The following is an essay (I call them proto-blogs) I wrote about four years ago and never published because soon after I wrote a first draft I got wrapped up in pulling up my roots in Japan, retiring and starting over. Because of the responses I have been getting to the Willi Schultheiss piece, I’ve decided to dig it out. Again, it will have zero appeal to most people, but I am happy to share it with those who enjoy this kind of thing. Thank you for identifying yourselves. I’m publishing the original (with a minor update) with only minor changes.
The Deutschland, the Laurentian, the President Grant, the Bayern…
(If I ever get an Oscar, I’ll want to thank the boats)
(If I ever get an Oscar, I’ll want to thank the boats)
The Deutschland, when it made its maiden voyage in 1900, was arguably the finest ocean liner afloat. It had four funnels, divided in pairs, with quadruple expansion engines connected to the two screws, enabling the ship to average 23 knots across the Atlantic. It stole the Blue Riband from Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, who had stolen it from Britain’s Campania and Lucania a few years earlier. Germany ruled the waves, at least in terms of luxury liners.
But glory fades, and the Deutschland had an Achilles heel. To keep up the title it had to keep up the speed, and at 23 knots the ship vibrated so annoyingly that passengers started applying elsewhere for passage. To stay competitive, the Deutschland spent the better part of 1910 and 1911 being refitted with smaller engines. In 1911 she reemerged under a new name. She was now the Victoria Luise, and she would cruise the West Indies as a luxury ship with up to 487 first-class passengers.
The refitting was not a total success. Between 1914 and 1918, due to engine problems, she could not be used as a troop ship. She just sat there, useless. So unappealing was the Deutschland/Victoria Luise, in fact, that when Germany was forced to turn over all its ships to the victorious allies, they were allowed to keep her. It was all Germany had to start rebuilding a fleet with.
But rebuild they did. In 1921 she was refitted with two funnels and given a new name for the second time. She would now be called the Hansa. No longer the elegant luxury ship cruising the West Indies, the Deutschland/Victoria Luise/Hansa would now serve the emigrant route. But alas, the poor old lady was not up even to this task, and in 1925 she was sent to the Hamburg scrappers, an ignominious end to a checkered existence.
So why all the interest in this old lady? The answer is a very personal one. For the better part of this week I have been avoiding work by playing with the Ellis Island site on the Internet. Until yesterday, I was convinced that when the Hansa left Hamburg on April 26, 1923 for a routine run to New York, arriving there on May 6, there was an 8-year-old little girl named Clara on board who was my mother.
When I was a kid, in Nova Scotia, my Aunt Carrie would tell stories about the Johnstons, my father’s mother’s side of the family. I listened more because I thought the world of Aunt Carrie than out of any interest in family history. At ten or twelve the live farm animals were far more interesting than dead ancestors. And when we returned to Connecticut from Nova Scotia, and my maternal grandmother would talk occasionally of her sister in Germany, I thought nothing much beyond how weird it was to have a sister who couldn’t speak English. Who needed ancestors?
I grew up in a family that was disconnected, if not downright dysfunctional. People didn’t get along well and we all went our own way. There was lots of disjunction, a Scottish side of the family and a German side. They weren’t hostile. They just viewed each other cautiously.
I was a whole lot more fond of my grandparents than of my parents. Closest of all was Großmutter, my mother’s natural mother. She lived nearby and doted on me. That got us off on the right foot, and as I grew up I gravitated, because of her, far more to the German side of the family than the Scottish side. Unlike my sister, who came along five years after me, I went whole hog there for a while. I learned enough German to speak it with my grandmother, and when the time came, I got my father to send me to Germany to school.
Großmutter and I were sort of on the same wavelength. She was gutsy, and she didn’t mince words. At a time when being German was something to be ashamed of she was up front about her identity. Germany was a land of music and poetry to her, of great accomplishments, of science and medicine. Not to mention happy times as a child before she ventured out at sixteen for a life in America. I suspect the happy times were a reflection of a carefully pruned memory. You don’t get on a boat at 16 and leave your mother and father behind without good reason.
