I don't even know if this is any good. Just me trying to figure things out, basically.
As I pass through the streets of the village I grew up in, the words run through my head over and over.
They were here, too.
My family has always been split into two fractions.
There's my fathers family, the family I never really was a part of. I am nothing but an occassional visitor in their lives, the estranged daughter, granddaughter, niece, that shows up for birthdays and Christmas. I don't know much about them, either, and I don't want to.
But then there's my mothers family. Her roots are here, in this town. This is the family I grew up with, that raised me, and I grew up here with the stories of my great-grandparents, three of which I never knew. Their lives are like puzzles to me, and the pieces have been dropped in front of me in the form of subtle hints and anecdotes over the years. A puzzle I'm still trying to understand.
But they were here too.
Wandering around the village, I pass the places that might have been important in their lives, the traces they left.
The old, abandoned train station where great-grandmother E. arrived first, along with my grandmother, a 9-year-old, maybe frightened girl clinging to her hand, each carrying nothing but a small suitcase, 450 kilometres from their home, not knowing if they could ever go back.
Following them, great-grandfather M. arrived here too, years later, thin and worn and scarred and broken. Siberia had left its mark on him. He's the only one I ever knew.
A few steps away, there's the old garden chair factory, now abandoned and empty and lacking a roof, across the street, the old cinema, and in the distance, outside of town, the zinc galvanizing factory – all once owned by great-grandfather K..Some of his former workers still live, and all of them will praise him as the best employer they ever had – fair, decent, generous, caring.
The garden chair factory was used as a weapon storage, following a forced closure.
The cinema ceased to exist when TV's became popular.
The galvanizing factory, owned and managed by great-grandmother L. after his death and – for a short time – by grandpa after hers, still exists, but was lost in a mess of sibling rivalry, debt, lies and heritage disputes.
His family has been rooted here so long no one even remembers when they first appeared.
I turn to the left and walk towards the central crossing. On the right, there's the house where E. and grandma lived first. Anyone who had a spare room was obliged to take in refugees – and their hostess didn't like that. And she let them know. She let them know on every possible occassion. They were not welcome here.
I pass the crossing and walk uphill. A turn to the left, then another one. K. and L. lived here, in a massive house with a huge garden. Three floors, two side buildings, chicken coop, rabbit hutch, house maids. They had ten children, eight survived past their first year, my grandfather being the oldest one. His youngest brother still lives here, and I visited the house a lot as a child. To me, it was a huge playground, and it took years until I became aware of the tragedies that had happened here, the greatest one being grandpas siblings betrayal.
And before that – did anyone hear when K. beat his children with a belt? Did they know there was another side to the friendly man they knew? And how angry was he really when he found his oldest son to have impregnated a refugee girl, and a protestant at that? And did he agree to their marriage before or after she converted?
And L. - how did she even do it? Giving birth ten times, raising eight children. Running the factory for a good 15 years after her husbands death, even after his most important business partner turned his back on the factory because he refused to „do business with a woman.“ (Ironically, his wife ran his factory after his death.)
I follow the street, walking downhill now, walking past the café with the little attic apartment where M. and E. and grandma lived when he finally came back. Is this were he burned his licence and all his documents from his former life as a policeman? Is this, maybe, where she took the scissors and just chopped off her waist-long, dark hair years later?
They were here, too.
As I make my way along the main street, I wonder how much of them is still in me. They say I definitely have E.'s curly, thick hair and her eyes and her talkative ways, just like my mother and grandma. My love for painting and my nearly-bald temples have been traced back to K. (grandpa and my mother have them, too), and M. shared my love for nature and animals, while my thin frame is supposed to come from L. - that is all I know.
They left their trace on me, too.
I have reached the old complex that once was a monastery, later a convent until the mid-70s. First, the church. I don't even need to go inside to find the traces, I know them by heart. In the sacistry, there is an old golden thurible and four golden candlestands, and engraved on all of them are the names of great-great-grandfather C., K.'s goldsmith father, and his second wife. K. himself is portayed as a side figure in a small painting up near the main altar, in altar boy clothing, and he himself engraved his name on a wooden plank on the organ gallery as a boy. And this is where he, as an adult, stood up from the bench when the Hitler Youth came to get my grandfather, an altar boy himself, because their meetings were on sunday mornings too, and he rejected, he didn't want grandpa to join, despite knowing it was obligatory at this point. This wasn't just about sunday mornings. He tried to stop it from happening. He finally gave in. He had too much to lose.
This is where L. was not allowed in for a while after each of the ten times she gave birth.
There are many more places like these. The fields where E. and grandma stole potatoes at night, hungry and frightened and cold. The ruins of the old dance hall up in the forest, blown up by a gas explosion decades ago and now overgrown with trees and moss and memories of dancing couples. The graveyard where all four of them found their final resting place.
They were here, too.
