Maus, my husband Alex and I drove slowly over the familiar old cobblestone streets. How many times, I wondered, had I walked these streets, stepping on each stone with my face down, lost in sad thoughts and wishing my life would be different. Every house we passed, each corner we turned, was filled with memories that came alive for me. We passed the house where Heidi, my closest friend lived with her grandparents, then the store where Grandma bought my first knitting needles and wool when I was three years old. The Gasthaus (restaurant) Goldes Lamm where Grandpa and I went after church every Sunday.
The curve took a left toward the market place and another left turn up the hill toward the castle. We passed Ursula Sauer’s house, another school friend of mine, who had her first child at 15. She was called a whore and a low life and became the talk of the town. My chest grew tight and I felt like a heavy rock sat on it. I took a deep breath. Oh so many shame and fearful memories.
I said to Alex, “Right here,” pointing to the left, “I garden where the princesses spent their summer afternoons entertaining their relatives in the warm sun. I could almost see them laughing, talking. I explained the Forest Master house, as the man in charge of the forest that belonged to the castle and the hunting dogs.
When we stepped through the old withered oaken east gate on the castle walls it was a breathtaking view. There was the entire town and the river Woernitz lying beneath our feet. I watched Alex’s eyes as they widened in surprise. A sense of pride filled me showing him and Maus my hometown, a place where we all, including my grand parents, were born. A few yards further down was my uncle’s name, Friedrich Linse 1945, carved into the black marble leaning against the giant rock the castle stand on, as a memorial for the solders from World War II. My eyes brimming with tears I turned around to point north to the graveyard on the other hill to the north and said:
“And here lies his mother, my beloved grandma, whom I called Lella.”
Memories flooded my mind, one after another. I was the four-year-old child again and it was so real…
“Lella, are we going now?” Grandpa did not have to carry me down the steps anymore. I was a big girl now. I was four years old and allowed to walk down the steps, but only if I held onto my grandma’s hand.
“First we tell Friedl what we need.” Grandma replied, “Then we are going to the butcher Buser’s and to the milk store.”
I had my little shopping bag so I could help Grandma carry the groceries. She bought it for me when we were at my Aunt Mina’s in Augsburg. She and Aunt Mina had the same beautiful white hair.
The grocery store used to be Grandma’s, where she sold pots and pans and everything the villagers needed for the kitchen. She closed the store when I was born and rented it to people who now sold groceries. Grandma never used the back door to buy our groceries. She gave Friedl, the lady who ran the store, the list of what we needed and we went on our way. Friedl put everything together in a cardboard box and set it on the wooden stairs.
One day, when I was with Lella, she opened the door to the house with the same hand she held the milk so she wouldn’t have to let go of my hand. I remember it so clearly. The can that held the milk fell to the tile floor and made a terrible noise. The blue enamel on the outside of the can splattered over the entrance.
“Don’t worry, Lella,” I said, “Grandpa will fix it.”
Lella was still hanging onto the door handle before she fell to the floor. I knew something was wrong.
“Lella, Lella,” I screamed. Quickly, I put my hand under her head. The back door to the store opened and Friedl stuck her head out. Everyone came running. Grandpa carried Lella to her bedroom.
I heard myself saying, “You don’t need to cry, Grandpa. The doctor will put a bandage around her head and I will help you fix the milk can.”
People were all over the house and all talking at the same time. Some came into grandpa’s study, my favorite room, where there was a big shiny desk with all the little drawers. I sat on Grandpa’s lap when my mother, Marie, came into the room. Mother and Grandpa cried. More people came. Some of them I had never seen in the house before. They were all talking, but I didn’t think any of them seemed to care about Grandma. I snuck into her bedroom and whispered:
“Lella, you just keep on sleeping, I will be still and sit by you.” I wondered why they stuck Lella’s hands under the covers and combed her hair so funny. “I will hold your hand Lella, so you can sleep better.” Then I realized how cold her hands were and knew that’s why they were under the cover. “I will lie beside you,” I said, “and then you will be warm soon.”
Grandpa walked in and saw me lying next to Lella. He smiled and asked me to come with him because the doctor wanted to examine Lella. I insisted on staying so the doctor would not hurt her, but Grandpa lifted me into his arms and said, “The doctor cannot hurt your Lella anymore.”
There were more people sitting in Lella’s kitchen. Marie told Lore, my brothers’ nanny, “Take her downstairs with the boys.”
I stomped my foot. “No, I’ll not go to the boys. I can’t stand them, they are always fighting and breaking everything I have.”
When the doctor and the nurse left, I sneaked back to Lella, curled up next to her and fell asleep. The next morning I woke in my own bed. I wondered why I was in the boy’s room? I was confused. Quietly I went upstairs to see my grandpa. He was already dressed and sitting in his study with all kinds of paper and money on his desk.