Großmutter was pretty unsentimental. While others sat around and worried about things, her solution to any problem was to get to work. It didn’t matter what work. She just got to work. But there were two times when I saw my grandmother cry. The first time I saw her burst into tears it came totally out of the blue. “What’s the matter?” I asked. “I miss my mother,” she said. Which was even weirder than having a sister who couldn’t speak English, since her mother had died half a century earlier.
My father died last year and I became conscious that I had now stepped up to the plate. There are no grandparents left, and no parents. When my Aunt Carrie and when Großmutter died they took a huge pile of family history along with them. Both because I am largely alienated from my biological family and because we were working class folk with little interest in family lines to begin with, I never imagined this fact would capture even the smallest amount of my attention. Somehow, though, with my father’s passing (my mother died a quarter century ago) I find myself curious.
* * *
Another thing gnawing away at me is the question of belonging. I have spent my entire professional career integrating my academic interests in culture with my personal history as a wanderer, and I have now come full circle. I have slowed down. I am about to retire, have lost the urge to discover new places, and am interested in cultivating my home instead. This raises, of course, the question of what home might turn out to be.
I am at equally at home at present in Oiso, Japan and in Berkeley, California. I used to talk with friends about what we might do when we retired, where we might spend our years when it came time to wind down. I now realize that dreams of a life in Portugal, or Northern Thailand, or even London, Paris, Berlin and Rome (all once serious contenders) were youthful dreams. I could dream of these places when I was still able to drop everything and everybody and move on. I don’t know whether it’s the arthritic joints or the osteoporotic bones, or simple fatigue, or whether it’s purely the accidental discovery that home is where most of the folk are that have filled my life the last four to five decades, but I no longer see home as simply an arbitrary place I choose to fling my hat. But that doesn’t mean it’s only one place.
I am also at home in Europe. Germany and I have a long close history. France delights me. Italy exhausts but fascinates me. And when it comes to cities, there is no place for me like London. I am even more at home in Japan. Not because I like it, but because I know it and because it has been good to me and given me a life. But in this quest to understand how one finds what one calls home, I am giving more credit these days to the home that was made for me on the North American continent by the people who followed the streams of immigrants from Europe and made themselves a life in North America. My father’s death has led me to the understanding he will never grow older and I will, if I am lucky, catch up with him in age and experience. I have already passed my mother in years of life experience. She died at 60. And looking at my father and mother this way makes me want to look even more deeply and imagine what it was like when they were younger and faced with the kinds of questions I never imagined them asking before. Where will I live, what will I do for a living, who will I marry. Slowing down is bringing them into focus as people who were once young and vulnerable, and it’s the accidents of their youth that are now capturing my attention, the decisions they made without much to go on, that brought me to this place and not some other.
I am who I am because Großmutter, my mother’s mother got on the U.S.S. President Grant one summer’s day in August 1911 and sailed from Hamburg to New York, because my father’s father got on the S.S. Laurentian one day in May 1903 in Glasgow and sailed to New York, because Robert Johnston, my father’s mother’s grandfather got shipwrecked off the coast of Nova Scotia instead of making it all the way to Ontario as planned, and because he met and married Margaret O’Donnell of Newfoundland, and they had a son who had a daughter who went to Boston with her sister Carrie where she met Thomas McCornick, who had come from Glasgow at the age of 20, and they moved to Torrington, Connecticut, where their son met the daughter of this young woman of 16 who would cry for her mother fifty years after her death, and they would bring into the world somebody who now spends many of his waking hours and God knows how many sleeping hours wondering whether to settle once and for all in Oiso, Japan or Berkeley, California.
The other time I saw my grandmother cry was the night before I left on the Ascania from New York to Le Havre, the first and up to that point the only member of both sides of the family to make the move for any length of time back to the European continent. This time, instead of asking why she was crying, I assumed I understood. “Don’t cry,” I said. “I’ll be back in a year and the year will go fast.” “I’m not crying because you’re going away,” she said. “I’m crying because of what’s going to happen to you.” Not a comforting thing to say to a nervous 20-year old about to head to New York to sail across an ocean for the first time. Großmutter managed to make it back to Germany six times in her life. “All my life,” she said, “I have lived in Germany homesick for America, or in America homesick for Germany. It’s a wretched way to go through life, and now it’s all beginning for you.”
