Of the handful of stories from her childhood during World War II Germany, there are only three that my mother has told all her life without being prompted (“Have I ever told you this one?”):
That time when she pulled a meter-long tapeworm out of her throat and set it on the kitchen table with a smile: “Mutti, look!”
When, with kilometers to go until home, her mother coaxed her to keep walking by pointing excitedly at a non-existent doe in the distance: “There, did you see it? No? You’d better go look!”
And when, at six years old, she and her mother hurried to meet a man in uniform at the railway station. When she saw him, her beloved Mutti let go of her hand and left her standing alone to run into the soldier’s arms: “Mein Schatz, this is your father.”
Eleven years after the train station reunion, my mother announced to my grandmother (Oma) that she was pregnant. Their panic at how my war-scarred grandfather (Opa) might react led to pathetic attempts at solving the problem by working her to exhaustion in the garden. But Opa was ecstatic when he learned of my impending arrival. And I didn’t disappoint—an adorable neutral love object, cherubic hope incarnate, the marvelously unexpected chance at a do-over. (I was destined to become an actress.)
(Oma, me, and Mom)
My mother’s shotgun marriage was short-lived, and Oma and Opa happily gave her room to move alone to the “big city” (Mannheim) to steady herself. For the next six years, I was cradled in love in my grandparents’ little house in the land of milk and honey: gooseberries, strawberries, currants, cherries and more in their garden; plums, apples, wild blueberries and blackberries in the surrounding hills and forests. My grandfather taught me chess and the world’s capital cities and made exquisite pastries and tortes (his profession) for my birthday parties. My grandmother taught me to knit and crochet and cooked me chocolate pudding with vanilla sauce, cream of wheat made with milk, potato pancakes with applesauce, apple pancakes with potato soup, and oh so many more delicious comfort treats that I love(d) best on cold winter days just before I was put to bed on a down pillow under a gigantic down comforter.
And then it was over. My mother met my American stepfather, and they took me to live with them when I started first grade. My brother was born; first Opa, then Oma died. My brother and I still visit our lifelong friends in our little German town once a year or so, as respite from "real’ life." My mother hasn’t been back since Oma died. She’s in assisted living now, where we see to her happiness as best we can and where, at 78, she still cries out for her Mutti in her sleep.
Gabriele Schafer is an actor and theater-maker whose website is www.gabrieleschafer.com.
Cream of Wheat
1/4 c. Cream of Wheat
1 c. milk
pinch of salt
pinch of sugar
1 egg, separated
cinnamon and sugar, as desired
Cook the Cream of Wheat as directed, substituting milk for water, adding salt and sugar.
Fold egg yoke into the cooking Cream of Wheat, stirring it in immediately.
Whip egg white until stiff.
When the Cream of Wheat has thickened, remove from heat and fold in beaten egg white.
Mix together cinnamon and sugar, and sprinkle on top.
Put any fruit from your grandma’s garden on top, and serve while still hot.