It was just my sister, in the kitchen.
She was doin’ the dishes: washing and drying, I guess. No one works in the kitchen more noisily than my sister does. No one.
My mom—a German immigrant, she's in her eighties, but she looks much younger—and I were trying to talk, in the dining room, about fifteen feet away. I kept stopping and looking over at my sister, as if to say, “Good Lord woman! Do you have to be so freakin’ loud?” But saying that would just put us all in a world of hurt worse than the one we already occupied. ("At least I'm doing the dishes!" she would bellow—and then march noisily out the front door, slamming it, crying. In my sister's world, I think, all gestures are big, so anxious is she that her unparalleled labors might go unnoticed. Still, I love her.)
I said nothing, just scowled at the back of her head, and then returned to the work at hand. Well, I may have muttered, "freakin' madhouse."
A few seconds later, sis pulled out a handkerchief and commenced blowing her nose like she does. That blow of hers sounds like a goddam fog horn. I looked at my mom. She looked back. We said nothing as the horn sounded forever outward into the thick fog of the harbor and the mysterious mountains beyond.
My mom and I tried to return to our task. I said: “OK, I’ve written out these sentences. [Honk!] Let’s translate them into German.” [Blam! Whomp!]
|"The woman one longs for"|
“I tried to use Google, but it didn’t work,” said mom.
It didn't work?
“I Googled in Berlin,” she added.
My sister and I glanced at each other. It was a typical Bauer family utterance, making no sense, imposing a deep pause and real confusion. Such remarks are like grenades unwittingly tossed into a conversation, only to be followed by mortars and gas.
What do you suppose she means by that?, we said, with that glance.
“OK,” I said to mom. “You were Googling ‘Berlin’?”
“No, I was Googling in Berlin.”
“Have you been in Berlin recently?” asked Annie, sarcastically I guess. But it’s hard to say what counts as sarcasm around here.
“No, I tried to go into Berlin on the internet.”
Eventually, we determined that my mom had found her way, online, to Google Germany and had gotten nowhere Googling her stepfather’s brother, Herr Hänfler, who lived in Berlin up through the early 1940s. As a small child, my mom, who lived many miles to the east, had visited him on several occasions.
I am writing on behalf of my mother, Edith Bauer. She seeks information about two relatives: (1) her stepfather, Otto Hänfler (c. 1892-1941), with whom my mother lived in Bärewalde, Pommern, and (2) his brother, also named Hänfler, who lived in Berlin (Falkensee) in the early ‘40s. If you are related to these people or have any information about them, please contact me.I showed these sentences to my mom. I said, “let’s translate this and I’ll send it to all the Hänflers in Germany.”
“OK then,” I said. “How do you say ‘I’m writing on behalf of my mother’?” I had my hands poised and ready at the keyboard.
My mom seemed confused—in shock, almost. It was as if she were trying to add two large numbers in her head and she couldn't quite manage it.
Immediately, I knew what the problem was.
In truth, I could easily do this translating on my own. I don’t know why I was asking my mom to do it. What the hell was I thinking?
|Louise Brooks in Germany, 1929|
Earlier, during lunch, my sister Annie had showed up late, as usual. With much neurotic fiddling and fussing, my mom jumped up and scurried to get Annie a veggie-burger. My mom had provided us a fine salad, too. But my dad had placed a plate over it, making it hard to notice. I didn’t want the salad to go to waste—I had finished eating—and so I advised my sister to take note of it. “It’s good,” I added.
Naturally, molasses flowed.
“I don’t make good salads,” announced mom.
“You don’t?” asked someone.
“If Roy says it’s good, it must be really good,” said mom. (Huh?) “Cuz I don't make good salads.”
“Who says you don’t make good salads?” asked Annie.
On it went. Evidently, my mom thinks she has a reputation for making lousy salads. It’s too painful to recall the loony details.
At some point, I tried to cut off this blather. I said, “Look, the salad was good. And it was obscured by this plate.”
(My dad had placed a plate of pizza bread atop the salad bowl to make the pizza bread easily available to me. But why? I was plainly finished with my meal, sipping coffee, engaging in conversation. Sometimes, apropos of nothing, my dad hands me a large handful of cough drops. I don’t even ask why he’s doing it. Nobody's coughing. I just take ‘em. Pocket 'em. Move on.)
I continued: “And I didn’t want the salad to go to waste. That’s all.”
That's all. Can't saying "try the salad" ever be just that?
“I’m sorry,” said my dad, as he removed the plate. Of course, nobody had suggested that he should be sorry. Good grief.
I hoped that that would be the end of it.
“I got the salad at Costco,” said dad, sadly, resignedly—now at sea in the knowledge that he had ruined everything.
Naturally, he commenced lecturing us: “It comes in a little kit with all these little bags of ingredients.” He started to name the ingredients, to discuss them. “The pine nut is edible..."
Nobody wanted or needed to hear about pine nuts.
I was in hell.
“Listen,” said my sister, interrupting. “I’m eating as fast as I can! I’ll get to the salad in a minute! OK?! Gosh!”
But nobody was hurrying her. My dad was just lecturing the world about pine nuts like he does.
Dad sat back in his chair, confused.
I just closed my eyes.
|Berlin, c. 1943?|
“OK,” I said. I handed her the laptop. “This is, like, a five minute job, right?” I said.
Mom looked at me. The remark about the five minutes was exactly the wrong thing to say. I had put pressure on her to do this thing in a reasonable amount of time. I didn’t want her to do what she often does: turn something little into some huge task, as though, if it were less than perfectly executed, disaster would follow.
Just freaking do it. Does everything have to be such a big freaking deal that takes all freaking day, accompanied by endless freaking anxiety and dithering?
Ten minutes later, my mom was still working on her translation. I said, “Just forget about it.”
“No. Why?” She was concentrating. She was choking a pencil. (A pencil? I had handed her a laptop with my sentences awaiting translation in Word. Why wasn’t she writing in Word? I daren't ask.)
Several minutes later, she was still working on the translation, squeezing that pencil very hard. I'm surprised it hadn't broken in two, with splinters savagely piercing her skin or flying across the room into someone's eye.
“Listen,” I finally said. “I’ll return in a month or so and see how you’re getting along.”
Uh-oh. Sarcasm. She gave me the Pomeranian stink eye.
I beseeched her: “This is such a small task. Really it is. Please don't spend more than five minutes on it. That would be so wrong. So very wrong.”
I walked to the front door and opened it, walked through it, closed it. I heard a loud, slow "click."
As I walked home, I heard that fog horn somewhere in the distance.
I walked faster.
|Edith and her "father" Otto Hänfler, c. 1938|
*Well, not everything is thus beslathered. On Friday, I took my folks (and Annie) to lunch, and that went quite well. My mom loves to go out; my dad hates to go out, but he loves that mom loves it.
Re the Hänflers: see