She was right. That’s how it began. Not that first year in Munich, but later when I returned to finish college in Vermont. That year I was bitterly homesick for the life I had found, in a big city for the first time, among Polish communists, streams of people with tales to tell of the war from a German perspective, in a city with 40 breweries and 40 art museums. Heady stuff, and more than enough to kindle the desire never to return to the small town where I grew up.
I went back to Germany two years later, this time wearing a U.S. Army uniform and spying on Germans (East Germans, that is) and wondering what was wrong with the picture when the Americans, with whom I identified, referred to the Germans, with whom I also identified, as “doobies” and “nazis” (even the ones who were communists), and when the Germans, like Frau Neumann, who took in my friends as tenants so she could have access to the PX and get American ice cream, insisted I was German, because if I were American she’d have to blame me sitting back and let the Russians take Berlin.
I left the army to make San Francisco my home, but my desire to roam was well-established by then and after a few years I moved to Japan. That is now thirty-two years ago, and Großmutter’s concern that I would live out my life with homesickness a constant companion was a prediction that became an understatement. She couldn’t have called it better.
My sister has five grandchildren. None of them, as far as I know, have the slightest interest in any of the people who exist now only in my memory whose blood courses in their veins. They may never develop any interest. In case they do, however, I have decided to write as much down as I know. Who knows when another desire for historical connection will generate curiosity in origins. Clara, it occurs to me, may want to know something about the grandmother she was named for. Even if it’s only the names of ships, or dates of comings and goings, I want to put this down and have it rest there if the spirit should ever move them to wonder at the curious fact that they were born in North America and not somewhere else.
Several years ago, I visited the new museum at Ellis Island. When I walked through the reception hall I felt a chill run up my spine. It was the place where my mother, her aunt and uncle, her mother— the list instantly went into the dozens of personal connections — took their first steps into the United States. I knew this place from childhood stories. Ellis Island was one of the things they did talk about. They wouldn’t talk much about Germany, but they did mention the excitement after the long journey in the bowels of the boat. “Von jetzt an sprechen wir nur englisch!” (From now on we will speak only English) my grandfather said, and my mother, eight years old at the time, responded, “Aber Vati, Du sprichst nur deutsch!” (But Daddy, you only speak German!) How many times did I hear that story.
I was taken with the efforts being put out to retrace ancestry – I had spent so much of my life walking away from such stuff – and I applied immediately for information about the arrival of the Gundelachs. “Date of arrival?” “I’m not sure. Sometime in 1923 (I remembered my mother was eight, and little else.)” “Name of ship?” “I haven’t a clue!”
So that was the end of that. Once, in Salt Lake City, I went to the Mormon records but they had no trace. Once again, they needed more than I had to go on. And I was out of touch with all the living Gundelachs. I gave up.
Until last Sunday when at a picnic in Palo Alto with some old friends, one of them started talking about looking at the actual ship’s manifest containing her grandmother’s name and the address on Dolores Street in San Francisco where she was headed. It was the house she grew up in, and the excitement of discovering the connection infected me. The next day I decided to have a look.
Since that last visit to Ellis Island several years ago, manifests have been painstakingly entered onto the internet by Mormon volunteers. I went to ellisisland.com and started clicking away at an activity that now has me into the fifth day. A delicious distraction, often frustrating as hell, but it has spilled out sufficient rewards to keep me at it.
Lots of Gundelachs. None of them my family. Guess that’s the end of that—a blank wall! I keep at it, looking, as they suggest, for possible variant spellings, moving the dates and names, hoping something interesting will pop out. Nothing works.
It then occurs to me to try Großmutter. My mother was born to Bertha Ruhmann, who married (Karl, I believe) Schultheiss in Torrington, Connecticut, two years after arriving alone from Germany at the age of 16. The marriage ended in divorce, but my mother was born in the meantime, in 1915, in Germany, because the two had returned to Germany for a honeymoon, only to have my grandfather drafted into World War I. Alone with a newborn child at 18, my grandmother saw no choice but to give my mother to her sister, Johanne, and brother-in-law, Paul Gundelach, to raise. She went off to Hamburg to work for the Hamburg-Amerika line, the same line that owned the ship that would take her sister’s family, with her daughter, to America in 1923. My grandmother, now travelling the world as a stewardess, would come to New York in 1927, be overcome with remorse at having let her daughter go, jump ship, live as an illegal German alien and reclaim her.
