Outlook is everything. Better to be an optimist than a pessimist. This I won’t deny . . . however. . . I will say that life is complicated, and it’s better to understand finesse and grey areas than to see the world in stark terms of happy/sad, good/bad, obstacle/opportunity. To be sure, the “glass half empty or glass half full” test paints a certain picture, but as many people before me have noted, it’s far better to realize that the glass is in flux and ever able to be refilled. Ebb and flow, people. Is it even possible to live a balanced life without a sense that there will be ebb and there will be flow?
This is a roundabout way of coming to the topic of The Brothers Grimm, who occupied my thoughts last week on two fronts. First, I’ve been developing a few lessons on Fairy Tales– those richly complicated stories that seem to have have a Jekyll and Hyde personality in modern imagination. Are they adorable children’s tales where everyone lives happily ever after, or are they dark musings on our dreams and fears that sometimes delve deep into violence? Do they encourage good children to uphold social mores, or do they foment revolutionary plottings?
In a word: Yes.
The second reason the Grimm brothers showed up on the scene last week was new information to me. These literary brothers just celebrated the anniversary of their Deutsches Worterbuch. Their German Dictionary was a huge undertaking, and Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm sought to do more than just record the meanings of the most used German words. They set out to record “the origin and use of EVERY German word.” Deutsches Welle, the German media outlet, has an informative article on this undertaking (here) in its broad scope and political overtones. Definitely worth a read.
How did these famous storytellers come to write a dictionary? Well, first of all, it may help to remember that they were “story catchers”– scholars driven by a desire to preserve stories and the cultures they grew out of. Second, they found themselves at a pivot point, not unlike characters in the tales they collected. The Grimm brothers were professors (anthropologists and linguists), suddenly jobless after the University of Gottingen fired a cluster of educators who refused to swear an oath to the new king or back the alteration of the constitution in Hanover in 1837. They took up the challenge of creating the first German dictionary, largely, because they had bills to pay. Their thorough approach was remarkable and reflected their love of the language: “especially enamoured with the letter A, calling it the ‘noblest, most original of all sounds.’ Unsurprisingly, their famous dictionary begins with a detailed linguistic history of the vowel” (dw.com). The brothers were thorough and reverent . . .however, this approach also ensured that the project would not be completed in their lifetime.
As careful to preserve the diverse dialects of Germany as they had been to capture and preserve the folk tales of their land, they were also keenly aware that this project wielded a certain political muscle in unifying the German Reich linguistically. They would compile one linguistic platform to bring together the diverse German-speaking states. I like to think that they took to heart the role of the trickster in so many of the fairy tales they had gathered: having lost their jobs to a certain political vision, they found a way to incorporate that vision into their new work. They were wily and triumphant . . . in the long game.
It was an ambitious undertaking that outlasted both the Grimm brothers and many iterations of the modern German state– only seeing completion in 1961. Many decades, many unpronouncable German words, and 32 volumes later.
If you have read this blog over the years, you will know of my struggles with the German language. And you will know that I am in the good company of Mark Twain on that front. Still, the Deutsches Worterbuch was a remarkable undertaking that has my utmost respect. Many a day, the project must have felt like a hungry wolf at Jacob and Wilhelm’s backs. But that, my friends, is a little red story for another day.
Easter is just around the corner! Have you ever considered where our Easter traditions come from? Not to go too far down a rabbit hole, but the Easter Bunny seems to have come to America by way of the Pennsylvania Dutch in the late 1600’s or early 1700’s. Back then, the Easter Hare brought good children brightly coloured eggs, while bad children received a handful of “bunny pellets.” That’s a side of the tradition that few of us will miss!
Here’s a look back at German Easter Markets. I doubt they will take place this year, with the pandemic heating up once again in Gemany, but maybe we’ll be able to meet for a market next year!
Dieser ist die Ostermarkt Sankt Wendel/This is the Easter Market in St. Wendel
Easter markets are popping up all over Germany, and we visited the market at Sankt Wendel this weekend. It was busy with market stalls full of painted Easter eggs, wooden Easter crafts, flowers, and jewelry. There were craft stations for children and food and drink for everyone. It was a nice day out, especially with the sun shining brighter than it has in many weeks. Our favorite sights at the market were the Easter Bunny displays and the fantastic Dom (Church) in Sankt Wendel.
The church was the center point of the market festivities, with stalls huddled around her walls. The photo at left doesn’t do the exterior of the church justice–in the busy, small streets around the church it was hard to get a photo that shows the fantastic double-onion dome (with a third tier “cap”…
You have to draw a line somewhere, right? And we’re a funny species…we draw lines everywhere. But lines, once drawn, just ache to be crossed. I’m not excusing this conduct, I’m just saying it seems to be a pattern of human behavior, or human misbehavior anyway.
