By Alex M. Frankel
I’m thinking of a house, just like any house, ordinary, with floors and windows and rooms and a fireplace. I’m thinking of a house in the fog of the Sunset District in the ’60s and ’70s, a house that huddles next to all the other houses, smug little homes conjoined and rising up and coasting down San Franzisko’s hills. There we lived, my Mami and my Deddi and I. On Sundays a kindly grandmother, Oma, would come to visit. Sometimes I go back there, and when I do, time evaporates and I’m eight or ten or twelve again. The nearby kindergarten and church and judo institute still stand and look as they did when I was little. Nothing has changed—nothing, except when I look down at my wrinkly hands, I notice I’m almost old.
We never truly lived, especially during those first years, in the lovely American town of San Francisco. There was perhaps such a thing as the Haight-Ashbury and Berkeley, where hippies were throwing rocks at buildings or policemen, and there was the Castro where bad men walked down the street holding hands with other bad men, but we lived on our own little island; it might as well have been hundreds of miles out at sea. To this day I get lost in the real San Francisco.
Our island was very German-Jewish and barely fit the three of us. Mami and Deddi were so old, older than all other parents. Their bodies moved slower and more stiffly than regular American bodies or even German-Jewish ones. When they weren’t speaking German, they spoke their English with a thick accent that I picked up as the strict and necessary way to speak. Now, all these years later, they’re both long gone and I’m still sometimes asked about my accent and am ashamed of it.
I’m thinking of a house, an old house and just ordinary and yet different from all the other houses. Different because it was ours. And different because though it was a typical Sunset District house built in the ’30s, with living quarters upstairs and garage below, its second-floor front room seemed to jut out and droop more than the front rooms of our neighbors, while its dark shingled roof rose higher and more pointedly, so that our home sometimes looked to me like a goat with a dunce cap.
I know we would have been happy there if it hadn’t been for the hitting and the slapping, the kicking and the shouting. Mami and Deddi threw whatever they could at each other, whatever was handy: glasses, plates, forks, scissors, spatulas. In front of me. In front of anybody. I never got to experience much peace, but when I did it was lovely. I even caught Mami and Deddi hugging once in the living room when they thought I wasn’t looking. I quickly hid in the dining room to let them enjoy their peace.
My mother was such a punctual and proper lady. I know that, in her punctual and proper way, she loved me. Mami grew up in Hamburg and spent her young years under the Nazis. She came from a musical family: her mother had studied piano together with Otto Klemperer, or was it Bruno Walter? I can never remember which. And Mami herself had taken lessons, but by the 1960s she could hardly play anything but “Chopsticks.” She used to tell me that one day in the ’30s she was walking along her Hamburg street when she saw a truck hauling off Jews to a concentration camp. After that she never touched a piano again.
Vera Goldner grew up in a traditional German bourgeois household; there really wasn’t anything Jewish about the Goldners except their name. Her father, Johann, was a stamp dealer. I have his little framed photo on my desk as I write these words. He’s bald, he’s wearing a three-piece suit, and he’s holding a cigar in his left hand. I used to think this was a photograph of an old man, but the more the years have passed for me, the younger he appears. He looks into the camera with a faint smile, very German, proper, businesslike. I never knew the man. He died in Mexico, the adopted country he’d come to love, long before I was born.
His wife’s name was Margarete. I knew her as Ami, a German word for grandmother. (Johann Goldner was referred to by his own diminutive, Api—so odd and touching, to use a diminutive for someone I never knew except as a photograph.) I can remember almost nothing about Ami, except that she was strict and proper. She has lived on in me as an absence: a lack of Ami, a loss of Ami, an upsetting void left where Ami should have been.
We saw her off at the airport after her last visit to us. She was going back to Mexico, the country my mother and all of her family had sought refuge in when they escaped the Nazis. As if sensing we’d never see Ami again, we not only watched her airplane take off but lingered for the longest time to gaze as it became the smallest point of black in the blue sky. And then even that black point vanished entirely. A few months later a terrible call in the middle of the night. I wept around legs, tried to grab hold of legs in the entrance hall of our house. I’d never known about death before. The big people around me scolded me for crying.
Ami’s next absence took place in her empty Mexico City apartment. My first trip to an exotic country! I sat at a table in a long, white, primitive kitchen while my parents conferred and conducted their whispering grownup business in other rooms. A maid sat with me and tried to teach me a few words of Spanish. Everyone in Mexico was lucky to have maids, I learned on that trip, even when they weren’t rich.
My parents must not have believed a four-year-old should attend a funeral. Instead of being taken to Ami’s burial, I was dropped off in the apartment of a Mexican family. Those people — whoever they were — had a son my age.
I will never discover a single fact about them, and it is too late to ask, since everyone I could ask is gone. Those babysitters, like Ami, exist now purely in my memory or fantasy life. The son my age was pale, dark-haired, slim, and fun. At first we were shy, but as the afternoon wore on we played harder and harder on the king-size bed in his parents’ bedroom, unsupervised, free, close to each other’s smells.
