Heimatsprache / Native Language
By Regina Peters
Montreal, Canada, 2010
"Es geht ihr nicht gut," said David Rosen. "She's not doing well."
He and his daughter Katherine sat on opposite sides of a white plastic table under a red shade in their suburban backyard. They were eating Niederegger marzipan and drinking coffee from a German coffee house, as they always did when David came back from there.
The garden was surrounded by hedges; the white tiles of the kitchen looked grey in the shade behind the glas sliding doors. Crows perched on the telephone wires, sharply cut black silhouettes against the blue sky.
The sun shone down into Katherine's eyes; she shaded them with her hand in order to look over at her father. He was a tall man whose black hair, though very thin, refused to go gray, and he had two basic uniforms: grey suits for work, and white shirts and chinos for relaxation. Today it was the chinos. He did not look back.
"The tumor in her lungs has been spreading … They're not calling it 'benign' anymore. When I was there, she was taking the painkillers on and off." His hand teetered back and forth like a scale. "On and off … One day she said they made her feel dizzy … the next day, the pain came back without them. And the chemo makes her nauseous. She's been making hints about the … the sleeping pills in her bathroom cabinet, but I got her checked into the clinic instead. They're guessing she has a few months left. Maybe more, maybe less."
He spoke in a low voice, still in German, staring intently at a single cube of marzipan wrapped in tinfoil. His eyes were dry, and his articulation no worse than it usually was in their rusty, unwieldy Muttersprache. Just a man lost for words.
Katherine wondered why her Papa didn't sound more upset. Then, guiltily, it occurred to her that since she'd never heard a genuinely upset Papa before, perhaps she shouldn't judge. When the renovated kitchen had depleted their budget, when a smaller Katherine had misbehaved, when his wife had left or even when his company had nearly folded, David Rosen had barely spoken at all. Perhaps this … the German, the hush, the hesitations … were what his sorrow sounded like.
"So … she's dying?" The young girl asked, in English.
Katherine found herself at a loss for words as well. The 'she' in question was Dr. med. Petra Rosen, her grandmother. When David's company had transferred him to Canada, Katherine had been three years old. She could count on one hand the times she'd met Dr. Petra.
Katherine ate a marzipan cube, hardly tasting it. She sounded out the words inside her head. Meine Großmutter stirbt. My grandmother is dying.
Why did everything sound so drastic in German? Like a giant brass gong, its reverberations strong enough to make her teeth rattle. English was softer. English was safe.
"Are you okay?" asked David, catching sight of her face. A frown line was between his eyebrows. "You look … "
She giggled, the sort of breathless giggle you let out when you've just been through the roller-coaster, staggering, clutching someone's arm. Katherine clutched the edge of the table.
"I'm not – crying or anything. Don't worry. I'm okay."
Rostock, Germany, 2008
I will not cry. I absolutely will not cry.
Katherine and Dr. Petra sat rigidly on opposite ends of a bench in a plastic bus stop cabin (technically a streetcar stop). There were black silhouettes of birds taped to the plastic walls. Another day, Katherine might have asked what they were for, and Dr. Petra might have answered that they were meant to prevent real birds from crashing into the plastic. Katherine had never seen this European quirk before, but today she couldn't care less.
"You might be a little more grateful, you know," said Dr. Petra, into the silence. "I only wanted to give you something nice. I have so little opportunity."
Katherine's hands curled into fists as she gripped the handle of an H&M shopping bag on her lap. Dr. Petra's idea of retail bonding with her foreign granddaughter was the very reason said granddaughter was trying not to cry.
"I'm sorry," she repeated. "I didn't mean to be … it was nice of you to take me shopping and all, but, Oma, I told you I didn't want the black skirt. I don't wear them. I don't like them."
Dr. Petra sighed and shook her head. "You looked lovely in it, Katrin.I don't understand." She pronounced it Kah-treen.
"Kess-reen? Oh, my … " Dr. Petra shook her head.