So when you build a massive defensive fortification on your country’s border–though it may be a project of mind-boggling innovation and preparation, though it may seem impenetrable–well, it just seems like pressing your luck to call it The Maginot Line. You are just begging for trouble.
But, of course, no one had to go begging for trouble in Europe in the late 1930’s. Trouble sat on your doorstep with a capital T. And I’m sure all of France slept better at night knowing that the Maginot Line held its eastern border safe when the Third Reich escalated its rumblings in Germany. Slept…
I love the hidden stories implicit in a found object– an “objet trouvé,” as the French would say. (And everything sounds better in French.) The beauty of found objects lies partially in them being so full of possibility, but also in what they teach us of empathy when we try to place ourselves in their story. In Bruges, I once found a small photo of a young man; it was precariously sat on a windowsill I passed by. I didn’t dare move it– perhaps it was left for the occupant on the other side of the window? Or perhaps the object of his affection had tossed it aside as she walked down the street, and it landed on this perch. Perhaps it had accidentally been dropped and another passerby had picked it up from the street, moving it where it might be found again, thinking somewhere, someone in town was looking frantically to find it. I left the photo, imagining that the story was still in play.
Or there’s the Grateful Dead songbook I stumbled on at a used book store, only to have a personal note fall out at my feet: “Jan. 1987. To Grace, with love, Krissy. When you’re older and wiser and living in Paris, I hope you’ll never forget our great times and the Grateful Dead. Welcome home!” I found this youthful time capsule for sale for a few dollars in the suburbs of DC in 2018. I hope that Grace is living in Paris and loving life. I hope this memento was only discarded because she travels light and keeps on truckin’, not because she’s lost touch with those great times and her friend Krissy. But who knows?
Another time, I found a tiny Bible in the £1 box at a British antique fair. I opened it up to find an amazing soldier’s story inside. But that lovely story should wait for its own post someday. Today, I have something else to talk about. The found object is my father. At four years old. Living in a small mill house in NC in the aftermath of the Great Depression.
I knew my father very well and loved him even better. I thought, foolishly, that I knew the book of his life. That I could pick it up off the bookshelf without having notes fall out and catch me by surprise. Moments of youthful joy, or family struggle, or any of the thousands of days and hundreds of thousands of hours that were his story and not mine, despite the tight weave of family that we share. To love someone well is to know them in a way that you feel their presence deep in your bones. But that doesn’t mean you know all the frames of their story, and it is an exquisite and poignant experience when these notes fall out of their book and land at your feet. It’s a gift that reawakens wonder and empathy. But I ramble on.
Pardon me. I’ll slow down and tell you about this found object.
A few weeks ago, I was walking a very particular path: the one year anniversary of my father’s death. A path by turns beautiful and rough; a week about enduring memory and love, as well as the sting of loss.
A very mundane thing happened that week. Ancestry.com emailed me that my DNA/origins information had been updated. It happens with some regularity. (And to my dismay, it always draws my regional circle tighter and never suddenly tells me: “Girl, we just found a Russian Tsaress/Egyptian pharaoh/Amazonian princess in your background!” Nope, I’m entirely Western European and mostly English, Scottish, Irish. In fact, I’m so Scottish that it’s baffling my hair isn’t flame-red. On the other hand, I’m no longer perplexed that my mother eats oats for breakfast every morning. Every. Single. Morning. She can’t help it– it’s in her DNA, apparently.) But I digress– which is easy to do in the mundane moments of your story.
I opened this ancestry update to find that I am still the most White Anglo-Saxon Protestant woman on the planet. I suppose the marketing team at Ancestry.com realized that this was not terribly exciting news, and they couldn’t automatically count on me rushing to purchase their services to learn more. They would have to pitch something specific of interest: my grandfather’s WWII draft registration card and a page from the 1940 census. For a small fee.
I already know my family history. I have pages and pages of names, dates, locations. I know who did the begetting and who was begat. But this meaningful coincidence– a small platter of tasty family morsels as I walked a week hungry with loss and heavy with my father’s spirit– this, I could not ignore.
Besides which, I’m a savvy researcher and was pretty sure I could find these documents online without paying the asking price. (Damn, there’s my Scottish frugality peeking through!)
So now we return to the beginning of this post- the place of found objects and enchanted spaces. The place where I find my father at 4 years old.
