My grandmother’s birthday is today. She was born 111 years ago in Rothenturm, Switzerland. As you might expect, she didn’t quite make it to today. Instead, she passed away in her sleep Christmas morning 1990, at the age of 81. Her last few years were tough. First, a heart attack and subsequent heart surgery left her physically and mentally weaker than she once was. A couple of years later, she fell and broke her shoulder, necessitating removing her from the home she had lived in for decades and placing her in a convalescent facility, where she remained until that Christmas morning.
A few years ago I decided I wanted to try to write a story about my grandmother, using what facts and memories I have and can acquire from other family members, and filling the gaps with artistic license in a way that is consistent with my memory of her. Easier said than done.
My grandmother lived a remarkable life, but in many respects what made it remarkable was the sheer ordinariness of it. Her story is one that many have lived over the last 110 years, but there are moments in there. Moments of celebration. Moments of adventure. Moments of tragedy.
It’s the tragedy that forms the backbone of her story and defines the remarkable nature of her life. When she was a child, she was walking down a street in Rothenturm one day when a boy pedaled by on a bicycle. The town witch was nearby, witnessed the encounter, and told my grandmother that she would marry the boy one day.
Fast forward a little more than 15 years. The boy has returned to Northern California where he was born. My grandmother has immigrated to the United States and taken up residence in Northern California also. She meets the boy at some point and … marries him. The tragedy arrives when she is pregnant with their second child, only a week or two from her due date, and her husband, the man of her dreams, falls from a roof in a construction accident and dies.
She would never remarry. Instead, she raised her two children on her own through the final years of the Great Depression, World War II, and everything that came after that. She cleaned houses, did ironing, worked in a family member’s bakery for a time so she could get Social Security, and did what she could to provide for her children.
My original idea was that it would just be a straight story about her and her life. I wrote the first few pages and then bogged down because, you know, how do you make up the reality of a life that actually was lived?
Those few pages have been sitting there for a couple of years now. Things have happened recently that give me an impetus to get this story done sooner instead of later, but I’m still struggling with it.
Recently, I read Cinthia Ritchie’s fabulous memoir, Malnourished. As I read it, I realized that there may be more to this than just trying to tell my grandmother’s story. There are connections and relationships and things that stretch from her to me, and I think what I need to do is just start writing. This may be the most rambling thing I ever write, if I actually do the deed, but here is the opening piece of what I’ve written so far.
How do you write a story about real people when you don’t know those people well enough to fill the gaps? How do you make it as true as you can when so much of the truth is a mystery to you? I had this idea about a story I wanted to write, but I don’t know how to do it.
Writing fiction means you can make the whole thing up. Yes, you have to worry about inner consistency and logic and not go completely crazy in the make-believe you create. But still, you don’t have to worry about being honest to living people. You don’t have to worry about whether you get it right. It’s your creation, entirely yours. Just make the reader happy, and you’re good.
I had this idea a couple of years ago. I wanted to write a story about my grandmother.
I only had one grandparent. Biologically, that is impossible. I had the normal quota of four grandparents. But I only ever knew one of them. My maternal grandmother. Grandma. Years before I was born, her husband died in a roofing accident when my mom was less than two years old and Grandma was pregnant with their son. Much closer to my birth, my paternal grandfather died. And finally, my paternal grandmother died when I was young enough to not have a clear memory of her, although there is a scratchy thing around the edges of my mental images from my childhood. They are of a frail, slight woman, with glasses and wispy hair. And that’s it.
Grandma was it for me. She bore the burden of representing four people. I’ve often envied people who had a grandfather in their lives. There is something about a grandpa that can be so cool. They fought in the war and they make silly faces and they get tired and go take naps and sometimes they just don’t want to talk. But when they do, the stories they tell are the best and the way they laugh and smile and the hair grows out of their ears. A grandpa can be like no other person in your life.
But so too can a grandma be and Grandma was special. She told her tales as well. Of growing up in the old country and of her many siblings and other relatives. She had the most incredible vegetable garden, with raspberry vines strung along the back fence and rhubarb grown in the shade, and fruit trees. She drove an old XXXXXXX, exactly the type of car a grandma drives.
She was scary sometimes, too, when she got mad, but mostly she wasn’t.
Grandma had a basement with canned fruits and cobwebs and dark corners. And she made the best garlic bread I’ve ever had. Sliced, then buttered and put under the broiler to just the right crispy crunch. She made angel food cake with a frosting I’ve never had since, and bratwurst and rhubarb sauce and spaghetti. We’d sit down in her dining room for dinner and my brother and I would immediately down a glass of milk and ask for another. Grandma would chastise us for drinking so much milk and be convinced we wouldn’t have any room for dinner.
