I pulled aside tightly packed furniture items on the basement floor of my dimly-lit apartment storage area, searching for boxes containing some old family photos. At last, I found them and eventually the one box with the photos I’d been looking for. They all were taken about twenty years before when I was ten years old in the mid-1960s and when my mother took my sister, Aline, and I to visit my grandparents in München, Germany. I hadn’t bothered to go through them in many years, but was driven down to these dark confines by a rather vivid dream I had about my grandmother that morning.
They were all in black-and-white and brought back poignant memories of that summer. One picture showed me climbing an apple tree in my grandparent’s yard, and another where I sat at the dinner table next to my uncles and grandfather. I chuckled at the photo of me in the driver’s seat of my uncle’s Mercedes sedan with my hands on the steering wheel, pretending to be driving and with such a wild and goofy grin. And most precious of all: the picture of me sitting in my grandmother’s lap as she read a story from a book of fairy tales. I trudged up the stairs carrying the box, with the idea of putting the photos into an album.
I stared into the murky gloom outside the kitchen window while waiting for the coffee to brew. The milky fog partially obscured the dark shapes of trees and buildings across the street, but the weather report said it was going to clear up later in the morning—another typical San Francisco day. Headlights from passing cars going up and down a steep Telegraph Hill street cast luminous beams into the haze. A lone, hunched figure shuffled along the sidewalk in front of my place, stopped for a moment as if lost, and continued walking into the mist.
I turned on a classical music radio station, plopped down on the easy chair with the coffee, and thought more about the dream. It was similar to an experience I had many times that summer when we took train trips from a München suburb to the city. During these trips, I always sat in a window seat, so I could wave goodbye to grandmother as the train slowly pulled away from the station. Except in this dream, she was the one in the train waving goodbye to me from an open window.
A Gustav Mahler symphony played on the radio. Now more memories burst forth about my grandmother, or Oma, as Aline and I lovingly called her. The first thing I recalled were the times we walked together along the dirt roads of the rustic Obermenzing neighborhood in the mornings, passing by old houses with spacious yards sheltered by overgrown shrubs and trees—some with chickens, roosters, goats, or pigs—until we arrived at the station.
“Hey look, Oma!” I said, pointing up the tracks. “Here comes the train!”
“Ja Ja,” she said. “Ich sehe es.”
“Do you see it too, mom?” I asked.
“Yes, Bert, I do”
“So what?” Aline said. “It’s just the same old train.”
“I wish you could go with us this time,” I said to Oma.
She shook her head, unable to understand, so mom translated my words to her. She nodded to me with a smile.
I stared at the dark shape of the locomotive as it rounded a curve in the distance. As it chugged closer, I got a strange sensation in the pit of my stomach, followed by an urge to jump down to the tracks, and then leap back up onto the platform just before it arrived. I couldn’t take my eyes off the single glimmering headlight on the face of the engine, and felt lightheaded and dizzy as it rumbled closer. I only snapped out of it when the platform shook a little as the train shuddered to a stop.
Today we were going to the zoo. I jumped onto the train and sat down in one of the window seats facing the platform so I could see Oma. We were off on another adventure! Even though we’d taken the same ride many times before, I always liked looking at the scenery as we passed the farms and countryside, the roads and autobahn, the villages and small towns, and then the larger towns, the outskirts of München, and finally the bustling railway station. There was always something new and different to see each time.
Aline and I waved to Oma from the window, and as soon as the train started to move out, I lifted up the window and waved to her again. She waved back with a warm smile, but with eyes that looked like she was crying. I watched her standing on the platform until the train rounded a bend, and she disappeared from view.
The sight and smell of all the food on the dinner table kicked in my appetite right away. As usual, my grandfather—or Opa, as Aline and I called him—sat at the head of the table. The main course was the oxtail soup full of the vegetables I helped Oma cut in the afternoon.
“Mmm sehr gut, Mutti,” Rolf remarked as he ate.
“Ja. Das Fleisch ist zart,” Wolfgang said.
“Mmm, you’re right, uncle,” I said. “The meat melts in my mouth.”
“Kleine Bertie half mir heute, Sie wissen,” Oma said
“Wirklich? Wie?” Opapa asked
I remembered some German from the time I’d been there two summers before, and was beginning to understand the language better each day. “I cut some vegetables, that’s all,” I answered.
“Good for you,” mom said.
“Probably the ugly mushy ones,” Aline retorted.
“Oh shut up. I did better than you could.”
“You two stop fighting or else no dessert,” mom said.
“Bert speaks German very well,” Rolf said to mom. He liked to speak English whenever he could. “Do you give him lessons?”
“No, he just listens well,” she said.
“Ja, er ist sehr klug,” Opa said to Oma, “wie ihre Bruder.”
“Hast du ein Bruder?” I asked Oma.
“Ja, aber ich habe noch vier Bruder.”
“Wow, four brothers,” I said. “Hast du Schwesters?”
“Nein, ich habe keine Schwestern,” she answered, with an amused smile.