“I’m fixing your breakfast today,” he said.
He opened the widow in this study, reached for the stick that was lying on the outside window bench and knocked on the window of Baker Graf across from our house. When Baker Graf opened his window, Grandpa handed him money and was handed four rolls; one for Lella, two for Grandpa and one for me. Then Grandpa said, “From now on we need only three rolls.”
We went into the kitchen where he heated some milk, broke the roll in my bowl and put two big spoons of sugar on top then added the hot milk. He put butter and marmalade on his rolls, filled his coffee cup and sat beside me at the table.
“You go ahead eating, Lella will not eat with us today,” he said as tears rolled down his cheeks.
“Grandpa, why do you have all this money on your desk?” I asked.
“I have to pay the people when they come to take my Lella.”
I didn’t understand. “Someone is taking my Lella away? Grandpa, why?Tell me, where is she going? Can I go with her?”
Grandpa cried and tried to explain to me that Lella was going to Heaven.
“It doesn’t matter,” I said stubbornly, wiggeling down from his arms “I am going with her.”
“No, not this time,” Grandpa replied sadly and I really didn’t understand. Lella never went anywhere without me. She always told me stories while we walked or while I sat in the little handcart she pulled.
When I peeked inside the bedroom there were several men dressed in black coats and wearing white gloves. They were putting Lella in a big black box. As they closed the lid I started screaming.
“Lella can’t breathe!” I yelled. I saw tiny little dots and fainted. When I woke up everyone stood around me. Grandpa picked me up and carried me to the bedroom window.
“Look,” he said, “Lella is going for a ride in a beautiful coach with black horses, and later on we will visit her.”
Grandpa finished talking to all the people, then put my Sunday coat on me and we went up the hill to the place with many flowers and the big stones and crosses. Lella lay inside the little house with the glass door. She looked so lovely with flowers and two candles next to her head.
I whispered, “Grandpa, the doctor took the bandage off, she isn’t hurting anymore, she is sleeping. You don’t need to cry anymore.”
The next morning Marie dressed me and said, “You go with Grandpa to see Lella; I will come later with the boys.”
Grandpa and I went up the hill in the little house there were many people looking at Lella. Some were crying, some whispering. Grandpa held me tight as we walked away from the little house. I saw people waiting in front of a big hole and it scared me. Grandpa was crying when the man in black brought the black box.
“There is your Lella.” He pointed to the big black box. “We have to wait here.” He lifted me up in his arms.
The big fat man from the church talked and talked. The men in the black coats wrapped a heavy cord around the box and then it disappeared into the big hole. I looked at Grandpa and wondered how he could let this happen? When Grandpa reached for his handkerchief I ran toward the hole, screaming, Lella. Marie grabbed me just as I started to jump into the hole. Angrily, she slapped my butt in front of everyone. Grandpa stopped her, grabbed my hand and pulled me to his side. The little colored dots appeared and I fainted. When I woke up I was lying on my favorite pillow on the kitchen bench.
After that everything began to change. Grandpa moved his bed from the bedroom into his study. I had to sleep in the room with the boys. I had to call Marie, “Mother”, and the very man I had always been scared of, I had to call, “Father”.
I was never again allowed to visit Grandpa, not even on Sundays could I go to church with him. I missed the Sundays with Grandpa. He would always fall asleep and I would have to wake him up when it was time for everyone to say “amen”. Then after church all the men walked over to the Gasthaus (a traditional German restaurant). Every man had a beer in his own stone mug, which the lady from the Gasthaus washed and kept for them on a shelf. I drank lemonade in my little stone mug. After an hour we went home where Lella would be waiting and the food was on the table.
Life was never the same after that. No more church on Sundays, no more Gasthaus, no more of my favorite foods; mashed potatoes with schnitzel, and no more rolls with lots of sugar and milk at three o’clock in the morning.
Now, 45 years later I was back with my husband. I found myself completely absorbed with thoughts of those days when Lella died. My throat tightened, tears choked my words, but I felt a sense of relief as if I had finally put down the heavy load I carried. I wasn’t the child who cried about the death of her Lella. I was now the adult who cried out of relief, that child in me after all these years, had finally let go of the grief and pain and replaced it with a loving memory. The tears had emptied spot inside of me which needed filling.
From the corner of my eyes I saw Maus watching me. I was grateful to both of them for not saying anything. I needed those feelings and I needed to bring the memory vividly alive. It was a healing process that should not be disturbed. When I turned away and walked down the narrow stony pass of the hill, I could almost reach to my right the tower of the Lutheran church. It was the church we all, even Lella, was baptized in it. I knew the painful memory about Lella was now in the past. I made room in my soul to let good memories take their rightful place.