FDG Autobiography – Segment #1
“An account that is not structured around a value judgment is worthless,” contended a Viennese psychiatrist some years ago. She was listening in on a story I related from my fieldwork in Yucatán. I no longer remember what raised the ire of the doctor only that it prompted me to weigh critically exactly how I seemed to perceive and report the events confronting me. It seems to mean that in a mysterious way, I was born to be a mirror, receiving images and then reflecting them, modifying them only to the extent to which the special composition of the mirroring surface tinted the image received.
I recall my mother describing her baby daughter. “ I would keep you with me in the kitchen while I cooked. You would be lying perfectly still in the baby buggy. I would think that you were asleep. But you were not. With your large dark eyes wide open, you were obviously following my every move.”
In a German fairy tale there is a description of how two fairies happened upon a baby girl in a cradle and, finding her appealing, they placed some magical gifts next to her in her cradle. Perhaps it was the gift of just such spirit beings, this ability that I have always possessed of recording the images of the world shifting outside: its sounds, its smells, its texture, and its tastes. And although I am now approaching 90 and some of those faculties are beginning to dull, enough of the textures they have accumulated are still behind Sesame’s door, rich enough to please me until that door, finally, gently, closes for the last time.
Some of my earliest childhood memories involve my washing my father’s forehead, or rather a dark spot, about 2 inches square, on the right side of his forehead. I was told that when he was a little boy, he enjoyed playing under the heavy flat backs that ferried the beer barrels to his mother’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 larger one that maids or housewives regularly used in the yard. The memory illuminates the spacious, sparsely furnished living room. It appeared again as I watched a skinny middle aged man working on it. He was 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 6 inches wide. Over and over, he dipped the brush into the paint, and then rhythmically knocking it against the staff he was holding in his left hand, he created a handsome pattern of droplets on the light wall. I registered from the conversation of my parents that these men were Russian prisoners of war.
Rising from the jumble of the incohate memories of earliest childhood is the Budapest apartment house in the Erno ucca with its interior circular courtyard. During workdays it resounded with the shouts of tradesmen offering their services: “Ablakot csinalni.”
Disjointed imagery begins to emerge now centering on my baby brother. I am sitting on a basket suitcase. My squeaking, but not visible, little brother is in the baby buggy. I am supposed to wheel the baby buggy back-and-forth, rattling a wooden rattle created by one of those mythical Russian prisoners of war. I banged the benighted, more and more energetically against the lid of the wooden suitcase until the artistic rattle splinters into many fragments. I don’t think that my baby brother stopped bawling. He reappears in my memory screen on a long swaddling pillow on the kitchen table. Lisi, the Swabian-speaking maid 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 the many decades 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 navy bean soup and pan cake for dessert, she had to hide 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 cheffeneer. 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 streetcar and behind him the city was going up in flames. I remember nothing of our trip, only looking out the window of the train and there was a soldier. He had a bayonet on his shoulder and on it he had dangling my mother’s silk 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, and which was forbidden during the war. The next image is that of my grandmother’s living room. It is dark, her room is it illuminated by a gaslight, a 2 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 the dearth of places to rent. She is sharing her four room apartment with Tante Agnes, her widowed oldest daughter, who makes a living by cleaning 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 (Graf) 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 almost blond little brother was called Schimmel, or WhiteHorse, at the time because of his white hair. He 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, Stiefmutter…”. I do not remember him being scolded for the demise of the eggs and Oma’s apartment, one story below ours remained his favorite goal for a long time. In fact, he kept falling on his nose during his forays on the steep wooden stairs so often that I was convinced the frequent falls permanently flattened his nose.
I was already in America when she married again into a family outside Hanover. When she died, my mother sent her condolences and to her surprise received a letter back about how much she was loved, and what a very special person she had been.
To be continued …
(Editors Note: Thanks to Belinda Gore for providing this autobiography for all of us to share – we will add segments each month)