FDG autobiography #3
Some of my earliest childhood memories involve my washing my father’s forehead, or rather a dark spot about two inches square on the right side of the forehead. I was told that when he was a little boy, he enjoyed playing under the heavy flatbacks that carried the beer barrels to my grandmother’s tavern, “die Krone.” I do not remember the details but apparently he fell and scraped his forehead, and as his injury healed, the skin closed over the tar.
My father also played with me by hiding my small rug beater, a replica of the large one the maids – or housewives – regularly used in the yard. The memory illuminates in my mind the image of our spacious, sparsely furnished living room. In this memory a skinny middle-aged man is kneeling in front of the wall, a bucket of paint to the right of him, into which he kept dipping a loose-haired paintbrush, about six inches wide. Over and over, he dipped the brush into the paint, and then rhythmically knockied it against a staff he was holding in his left hand, creating a handsome pattern of droplets on the lighter wall. I registered from the conversation of my parents that these men were “Russian prisoners of war.”
Disjointed imagery begins to emerge now centering on my baby brother. I am sitting on a basket suitcase. My squawking but not visible little brother is in the baby buggy. I am supposed to wheel the buggy back and forth, rattling a wooden rattle also created by one of those mythical Russian prisoners of war. I bang the rattle more and more energetically against the side of the wooden suitcase and the artistic rattle splinters into many fragments. I don’t think that my baby brother stopped bawling. He reappears on my memory screen on a long swaddling pillow on the kitchen table. Lisi, our Swabian-speaking maid, was there. She had been recruited by my parents in Solymar, the village south of Budapest where we went for the “summer freshening.” She was swaddling him, that is tying down his lustily kicking little legs and waving arms. “He wants to move,” I told her. “He will also cry,” she countered. “If he is swaddled, he never cries. Swaddled babies are happy.” I remembered many decides later when in anthropology class we discussed Margaret Mead’s “swaddling hypothesis.” Swaddled babies make submissive adults, she contended.
Other fragments: I was unhappy because my mother had a toothache. Not an early manifestation of premature empathy, but she was ugly because her cheek was swollen!
And my discrimination of food. According to my mother, when she prepared a special pancake for dessert, she had to hid the pancakes in the kitchen because I would not eat the less-favored soup if I knew about the existence of the pancakes.
My godfather came and there was suddenly great commotion, packing of clothes, my cousin hugging books and my rummaging through the drawer of the cheffenier. She was looking for the ring my godfather had given me, a gold ring with a small heart attached to it with a delicate chain. I remember it well but she never found it.
Then we were rattling along in a train. From later conversations, I remember that for three nights my father dreamt that he was running to catch the last street car and behind him the city was going up in flames. I remember nothing of our trip, only looking out of the window of the train and there was a soldier and he had a bayonet on his shoulder and on it he had dangling my mother’s sil petticoat that was composed of many colored silk strips. In her autobiography my mother relates that she was accused of trying to smuggle silk from Hungary to Germany -which was forbidden during the war!
The next image is that of my grandmother’s living room. It is dark. Her room is illuminated by a gaslight, a two inch size stocking giving off a faint yellowish light reflected by the pale tired faces. My small brother is stuffed into a winter coat that is too large for him. He is buttoned into it, so that he does not seem to have a neck at all.
There was no vacant apartment in my grandmother’s house. There was much talk about “Wohnungsnot”, the dearth of places to rent. She is sharing her four-room apartment with Tante Agnes, here widowed oldest daughter, who makes a living by clearning a laboratory. There is much talk about how much she is appreciated, never breaking any of the expensive petri dishes. Her late husband was a trumpeter. He taught music to the children of the Baron of Luneburg. He died of tuberculosis of the throat, the “Trumpeter’s disease,” an illness that a decade later also took the life of both of his daughters. There was talk that Tante Agnes was strange, that after her husband died, she refused to comb her long hair until her mother cut it off. My little brother, called Schimmel (white horse) at the time because of his blond, almost white hair, adored her, calling her Stiefmutter – stepmother. Years later she sent him for eggs to Sander, the grocer three houses down. on the way home he kept banging the shopping bag against the wall of the apartment houses, rhythmically singing “Stiefmutter, Stiefmutt..” I do not remember him being scolded for the demise of the eggs. Oma’a apartment, one story below ours, remained his favorite destination for a long time. In fact, he kept falling on his nose on the steep wooden stairs so often that I was convinced the frequent falls permanently flattened his nose.