So I typed in Bertha Ruhmann, and at long last I got positive results.
Name: Ruhmann, Bertha
Place of Residence: Nordburg, Germany
This threw me for a moment. Nordburg? Where the hell is Nordburg? My grandmother was from Celle! I’ll come back to that, I thought
Date of Arrival: August 23, 1911
Age on Arrival: 16 y(ears)
Marital Status: S
Ship of Travel: President Grant
Port of Departure: Cuxhaven, Hamburg, Germany
Neither Bertha nor Ruhmann (Rühmann, actually) was an unusual name, so it might not be her, I thought. But how many Bertha Ruhmanns travelled from Hamburg at the age of 16 in 1911. It’s got to be her! The first thing I did was locate Nordburg. It took some time. It’s apparently just a village, but I found a map. Go straight east from Celle, through Bockelskamp, Wienhausen, Offensen, for 20 kilometers, and there you are. It’s definitely her.
So she came to America on the President Grant! An American ship! Don’t know why this fact should impress me. It just did. But after turning up these figures, and not knowing where to go next, I looked around for information on the President Grant. Curiously, it was not an American ship at the time. It was built for the Hamburg-Amerika Line in 1907 and intended to be called the Boston. For some reason it got christened the Servian instead (for a year) until it got renamed the President Grant. At the outbreak of war in 1914 it was seized by the Americans and renamed the U.S.S. President Grant. It, too, became a troop ship, but for the Americans, until it was scrapped in 1952.
I have no idea that any of my family had any interest in the history or the destiny of the ships that brought them to America. I might not have either, if I weren’t sitting here frustrated as hell trying to get at other kinds of information about family origins. Only after hours reading stories by sailors who sailed the Republic (which the President Grant was eventually renamed) did I realize I had yet to look at the actual manifest. When I did, I discovered the notation:
Uncle: Henry Aust
I was already sure it was my grandmother, but here was some final corroboration. Also, the following information:
In the U.S. before: no
Whether in possession of $50, and if less, how much?: $25
So my grandmother arrived in America at the age of 16 with $25 dollars to her name.
What a pity she never told me that. Or maybe she did, and I wasn’t listening. All that stuff about the family she left behind, all the tears, the fear that even if they did see each other again, a highly unlikely prospect, they might not have anything to talk about. I live in a world where people leave for the other side of the globe all the time. “Call when you arrive,” we say. Or not. There is no thought of being out of contact for long.
Henry Aust, eh? Well, of course. All the time I was growing up there were always Austs around. “Die Austen” we called them. Some kind of family connection I was never quite sure of. Something a little stiff and uncomfortable there, but I never knew what. I do remember a Tante Helene. Was she one of them?
It took a day, but it finally occurred to me to check on this Henry Aust himself. If he was the uncle that sponsored my grandmother, maybe he was born in the states. Because I had had no luck finding the Gundelachs, I supposed nothing would turn up under Aust, either. But there he was: Henry Aust. 3 entries! The first one in 1911, the second in 1921, the third in 1923. I was too excited to realize that 1911 coincided with my grandmother’s arrival, and 1923 with my mother’s. When I made my way to the actual manifest, there it was. Henry Aust was on the ship with my grandmother! He must have brought her back after a return visit to Germany. I can only wonder how the negotiations went. Who did the pleading? Did he want her for a servant? Did her parents beg him to take her? I know virtually nothing of what went on! Why didn’t she tell me these things? Or is the question why didn’t I listen?
Eventually, I found Henry on the manifest. Henry is 47, and listed as a merchant. He’s an American citizen by this time, naturalized in Litchfield County Superior Court on October 24, 1896. The next name down is Therese, age 45, his wife, travelling on the same passport. Never heard of her.
In 1921, there is Henry Aust again, on a list of U.S. citizens returning to his home in Torrington, Connecticut, this time with a young wife, named Helene. Tante Helene! She is all of 25 years old. He’s now 57. The manifest contains all sorts of data. His passport number is #13925. She’s on his passport. Their address in Torrington is Box 72, RFD #1. So Tante Helene was his second wife. That explains why this dignified woman I met only once or twice was as close as she was to my grandmother. While Henry had great power over her, she and his young wife were only ten months apart in age. Tante Helene, I later discovered from the Connecticut Death index, died in 1980 at the age of 84. Großmutter had died ten years earlier in 1970 at 75.
