NOW I KNOW
I learned last fall that I am of a type, and that type has a name. I am a Damned German.
Six of eight great-grandparents came here directly from Germany. Some of the Germans were Catholics, maybe a reason why they left home. Those named Hartlieb filtered through New York along with neighbors from Germany who remained more-distant neighbors in Illinois, on land grants. The ones named Goss and Prott, Protestants, came up the Mississippi River on a steamer from New Orleans. The ship’s logs lists familiar names, families whose great-grandchildren attended school with me. Maybe they met on those ships and made decisions about the new lives ahead, and chose their farms according to shared temperaments. Where they settled, we all stayed, and most of us still stay. Good soil acts like a magnet. Local histories share that truth: Missouri’s alkaline limestone lay too close to the surface for anything but grapevines, past the river valley. Deep black soil waited under lightly wooded plains here on the east side. Not a stone in sight, and enough trees to make planks for the small frame houses with steeply pitched roofs that shed snow as well as their southern German counterparts. New country, same culture.
I can recall from memory nearly every small town in a thirty or so mile easterly-facing semicircle from St. Jacob, and the names of the families who came and stayed. My move to Edwardsville at twenty added a few known-places, and delivering flowers in St. Louis rounded my knowledge to a full circle, with St. Jacob smack in the center, still. This is where my ancestral We, with waves of other German immigrants, settled.
I only know how to be German-American. Until this summer, I did not know that I was anything but American. A friend who grew up in Kentucky told stories about the unpleasantries of having a Damned German neighbor when he moved north, and he unknowingly described my entire hometown and quite a lot of me. If he had landed where I was born, instead of where he lived among Italians and Mexicans and other Kentuckians, he may have fled back south. Just mowing the grass was a trial for him.
My German-American grandfather taught me that property lines must be precisely known and respected. Trees should not reach over, lest something fall onto another lawn and cause trouble. Once, a pear tree dropped fruit and attracted bees which stung a Swiss neighbor’s son. He was allergic, and nearly died. His poor mother forced whiskey down his swelling throat and my grandfather took an axe to the tree, cursing the pears for falling and the possums for not eating them up and the tree for growing there in the first place.
Lawns mattered. Mowing required great care. No clippings could fly across the lines. Any carried by the wind must be raked back across, quickly. To stray with the mower onto the neighbor’s lawn was seen as a sloppy insult, a sort of claim to space, even if that neighbor was eighty and fragile and mowed her own lawn every Wednesday without asking for help. No one ever asked for help, and everyone mowed their lawns on Wednesday. A fence and a shed that crossed my grandpa’s property line had to be moved, unquestionably, eighteen inches to the north. If that newcomer neighbor hadn’t called the police to complain about his barking dogs the summer before, maybe the fence could have stayed, or maybe Papa wouldn’t have shown the neighbor an imaginary line a touch too far to the south in the first place when the fence and shed were in the planning stage. The neighbor sheared two feet off the back of his new little barn rather than start from scratch, and the two men never spoke again. I think it was all about the dogs and the police.
Home repairs happened in stages and with as many salvaged materials as possible, as the money came in to fix this or that. My Papa’s father built a house from the ruins of a tornado-smashed Baptist church. The Baptists must have taken the weather as a sign from God, because they did not rebuild. Leftover broken brick became a lighthouse-topped goldfish pond that filtered cold water into the basement dairy at the big house. The goldfish kept the algae down, and the fishy waste from the pond fed heavy-bloomed red roses in brick planters on either side. Useful things could and should be made beautiful, but things made just for their beauty were rare.
Flowers were an exception. Flowers must grow around the house and in the lawn, like row crops never harvested. Tulips and irises and daffodils and sweet peas took no effort at all, and marigolds were absolutely necessary for the tomatoes to survive.