We stayed dressed, but he encouraged me to take off my shoes and even my socks and then, with him, I discovered the warmth of a body, something I never knew at home. I’m not sure how long we wrestled and tumbled and giggled and tickled on that bed, but when my mother came to pick me up, I didn’t want to leave. Her face looked disapproving and she made me put on my shoes and socks while she had the usual important adult conversation with the lady of the house. But as soon as I saw my chance, I got rid of my shoes and peeled off my socks and was back on the big bed free and warm with my buddy again, thrilled by his smells.
Ami. Margarete Goldner. Who thinks about her now?
My mother and the other Goldners left Germany in 1939, just before leaving became much harder. In comfort they crossed the Atlantic on the Orinoco, bound for Mexico, where my mother was to spend nine years before she eventually made her way to San Franzisko. Until the mid ’60s she was still a Mexican citizen. “I am proud to be a Mexican,” she would declare, and my father would ridicule her.
With just a few keystrokes at my computer, I’m able to see before me what the Orinoco looked like. It was not a white cruise ship loaded with seventeen flights of balconied staterooms, indoor and outdoor pools, casinos, bars, and bingo lounges; rather, Mami’s ship was just a stately ocean liner of the old kind belonging to the Hamburg Amerika Line, with a low black hull punctured by many portholes, a promenade deck, Spartan cabins, and two simple old-time smokestacks. I always picture her as happy on that crossing from old world to new. She made fun of people who got seasick. She looked after her somber, fussy old parents whom she adored and protected as they embarked on a new life in their fifties. My Mami was a girl of nineteen.
When I look at pictures of the Orinoco, their black-and-whiteness reminds me of an embarrassing gap in my abilities to see. I am unable to imagine big chunks of the past in anything but black and white. There were no colors during the Civil War, the Roaring Twenties, the Depression. But earlier periods—before photography, when there was just painting — I have no trouble seeing them in bright, garish colors: the Revolutionary War, the court of Louis XIV, the travels of Marco Polo.
Henry and Vera Frankel, in the forty years before I was born, could not have lived in a world in which true red, green, blue, and yellow were possible. Color began (or was reborn) about the time I was born. Or at least that’s what a silly voice inside me keeps telling me. When I recently saw a colorized photograph of Mark Twain posing in his garden, Abe Lincoln standing stiffly in his stovepipe hat, and people hanging around a filling station circa 1924, I was as stunned as a blind man who’d suddenly been given the gift of sight. For a moment I could almost believe Lincoln lived in a world of color. But only for a moment. I soon saw through the artifice of colorization, and Lincoln et al. receded into their film noir twilight.
Black and white: I can’t imagine the life of Vera Frankel, before my birth, with color. But maybe her life never had any colors at all. Before I came into it or after.
She never laughed. She was a short woman who smoked incessantly. I don’t think she ever fully adjusted to the U.S.A. I never received warmth from her in a physical way, and yet she was the human being I most longed to please. For her I stayed away from rough play with other boys. For her I listened only to decent classical music. For her I spoke with a German accent. It grew thicker around my parents at home, loosened up just a bit at school.
I couldn’t say the word “back” like an American; I said “beck.” The “a” in the American pronunciation of “back” was daring, forbidden, erotic. If I was rough and masculine like the other boys, she would be hurt and angry. It was safer and easier to play with dolls. Playing with dolls meant loyalty to my parents. Sometimes the other children, both boys and girls, would call me a girl.
I may not have been virile, but I was tall and blond, which people said was so odd since both my parents were very short and dark.
When my hair got tousled or grew too long, my Mami would point at me and cry “Struwwelpeter!” invoking the German storybook character who has let his nails grow longer than his fingers and wears his hair in a kind of blond Afro style that dwarfs his little round head. In the story of the thumb-sucker, from the same book, a mother warns her five-year-old Konrad not to suck his thumb, but as soon as she leaves the house he sticks his thumb in his mouth. Then the Cutter bursts in with giant scissors and shears off not only the offending thumb but the other one as well.
Hans Guck-in-die-Luft — Hans Look-in-the-Air — never watches where he’s going, ends up in a pond with three puzzled fish, and must be rescued by passing men. Hans survives, but the Suppen-Kaspar isn’t as lucky. He’s a pudgy child who refuses to eat his soup. “‘I will not eat my soup. / No, my soup I will not eat.’” Every day he throws a tantrum, until after a few days he’s a repulsive stick figure: “It came to pass in four short days / half a shekel was all he weighed. / ‘He’s light as a feather,’ his mother said. / One morning later she found him dead.”
Vengeance. Violence. Cruelty. Mutilation. These seemed routine and normal occurrences to me, and when I hear modern German parents speak of the “harshness” of the storybook I grew up with (my first book), I’m always surprised. Whenever I didn’t watch my step, my mother would call, “Hans Guck-in-die-Luft!” When I sucked on my thumb, my mother would call, “The Cutter, with his scissors, is coming for you.”