She had a soft, tremulous voice which often sounded either sleepy or mournful, and her heavily lined brown eyes behind round glasses only confirmed the look. Her short grayish-brownish curls fluffed out like bird feathers. Her body was a limp pillow, and she smelled of detergent from five steps away.
Katherine thought of the H&M outlet they had just left - the bright pink walls, the skinny jeans and frilly dresses, the German techno-pop grinding in the background and the mannequins with their dead white skin and staring eyes. The German word for both a model (a real live woman who modelled clothes) and those plastic dolls used to be Mannequin. One and the same. There had been two saleswoman dressed in black, with helmetlike hair and toothy smiles, whom Dr. Petra had enlisted as allies. Katherine, beleaguered and outnumbered, had ducked behind a dressing room curtain until they left. Which, apparently, made her ungrateful.
"Your father is just the same, you know," Dr. Petra continued, turning the amber beads on her bracelet. "Antisocial. And so was your grandfather."
"Is that why you divorced him?" Katherine couldn't help but ask.
"That, my dear child, is none of your concern. Besides, you're too young to understand."
Katherine seethed. She wanted to grab the old woman's shirt collar and shake her. She wanted to seize the nearest encyclopedia, look up the symptoms of this whatever-it-was, and prove that she did not have it.
Instead she reminded herself of David's goodbye at the airport. He had given her a hug and told her: Be kind to your Oma, won't you?
She did not say a word until they arrived at Dr. Petra's house. Then she hurled the shopping bag into the closet of her guest bedroom, marched into the bathroom and locked the door.
The bathroom was pure white and smelled of antiseptic. The entire bottom floor did; it had been Dr. Petra's medical practice before retirement. Diseased people had gone to take their urine samples in this bathroom. Katherine looked at herself in the mirror. Sad eyes, round body, round glasses. ANTISOCIAL tattooed invisibly on her forehead like a specimen label.
"I hate you," she whispered. "Ich hasse dich."
Katherine's school was called the Friedrich von Schiller International German School. It had less faculty than there were letters in the name, and about two hundred students, all in a one-level brick building shaped like a handicapped spider from above, with the auditorium being the belly and the five hallways being the legs. The doors were all painted spinach green and the Grade Seven homeroom counted only ten people. Which was lucky, in Katherine's opinion, since there were only eleven classmates for her to contend with.
"Achtung! Watch out!"
A Hacky Sack hit her square in the face, knocking her glasses askew and eliciting howls of laughter. She looked up from the concrete stairway to the doors where she always sat, keeping one finger between the pages of her copy of Michael Ende's Die Unendliche Geschichte.
"Sorry!" called one of the boys, waving, his spiked blond hair glinting in the sun. She waved back, but by the time she got her hand up, he had already turned away.
She pictured herself sauntering over to them, tossing her hair and saying something witty as she handed over the Hacky Sack. She pictured the boy with the sunny hair smiling at her. Instead she tossed the projectile back at them and remained in her place. It landed several feet short, thumping onto the lawn like a shot bird.
"You never did get along with Petra," said Jennifer Dupré, Katherine's mother, shaking her head from behind the teapot. They were sitting in the kitchen, speaking English; Jennifer's German had never been more than rudimentary.
"Ever since you were three," Jennifer continued, "And we first brought you over here. Petra complained about your vocabulary, of all things. Said you were too advanced for your age. She even nagged me into taking you to a child psychologist once we got home. And do you know what he said?" She blew on her teacup, took a sip, and grimaced fiercely at the heat. "Ugh! He said you were, and I quote, perfectly within normal parameters."
Katherine smiled as she added milk to her own tea.
"The problem," Jennifer continued, "Is that you two are just so much alike."
"I don't want to be like her." She knew she sounded sulky and childish, but she didn't care. It was true.
"You both tend to worry too much," said Jennifer. "And then talk about your worries to anyone who will listen. You need to relax."
Relax. There was a German word for that: sich entspannen, to unwind yourself. But most Germans tended to use the English word anyway.