Help came from within the family if at all, or subtly from outside. A few good bricks from that church ended up in the chimney of the house where I lived when I was small, and a few uneven boards became a bedroom wall. My grandpa remembered building the wall with his father. Papa was big enough to hand over this tool or that, but not big enough to swing a hammer with his brothers. Luckily, family included children and clusters of cousins and marry-ins with skills. No one paid to have a lawnmower fixed, or a blade sharpened. If you couldn’t do it, you called your grandpa’s brother’s son-in-law who did it for nothing but supper. Germans spend as little as possible on labor, which means we try to spend nothing. A pie may arrive on a helpful person’s doorstep, but never cash. Money could be lent, but just giving without expecting to be repaid happened more often, and without being asked. To need was a shame, is a shame. To help is an honor, given freely when a glimpse of need slipped into view. When repayment of money happened, the return of the cash usually became the source of an uncomfortable conflict, an envelope stuffed into a mail box or an open truck window after many refusals to accept it back.
The tiny kitchen in the tiny house where I grew up was the center of our universe. My Papa did not trust food from restaurants, unless he knew who made the food. I know that at some point, he knew the people running the two diners in town, because I have seen pictures of a teenaged Oats, my grandpa, my Papa, eating at the counters with his friends. He showed up in our local history book, proof that someone other than his mother or my grandmother had prepared food and he hadn’t died from eating it. My grandma prepared ten different meals, maybe twelve, and that is what we ate. Meat, potatoes, gravy, pickled things, and whatever grew that week. Vegetables did not come out of cans unless she canned them from the garden. Wintertime meals were boring, but corn on the cob in July doesn’t taste anything like corn on the cob in November. Kohlrabi kept, turnips kept, cabbage kept, and so that is what we ate until radishes sprouted in the back yard again. Pickled things, sweet and sour, and jams were part of most meals. Beets are still my favorite, and sauerkraut is still a side dish to me. Barbecue didn’t exist, and ribs were roasted like any other cut of pork and served with mashed potatoes and warmed sauerkraut. Cold sauerkraut gives me the creeps, but mix it with buttered potatoes, and that’s good food.
Molasses, Gram’s favorite, was not on the table. She brought a little Kentucky with her, but none of it landed on our plates. Cornbread was highly suspect and required slabs of butter to be edible, and only with ham and beans and fried potatoes, but not greens. God, I loved greens, with that thin, salty, smoky pot likker…but those were food for Gram and me, once I learned that she wasn’t from St. Jacob but from places I wouldn’t see until I was an adult. She remembered rolling hills and half the corn going to the hogs and half to the still. I only knew Stag with salt until I begged for her growing-up stories to supplement my own mental palate. Germans made beer in big brick breweries, drank whatever beer came from the nearest town because fresh beer tastes better, trusted the tavern to always have Bock in spring to go with the wurst. No need to run a still, and run afoul of the law. See barking dog reference above.
Reputations could be ruined by a police car parked in front of the house, or grass too tall, or torn-up trousers for anything but field work. Things could be shabby, but must be clean. My meticulous teenaged Papa once threw a pair of slacks in the oven after he noticed that his mother had patched a hole in the pocket. He was vain before I knew him, and he sent away for a proper suit for his own funeral years before he died. An older ancestor on my other side shows as much or more care with his dress in a photograph in that same history book where I found evidence that my Papa ate a diner hamburger. “P.J. Hartlieb, telegraph operator,” in a wide fedora, and a wider Hartlieb grin, as he stood next to the railroad office. He didn’t need that fedora to take messages, but my grandpa didn’t need to throw those patched trousers in the fire, either. That telegraph operator was my paternal great grandpa whose father had settled on a farm the next town over before the towns were towns. In a generation or two at most, those refugees had snappy-dressed American dandies for grandsons, products of free land and good, black soil that gave them more than enough to feed all the children and dress them well and keep them busy and fit with the work of farming and the play of surplus income. A short train ride to St. Louis gave a ready market for crops, but left the Germans free to avoid the cities altogether if they so desired. Most of my ancestors did.
My Papa went to the city once when he was a teenager, and that was enough. He saw it, and liked St. Jacob better.
Later, he saw France and England and Germany through the eyes of an unwilling American soldier who wrote his mother letters begging to pull whatever strings she could to bring him home. He had killed five Germans, and his fate was sealed. Hell waited for him, he was sure. He survived the Battle of the Bulge, but one winter in France froze his feet and maybe saved his life because he had decided to stop shooting back. He was a murderer, damned anyway, and waited for death like some of us wait for an expected rejection letter. His brothers fought longer, four boys all gone to war from the same family, and all of them came home, too.
