I fight to stay awake as long as I can, because sleep is a waste of time. The lights outside my window cast a lacy pattern through the horse chestnuts that line Siemensstrasse. At long intervals, I hear the hiss of tires splashing through puddles, followed by a faint sweep of light that pans from the wall across the wardrobe across the foot of my bed. I tuck my teddy bear tighter under my arm. The rain drumming on the roof and splashing down the window makes me feel cozy. I burrow deeper under my feather comforter.
Our house is one of a long row of identical two story houses with steep tiled roofs. The outside walls are painted different colors: shades of gray, light green and cream. There are small patches of grass in front, bordered by low, trimmed hedges. Houses like this continue around the corner and line the several blocks I walk each day to St. Antonius Kindergarten. One day when we crossed Virchowstraße on the way to the playground, my mother explained that the streets are all named after scientists: Virchow, Siemens, Volta, and Nernst. I love knowing that someone thought hard about our street names. It tells me the world makes sense.
Until I was thirteen, I knew exactly who I was. A West German girl born to parents who were refugees from the East. I knew where I belonged. Krefeld, a small industrial city on the left bank of the Rhine, was the firm center of my universe, but it wasn’t my only home. My mother and I spent long weeks with relatives in the East, behind the Iron Curtain, in the shadow side of History, whenever possible. Even divided, Germany was my country where I grew up rooted and whole.
I can pinpoint exactly the moment that fractured my life. On November 14, 1966, a week after my thirteenth birthday, I climbed the metal steps into my first airplane. We were moving to America. I was preoccupied trying to hide my nerves and excitement behind the blasé exterior I’d recently adopted in the belief that indifference bestowed an air of sophistication and maturity. Still, I couldn’t help watching as the plane took off, the Rhineland dropped away, its looping river and wet meadows, its dense rows of apartment buildings receding into the past. The plane glided through the dense clouds and my view of home vanished under a white shroud.
Next to me, my mother checked her bag one more time – had she stowed our passports properly? Satisfied, she sat up straight, and gnawed her lower lip. She caught my eye and pointed out the window. I brushed her off. Yes, I saw. Clouds. Even though the plane was nearly empty, I worried that everyone would know I’d never flown before.
My father had already loosened his tie and unbuttoned his top shirt button. He suggested we spread out, each take our own row, so we could stretch and maybe even sleep on the flight to New York. He’d been shuttling back and forth between our home in Krefeld and Clemson, South Carolina where he’d been sent to be sales manager of his textile machinery company’s American branch. When the owner’s son offered him the job almost a year before, he’d tried to moderate his excitement. My father had fallen in love with America as a prisoner of war, when he picked apples in the mountains of Virginia. But he knew my mother, who still pined for her hometown in East Germany after seventeen years in Krefeld, would be a hard sell.
“Move to America? No. I don’t want to be that far away from home,” she’d said at first. She meant East Germany, of course. My father didn’t give up – he never did when he had a plan - and my mother weakened under the assault of his intense desire. She’d agreed to give South Carolina a try when he promised we could reconsider after five years.
I thought moving to another country sounded glamorous. All around me, Europeans learned each other’s languages and sent students on exchanges. The girls in the novels I read went to boarding schools in Switzerland or France and emerged worldly and multilingual. I’d learn perfect English, see the world, and return exotic. How could I have guessed that I would never really be able to come home?
My father’s suggestion to sleep on the plane was ridiculous. He knew that neither my mother nor I could relax in a strange place heading toward an unknown future, even if he could sleep anywhere. I moved to a row toward the front and pulled out the book I’d brought for the trip. The author (Dostojewski) and the title (Schuld und Sühne - Crime and Punishment) crossed the spine in gold letters. Inside the cover my grandfather’s library label spelled out his initials, GS, and ‘Eilenburg’. The plain leather binding meant this was one of the books he’d had rebound after it was damaged in the American artillery attack that destroyed the house in ’45. I chose this book, because I wanted to look grown up, ready for the world.
Soon I was absorbed, though irritated. Why couldn’t this fellow Raskolnikov pull himself together? He was filthy and obsessed with an old lady, instead of cleaning himself up and looking for a job. Weren’t people in control of their destinies?
The stewardess brought dinner. I delighted in the tray with its nestled porcelain dishes, the smaller than standard silverware. Everything fit perfectly into its allotted space. Of course, I tried to look like I ate on airplanes every day.
After the meal, I leaned back with my eyes closed, my head filled with images from the night before. Our steps echoed on the bare parquet in our apartment. Most of our furniture waited in Hamburg to be loaded onto a ship to Charleston. I could locate the missing pictures by the shadowy shapes they’d left on the walls. The parakeet cage on my room’s marble windowsill was gone - we had to give Putzi away because we didn’t think she’d survive the loneliness of six weeks in quarantine. My mother’s best friend and her daughters came over for one last goodbye. Ulli and Bine, close to me in age, were my daily playmates. We would fight and make up and fight again. I was annoyed that hugging them made me cry. I was trying so hard to be brave.
Once the stewardess removed my tray, I flipped up the armrests and settled in with my feet up to read some more. I wished for a different book, one that didn’t require so much concentration. Sometime during the flight, my eyes and brain worn out from roaming St. Petersburg with a madman, I thought about the future. Amerika. I pictured the oversized cars we occasionally saw in Germany - candy colored, dripping with chrome, sharp-finned, and way too big for any of our parking spots. My father had shown me a photo of his company car: a Chevrolet Impala, metallic green, no fins. He’d also tried to explain that South Carolina was not like the USA we saw on TV. No skyscrapers. No big cities. He’d brought back a Sears catalogue from one of his trips. I studied the huge book carefully, looking for clues. I came away confused. America was supposed to be rich, progressive, and the source of new ideas. Yet there were pages and pages of frumpy women’s clothes - shirtwaists with Peter Pan collars and blouse and sweater sets with matching knee length skirts. The older girls at my school wore minis in geometric prints, the latest French and English styles.
An even gray light flooded in through the windows. I floated high above the Atlantic, unable to make out the future. Suspended. Later, I would remember this night and picture myself afloat between lives. America would turn out to be deeply different from Europe in ways I would need years to understand. My adolescent worries couldn’t scratch the surface. Living in another country would change me bit by bit without my consent. I was still malleable, young enough to be a chameleon, reflecting back the culture around me. And this unconscious adaptation – surely it was a survival reflex? – transformed me into a woman straining to bridge the rift between my German and American lives.
I tried to turn back, but I no longer fit and the home I longed for had vanished along with the child I had been. Instead of returning, I migrated North, then West, until I settled in Minnesota, in the heart of German immigrant country. For over thirty years, I tantalized myself with regular trips across the ocean, each time bruising my spirit anew. In my heart, I treasured that five-year-old self, snug in bed, at one with the world. I yearned to recover that feeling, but the more I strained to feel the warmth and hear the trickling rain, the more I knocked against the windowpane of memory. I was trapped a lifetime away, aching with longing. Where was home for me now?