In Search of My Father
by Ute Carson
Nazar Look, Issue 45, Winter 2015

I sit cross-legged on a sheepskin rug in front of a glowing fire. A days-long snow storm affects the reflective mood of my present search. A finely bound leather photo album rests on my lap, its pages well thumbed through, its pictures yellowed. But I can make out what my mother, Gerda, has written in her loopy hand under a photo taken the morning after my parents' wedding. "That's how it began." She has underlined BEGAN. My parents had snapped pictures of each other in their sun-flooded hotel room in Southern Silesia, their unmade bed in plain view. My mother is fixing a bra strap and smiling coyly, unaware of the many hardships she would soon have to endure. My father, Gert, is grinning from ear to ear, his head confidently tossed back and holding a white undershirt in front of his privates. I was conceived during that brief golden October honeymoon and was born the following July. My father was killed two weeks before my arrival, shortly after Germany's invasion of France in 1940. My mother survived into old age.

Where does one look for one's dead father? I delved into stories of family and friends, studied this treasured family album, read my father's diary that miraculously survived, and tried to get my mother to share her memories.

The earliest account comes from my grandmother, Anne. "The umbilical cord was so tough the midwife had difficulty severing it," she told me and "thus I believe our close bond was formed." Gert also seems to have imbibed Grandmother's Anne's passion for classical literature with his mother's milk. She recited ballads from memory to him throughout his childhood. All his short life my father was enamored with Schiller. Had he lived he planned to study the works of the great 18th century German writers at a university.

I pressed my grandmother for stories and she cobbled together a complex picture of her first-born. "As a child your father had a temper and when he became impatient toys would fly through the air like missiles. But he also had a caring side. After overhearing an adult conversation about his beloved aunt who had fallen on hard times, he secreted part of his weekly allowance onto her nightstand." As my grandmother called up these memories, tears welled up in her eyes. "My heart is heavy when I talk about your father. The terrible waste of his young life. He was endowed with so many talents. What he could have given to the youth of today!"

From his lawyer father, Karl, Gert learned the art of debating. During a hike along the Baltic coast one summer with a high school friend, he wrote in his diary, "Franz and I argued incessantly about politics. I said as crude as Hitler is, he's bound to fail. Franz is not so sure." Although their political opinions were often naïve they both lamented the Versailles Treaty and hoped for a revival of national German pride. And they had joined the youth movement with its credo of a return to nature. A strange mixture slumbered in my father's admiration for the classics and his nostalgia for the German romantics. Joseph Eichendorf's yearning, dreamy poems were among his favorites.

My father's love for his parents is evident in his diary entries. "My parents' care for me and my siblings is unwavering. They are devoted to making our growing up years happy ones." There was laughter, games, and sports. Grandfather Karl was an avid chess player who engaged all his children. Until the outbreak of World War II, the home was a lively haven for family, friends and strangers. Franz recalled, "The door to Gert's house was always open to us and we eagerly walked in." He went on, "Gert had a magic about him. He led the high school debate team with ease and confidence, and without a hint of arrogance."

My father seemed to have known the Baltic Coast like his own room at home. He had listened to the sea's boisterous roars and calm murmurs, inhaled the seaweed-scented air, felt the warm sun rippling over his muscles. He had climbed up and down the sand dunes and waded through the many inlets and rivulets around little islands, abloom in spring, butterflies everywhere. The pages in his diary are sparsely filled but they tell about his connection with nature. "The waves wash gently against the beach and the ocean looks like rippled fabric reflecting a blue sky. I inhale the scent of the ocean unspoiled by humans." On a visit to my birthplace on the Baltic Coast forty years later, I caught a whiff of the acidic odor from the iodine in the water and felt that I was breathing in my father's world.

My father records two special discoveries from his sojourns with Franz, a jewel and a dead bird. All her life my mother would cling to the rare aquamarine shard of amber in the shape of a large teardrop which my father had found and given to her as an engagement present. When you held this fossilized jewel up in natural sunlight the transparent color would turn deep blue, and display the outline of a petrified leaf at its center. A mysterious glow enveloped the stone. "History is embedded in amber," my father wrote. "And our personal life is enshrined in this gift from the Baltic Sea."

The second discovery he described this way: "I saw several of my favorite birds, seagulls looping over the dunes in a love dance, wings meeting over their backs. They squawked loudly. Then I stumbled in the sand upon a fallen comrade, grey with black markings on head and wings. When I picked up the lifeless body I noticed a red spot on its beak. It was the sign of a mother bird. I took it home to be preserved by the taxidermist in town." When I was a toddler the stuffed seagull hung over my crib, its bony claws clutching a leafless branch that was festooned to the wall. Sometimes my grandparents would dangle a piece of chocolate from the bird's beak. I remember reaching up to its breast, stroking the fluff, the so-soft down.