But for now, I have reached the final spot. It's different from the others – it wasn't around when they were here, but their traces are here, too. It's the local museum.
I've been here many times. I know it all already, but I keep coming here, trying to understand, to put together the puzzle – and, maybe, to remember what my family once was.
I open the small, wooden door under the monasterys big staircaise and enter a small corridor, decorated with a collection of old objects from all over the village, and among them is the first trace. It's a simple wooden garden chair, covered in white paint that is coming off in some places.
„Made by K.W. Garden Furniture“.
It's the only one they were able to find. A few more are known to be left in a beer garden in Bavaria.
I walk up the stairs leading from the corridor into the museum rooms, taking a glance at the painting above the entrance door.
The Raising of Lazarus., K.W..
The old lady who runs the museum spots me through the open door of her office, and smiles her usual friendly smile. „Hello, dear. How nice to see you again. Looking around as usual?“
I nod and smile. She knows me, and she knows who I am – of course she does. She always seems happy when I come here.
„Pretty quiet today, hm?“ I ask as I pass by the office door.
„Oh well, I had a busload of tourists here this morning. It's always nice to show them around, but I like the quiet afternoons, too.“
I wander around the rooms as usual, finding each of the exhibits that are somehow connected to me.
Woman of the Apocalypse, K.W..
Two jars from the old glass factory with K.'s and L.'s last name imprinted on them.
An old poster advertising garden chairs.
In a side room, there's a map showing the old borders, and a chart listing the numbers of refugees from the different territories. This is where I first learned that „grandma came from somewhere else“.
I put my finger on the map and trace the distance from „somewhere else“ to my location. I remember grandma's hurt face when one of her other granddaughters, my cousin, claimed that „women had it easier back then. After all, they were just being housewifes.“
No one ever speaks of what happened to E.. Sometimes, someone drops a hint, and what follows is silence, because we all know what happened. What we don't know is how many times. We don't know how many times she was forced and how many times she did it for a piece of bread or a short ride in the back of a truck.
She was 28. 3 years older than I am now.
Why did she chop off her hair?
I turn and look at the male mannequin positioned by the window. It's wearing a fur cap, a worn coat, a small suitcase, an umbrella. Did M. look like this when he got here? No, no – he must have been thinner, less healthy-looking. There's a photo of him taken in 1959, feeding squirrels in the park, both arms stretched out, one squirrel sitting on each of them. He looks like a living skeleton, with shadowed eyes and sunken cheeks. He's wearing a long dark coat and a dark hat. He looks like death himself.
My memories of him take place 40 years later. I remember a laughing old man with a big round belly. The man who took me for walks in the park to feed the squirrels. Who loved reciting poems at family gatherings, and told me stories of the dachshund and the budgie he once had. Who always had a piece of chocolate ready for me, who showed me a book full of photographs from „home“. Who loved watching the aquarium and the two parrots and the little hamster they kept at the retirement home with me. Who sometimes secretly put out food for the half-feral cat sneaking around the buildings.
And then -
A small, thin figure, sitting on the edge of his bed in a light blue pyjama, with frightened eyes and sunken cheeks. He does not recognize me. He says he wants to see his wife. He doesn't remember she's been dead for almost 30 years.
That was the last time I ever saw him.
„Come over here, dear. There's something I'd like to show you.“
I turn around and see the old lady in the doorway, smiling at me. She turns and walks towards her office, and I follow her.
„Now, where did I put it...“ She searches through the drawers in her desk, then pulls out what seems to be a postcard, or a photograph, and hands it to me.
For a second, I'm convinced that I'm looking at a picture of grandpa. The same receding hairline, the same neatly combed dark hair, the same smile, the same round face. Then I realize I've never seen a photo of K. in his younger years.
He's standing in front of the Woman of the Apocalypse, wearing a white coat, his arms behind his back, proudly smiling at the camera.
„I've never seen this.“
„Apparently, this was right after he finished it, when he gave it to the convent as a gift.“
It's another puzzle piece, one that I hadn't seen before. But there are too many pieces missing, too many are lost forever, and I know I'll never finish the puzzle.
15 minutes later, I'm on a bench in the park right next to the building complex, lighting a cigarette.
K. and L. - if only you knew what happened after you were gone. What happened to your children, your grandchildren. Betrayal. Lies. Depression. Alcohol. Violence. Grudge. Poverty. Debt. Divorces. Lawsuits. Suicides. Hate. Some of your children still won't talk to each other, even after 40 years. It's been a long time since we were at the top of the list. And yet we still tell your stories, and we still feed on the fading glory once attached to your name. We are helplessly staggering through our lives, mumbling reminders of what we once were. People recognize your name and smile with pity, remembering you and knowing what you left behind, and speak of you in the highest words.
You're probably ashamed of us. You have every right to be.
M. and E. - Whereever you are, I hope you found peace, and each other.
Because I know we haven't.