That dining room table is now in my dining room and it has seen many more family meals in the years since Grandma passed away on Christmas morning in 1990. But I don’t know that any of those meals were like the ones we had with Grandma. My kids will probably have similar memories as I have, but the memories change when you go from the kid to the adult. When you go from a seat along the side of the table with your feet barely able to touch the floor to a seat at the head of the table and all of the responsibilities that come with it.
That table now represents something else for me. As I move towards retirement and a desire to downsize, I feel like it’s time to give the table up. After thirty years of stewardship and memories, when I move I want to get a new dining room table, one befitting of the next round of memory-making. I hope one of my boys will take the table, to continue its space in the family. Its place where the family gathers and the next generation of children will sit down and slam down a glass of milk and then look to what’s for dinner.
Grandma passed only a few months before her first great-granddaughter entered the world, but as my mother described it, her passing was a gift, both to her and to those who cared about her. Her last few years were tough, the kind of years far too many people have to go through at the end of their lives. A heart attack and heart surgery left her weaker, both physically and mentally. Eventually she fell and broke her shoulder. The result being a placement in a nursing facility that could provide her the care she needed.
It was difficult to visit her there, a place she didn’t want to be. She would always ask when she would get to go home. A place that was only a mile or two from the facility. A place that had been her home for more than fifty years. A home purchased for her by my grandfather, where she raised her two kids and where her seven grandchildren spent so many pleasant hours with their Grandma.
She never got back to her home, unfortunately. And it was so difficult to visit her and not be able to provide the answer to that question she so definitely wanted.
When I came up with this idea, I did a bit of research and talked to my mom about some of the details of Grandma’s life. I came up with the opening scene of the story. It goes like this …
The S.S. Arabic, built in 1908 in Bremen, Germany, was originally christened the Berlin. It steamed across the Atlantic for the first time in 1909. During World War I, the ship was enlisted into service by the German Navy to lay mines. Her service was short, however, as she suffered damage, went to port in Trondheim and was confiscated by the Norwegian government.
In 1920, the S.S. Berlin was sold to the White Star Line and was re-named the Arabic. It seems odd now that a western shipping line would name a ship the Arabic, but back then Arabia was likely viewed as an exotic wilderness yet to be fully explored and exploited. This was, after all, only a few years after the daring adventures of T.E. Lawrence in Arabia and the surrounding lands.
Until 1932, when the Arabic was junked, it plied the Atlantic from various European and Mediterranean ports. In 1926, the ship sailed from Hamburg. It was there that on April 29, 1927, Anna Scheidegger, her brother Fred, and their mother Frances boarded the ship and departed the old country for America.
On the fifth day of their voyage, Anna’s mother finally came up to the deck. Until then she had been far too sick to make her way up to the sun, spending her time in their tiny cabin, while Anna stood at the railing for hours at a time and Fred ran with a group of boys throughout the ship.
She found Anna towards the front, looking out to the sea. Towards America. Frances was struck by the glint in her daughter’s eyes and the smile she found there. Anna had not been sick for a moment. Her enthusiasm for what she called a great adventure seemed to overcome any effects from their voyage across the ocean.
“Good morning,” Frances said as she leaned against the railing next to her daughter.
“Mama! You are feeling better?” Anna did not turn to her mother, she couldn’t take her eyes from the waves that rolled endlessly, the clouds that raced across the sky, and the promise that was ahead of her. America.
She could not take her mind off of it. Anna had read about New York City and its teeming streets and, oh, there was so much her sister Marie had written her about. Of the trains across a vast land to a place called California. Anna was ready for it, whatever may come.
“A bit,” Frances replied.
“I don’t know. I wanted a few moments with you. Let’s find him in a bit. For now, we can watch the sun set together.”
“What is it?” Anna finally turned to her mother.
“It is your birthday, my child. Today you turn 18.” Frances reached out to touch Anna’s arm. “You are not a child anymore.”
“Oh, of course,” Anna replied.
“I don’t care that it’s my birthday. I want to finish this trip. To get to America.” Anna gave her mother a hug. “But, thank you.”
“You should have a cake. If we were back home, your grandmother would have made sure of it.”
“No. I don’t need any of that. Bring right here is present enough.”
Frances and Anna settled in at the railing and were joined by Fred a few moments later. In the quiet as the sun reached the horizon, Anna asked the question that had driven her this far. To agree to leave her home in Rotenthurm, to cross an ocean, and to go to a country she had only read about.
“Do you think I’ll find Martin?”
“Mama,” little Anna yelled as she rushed through the front door. Her mother was in the kitchen where she always was. Her hair tied in a bun in the morning was now more scattered than gathered.