The 1940 census.
I opened the document and it was like opening the wardrobe door into Narnia. I absolutely couldn’t believe my eyes. There was this family that I know, but don’t know. My grandfather at 30. (He would be dead 9 years later.) My grandmother as a young mother to three boys, ranging from 4 down to less than a year. And those three boys– that happy few, that band of brothers, who joked and jostled and supported each other throughout their lives. Three tiny boys who dug tiny trenches in the backyard during WWII, believing that any minute Japanese Zeroes would swarm the sky over their small NC town and they’d have to take cover. Who dearly loved a little boy dog they misguidedly named Daisy. And who could never agree on which of them set off the cherry bombs inside the house. (Although they were all quite sure that the culprit had tried to throw them out the window, but missed.) That naughty and noble band of brothers is, today, reduced to a band of one.
But in the 1940 census, they are alive and well, in the first years of their journey and living in a rented house along with their parents and a lodger–their father’s Aunt Mattie.
I haven’t encountered Mattie before. Who is this Aunt Mattie, I wonder? And where is this house, exactly? I turn back to the internet to find it. To see where these people I love, but somehow don’t know at all, are living.
I find the house. It’s still standing today, unchanged on the outside. It’s a small mill house built in 1915. Two bedrooms for these three adults and three children.
The 1930’s were lean and mean years, and The Great Depression had not spared this community. Farmers scraped by. The mills spluttered and many closed their doors, selling off the mill houses. Dinner tables didn’t groan under the weight of hearty helpings. And people worked hard to simply stay afloat. I’d always believed that my parents grew up after this wave of hardship broke. That they were touched by those years, but not burdened. But peering into this small house, I wondered.
And so I turned back to the faded lines of the 1940 census and found information about my grandparents’ employment.
In 1940, my grandfather was working 70 hours a week as a cafe operator. My grandmother, who was college educated and was a teacher before having children (and again after my grandfather’s death), was working 40 hours a week as a seamstress in a cloth mill. This surprised me. In 1940, most women gave up work after getting married and having children — that was the expectation until the war effort really cranked up. If my grandmother was back at work with three tiny tots at home, and working in a job none of us ever heard her talk about later . . .this felt like hard times. And Aunt Mattie, whom I had guessed was there to help with the young children? Now I see that she was also working 40 hours a week, inspecting cloth in the mill. It seems that they were working mighty hard just to get by.
I know what they don’t know yet- that 1940 is the cusp where lean times begin the turn to boom times. But the price is another world war. I know that these three boys will grow up to be fine men, but I know also that personal tragedy and plenty of struggle will color their decade ahead. In this moment, I want so badly to actually reach out and touch them. To sit and talk. To just watch them and learn who they are, and how they are– these people I know but don’t know.
What a gift, this of all weeks, to stand in the doorway of this humble house, seeing the band of brothers, admiring my young grandmother, and trying to conjure the grandfather and great-great aunt that I never knew. I feel a strange mix of pride and sorrow. Proud of the determination and hard work of a family that will go on to raise three amazing men. Sorrow for the hardships and heartbreak I know will continue to touch this family in the years ahead.
I also feel wonder, and a little pain, that there is so much more I could learn about my father, so much more his life can teach me . . . but so much I am sure to never know.
It feels like a gift, this 1940 census. Like a magic portal. Like a little nudge from the universe, a whispered secret. A found object here, an old document there. A window into the lives we know intimately and not at all.
Reposting from The Edinburgh Reporter. Why am I sharing this article? Because it’s a feel good story in a troubling week. Also, because Ten Hill Place is a great hotel that deserves to be lauded on many levels. It’s very comfortable, has a great restaurant and helpful staff, a good location, and is reasonably priced. It’s not the most posh hotel in Edinburgh, but it’s luxurious enough. Better yet, it has character and heart.
My daughter has stayed at Ten Hill Place, and I had tentatively booked a room for a spring trip this year. Obviously, spring trips have been derailed around the globe, but how great to see this independent hotel stepping up to put itself to use for the good of the community! In truth, it does that every day. The hotel is owned by The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, and its profits go back into training medical staff worldwide. When this Coronavirus rollercoaster is over, I’ll be happy to book a stay at Ten Hill Place Hotel, Surgeons Quarter- they’ve made a fan out of me.
FRONTLINE workers leading the response to the COVID-19 pandemic in Edinburgh are booking in to the city’s largest independent hotel in their numbers after it committed to offering free rooms and meals. Since opening its doors on Friday evening to help clinical and medical staff at the capital’s hospitals, more than 232 room nights have…