"Will I be overweight when I'm her age too?" Katherine muttered.
Jennifer responded with a laugh and another shake of her blond hair. "There, that's exactly what I'm talking about. No, sweetie, you won't. Not if you take care."
Nevertheless, Katherine considered the therapist's diagnosis. A great deal could have changed since she had been three years old. Her mother had said a very kind thing, but she wasn't exactly impartial. She wondered what a visit to a shrink might turn up now.
She looked up 'antisocial' on Wikipedia. There was a personality disorder with that name. It was defined as "a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others that begins in childhood or early adolescence and continues into adulthood". She certainly didn't have that, or she would have slapped Dr. Petra right there at the bus stop. The entry on 'antisocial behavior' said much the same thing, but it also added that "In common parlance antisocial is often used to describe those perceived to be excessively introverted".
"Excessively introverted, eh?" Katherine muttered to the computer screen. "Hm. Could be worse."
"I brought some photos," said David, taking an envelope out of his shirt pocket. She stood up and peered over his shoulder as he slid them out and began leafing through them.
Katherine did not need to be told who was in the first picture. It showed a plump woman in a long black skirt, wearing a blue blouse and a necklace of amber beads. North German amber. Her curly hair was a bright chocolate brown, like Katherine's, and the wrinkles around her eyes came from a smile.
"I never really noticed the family resemblance," said David, looking up from the photo. "You have her smile."
"Oh, yes. When I was young, Mutti used to wait for me by the school gates, looking like that."
Katherine tried to picture it, but instead the idea of school only reminded her of her own classmates, and of the square-peg nature of her situation among them.
"Did she ever tell you you're antisocial? Does it really run in families?"
David nodded, smiling sadly. "She's been a doctor all her adult life. She can't help diagnosing people that way, any more than I can help asking you if you've done your homework every Sunday evening. Look. I'm a manager, not a doctor. But I do know that you're my daughter, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with the way you are."
Nothing wrong …
Katherine took the picture from her father's hand and held it closer, so her nearsighted eyes could pick up every detail. The wind ruffling this woman's skirt and hair. The billowing sheets on the clothesline behind her. The shape of her jaw, her cheekbones, her hands clasped loosely in front of her. Dr. Petra Rosen, general practicioner. Divorced. Single mother of an absent son. Beaming at the camera, never knowing that in a few decades, she would end up in a cancer ward. It was a pitiable thought.
"Did you know," said David, "That she became pregnant with me while she was still in medical school?"
Katherine put down the picture. "Really?"
She tried to imagine it. Would she have the strength to keep up a life like that?
"Yes. She graduated shortly after I was born. It's an old family joke that my taste buds are ruined because I was weaned on cafeteria food. Not true, of course."
"You can say what you like about the German Democratic Republic, but the daycare system was excellent. There were a lot of working women. My Oma – your grandmother's mother – ran a bed-and-breakfast on Rügen Island. She had six daughters. Ich weiß noch, damals … "
I still remember, back then … David sat up straighter in his chair and began to gesture with his marzipan cube, detailing his childhood vacations on the island Katherine had seen only once. Canola fields in powdery yellow bloom, waving in the wind. Grasses at waist-height. High cliffs white as chalk, the same ones immortalized by the painter Caspar David Friedrich. Fresh bread rolls at seven a.m. in the morning. "You had to get in line for them early, or they'd be gone."
Silence. Somewhere a cardinal was singing.
Katherine thought of the word 'antisocial', of Petra's 'oh my', of the puzzled brown eyes peering at a granddaughter she barely knew. She thought of the black skirt she was wearing right this moment. It draped softly around her legs.
The old grudge felt like a sharp apple core at the back of her throat.
"Can I come with you for … for the funeral, even if it's a school week? Could we talk to my teachers about it?"
"Of course. Yes."
She put a hand on David's shoulder; he squeezed it briefly, then let go as she picked up her cup and plate.
Katherine had never written to a dying person before. Having to write in German made it even harder. Nevertheless, write she did.
Liebe Oma …