So I’ve traced how and when Großmutter first made her way to America. But I still cannot find what happened to my mother. I know only that when Großmutter found herself with a newborn and no husband in the midst of a World War on the losing side, she lacked the wherewithal to take care of her and turned her over to her sister. The explanation I got as a kid was that because they were living on a farm, in Braunschweig, they could at least eat. God knows what the whole story was. Mutti and Vati, as they were known to everybody who knew them, even neighbors and total strangers, were Johanne and Paul Gundelach. They had a son of their own, a boy named after his father and the same age as my mother. Somewhere among the 22 million passengers that streamed across the Atlantic from Europe in the time between the rise of Prussia and advent of the Charleston was my mother, her aunt/mother Johanne, her uncle/father Paul and her cousin/brother Paul number 2. But damned if I could find them.
I remembered the time, in 1963, when I went to Braunschweig with my friend Craig. We just wanted to get out of Berlin for a while, and when we got out a map to find a place not too far from the East German border, Braunschweig popped out at me. It’s not a big town, and we walked all over. I realized, as I did when three years before I did the same in Celle, that I was in a place where my roots had been torn out of the ground. But I had nothing to go on to make connections.
I pored over the manifests. My memory came back to me. I suddenly recalled that I had heard Vati and Mutti talk of the Austs as well. Obviously it was not just my grandmother who knew this merchant/people importer. Eventually, the manifests began to reveal information. On the May 1923 voyage of the Hansa, I located a Hans Aust, age 19, son of “Henry Aust” of Wrangelstr. 89, Hamburg, going to visit his uncle “Henry Aust” in Torrington, Connecticut. Curious, this. Why would Hans have both a father and an uncle of the same name?
When you become obsessed it’s amazing what things you can dig up. By poring over the pages of the manifest I came across two other people on their way to Torrington, Connecticut. Now Torrington, Connecticut in the 1920s couldn’t have had a population much over 20,000, if that, and this was an interesting coincidence. Joseph Bauer, of Munich, 26, mechanic, on his way to – and there it was, his “uncle,” Henry Aust. Then there was Elsa Boldt, “housewife,” 28. On her way to Torrington and, you almost guessed it, her “brother-in-law,” Henry Aust.
By now I was getting good at this. I decided to check for other Boldts on the ship. There was one. Elsa apparently had a husband four years her junior named Hermann. He, too, had Henry Aust listed as his contact in America, also as brother-in-law. The excitement of finding these connections only increased my enthusiasm for finding my mother, however, since an earlier notation which had caught my eye indicated that Henry Aust was travelling with five other people. This was what made me think the Hansa, formerly the Deutschland, was carrying my mother and the Gundelachs.
For a while I just gave up. I had reached a blank wall. This was already over the line into obsession. The next morning, however, I woke with an inspired notion. What if my mother were not travelling as a Gundelach, but under her birth name! What if the Gundelachs, who adopted her, had not adopted her yet? I tried Clara Schultheiss, and up she came. Schultheiss, Clara, age 8 years, German, place of residence: Braunschweig, Germany. The three names preceding her were Paul, Johanne and Paul Gundelsch (sic). The heroic volunteer from the Church of Latter-Day Saints who had typed in their names had hit the s key instead of the a key and come up with a name spelling I had not tried.
They were not on the Hansa, as it turned out, but on the Bayern, travelling from Hamburg to New York, arriving on October 26. Paul Gundelach, laborer, age 39, son of Sophie Wedekind of Ackerstr. 17, Braunschweig, travelling with wife Johanne, 33, housewife, and son Paul. And only today, six decades after coming to know these people, I learn that my uncle Paul was born on February 2, 1915, only seven weeks and two days before my mother. And the notation next to my mother’s name said “brought up as own child since 2 months old.”
