My parents made many efforts to connect with me, the distant, fear-plagued son they loved and appreciated, but just could not reach. I did not notice or understand their efforts then, but much later, long after they were gone.
Because, as a child and a very young person, I tended to avoid my father and find him difficult to relate to, they sometimes tried to bridge the chasm between us. It was awkward for both him and me, and for me it was also puzzling. As I saw it, we found each other strange and not particularly interesting or likable, so why did they insist on changing this?
When I was fourteen or fifteen, maybe the last attempt of this kind took place. I don’t remember how the conversations went or whether I was even part of them, but, right after New Year’s Day, my father and I took a regional train into the hilly region east of Cologne and spent most of a week in a small guest house, on a back alley in a tiny village. The train let us off in a town called Gummersbach, and from there we took a bus to our destination. It was deep winter, and the more I think about it, the year must have been 1968.
The previous summer, my father had spent five or six weeks in a clinic in the area. His doctor had sent him there to participate in controlled weight-loss and exercise programs. He did not cheat like the other men, who went to grocery stores and pubs to enhance their diet, but he did not lose any weight at all. Later I heard that my mother took him butter and other favorite things to eat when she and I visited every few days. I didn’t even notice. We were in a rustic, not very clean bed-and-breakfast not far away. Who lost weight during those weeks was I – unplanned, but very lucky for me.
My parents had probably found the guest house through recommendations from customers. The trip would have been my mother’s idea, and I’m sure she also bought our train tickets at the travel agency around the corner from the shoe store she owned and ran with my father. Then she packed both our suitcases. Maybe she even took the tram with us to the station and see us off. If we left on a Sunday, the store would have been closed. January was generally a quiet month, so she could easily handle the shop on her own with help from the one or two saleswomen who worked there. Until 1976, when my father had a heart attack while I was living in London, these would be the only days she had entirely to herself.
At that time, most people living in the city wore the same clothes for almost everything they did. If they participated in a sport, like soccer or running, they wore what went with that. But for hiking, bicycling, kicking a ball around, shopping, visiting family, running an errand to a government office, attending church – you wore respectable, clean clothes, not too dressy and certainly not shabby. Unless you were a mountain climber or dedicated to a sport, outdoor gear and specialized clothing for certain activities didn’t come into use until much later. Day in, day out, my father dressed in a white shirt and tie, a grey or brown suit, and an overcoat and hat when it was cold. We both would have had plain leather shoes, maybe with riffled rubber soles to make it easier to walk in snow and ice, but still useless for any more ambitious hikes. He had a hat. I didn’t.
Winters in Cologne were chilly, with temperatures close to freezing for many weeks. Sometimes, it snowed, but never for longer than a day or two, and within a few more days it was all melted. But as soon as the bus let us off, we were in a white country, where snow would have begun fallen sometime in October and kept coming since then. Main roads had been cleared, but fields and buildings were covered with a couple of feet of firm, old snow. Within a few steps, our feet were wet and freezing, our pant legs soaked, and our hands frozen, because we also lacked gloves.
I don’t remember how we found the unmarked guest house. My father must have had good directions. It was a small single-family home with just a handful of rentable rooms. We were the only guests. The Christmas tree was still in the living room, and seasonal cookies and pastries piled in a large plate on a table next to it. It smelled nice and felt most comfortable. We had separate rooms, and I’m sure we shared a bathroom.
Of those days, I don’t recall any conversations. We took all our meals at the house; there was no restaurant or café in the small village. I remember the silent, dark-haired woman who sometimes spoke with my father and ran the place.
We took endless walks in the snow, with our miserable shoes and thin clothing. The hills all looked alike, and within a few steps you lost sight of the village. There were hardly any people out and about, cattle and horses were in their barns, cars and trucks coming through were few. We walked slowly, because we did not want to slip and fall. Once or twice we got lost and did not find our way back to the house until after dark.
There was no newspaper, radio, nor TV for the guests. We did find a current issue of Hör Zu, a weekly magazine with a detailed program for all the major radio stations as well as the two or three German TV broadcasters operating then. A concert listing interested me. I asked my father for an evening’s loan of his portable radio, which he used to listen to political and sports news at 8 p.m. The program started after that, so we didn’t clash.
The reception was terrible. I was fully dressed and under the sheets in my bed, because it was freezing in the room. However, I had to keep moving around to adjust the antenna and improve the placement of the radio. I forget what the first piece played by the orchestra was, but I spent most of the time tweaking the frequency dial and repositioning radio and antenna
When the second program item began, I was used to the static and had achieved some sort of stability. The steady rushing sound was acceptable, and I’d gotten rid of the annoying chirping and whistling. I could give my full attention to the violin concerto by Alban Berg.
This was one of the best listening experiences in my whole life. Some detail was obliterated because of the poor transmission quality, but what remained was lovely, heartbreaking, amazing music. It touched me in a way few things ever did, and until that moment, probably nothing. I clearly remember the surprise and amazement when I heard the last section, where Berg weaves a Bach chorale into his music. The piece only takes a little over twenty minutes, but my felt experience time amounted to several hours. Berg’s violin concerto was a perfect match for the dry, cold, black January evening in this room, in this January, in this life. It made for an unforgettable moment. This happened almost fifty years ago, but I can still hear the barely-there ending. I knew then that this hearing of the Berg concerto would never leave me, and it hasn’t. It will be part of me until I leave this world.
I’m sure I listened to the symphony or whatever came next, but don’t remember what it was. Maybe I wrote in my journal, or read in my book. The following morning, I returned the radio to my father and thanked him. We spent another day or two in the snow before taking the bus and train home. I don’t recall going to church during out time in snow land – the village did not have a church, but we would have made our way to another village or town to go to mass. That means we were home before Sunday. My school started again on Monday. My father returned to the store. I don’t think we ever talked about these frozen, beautiful days together.