I can count on my astute writers in ENG102 at Calhoun to keep me on my toes. Toni D. let me know in her comment to my previous post, that I need to write more about Gertrud, and so I’m going to take Toni’s advice and use this space to remember and pay tribute.
The last time I saw Gertrud was August, 1984, near Dusseldorf. This picture shows Gertrud, her youngest son, Gert, and me. My stay with the Sachsers during summer of 1971 changed me irrevocably; I became a more conscious citizen of this world. Here’s a one-paragraph excerpt from an article I wrote a while back called Guided Floundering:
Then I spent the summer after my junior year as an American Field Service exchange student living with a German family, and my world tilted. I learned that my book knowledge about war paled next to the stories of my host parents, who had dodged American and English bombs. European media in summer 1971 showed me pictures of the Vietnam War and the People’s Republic of China that were unavailable in the States, and I learned that our freedom of press was partial and biased, not absolute and objective. And because many people told me that the words they connected with my country were “poverty,” “racism” and “ghettos,” I also learned that others did not see us the way we saw ourselves. When I returned to Connecticut at the end of that summer, I jettisoned all plans for college and worked as a waitress so I could save enough money to travel. I left for Berlin at age 18, and I didn’t know when, or if, I would return.
In 1971, World War II had been over for just twenty-six years. Not enough time for decimated cities to recover entirely, not enough time for forests to repopulate fully, not nearly enough time for Gertrud to stop flinching every time a jet flew overhead while we picked gooseberries in the backyard. If anything taught me the psychological, physical, and spiritual costs of war, it was Gertrud’s reaction to the sound of a machine overhead. Gertrud lost most of her immediate family, and when we visited the graves in Wuppertal, and when Gertrud talked about being sent with other children by train to Austria, I learned even more about the irrevocable scarring war incurs.
I remember Gertrud as a big-hearted and ethical woman. She fussed when one of the kids did something silly, but she always looked as if she enjoyed the silliness. You can tell this by the two pictures I’m posting here. The last time I saw Gertrud, she was very involved with the Evangelical Church (Evangelische Kirche) and she had given some guest sermons, I believe. Faith enlivened her.
Moments I remember from that first summer: Gertrud showing me the house, explaining the bathroom, introducing me to Lutz the cat. Every morning, the family ate a kind of oatmeal-milk soup that got cooked overnight. Finally, Gertrud noticed I never ate much and told me I really could have an egg or something. Second or third week of my stay and when Mama came upstairs to change the bed, I finally got the courage to ask her if all Germans always slept at night with only half their body covered up. I had not yet figured out the complexities of a well-made German bed, which takes the cover, folds it in half, and lays that across the bed. I had been simply getting in between the cover and not unfolding it. Mama Gertrud got me straight. Every once in a while, Gertrud gave me change and Ralf and I or Gert and I would bike to the ice cream store, buy cones of hazelnut ice cream that got wrapped up in white paper, bike like mad to get home, and then we’d sit around the table and cool off with the treat. I was always amazed the ice cream never seemed to melt on our ride home.
I know Gertrud is at peace, and I thank her for her generosity and her love, both of which helped a naive sixteen-year-old American girl grow up a little bit more in a home three thousand miles away from her family’s home.