Vati and Mutti were important people to me as a child. Mutti’s death was the first one ever to register with me. They had moved to California, but all the while I was growing up they lived not far away at Highland Lake and there were endless family gatherings in their back yard. For a while, they managed the Germania Singing Society in Torrington, and it was through them that I knew Germans as people who loved to sing and dance, smoke cigars and drink beer and laugh a lot. They had names like Minne and Gertraud and Hilde and I associated them, and all that came with them, from sauerkraut to Lutheranism, with good times. When in the fourth grade some kids on the playground pretended to be mowing me down with a machine gun because I was a German I was genuinely confused. My view of Germans and of Germany was of love and laughter. And it centered around Mutti and Vati.
There was some tension between them and Großmutter. Not serious, never discussed, but perceptible. Because they obviously saw it inappropriate to expose children to such things, I will never know what it was and how deep it went. But the speculation has been fanned this week by the discovery that they took my mother in while they were still nursing their own four-month old, before my grandfather (Vati) came back from Russia and the exploding gas bombs that drove him away from the European continent. He came back to Braunschweig to find his wife and children near starvation. It took him five years to put it together, obviously, but he was out of there. What must it have cost them to give back this child of 12 they had raised, practically since birth, to turn her over to a gadabout without a husband?
Paul junior, my Uncle Paulie, married a woman named Helen and had four children, Paul, Marilyn, David, and Holly. “Little Paulie” died of leukemia and the marriage ended in divorce. Paul ran away to California with a woman who had several other children, raised them as his own and was, by all reports, a wonderful father to them. Why Helen and his own children were left behind I never knew. Evidently, they remained in contact with their father. I lost all contact with them half my life ago. My mother remained close with Helen, but she was unable to paint her brother as a cad. How they managed this, I don’t know, but I find myself wishing I could have told my mother how I admired her for this skill.
My mother’s relationship with Paul was very close as children, and it survived. I have a picture of them together, taken only a couple years after their arrival in Torrington. She is wearing a Red Cross uniform, he’s in a Boy Scout uniform and they are clearly happy children.
A quick look at the Social Security files revealed to me that Paul died in 1998. He was living at 92592 Temecula Street in Riverside, California. I feel a sense of loss. Also in the files is the record of the death of David Gundelach, painter, three years earlier in 1995. Paul, it seems, had to experience the loss of one of his children. David was only 48. His address was given as 95 Hurlbut Street in Winchester. Winsted, that is, the town next to Torrington, a short walk from the house where I grew up. It all seems so very far away.
My last visits with Vati and Mutti were in Long Beach, California. All the Gundelachs left Connecticut, finally, carrying on the Euro-American immigrant restlessness, the tendency to keep moving west till you reach the Pacific and have to stop. I followed quite on my own years later, as soon as I was able to make the choice of a home of my own. My mother and I flew out together in 1962 when I was on my way to the Army Language School in Monterey. I used the opportunity to go with her for a reunion, complete with Kartoffelpuffer, those heavy potato pancakes that everybody dreaded but nobody could refuse because Mutti had been making them and bloating everybody with them for half a century and nobody had the heart to tell her they were sick to death of them. It was the kind of lie and endurance that marked a loving family.
Vati and Mutti had two more children born in America, my uncle Carl (spelled with an American C) and my aunt Rose (the first of the family to carry a non-German name). Uncle Carl married one of my favorite people of all time, growing up. My Aunt Connie was the greatest source of cheer and good vibes around. She had a knack for letting people know there were solutions to problems and that there was always room at the table. Her Italian family were the Mollicas, and I have wondered over the years at the fact that within my family the story of American blending of cultures (at least European – Scots, German, Italian), took place in a microcosm.
Aunt Rose was not much older than me, and I learned from her that there were record players that played 33 records, and my 78 was old-fashioned. Vati went all out at her wedding, and the family clucked at the length of the train on her wedding dress. I got wind of the fact that they were not convinced this guy she was marrying would do. He didn’t. They were divorced fairly early on. When I met her later in California she was at loose ends. I don’t know where she is today. Every year on April 12th, I remember it is her birthday, for reasons I can’t explain, except that it is exactly a week before my sister’s. I would like to find her again.
I am almost at the point of looking up my Uncle Carl and my Aunt Connie, as well. They are both still alive, I believe, and living in Southern California. It sounds strange to many people that I should have family in California that I never see. Bad blood, they assume. The truth is quite the contrary. I have nothing but good memories of my Aunt Connie and my Aunt Rose. When I went to Germany in 1960 I thought there ought to be a closer connection with my Uncle Paul, since we are, were, the only two left in the family who spoke German. He used to edit (or write) the German sermons for the pastor at the St. Paul’s Lutheran church, if I remember right.