One of Mami’s strict notions had to do with shirt buttons. All buttons must always be done up. No open collars. The neck should feel tight. No visible neck to anyone. I went to school with a big brown briefcase and all buttons buttoned. About the second grade I noticed boys playing rough in the yard, with open collars, and sometimes when it got hot, they undid more than one button or peeled off their shirts altogether. I stared and wanted to be like them. It was unsettling to look at them.
My mother did not allow me to casually, spontaneously, walk home with another child. She insisted on days of planning, promises, negotiations, agreements with all parties involved. And other children were not granted access to our house unless they made an appointment well ahead of time.
There wasn’t anything casual or folksy about Vera Frankel -— or Henry. The windows were always kept tightly shut, except during a heat wave. The dogs were kept on a tight leash and locked up in the basement at night. And the smoke from her cigarettes filled the house (no one, in those days, knew about passive smoking). It was hard to breathe, with the smoke settling in every corner of the house; it was hard with the closed windows, the heater on almost as high as it would go, and every single button of my shirt done up safe and tight, over my undershirts and under the red or blue cardigan sweaters she had me wear.
But sometimes, in spite of the smoke and the heat and the closed windows, I was able to look outside and watch Bobby Grippenberg, the neighbor from a few houses down, climb the huge pine tree in his backyard. He climbed barefoot and shirtless and I always tried to imagine how the pine needles brushed against his nipples and how the tree bark felt on his naked soles. I peered at him through the closed window, through a chink in the blinds, and I could hear his voice when, climbing with his buddies, he called down (how could he see me from such a distance?), “You make a lousy spy.” I retreated from my window, red-faced and ashamed.
Once in a while, after much pleading and planning, I was granted permission to go home with Stephen, my friend. One afternoon, when we were not more than eight years old, the two of us walked to his house after school to work on our little project about the Children’s Crusade.
I lived on 36th Avenue with a view of Sunset Boulevard and parks, but Stephen’s family had a dingy house up on a hill. In that house his parents had managed to squeeze in six children along with a few cats and dogs. His father was a milkman. To this day, whenever I read stories that take place in a working-class house, I picture Stephen’s sad and happy little house, especially the kitchen, with its basic white table and its back door that opened to a rickety staircase and a yard consisting of sand and a lone bush.
Stephen shared a room with three brothers, all conveniently away that day. A desk by the window overlooked his sandbox yard; together we sat there and tried to work on our report.
We couldn’t focus on it for long. Soon we moved to the lower bunk bed. He asked me why I always wore my shirts buttoned up all the way, why I always stayed so closed up. He undid the top buttons for me. We took off our shoes and socks and lay back. So this was the way of wholesome, warm-blooded Americans: forbidden skin and hair and foot and armpit smells. Boy warmth. He kept telling me, “Relax, you gotta relax.” More and more buttons came undone as we pretended to be a dumb, temporary mom and dad.
This was “playing house,” chaotic, silly, perfect. It was so good to be bad that we forgot all about the Children’s Crusade there on the smelly lower bunk. I could breathe in this room, where the window was open and the tattered curtain billowed in the breeze. Stephen was pale with a perky, smart face (he was smart enough to be put in the “Enrichment Class” for gifted kids), he had dark bushy hair and thick lips and good eyebrows—and he consented to be my friend.
What was there to talk about in that good room that smelled of used pillows, old blankets and socks? He pretended to be the dad, coming home from work “bushed” (his word), and I let him fall on me and I pampered him, and wanted to go on pampering. In the middle of my body, in front, I felt an unusual tension and stiffness that wouldn’t go away, but I said nothing. We played, and I shed my German accent while we played: his handsome naturalness was rubbing off on me.
It was good to be bad, but surely I would be punished for my thoughts and actions? I must not betray my well-meaning, strict, vulnerable parents by this contact with the wholesome world. Would I be punished for lying here with my friend? Would God punish me? I pronounced God the German way: Gott. Would Gott punish me for betraying my Mami and Deddi and trying to be cool and American like the other boys?
That night I folded my hands and, in a high-pitched voice, recited my nightly German poem-prayer for Mami and Deddi at bedtime:
Tired am I, and go to rest,
Close both my little eyes.
Father in heaven, may your eyes
Watch over my little bed.
In the middle of the night, the shattering of glass, the breaking open of sleep, the healthy, complete sleep of an eight-year-old. It was as if someone had thrown a grenade into my room and disfigured sleep for good. And I’d thought I was safe in that room, in my little bed under the map of the world. I ran into my parents’ bedroom next door and found all lights on, even the obtrusive ceiling light. Glass and blood all over my father’s side of the bed, near the door. Mami had thrown an ashtray at Deddi’s face and just missed blinding him. Impossible, that an ashtray colliding with a pair of eyeglasses could make as much noise as the smashing of a whole glass wall.
Sleep would not be a safe place ever again.
Blood. Glass shards littering the white sheets and pastel comforter. German cuss words of 1930. Deddi sitting stunned on the bed, in his pajamas, the skin on his nose torn open, his face defiled with blood.
Copyright Frankel 2016