Monday, March 28, 2011
By Jenny White
My grandmother’s kitchen had a single window that flung open in one great wing of glass. It looked out over the tiled roof of the apartment building in which she lived, down onto the slices of soil allotted to each resident, then into the valley beyond where a church steeple rose from the heart of the district. Over by the river, vineyards clambered up steep hillsides, their flinty soil the source of Franconia’s famously dry wines. Unlike her neighbor who let his allotment run to grass, my grandmother’s garden was neatly divided into beds that alternated flowers and vegetables. A rabbit hutch, much used during the war, now housed tools. A metal drum acted as a well, filled by a tap rising up mysteriously from the soil. When I submerged the tin watering can, it gulped the water, becoming heavier and heavier as it filled. Hauling the full can at last from beneath the surface of the water was both difficult and satisfying. Above the garden fence, you could see the back of the grade school I attended and through the big mullioned windows watch the children on the climbing bars in the gymnasium. The view in spring was partially blocked by a radiantly blooming cherry tree that my grandmother had planted when her youngest daughter was born fifty years earlier -- after the war, when joy might have seemed appropriate again. Pigeons gathered on the tiles before my grandmother’s window to eat the crumbs of stale bread she spread for them. They murmured and cooed, their toes skittering on the clay.
The street was lined on both sides with worker’s housing complexes, neat, unimaginative blocks of apartments, each set within a grassy area that had iron stands for beating carpets and lines to hang the laundry. The women in the apartments took turns boiling, scrubbing and beating their shirts and shifts on worn wooden tables in the basement wash kitchens. When my grandfather landed a job delivering coal on a horse-drawn cart for the Neckermann company, he gained the right to move his family into a tiny two-bedroom apartment under the roof of number eleven with no bathtub and no hot running water. He and his wife raised six children there and, long after the war, two grandchildren. I grew up turning the heavy, old-fashioned key in the skull-shaped locks. The scent of fresh wax, applied by weekly rota, was heavy on the stairs.
Of the train trip to the coast when I was seven, I remember only the regular flash of poles behind my face mirrored in the night window. I clutched a marzipan pig someone had given me for luck. Of the voyage on the SS Berlin, my mother’s china in crates, I remember little. What remains of that time is an image of a flaming orange sky blanketing the ocean, the crew hustling us beneath decks, a great storm that swayed the ship. Then New York harbor and an extended cavalcade of cars and interiors. A rooming house in New Rochelle: the sound of pigeons comforted me, their feathers rustling outside the peaked window. I snuck into the communal kitchen to steal Hershey’s Syrup from another resident’s cabinet. I didn’t speak English; I suspect I didn’t even know where I was. The pigeons were a settling back into place, a rabbit rushing behind a bush in the rooming house yard, blooms in spring. The taste of chocolate. Even here. My report card from the local school gave no grades, only the cryptic “making progress.” The teacher also wrote “doesn’t obey instructions”, but that’s another story. I don’t remember the school.
When my grandmother was ninety-one, only two other women on the street remained from the early days. Whenever I visited from America, Frau Dorsch in Apartment Six would waylay me on the stairs and hand me a box of Weinbrandtbohnen, chocolates filled with brandy. Only once in all those years did I enter her apartment, when she was too weak to hobble out to the landing. What I saw was not the white antiseptic space of a woman who had never traveled beyond her neighborhood, but the chair where a firebomb had landed during the war. Dropped from a plane, the incendiary bomb had burned its way through the roof, the attic, and Frau Dorsch’s ceiling, settling on a chair in her kitchen, perhaps the very one on which she was now sitting. Like the bomb, the story had burned its way into my brain over the years through repeated tellings. My grandfather had saved the building, the story goes, by racing up from the root cellar where the families were huddled while the city was being devastated by British bombers. He dashed a bucket of water onto the bomb before it could set the rest of the house on fire.
