Late in the 19th century, Hans Schaefer was born in the Saarland region of Germany, an industrial and coal-mining region where many people spoke French as well as German. As a young man and World War I veteran, shortly after the war, he had a brief relationship with a young woman who hired herself out as a nanny and house cleaner. I wrote about Maria Kohler elsewhere in this blog. That affair didn’t last. It was obvious that Hans and Maria had nothing in common. As he later told everybody who would listen, he was glad to be rid of her when he moved to Cologne for a job in a cable factory, where he spent twenty years or more.
One day, Maria appeared on his doorstep. She was pregnant, broke, and hoping he would take her in. She had left her home in Bühlerthal, in the Black Forest region of Germany, under a cloud. This was her first visit to a big city. Her dialect would definitely have made her a figure of ridicule, and her 8th-grade education would not have helped.
Maria and Hans were married. “I was sorry for her,” he told me. “She had nobody and nothing else.” In 1927, Maria gave birth to my mother, who spoke often about her father when I was growing up and both she and I had our problems with Maria, my grandmother. She adored Hans Schaefer, who was also her best friend. According to my mother, Hans was a genial, kind, good-looking, cultured man who spent most of his free time with his daughter. He took her on walks around the city, taught her how to roller-skate, helped her understand and appreciate classical music, and removed her from the vicious confusion of her mother’s furious, violently changing moods. Sometime in the second half of the 1930s, Hans and Maria were divorced, and you can read about Maria’s story in the other blog post. Hans, who had already started another relationship, was out of the picture. My mother grieved and never heard from him. Through people who knew others who knew him she heard that he was not drafted into the military to fight in World War II because of an injury from the first war. He remarried. He left the cable factory and ran a greengrocery store together with his wife. During the first years after World War II, my mother tried to contact him through the mail, but was never sure she had the right address. She never received a response, and eventually concluded that Hans Schaefer was no longer living. He had probably been killed in a bombing in the spring of 1945, just before the war ended.
That’s how she left it until the spring of 1971, keeping her father alive in her stories. But then, after decades without contact with my mother, one spring afternoon Hans Schaefer walked into the shoe shop she and my father owned and where they worked six days a week. My father greeted him and asked how he could help him. “I am here to see my daughter,” Hans said. My father called his wife. “I almost lost consciousness,” she told me. “He had cut off all contact, never responded to a Christmas card or anything else, and I had stopped hoping for him to get in touch with me many years ago. I thought he had passed away, and remembered him as I remembered him from before he divorced my mother.”
Apparently, she asked Hans a few questions to make sure he was who he said he was, because she did not trust her eyes nor his words. She was still in shock when she came home that night and told me about the encounter. Hans had asked for her forgiveness and given some hazy explanation, something to do with him thinking his ex-wife had turned his daughter against him and he would not be welcome. “But you sent him all those cards,” my father said. “I know, it doesn’t’ make any sense,” my mother answered.
Still, she tried to make the best of it. For several months, she visited him every other week or so, usually on Saturday afternoons. She took the bus to his part of town when the shop closed at two, and came home around eight p.m. or so, which was quite late for her. She never said much about these visits, but she seemed happy to be able to have a relationship with her father.
One Saturday, she gave her time with Hans Schaefer to me. She had arranged for me to visit him. I couldn’t tell you if that was her idea or prompted by his request. I had no idea what to expect. I remember the long walk through wealthy, green neighborhoods on that early summer day. My grandfather lived in a small row house off a busy arterial. He was small, limped, wore thick glasses, smiled much, and made me feel at home. He talked about his ex-wife, my grandmother, and how disgusted he was when he learned she had come out as a lesbian. He was down on the Catholic church and religion in general, which mortified my mother. He had cooked some chicken and vegetables, cut a couple of baguettes into slices, and told me the French were so healthy because they always ate bread with their meals. At an age when I knew most of everything, I found him naïve and poorly informed, but I enjoyed his company. Except for when he talked about my grandmother, whom he despised, he was funny and warm. I could imagine that Hans Schaefer had been a wonderful dad to my mother when she was a child. He made coffee. We ate some dry cake, even drank a little wine. When I left him, I felt I had made a good friend and looked forward to seeing him again. At the time, he was no longer working; the greengrocery business had been closed or sold.
My mother saw him the following week and reported that he had also enjoyed meeting me. Some of his ideas and opinions were a strange mixture of Marxist and nationalist concepts, and his judgment of current affairs and the state of the world was clouded. There were no books in his house, and no classical records, either. He only read a sleazy tabloid paper, nothing else. But so what. I liked him and thought of him as a good man.
When another Saturday visit came around, my mother was greeted by a young woman who said she had been Hans’ girlfriend. Indeed, Hans had mentioned a girlfriend and how proud he was to have met her. His wife had left him or maybe was no longer living, I can’t recall. The girlfriend told my mother that Hans had suddenly died a couple of days ago. She did not let my mother into the house, because he had instructed her not to. She even produced a note in pencil, written by Hans hours before he died, telling her urgently not to let his daughter inside the house, not to give her anything of his, not to engage in conversation with her, and not to invite her to the funeral. My mother recognized his handwriting. She left, devastated and in tears.
When my mother was sad, the turned very quiet, pale, and distant. It took days and days before she was ready to tell me about that last visit. She was horribly confused by her father’s note, and offended that the girlfriend would have followed his wishes without any compassion for her. Something broke in her then. Her memories of the good, kind, caring father had been obliterated. Soon, Hans was no longer talked about. But I don’t think she was ever able to forget him. Soon after, I went my own way and was estranged from my parents for some years, so I don’t know how she dealt with what had been done to her.
I can imagine why Hans sought his daughter out, that day in the shop. But why he saw fit to cause her such pain when his end was near, I have no idea. I remember him as a cruel man who could be very loving and friendly when he wished to. You can argue whether it would have been better for my mother never to have seen him again. She learned some sort of truth about him and maybe herself and the world, but at enormous cost.