Like his beloved seagulls, my father lived in both kingdoms, the air and the sea. He was skilled at sailing the family sailboat. He built his own glider, and received his glider pilot license when he was eighteen. "Now I can swim and fly," he proudly recorded in his diary.

The last entry in his dairy is written a few weeks before he was drafted and just before my parents' short engagement. It is about my mother whom he had first met at a party for graduating nurses from the Potsdam hospital on the outskirts of Berlin. "I've got her…I think she's mine!" Numerous exclamation marks run across the page!

My parents were married in a hurry before my father's departure. He was whisked off to France where he spent a few days luxuriating in Paris. By then he knew of the pregnancy and bought my mother an emerald ring with splinters of diamonds surrounding the precious stone. He mailed the ring from Paris along with an enthusiastic note, "This is for our daughter. I know it will be a girl. Should I be wrong (which I doubt) I will make up for the ring and build a glider with our son." He guessed right, and I am here as proof.

My father's regiment was dispatched to the battlefront near Verdun. Shortly thereafter, France surrendered. He was giddy upon hearing the news and confided to Franz his hope that he might be able to return to the Baltic Coast in time for my impending birth. But fate was capricious. Maybe my father had a premonition. He had scribbled a sentence on the back of an envelope addressed to my mother which Franz later found in his shirt pocket. It read, "Don't cry if our days turn dark. Know that they have been. That memory will sustain us."

It was Franz who brought the news of my father's death. "We were bivouacked in an abandoned farmhouse. After hearing of France's surrender, we let our guard down and decided to celebrate. Our entire platoon was in a festive mood. There was food stocked in the kitchen of the old farmhouse but not as much liquor in the cupboards as we had hoped. So Gert and I decided to venture down the lane to a house that looked unoccupied. Maybe some lovely French wine would be waiting for us there. As we traipsed through tall weeds and grass not mowed for many moons we laughed at everything and nothing, so great was our relief that the capitulation had been so swift in coming. Everything was eerily quiet when we entered the house. As we had expected, there was no one in sight. Happening upon the cellar steps, we thought that's where the wine would be! Gert descended first, I stumbled after him on the rickety wooden staircase. It was pitch dark. Suddenly I heard a shot. A soldier scrambled out of hiding and up the steps in my direction. I shot him point blank with my revolver. Gert was sprawled at the foot of the stairs, bleeding profusely. As his breathing ebbed, he said calmly and clearly, ‘I was so very happy.' He died in my arms."

On a warm summer afternoon last year I walked down the dusty French country road where my father's grave is barely visible among the high grasses of the meadow. An apple orchard borders his resting place and the wooden cross, hastily erected by Franz, is weather-worn and worm-eaten and tips sideways but still marks the spot, a place so far away from his beloved homeland.

What would my relationship with my father have been like had he lived? Would he have helped me through my many teenage troubles? How would he have seen me? What had I and my children and grandchildren inherited from him?

I have my mother's robin-egg blue eyes and straight straw-blond hair. My father's eyes were hazelnut brown, his hair was wavy and dark, his skin olive-tanned. Mine is sun- bleached white. My mother and I look Nordic, my father central European. He was of average height but as he confided in his diary, "I wish that I was tall like my mother." His father was rather short. In the few pictures I have of my father he stands a head above my mother. His posture is confident, his hands, strong with nimble looking fingers, gesticulate easily. His eyes seem to twinkle. He must have been a bit vain because he posed in his uniform for an oil portrait. "It looks fetching," he wrote about his military attire.

My mother was by nature warm and lighthearted. Her lifelong struggle with depression was surely prompted by the loss, in quick succession, of her young husband, her two brothers and her Pomeranian homeland. Until her death, my mother placed a rose near my father's framed picture on his birthday. But she had difficulty talking about him. When I asked questions, she said little more than that he had a great jest for life, before dissolving into prolonged weeping. I couldn't fully imagine my mother's sorrow until I had a baby of my own. How could joy and sadness exist side by side?

Because my mother was in mourning I was two weeks overdue and had to be induced. Maybe I sensed that the world might not be a welcoming place. But following my birth I became my mother's sole comfort. "You are the most precious thing I have left from your father."

Now, with our grandchildren frolicking around us, I feel their hair, gaze at the color of their eyes, and I glimpse my father in their posture, their gestures. I smile when they trample on their building blocks. I watch them fondly as they pick flowers for me, and am amused when they quarrel over some triviality. But mostly I hear them echoing my father's note to Franz on that long-ago summer hike, "The air is for adventure, the sea for dreaming." And I say to my children and grandchildren, "It's time we returned to the Baltic Coast. Who wants to go?"


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