LETTERS FROM BERLIN
★ ★ ★ ★
DEAR GRANDMA BEA
By Annie Mark-Westfall
Dear Grandma Bea,
We are on the train from Lisbon to Lagos. The Portuguese sun is rejuvenating my spirits, frostbitten by my fourth Berlin winter. We took the wrong train this morning, and had to spend 3.5 hours in some random tiny train station, waiting for the next, correct train. I was just thrilled not to be answering work emails or begging the kids for silence.
Last year when we visited you for your 100th birthday, together with four generations of family members, I asked if you had a good day. And you replied, “Any day that I get to read is a good day.” I tried so hard not to be offended, to tell myself that perhaps you misunderstood the question or were making a joke. Now I feel like I understand, and I am grateful that you passed on to all of us your love of reading. It is the ultimate escape from life’s stresses.
Today was a good day, despite the travel delays. I got to hold my baby girl while she napped, and I read a book about women divers in South Korea—mermaids of the sea. I am only a few pages in, but I think you would like it – The Island of Sea Women. The tradition is passed down through daughters, which makes me miss you, and wish I knew more about the women of our family. I am named for your mother, but feel no connection to her, except through you.
I swore that my own children would know about the relatives who they were named for, but it is harder than I realized. The essence of a person is lost once I try to put it into words. I can linger on how Grandpa was a spy during World War II, guarding the Panama Canal—which is cool, but has nothing to do with his ornery laugh, or how he would eat a dozen cookies and then complain about not being able to sleep. Words on the page always fail to capture this man who we all loved deeply, and so now I know why sometimes it might be easier just not to say anything at all.
I have been contemplating “messy middles” and feel like I am in the midst of several. My mid-30s, middle of winter, middle of the period that people call the “rush hour of life.” That golden period that people implore us to enjoy while I still can. I find myself anxious about politics, the rise of nationalism and right-wing conservatism, and my complicity in power dynamics, as a white woman. When it all seems too much to bear, too all-consuming, I think of you. Both because I know you love me with the purity that I love my own two-year-old, and also because you have endured all of it and then some. You give me perspective, just by existing.
Please keep existing. Dad reports that you had an irregular EKG recently. I have spent every year of my life worried about losing you. The nice thing is this means you already know how much you mean to me; there is nothing left unsaid. But I need to open my mailbox every week and see your familiar cursive handwriting.
One of my biggest worries in life has always been that I will be irrelevant. That my life in sum will not matter if I never achieve a certain rung on the career ladder, never write a bestseller, etc. And then I think about how you are our family’s North Star, and how much more than enough that is, and I exhale a little. Just a teeny little bit.
There was a day in Lisbon’s history when three earthquakes in succession killed more than half the city’s inhabitants. Also, on a day much later in history, the king and his son were assassinated, which ended the country’s monarchy. These extraordinary moments changed the course of history. And yet they are just moments, just one sentence in a broader narrative. The stories and histories that we create are what makes the human experience, but the everyday in between is more important than these extraordinary events. And yet.
When I lived in New York, I felt so damn unoriginal. And now in Berlin, the same thing. I am too tired to take on the deeper issues of life, too overwhelmed and complicit. Now that the very mundanity interests me, I cannot take it on, myself. A tragedy of our times.
I recently read This Is How It Always Is, a novel about a family and their transgender child. And while I am probably inadvertently having an “all lives matter” reaction to the story, what I love about it, beyond its mainstreaming of a topic that has been relegated to the fringes for too long, is that it brings parenthood into literature. Probably I am just not aware of the great works of writing that capture everyday family life and parenting, but… I am, indeed, not aware of such books. The most mundane aspects of life are either forgotten or elevated to the holy – monks using daily chores to connect with God or such – but rarely, the cerebral.
I am in desperate need of a complex, intelligent heroine who contemplates why and how Lisbon developed a shade of yellow that is the essence of joy; and discusses with equal ardor what the hell that rash is all over her 4-year-old’s body; while fighting the patriarchy at work. This heroine comes home from a night out with her “mom friends” feeling overwhelming gratitude and also a vague sense of emptiness. That is the book I want to read. You work in a library; can you find it, please?
We need to switch trains, so I will sign off. I hope you’re well. Tonight I am buying a ticket to come visit you in two weeks. I am craving some true face time with you.
Annie Mark-Westfall graduated from Kenyon College in Ohio. As a former Fulbright grantee and Robert Bosch Foundation fellow, she views herself as a cultural ambassador. Her day job is with an international conservation organization.