“Oh, no sisters,” I replied. “Wo wohnst deine Bruders?”
“Drei in Stuttgart und eins in Ulm.”
“We’re going to visit them in Stuttgart soon,” mom said.
“Wann haben Sie sagen, wir werden sie besuchen?” Mom asked Oma.
“Am nächsten Wochenende,” Oma answered.
“Next weekend? Are we going by car or train?”
“By car,” Wolfgang answered.
“Yeah! On the autobahn!”
I was so glad to ride in Rolf’s fast Mercedes with Wolfgang on the way to Stuttgart. The rest of the family rode in Opa’s Opel sedan. We left in the morning and both cars rode together until they got on the autobahn, where Rolf sped off to pick up Gerhard, one of Oma’s brothers, in Ulm
Rolf had taken me on short trips on the autobahn before, so I knew he liked to drive fast. I sat in the back seat and watched with glee as he passed almost every car on the autobahn. The only time he ducked into the right lane was when those funny-looking Porsches roared past us.
We arrived in Stuttgart in the early afternoon, but stayed in the residential areas. Rolf drove the car into a woodsy neighborhood with narrow streets and large and stately homes until he turned into a long driveway leading to one of those homes. After he parked, I got out and gazed at the house in awe, which looked as big as a castle.
A butler greeted us at the door, and we followed him through the house. All the rooms had rich woodwork and high beamed ceilings, with many old paintings of landscapes and portraits hanging on the walls. We emerged out of the house into a spacious backyard, interspersed with fruit trees and bordered by pruned shrubs, where groups of adults and children were socializing.
Most of the men stood in the partially shaded patio holding hefty mugs of beer. Rolf, Wolfgang, and Opa quickly headed toward them. Aline played on a swing with two other girls. A group of women sat on a table, including mom and Oma, in the shade under a large tree. On the other side of the yard, three boys about my age kicked a soccer ball around. I was about to join them until Oma waved and walked toward me, with a smile.
“Ah es gibt sie Bertie,” she said. “Sie können sich meine Brüder jetzt—deine grosse Onkle.”
She led me to a festive group of men. One of them broke off his conversation as we approached.
“Auch Schwester,” the man said to Oma. “Wer ist dieser hübsche junge Mann mit ihnen?”
“Das ist Albert, Doris’ Sohn,” Oma answered, “aber wir nennen ihn Bert.”
“Ach ja,” the man said, with a broad grin “So you are my nephew. No, my grand-nephew.”
“Bert, das ist Eckhard, einer von meinen Brüdern,” Oma said.
“Gutentag, Eckhard,” I said.
“Gutentag, Bert. Sprechen Sie Deutsch?”
“Nur ein bischen.”
“That is good enough,” Eckhard said, with a hearty laugh.
Just then, a few other men gathered around Eckhard.
“These are my other brothers,” Eckhard said, pointing to two men behind him, “Friedrich and Werner.”
Both men nodded and gazed at me with fixed smiles.
“How do you like Germany?” Friedrich asked.
“I like Germany a lot,” I answered. “This house too. It’s so big.”
“Yes, it has been in our family for many years,” Eckhard said.
As we talked, I noticed one of the girls on the swing race across the yard and stand next to the men on the patio. She had blonde hair with long braids and stared intently at me as I spoke to my granduncles.
Just then, the butler came out to the patio and struck a triangular shaped bell with a metal rod.
“Ah, dinner is ready,” Eckhard said. “I hope you are hungry.”
The rest of the group followed Eckhard into the dining hall. On the way, the girl with braids ran up next to me.
“Hi, my name is Gretchen.”
“So, you’re from the United States,” she said
“Yeah. We’re visiting our relatives in München. Are you from the U.S. too?”
“No. My family lives in Heidelberg.”
“It’s just that you speak English so well.”
“My brother, Dieter, and I go to a school that teaches it. Let’s talk more at the dinner table!”
The grownups all sat on the main table, while I sat in the middle of the smaller table with the other kids.
“Dieter, this is Bert, from the United States,” she said to a boy across from us. “He’s visiting relatives in München.”
“Hi, Bert,” Dieter said.
“I saw you playing soccer when I came here,” I said.
“Soccer?” Dieter asked. “Oh, we call it fussball here.”
“Football? We have another sport called football in the U.S.”
“Was sagts er?” a boy next to Dieter asked.
Dieter muttered something in German to the boy, who responded with a laugh.
“Do you play soccer, Bert?” Dieter asked.
“I play with some boys in München.”
“Good. You can join us next time you’re here.”
I spent the rest of the meal talking mostly to Gretchen while the others spoke amongst themselves in German. We feasted on roast chicken, potato pancakes with gravy and cabbage salad, and the two of us exchanged many little stories about life in each other’s countries. I liked Gretchen. Even though she was a girl, she wasn’t too girlish.
