Part 2: I remember my Oma. My father was her sixth and youngest child. Oma was tall and slender, always wearing black. In fact when in 1937 I first came to know elderly women in Urbana, Illinois, I was shocked to see them wearing gaily-patterned dresses and they even had colored ribbons in their hair! Oma used to mislay her glasses and would promise us children extravagant rewards if we would locate them. We would usually locate them stuck in her hair which she would comb up into a bouffant, in pre-World-War-One fashion, with the bun in the middle. Our reward was pineapple torte, “Ananastorte,” which were crusts of bread which she could not chew. She spread them with margarine and seasoned with some crumbs of sugar. It was decades later when I got married in America that I discovered what pineapple were actually like!
My mother cooked on a gas hot plate with two burners. Occasionally a uniformed man from the gas company came and emptied a container of the 10-pfennig pieces that had been put into a slot so gas would come out. The man formed long ornate lines of the coins, moving his nimble fingers very fast.
We had a footstool and chair without a back. For a while it housed a modest spider. My brother was quite scared of that spider, and as I soon discovered, also of her web, long after she had moved out. Conveniently all I had to do was to lift the stool and exhibit the spider web to induce a panic in my benighted sibling, which turned him into my obedient slave. “Let’s play birthday,” I would suggest. That consisted of my setting up a stubble of a candle and the fragment of a small box. My brother was then to be grateful. I was not sure how he was to manifest that, but his initial reaction was always an emphatic “No!” I would then lift the stool, exhibit the spider web with its long-absent inhabitant, producing instant compliance.
I was not allowed to go down to play with the “street children,” but I spent a lot of time watching them from the window, especially how they flipped shiny purple beans, about an inch long, called “Dipsebohnen.” They were for sale at Sander, the small grocery store down the street. From my window perch I eventually deduced the complex rules and cajoled my mother to buy some for me.
What causes the gap in the flow of my memories at this point I am unable to understand, for without any transition I find myself on a village street, in Lachendorf, hopping along beside Else, my cousin. There are piles of snow, taller than I, and I am trying to make sense out of the conversation Else is carrying on with Gertrud, who is also my cousin. It is all about engagements and weddings and people “falling in love.” We end up at a very large building and are ushered into a spacious kitchen, where a number of people are having lunch around a big table. An elderly woman lifts me onto a chair. She is a cousin of my Oma’s, and everyone around the table laughs as I start eating because the wine soup makes me dizzy. Oma’s cousin wears a colorless blouse and a wide skirt and there are coins in the pocket of her apron as she makes change for the men that sit down next to the table to eat.
Then Oma’s cousin tells Elsa to take me up to one of the guest rooms upstairs. The passageway opens to a second story gallery with many small doors next to each other. Else nods toward the back. “That is where Oma’s mother stays,” she says. “She is very sick. She will probably die.” Else opens the door nearest to us and we enter. There is an iron bed piled high with two large pillows and two feather beds, and a night stand with a porcelain washboard and water pitcher. Else sticker her finger in the pitcher. “Frozen,” she shrugs.
“There is a dance tonight,” she explains. “you can stay and watch. I’ll be back soon.”
I hold onto the banister which is taller than I am. There is a group of men downstairs somewhat to the left. They are dressed in black. And the man who is turned toward me has a flushed face. He is talking very loud, something about “Zwillingen” and “Drillingen,” and everyone laughs. Eventually I get sleepy. I crawl into bed next to Else. The feather bed is cold and with my bare feet I am trying to locate the warm water crock.
The rest of my memories from Lachendorf are quite fragmentary. Gertrud wants to go along to the funeral but she only has a red coat, not a black one, so she is not allowed to go along to the funeral.
In the evenings her brother joins us, and we are playing parlor games, guessing games, where one person has to leave the room and when he comes back in, he has to guess what object had been mentioned. The greatest thrill was that I could stay up as late as the adults.
Back in Hannover it seems that my mother discovered that I had lice. She had to shorn my head but without much success. When she reproached Else, my cousin blushed and quickly left, and we did not see much of her after that. My parents thought that Elsa had caught lice from soldiers. My mother and I went to a small, very dark house to rid me of the lice, but even that visit was not successful. (Not until two years later when my mother got hold of some genuine petroleum to rub my head with upon our arrival to Rumania did I become reliably clean again.) My mother surprised me with a book upon my return. It featured a small girl on its cover hugging a doll and titled “Nesthakchen und ihre Puppen” – “Little Darling and her Baby Dolls.” The vapid character of Little Darling may be the reason that I do not remember any of it.
However, Little Schimmel continued to be the object of my various experiments. I do not remember where I picked up the proverb “Satz und Brot macht die Wangen rot” – “Bread and salt make the cheeks red.” My mother kept her salt in a large, light green glass, and deciding that little Schimmel was too pale, I tried to feed him a piece of bread liberally sprinkled from my mother’s salt glass. It was frustrating that he energetically refused my ministrations. Lest it be thought that little Schimmel was always my hapless victim, tables were turned with the appearance of my dollhouse. Of its furnishings I remember mainly its set of chairs. It had been placed on a box, so I would be able to play with it. However, that way Schimmel also discovered it, and in an unsupervised moment he broke off the legs of all four chairs. When the light of the chandelier no longer burned, it was an acute disappointment, and I lost interest in the dollhouse.