LETTERS FROM BERLIN
★ ★ ★ ★
DEAR GRANDMA BEA
By Annie Mark-Westfall
Dear Grandma Bea,
Today I told my editor about you. About your letters. She wants to hear more, but in person, when I talk about you, my voice gets thick, tears come to my eyes, and I feel silly. Maybe this open letter will help me find the words.
I miss you. I miss your smiling face when you open the door, and then the sharpness of your greetings. Because you bake, and maybe because you’re short, people think you’re sweet. And you are, but you also open the door and say things like, “Is that what you’re wearing,” in a tone that is not a question. These jabs are funny from the mouth of a petite grandmother and easy to overlook, coming from a woman who has taught me unconditional love.
I’ve watched you bury your husband and your son, and have never seen a single one of your tears. You once told me that you are afraid that if you start crying, you will never stop. Do you remember the last time that you cried? We don’t talk about these things.
I am collecting your letters, and I have them scattered across the house. Maybe it’s part of my usual messiness, but I like these reminders of you. We have one on the refrigerator, open so it can be read. So the children absorb your handwriting into their everyday consciousness. I have another one on the shelf next to their clothes. When I see it in the morning, I remember that you raised three boys, and I try to channel the force of your love, as my own son and I have our daily argument over pants or shorts. I somehow expect a two-year-old to understand weather, and I can imagine your laugh as I describe this. Or more accurately, your voice saying, “So let him wear it, what’s the harm?” Today he wore boxer shorts to daycare, and a fleece vest that was at least one size too small.
He was named for Grandpa, which of course you know. We didn’t tell anyone his name before he was born, except for you. You won that battle by saying you were afraid that you would die and never know his name. That was a cheap trick, Grandma. You’re 98 now and still living on your own. Only people who don’t know you are amazed.
I cry when I talk about you because I am afraid I disappointed you. “How could you?” you asked me, when I told you that we were moving to Germany. You will never forgive Germany, and I wonder if you will forgive me. We don’t talk about these things. Next time I see you, though, I will ask you about motherhood. Whether you ever lost your patience with “the boys.” I love how you still call them that, even though they’re in their 60s and 70s now.
My children, and being apart from you during the High Holy Days, make me brood about life. An engineer friend said she knows that if she accomplishes nothing else, when she dies, the bridge that she designed will still be here. I will never have a bridge, and neither will you. When we go, only our family and friends will have a piece of us. Some days, I worry that’s not enough. I try to plan something “great” that will leave a mark on the world forever, and I go to sleep a little sad and desperate, knowing that likely will never happen. I am not special, and we are not extraordinary. Other days, making breakfast or tidying the kitchen feels sublime. With children at my feet and love in the home, I wonder what more a person could possibly want. On the days that I miss you most, it helps to picture you in your own kitchen. I don’t cook much, but I still remember that you told me the secret to good cooking is, “Never use the fake stuff.”
Our written voice is so different than our spoken voice, but in both, I am careful. I know that you want us to be happy, but don’t know if you can stand to hear how much we love Berlin. It is a city that embraces family the way that we do, you and I. It provides the most wonderful playgrounds for children to explore and grow. It is a culture that cherishes family, and (at least in my field) does not expect people to stay at the office instead of going home for dinner. The government provides subsidies for the children and my maternity leave this year, so I can stay home with the baby.
We came here seeking maybe what your parents sought when they moved to New York. In some ways, our family story has now come full circle. We are back in Europe now, it is safe for us again, and once again our home country is awash in anti-Semitism, racism, and a rising nationalism. These comparisons are extreme in many ways, I know. In others, they are apt. I wish you would forgive the Germans. Or rather, I wish you would understand that my Berlin is not the Berlin of your day. Maybe you do.
I am out of words for today, Grandma. Please be well.
All my love,
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.