The next morning, I sat at the kitchen table with mom and Aline eating sausages and eggs and fresh bread, recalling the fun I had after the dinner with the other kids when they played in the vast cellar of the house. We followed secret tunnels down there by flashlight, which went on for long distances until metal gates prevented us from going any farther. Dieter said they were built a long time before and used as escape routes from invading enemies.
“What are you thinking about, Bert?” mom asked. “You’re so quiet this morning.”
“Oh, just all the fun I had here last night, especially in the basement. Do you think we can come here again?”
I figured this meant a “no” because it was already the middle of August and we had to fly back to the States in a few weeks.
After breakfast, we all said goodbye to Eckhard and his brothers and headed outside toward our cars for the drive back to München. I glanced back to the house before I got back in the car, wishing we could stay in the house another day or two because I felt so good being inside it. I stood there for some time and couldn’t take my eyes off it because I sensed if I did, something important would be lost to me forever.
“Let’s go, Bert,” Rolf said, from inside the Mercedes. “It’s a long drive back.”
Reluctantly, I got in the car and said little during the drive home, torn by confusing emotions I didn’t understand. Maybe that’s why I wanted to stay so much—we were leaving too soon!
I tried to sleep but my mind was on other things, mostly that we were going back home in a few days. In a way, I looked forward to the exciting plane trip, but the strongest feelings I had were ones of disappointment and sadness because of all the new friends I was going to leave behind, like Gretchen and Dieter. Another was Rovie, the boy next door. We explored the trails in the nearby woods, and played soccer together with the other neighborhood boys.
In fact, I was going to miss everything about Germany: the countryside and farms, the old and stately buildings in the city, the different kinds of cars, riding on the trains, and the way all the people talked and acted. Germany seemed like a place I felt more comfortable and at home in—so much more than in Seattle. Of course, I’d miss my uncles and Opa and Oma most of all!
Unable to sleep, I crept downstairs to see if anyone was still up. Wolfgang was reading a book by the fireplace and Oma sat on the other side of the room knitting a scarf.
“Bertie,” she said. “Was ist los? Kannst du nicht schlafen?”
“Hier kommen dann,” she said, patting the chair, “Ich lese Ihnen jetzt ein Buch.”
I went to a nearby shelf and pulled out a familiar book: a hardbound collection of The Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales, which she’d read to me before.
“Welche soll ich Ihnen vorlesen am Abend?” she asked.
“Ich weiß es nicht, Oma.”
I sat down on the chair next to her and settled my head on her shoulder, soft as a pillow, after she opened the book. The pungent, musty aroma of her dress and the odor of her body transformed my imagination even deeper into the book. I’d seen and read many of the stories and their corresponding sketches before: The Frog Prince, Hansel and Gretel, The Enchanted Stag, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood, The Clever Elf, Rumpelstiltskin, and others. Finally, she came upon a new story.
“Ach, Der Verlorene Sohn,” she said.
I could only understand a few words as she read to me in German, but it almost didn’t matter. I gazed upon the sketches on each page and simply imagined what those words meant. In a way, that was almost better than reading the story in English. Soon, I started to nod off. I tried to stay awake in her comforting presence and in the fantasy world of the book; however, near the end of the story I drifted off to sleep.
The radio played a commercial, snapping me out of my reveries. I walked over to my book shelf and pulled out a copy of The Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales. I paged through it and came upon the story Oma last read to me, twenty years before: The Lost Son.
The next Monday I was back at work on the newspaper, madly typing a column based on an extraction from the police blotter that came in on the wire over an hour late.
“Hey Bert!” Gus shouted from the other side of the office.
“Pick up line four. It’s your mother from Seattle.”
“Oh Bert,” she said, in a distraught voice. “I’m sorry to call you at work, but it couldn’t wait. And sometimes you don’t answer your home phone.”
“Is everything alright?”
“No. I just got a call from your Uncle Rolf in Germany. “My mother—your Oma,” she said between sobs, “has passed away.”
“Oh, no, I’m so sorry.”
“He tried to call earlier but a storm disrupted the phone service there until today. Oh, I wish I wasn’t so alone now. “
“Did you call Aline?”
“Yes, she’s driving up from Portland today. That will help.”
“I’ll see if I can take a few days off to fly up there.”
“That’s so thoughtful but there won’t be enough time. I have to catch a flight to Germany Wednesday for the funeral later this week. She sent a letter from her earlier this month,” she said, breaking into sobs again. “Everything seemed alright—”
“You know, the other day—” I was going to tell her about the dream when I felt an odd tingly sensation in my gut. “When did it happen?”
“Just last week.”
I was about to ask which day, but then it hit me. I knew exactly which day it happened.
A.R. Bender is a writer of German heritage now living in Tacoma, Washington, USA. His short stories, flash fiction, and poetry have been published in numerous literary journals, most recently in: Pulp Modern, Close To the Bone, Thriller Magazine, Madcap Review, Sein Und Werden, October Hill Magazine, and Mystery Tribune. He’s also seeking representation for his completed historical novel. In his spare time, he enjoys hiking off the grid and coaching youth soccer.