My grandmother’s kitchen was painted shiny pastel green to chest level, the rest a creamy white. A cross with a pale, haggard-looking Jesus hung near the window, decorated with a purple cloth orchid and cattails. The kitchen was always warm from cooking, with a faint smell of caraway and browned butter. For a long time it was the only room in the apartment that was heated in the cold winters. At night my grandmother put a tin container of hot water shaped like a loaf beneath my featherbed in the small bedroom where once my mother had slept. The bed shared space with a refrigerator and a pantry cabinet. In the morning I was loath to emerge into the chill air, which meant I would have to run to the narrow bathroom to splash my face with icy cold water, then rush into the kitchen and collapse on the daybed in the alcove beside the stove, shivering. I developed a reputation as a sleepyhead and someone insufficiently “hardened off”, both of which I was ready to accept in return for staying warm.
The white lacquered cabinet in the kitchen was my uncle’s Meisterstück, the piece he made to prove himself as a master cabinetmaker before he and his family emigrated to Canada. The glassed-in doors held my grandmother’s mismatched china and its sturdy drawers were subdivided by slats that separated deep-bowled spoons and forks with long, useful tines from knives with business-like grips. At the back were five silver teaspoons someone had dug from the rubble of the city.
Behind the door at one end of the cabinet my grandmother kept a pot of clarified butter, tins of flour and sugar. She reached in with a practiced thumb and pulled out the ingredients for potato dumplings. She held the hot potatoes in her hand to peel them, hardened beyond sentiment by a childhood working on a farm, two world wars and eight children raised in an attic on sparrows, gleanings, and stolen cabbages. All but the last two children, born into post-war plenitude, were sent into the harvested fields outside the city to glean remnants of grain that could be milled into flour, gather up crumbs of coal, and find snatches of grass in the denuded city for the rabbits in the backyard hutch that also housed sparrows my grandmother trapped to eat. She punished her daughter, my mother, for opening their cage one day and setting them free. In the basement, my grandmother made soap by boiling lye and fat to barter to the farmers in outlying areas for food. They walked for hours between the fields, one of her children pulling the cart laden with soap one way and with potatoes coming home. She stood watch while my uncle ran into a field and stole a cabbage, hiding it under the potatoes. The field guard gave chase once, but my grandmother stood in his way and lambasted him for chasing her son while my uncle hightailed it down the road with the cart.
All of her daughters had to knit. Once a relative sent the fleece of a sheep from the village, a boon that had to be scraped, carded, and made into wool that could produce socks and sweaters to clothe her children. One day an SS officer came up the stairs as far as the landing below my grandmother’s door. Why, he demanded, was she not knitting for the front? “I have four children to knit for and two sons at the front,” my grandmother responded tartly. “When I’m done knitting for them, I’ll knit for you.” She slammed the door shut, sending a tremor of fear through her family. When it was my turn much later, I brought her skeins of colored wool from the wool shop in town and she knitted for me red socks, black socks, white socks, a lifetime of socks.
Four days before the official end of the war, residents were alarmed by the drone of many bombers and a frightening spectacle of “Christmas tree lights” that exploded like fireworks in the sky to show the bombers the way. Like others in the city, my grandparents and the four children ran up into the vineyards and lay face down between the stocks as bombs fell around them. My grandmother lay on top of her youngest daughter. When they tell me of that night, their eyes turn inward and they live it again: The scream of bombs, blasting explosions and hellish fire raking the vineyards and below them in the city; the screams of thousands of people, the din of desperate prayers rising from the vineyards all around them as the city of Würzburg was annihilated in a firestorm of bombs that lit the sky like daylight.
I line them up: silver spoons, the last pair of white knitted socks, my grandmother’s featherbed cover, its cloth buttons unforgivably frayed. A set of tinted cognac glasses, fragile as air, that survived the voyage on the SS Berlin. I rarely use them, afraid that after so much travail, I would be the one to break them.
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