Stubbornness runs through our veins, and his decision to put away his firearms stuck. He shot rabbits so the family could have meat, but only once. They ate pancakes in lean times after that. Killing a chicken broke his heart, so much so that he mourned and lost his appetite. My stubborn grandfather brought home cats and dogs that no one else would feed, much to my grandma’s dismay, usually when she was off having surgery or on vacation. He wouldn’t let them die when he had scraps left on the table to keep them alive, the ugly and unwanted.
My Germanness was pointed out to me by a southerner. Now that I know, I wonder how my city-born Southern-bred grandma endured the closed, tight life of a very small town where everyone knew everything but said nothing. She relied on us, daughters and granddaughters, to be her closest friends. My mother and my daughters are my own closest friends now, but my partner isn’t my adversary like hers was. Her free nature must have been something fascinating and interesting to him in her youth, but later, something to be managed into submission. Because of my non-native, non-German grandma, we were different in a town of Same. Because of my own mother’s choice of husband, I was very different in that same town, but that is another story, unrelated to cultural ancestry.
To understand and be willing to follow convention without question, when the matter is something as simple as when to mow and where the clippings should go, makes life easier. To pick up a ratchet set with the intention of fixing something without calling a trained professional makes me feel good, because the thing does get fixed by me or by one relative or another. Paying someone to change my oil still rankles that sensibility, but cars are different now, and too low to the ground, and too full of computerish bits…but the oil gets changed on schedule, because that is how one keeps a car running. I am grateful to my rigid German DNA for those sensibilities. The toilet has been running since I moved to this current house, and I’ve reached my limit of patience, but the thought of fixing it makes me happy. The part only cost six dollars and change. A plumber would charge seventy bucks just to drive over and tell me to replace the thing that isn’t working, for which I don’t know the name, but that doesn’t matter as long as I know that it’s the part that doesn’t work.
Holidays came with certain traditions, none of them explainable to non-Germans, maybe. We opened our gifts, every one, on Christmas eve, after an early supper. I don’t even know why. I do know that Papa started shopping from catalogs in October, because he wanted the kids to have Christmas even if he was dead by December. Everyone had an early dinner on Christmas eve, then opened gifts. Santa and his minions played a role, with jingling bells outside the window in the dark, sometimes leaving footprints on the roof if there had been snow. We got our presents earlier than everyone else in the world because of a letter sent every year, explaining to Santa that we would expect delivery on the 24th. No postage necessary, as the letter could be left near a window to be picked up. The letter was only a reassurance to me, worried by all of that Christmas Morning talk at school. The idea of waking up to gifts left by an intruder in the night made me uncomfortable, even though we only had one door that locked and one that had a wooden hatch. Santa slipped in while we were in the back yard before dinner, or at a Christmas program, or just in the kitchen. And Christmas day was for sleeping in and playing and eating leftovers, anyway. Explaining this tradition, trying to entice partners in my adult life to embrace Christmas morning as a time to relax and cook a serious breakfast while the kids play, has been a flop. Maybe next year, I think every year.
And for the parts of me that made me very much Other in the town of Same, I am also grateful. I now live in a town made entirely of Other, and I have made it my home and my daughter’s. She is Of Here, this smallish university town, where academic immigrants outnumber agricultural immigrants now. She fits in perfectly. I see my stoicism in her unwillingness to cry. I see her inner-city Detroit-bred father’s ease with change. I see her great-grandpa’s tenderheartedness and her other great-grandpa’s pragmatism. Save the mouse from the cat, unless the situation is hopeless, then just grab something heavy and get it over with for the mouse. I see my father’s bravery and sharp wit and freedom of expression, but thankfully, less of his immortal and immoral recklessness. My small person thinks things through.
She’s a little blonde German-American girl like I was, quiet when nothing good comes from speaking up, but sure enough of herself to say her piece when something must be said. In that way, we are different. I just thought and thought, and never said a word.
She knows where the hammer lives and does not need anyone’s permission to put a nail back in place as long as the hammer goes back in place afterward. And she gets presents on December 24th, dammit. Nobody, not even Santa, is welcome at OUR house while we are sleeping.
That nonsense can happen at Daddy’s.