The year was 1915. The War to End All Wars was in full swing. Anna was barely six years old and full of energy. Sometimes Frances wondered if she would ever settle down and sit in one place.
“What is it, little one?” What she really wanted to do was tell her to keep her voice down. The even smaller ones were sleeping. But how could she? Anna’s spirit was impossible to dampen.
“I … I … I …,” Anna began breathlessly, having run home from (NAME OF STREET in Rothenturm). She took a big gulp of air. “I saw the man I am going to marry.”
“What are you talking about?” Frances wiped a lose strand of hair from her face and returned to the bread she was kneading.
Anna took another deep breath. “There was a boy riding a bicycle. Martin Schuler. You know …”
“Yes. I know.” Everybody knew the Schulers. Visiting from America when the war broke out, they had been unable to return home and instead had become fixtures in the town.
“When I came out of the butcher’s, he rode by.” Anna stopped to take the package of sausages out of her bag and handed it to her mother. “Mrs. Burckhalder was there and she told me something.”
“Ay, child. How many times do I need to tell you to stay away from that old witch? She is nothing but bad news. Please. No more.”
“But Mama, she told me that one day I would marry Martin Schuler!”
And that’s as far as I’ve gotten. It’s been months, and when I spend any mental energy pondering this, I have no idea where to go next. Back to the ship? But for what? What happens there. More time in Rothenturm, in a small Swiss village? Or do I skip ahead to America? And how do I fill in the gaps in my knowledge about my grandmother, her relatives, and her life? It’s a challenge I’m not sure I’m up to.
Then this thing happened. (A thing I’m not going to share here at the moment, but it just propelled me forward on this. This is something I need to get done sooner instead of later, if I’m going to actually do this.)
The problems I’m having with this have just expanded even more. I realized that this is a story about far more than my grandmother. It is a story about memories and family and love and people lost and so many other things. I’ve realized there is a hole here. Inside of me. I wonder if I just imagine it, or if other people feel like this — lost memories, lost people, all adding up to a great big hole inside of them.
I went to the cemetery a couple of months ago. But first I had to ask my mom, “Where is your dad buried?” because I had absolutely no idea. I didn’t even know if she knew. And that was just ridiculous, given how Grandma felt about her husband. She loved him so deeply that she never dated or re-married after his death.
After I wrote that last sentence, I went back into a folder and stack of papers that I’ve accumulated over the years. One of the documents is something my mom put together more than 20 years ago at my request. Memories of her childhood and her family. It turns out that once my grandfather passed away, there were a number of young men who attempted to woo my grandmother. She may have even danced with a few of them at Swiss dances and other events. And my mom has a memory of being asked how she would feel about having a new dad. But nothing apparently came of any of that.
Instead, my mom has memories of weekly visits to her father’s grave. Of her mom always placing flowers there, ensuring that it was kept clean and looking good, and of her mother weeping there.
My grandfather was, in Grandma’s words, the perfect man. With such feelings about her husband, and given the time, there shouldn’t have been any doubt in my mind about where he was buried.
In a plot where 53 years later, his wife joined him. I feel like I’ve been there once since Grandma passed away in 1990. I’m not sure the reason, but I think it was another time when I was feeling things. Memories and loss and a need to connect with those emotions and people in my past.
I found their graves. The markers next to each other and flanked by each of their mothers. Where did their fathers go? What happened to them? Where were they buried? According to my mom, they are likely both buried back in Rothenturm. My grandfather’s father was ill when they visited Rothenturm just before World War I started and he died there before he could return home. And nowhere in any of the history I’m aware of is there any mention of Grandma’s father coming to America as the rest of the family did.
I sat in front of the graves for 10-15 minutes. Took a few pictures. I wondered why I was feeling what I was feeling about all of this. Why I was struggling with this story, why was I there in front of these two graves, scraping things open. Inspiration? Sure. But was there more?
All I can come up with is that we are a sum of our parts. Of those who gave birth to us, of our own experiences, of our environment, of our friends and of our enemies, and of the decisions our ancestors made that brought two people together in a particular place. And those two people joined and created more people. Sons and daughters. Siblings and cousins. And generations go on.
I want so much to know those people and their decisions. I want to hold their memories and their love and ensure that they are not forgotten. I want to inform my life with who they were, what they went through, and why they did what they did. I want to know what mattered to them. What they loved. How they felt. So much of that is gone.
There are some additional pieces that follow here, but I’m not ready to share those publicly. But that’s where I’m at now. I’m still somewhat befuddled by what I will do with this. I have this vision of my memories of my grandmother and the memories of her that others share with me, weaving through my own experiences. How those memories struck me back then, how they continue to strike me today. And who knows … maybe there will be something there.
Anyway, Happy Birthday Grandma. You are loved and missed.