My grandmother, Maria Kohler, was a courageous, resourceful misfit with a lovely soprano voice. Around 1920, she left her home and village in Germany’s Black Forest and took a few trains to another region, the Saarland, not far from the French border. This was an unusual step; nobody in this farming family had ever traveled except for the men who were made to go to war. Maria had lost five or six brothers in the recent World War. In the Saarland, she worked in people’s households, cleaning, running errands, and taking care of children. She had a relationship with a man, Hans Schaefer. He eventually moved to Cologne to take a job in a steel cable factory.
Maria was let go by a couple of her clients and fell on hard times. Once again, she left town. She found out where Hans Schaefer lived and showed up on his doorstep sometime around 1925. Later, both Maria and Hans confirmed that this was not a high moment. She said, “I did not know where else to go and had nobody to turn to. It seemed practical for us to get married.” He said, “I felt pressured into marrying her, because she was lost. I felt sorry for her.”
Maria and Hans married. She gave birth to my mother in 1927. There are no happy stories from their lives together. Hans liked to listen to opera on the radio; Maria rattled dishes and told him to “turn that garbage off.” He liked soccer; she hated it and his friends, even more. They never took vacations, either alone or apart. By all accounts, she was a horrible housekeeper who always cooked way too much and threw tons of food away because it spoiled or she did something awful to it. She apparently did not like being a mother, much, either. In pictures of her and the baby, later the child, she always looked disgusted or bored. Hans and family members all described her as cold and uncaring.
However, during those years of a miserable marriage, Maria developed a network of women friends who were close to her almost until she died in the 1970s, when I had already left the country. I don’t know how she met these women. Maybe at church, where she sang in the choir. Maybe in the homes where she did domestic work. Or at the bank where she cleaned after hours. I met some of them in the late 1950s and 60, when she took care of me during the day. They were interesting, funny, and unconventional—even I could tell. Nothing like any other people I met in those gray days. Maria gossiped with almost anybody she saw more than once on the street, probably her favorite occupation, walking or standing and talking, talking, sometimes for an hour or more. But she always made disparaging remarks about the women who were not part of her circle. “She’s dumb, her husband is the boss at home.”
In 1937, following a hysterectomy, Maria was very ill for months. She survived, and she and Hans soon divorced. Later, he told me he left her because she had “become a lesbian” and was impossible to live with. Of course, that would have been a devastating accusation during the Nazi era, even though the regime was slightly more tolerant of gay women than men, who were persecuted, packed off to concentration camps, and murdered.
After the divorce, Hans lived his own life and eventually remarried. He disappeared from my mother’s life until 1971—a story for another blog post. Maria and her daughter lived by themselves. My mother was never willing to talk about that time after her father had left. When the war intensified and Cologne was bombed repeatedly, Maria and the child moved to the Kohler family home in the Black Forest. By all accounts, this was a horrible period for Maria. Nobody loved or even liked her, but they felt obliged to help her out. She and her brothers and sisters did not get along. One day, her brother shoved her down a few steps during a fight, and she fell on a few spiky indoor cacti. My mother was still enjoying the cruel moment when she told me about it decades later.
What I think made Maria often so hard to get along with was that she did not want to be like everybody, she wanted to be different. Better. Interesting. She wanted to be somebody special who does special things. But she lacked the self-awareness and education that would have helped her find and make something of her talents, so she was constantly overreaching. Every week day and most Saturdays, she cooked for my parents and me, dishing up huge amounts of tasteless, salty, greasy, or bitter food that drowned in oceans of brown, fatty sauce. In post-war Germany, people delighted in eating lots and lots, especially meats. Maria never met a pork chop or fish filet that did not want to be excessively breaded and salted, and overcooked in a pan full of some sort of grease until it was almost black and tough to chew. She baked cookies in the same manner, and sent large boxes full of them to her sister, who in return always gave us a package of delicious, sophisticated cookies and cakes of her own making. Even mild or humorous criticism of Maria’s cooking and baking was an insult to her. She sent sections of the newspaper to the relatives in the Black Forest, so they could get an idea of the news from the big city. She wanted to be asked to sing in the church choir, but was offended when people expected her to show up for a mass. She had strong judgments about people and politics, but also was usually completely misinformed.
Sometimes I think I was the only person in the world who knew a good and generous side of Maria, especially later in her life. Because my parents were always at work in their shoe shop, six days a week and seven in the run-up to Christmas, she was the one to take care of me from shortly after I was born until I was about 12 years old, when I started doing my homework in the back of the store, spent more time with friends, and did not see her so much anymore. Maria cooked for me, and often that was even good—simple potato soups, frittatas, vegetables, fried fish, and more. She read me stories from the paper. We went for long walks through downtown Cologne and the city’s parks. Sometimes she took me along to her part-time evening job cleaning a bank branch, where it always stank of cigars and cigarettes and the stuffed suits’ awful lunches. We went to the movies together, watching Disney cartoons and newsreels. We spent endless hours playing board games. She also took me around the department stores and the places where she bought milk, vegetables, meat, and fish, long before supermarkets arrived. She chatted with all the storekeepers, who were usually very nice to me. And, when I began going to school, Maria figured out that I did not comprehend the writing lessons, and helped me through that hard time until I could write. She was also the one to understand that my eyesight was bad and that was the reason for my being slow to learn. I simply could not see what the teacher wrote on the blackboard.
I was the only one who saw how many aspirins and pain killers Maria took every day. When she cried and complained about the people who had disappointed and betrayed her, I was the only one who heard her. For years, I was also the only one who knew about her continuing friendships with the group of older women. There was at least one bitter scene where my mother told Maria not to expose me to them. I kept quiet after that. Maria didn’t care about anything her daughter told her—they disliked each other very much—so she remained loyal to her friends.
Maria did not live with us. She rented a miserable, cold room (no bathroom, shared toilet eight steps down) at the far end of the street. Instead of paying rent, she kept the public areas of the building clean. When we moved to another part of town, she had to ride the buses and trams to get to our place, where I needed feeding and the laundry and other household chores needed to be done. She lived in that hole until she died. My parents, who were by then financially set, never tried to move her someplace more comfortable. “She would not have wanted that,” my mother said later. My parents paid Maria a small amount of money for all her work. I have forgotten how much it was, but I was ashamed when I did find out.
Maria’s is a sad story, as you see. For too long, she was much too close to me, and some of her nervous, crazy restlessness became mine. She also passed on a strange sense of wanting to be special, along with many fears. Because her moods could swing from warm and sunny to screaming furious in a few seconds, and I never knew what brought on the change, I was pathologically vigilant and considerate of other people’s imagined feelings for many years, and always tried to guess and anticipate what everybody was thinking and feeling. None of these things were healthy, and they are all part of me.
Maria died alone, like we all do, but she had been abandoned long before by everybody she knew. Her friends had already passed on. I doubt that anybody cried for her, least of all her daughter. I was out of the country and not in touch with my parents. I had no tears when I heard of her death much later, but I was and am sometimes sad for how her life unfolded.
When I think of my grandmother today, I prefer to recall the good times—when she told me about animals and their habits, when we bought some foam filling for our cushions and all the colorful flakes spilled out of the bag on the way home and we laughed and laughed when we realized that was happening, or when I eavesdropped on her and her friends’ warm, intimate conversations without really understanding a word of them. Other times, I remember the mysteries—why did she always draw pentagrams on shopping lists and other pieces of paper? What did she know about herself when she decided to leave home? To what extent was she really involved with her parish’s dangerous efforts to shelter and save Jews and communists during the Nazi years? What did she really believe? But I will never know.