any where again --- I promise God!!!
The marker completely sheared off the passenger side mirror. I sat petrified looking out of my passenger window at how wrong the day was turning. Once we arrived to the base entrance, the Air Force guards refused to let her through --- even though my husband was serving on a special forces team on the base. I did everything I could to get them to make an exception. Did you know that the American military is REALLY strict? Well, I was still learning.
This German woman in her German vehicle was not welcomed. Since she only spoke German, she made sure to make some hand gestures that were internationally understood while cussing them out in her German language. But they only made motions for her to turn the car around and leave. I wanted to sink into the seat and disappear. I knew these guys. They told me that I could get out of the car and come onto base, but there was no way I was going to leave Giesla behind after she drove me all this way...after all, I had to go HOME to that woman! My military identification card was not good enough for Giesla. She was a German national, not allowed access without major hurdles. I never imagined she could be so angry. She turned that car around and I learned a few new German cuss words on the drive home as I held tight to the door hoping we would not go over the edge.
Later that day, I was recuperating from the wreckless drive to and from base. Giesla went upstairs and I went into my apartment downstairs. However, peace was again shattered as I heard Peter's yells and deep anger. He had walked outside to our little, tightly packed household parking lot in the back of our pink stucco German home with white trim and he found his car to be oddly damaged. How could this have happened while he was napping?! He saw that the side mirror was missing and there was more paint and body damage down the side of the car. I was ready to spill the beans.
He came barreling back into the house with his red-faced head about to pop off his body as he screamed partly in German and in broken English about someone "hurting" his car!!!
I was ready to be the truthteller when Giesla suddenly gave a tender little innocent expression toward Peter and said, "The child and I have been home all day long; we have no idea who could've of done such a terrible thing."
Shocked, I snapped my mouth shut. I'd never seen such perfect denial in my life. But, I knew not to cross Giesla. After that day, Giesla got some more colorful sweat suits from me. Us girls stuck together. Poor, poor Peter! And the guilt remains.
As imperfect as life could be, I found comfort and solace in my home away from home. Pittering along the garden's edge as Peter pulled weeds and talked to me, I found another slice of Heaven. He always carried a basket to the garden, would pick his vegetables and carefully lay them in order, then store them in his cool basement. After three years of seeing his broken body create such a delicious bounty, I was hooked.
During World War II, Peter had been a very young Nazi German, captured by American forces. He had been so thankful for his capture. He would talk with me for hours about his experiences. I had an America grandfather who fought in World War II and lost his brother on German soil, so this was a topic in which I had been fully Americanized. After all, I was in Germany as a military wife. My grandfather came back a different man and with shrapnel shards permanently lodged in his back. I would watch him mow the yard shirtless and I'd be awestruck by the huge and countless purple whelps all over his back. When I asked my grandfather about these whelps, he'd tell me they came from the women in the family "whipping him." Little did I know.
So, I lived with Germans for three years. I worked for a German national on base. I grew to love the German people, but still kept a sense of anguish and hurt from generations within my soul. My grandfather was known for saying, "The only good German is a dead German." I cannot judge my grandfather, not after his extensive sacrifice and loss. But, living with Peter while in Germany brought me a fresh perspective. After Peter had been captured by American forces in World War II, they recruited him to be their cook. He'd laugh with such a riot when telling me this story, as if I were also his grand-daughter. He loved being their cook because he'd been a teenage cold and hungry Nazi, but now he had all he wanted to eat. He said the Americans treated him wonderfully, gave him all the cigarettes he wanted and since he was not actually born as a German citizen, this was perfectly to his liking.
As time passed through these years, I would lie in bed and listen to Peter's horrendous coughing. Our apartment was an exact replica of Peter's which was directly overhead. Starting around 4:00am, I'd start hearing Peter's deep hacking and choking from the apartment above. He'd worked in the coal mines during his younger years and had black lung. What did I know of black lung? This was something I only heard from the history books. But, our life in Germany brought it to full life. Ugly reality. I can say that his suffering was intense. He was drowning in his own lung fluids. Sometimes, I'd lie there and hear him coughing until he could barely make a sound and I'd cry for his struggle. But, we didn't mention hearing him. He never complained.
I had my first child in Germany. The Air Base in Bitburg was full, so an ambulance took me to Bitburg's Krankenhaus and there I gave birth with my German midwives. My daughter brought such joy to my lonely world in Germany. This was a time of no cell phones, no computers, no Internet...only very expensive calls home that cost several dollars per minute and were cost prohibitive. In fact, for most of our time in Germany, we didn't have a phone at home. We'd sometimes go to the old-fashioned phone booth in our little German town and in the freezing weather I'd call home and cry to my mother with home-sickness. Later, we learned to use the phone booths on base. Man...so very antiquated!!
Bringing my daughter home, Peter and Giesla presented me with flowers and gifts for the baby. Peter cried as we showed him the baby. He'd never been a father, yet he loved with all his heart. Oma and Opa they instantly became to my child. A special relationship in which my baby was "The Boss," was begun with earnest. All of us celebrated life more fully with this baby in our lives. Receiving one German Kuss after another made our baby feel loved and at home. She was our "liebling." Gielsa would look at Heather and say, "Das ist mein leiblingkinder," which basically means, "This is my sweet-child."
|Our Heatherlein in front of her house with a neighbor, wanting to pet the dog.|
Once the bittersweet day came for me and Heather to leave Germany, a few weeks ahead of my husband, I had to make a trip to the hospital to say goodbye to Peter. He was in the same hospital in Germany where I had given birth to my first child. His black lung was snuffing out his life, but he got up out of bed to kiss me and Heather goodbye while crying like a baby. Little did I realize, he would be dead within one month of us returning to America. I don't think he could take his "Schatzlein" leaving.
As my husband drove us away from the only house I'd known in adulthood and from my child's first home, I had turned in my seat to face the upstairs window where Giesla stood alone and pressed against the glass with her hand reaching out. And we drove off. I remained twisted and looking back until she was out of sight. It was terribly painful. Bittersweet is a perfect word to describe such moments. I ached, yet I longed to be reunited with my family in America.
Within a month of us returning to America, my real grandfather passed away. He had never met my daughter. He was a homeless alcoholic who had been very abusive to his own children and probably had no clue that I was living on German soil. It's probably better that way. It's complicated. Life can be weird like that.
|My real grandfather --- beer in hand. 1970's --- he died in 1989,|
a World War II Veteran and Hero, but a tortured man.
Oh, how I miss the tough, yet tender people.
Oh, how I miss the changing colors and the autobahn.
Oh, how I miss Peter and Giesla, but one day...
My first home away from home couldn't have been sweeter. God gave me refuge in a place foreign to me. No one could have been more surprised than me at how this land would seep into my soul. To this day, we've had a vegetable and herb garden at all of our homes and it is a sweet reminder of our time in Germany. I don't have slugs, but I know what to do it they should appear. Danke Peter.
To Peter and Giesla, I say, "Ich liebe dich."
And love has no boundaries.