Many things conspired, however, to keep us apart. Mostly it was just that, on my part, I took my gay outsider identity a little too seriously. These people would have understood and accepted, I now am convinced. But I wasn’t in the mood for testing it, because, on the McCornick side, at least, it was clearly something to be ashamed of, and I felt I had no place to go but out and away.
Connie and Carl Gundelach had two children, Jimmy and Nancy. They both had strawberry red hair and freckled skin. Jimmy came to visit me when he was still in his teens, in San Francisco. He had become a follower of Timothy Leary. I could only imagine what was going on inside their family. Aunt Connie, he told me, had provided him with condoms at 16, a fact which at the time blew me away. It was her in a nutshell, I now realize, with it and together. Probably she took the LSD in stride, as well.
They lived in Buena Park, in Orange County, and since I had met them just a while before at Mutti and Vati’s, I took them up on their invitation to come visit. I brought a friend and we stayed for a week, swimming in their California swimming pool and enjoying the good life. Months went by and I wrote and asked if I might come again. I got a harsh rebuke from Uncle Carl. “Your aunt has been critically ill for months. You never called or showed any concern. You are no longer welcome here.”
The experience was a learning experience that affected my whole life. I have learned, for better or for worse, not to make advances without clearly checking the ground first. I was embarrassed to the core, so embarrassed that I sent off an apology, but never figured out how to repair the damage. I’m sure it could have been repaired. I feel absolutely no need to blame or criticize. I now routinely watch young people with the same insensitivity do similar things to me. I have students who invite themselves over, leave without cleaning up, and assume it’s the role of an adult to be available when they need something. It’s made me into a conservative old man when it comes to that sort of thing.
It doesn’t seem in the cards to leap across the chasm, however. I thought of it a few years ago when my sister told me they had become born-again christians, so I backed off, and we remain out of touch.
[Note: Since I wrote this, I have gotten back in touch with the Gundelachs after 40 years. Jimmy bought his father a ranch with horses and brought him and Aunt Connie to Placerville, only two and a half hours from Berkeley, and I have been up to see them all several times now. My sister Karen has gotten back together with Holly, Paul’s (abandoned) daughter and they have become close. Karen and Holly came out to visit me and spent some time on the Gundelach ranch with Aunt Connie and Uncle Carl, Jimmy, and his wife, Susan. We met Jimmy’s son and marvelled at the fact that the Gundelach line goes on. Jimmy works in Berkeley and stops off from time to time and we have lunch. Uncle Carl died at age 80 a year and a half ago, but I had a chance to know him again. I brought up the reason I had shied away for so long. He had no memory of the event. Didn’t even remember Aunt Connie being sick. So much for four decades of guilt.]
Paul and my mother, the two children who came to America on the Bayern in October of 1923 to make a new life for themselves, courtesy of one Henry Aust of RFD #1, Box 72, Torrington, Connecticut, are no more. They lived their lives. Paul had four of his own children and raised at least that many more. He was an upholsterer and I remember him with tacks in his mouth. Clara married my father, had Karen and me. Karen married Joseph Onion, also of Winsted, after getting pregnant at 16. My mother got hysterical, but Großmutter was the voice of reason and calm. “This is the way of the world,” she informed us. “People fall in love, get carried away with passion, and they marry and they raise their children.” No mention of working as a stewardess after being abandoned with a newborn she had to give up. No mention of the trial in Washington when the lawyers shouted at her, “Don’t you know the Germans cut off the hands of Belgian children?” Just a happy old lady at her granddaughter's wedding.
Großmutter, by having jumped ship, had no papers in 1942 or 3, and the nervous authorities uncovered pictures of Hitler in scrapbooks in her house. What they didn’t take time to figure out was that this woman, eternally homesick for Germany, routinely cut out any news of Germany in the papers and pored over it later when she found the time. Hitler was of little interest to her; he was simply a German, so he went into the scrapbook with the Oktoberfest photos. My father was at the trial as a character witness. No doubt with mixed feelings. She had a way of dominating things. “No German soldier would do such a thing. You’re a liar. And if this country is people like you, I don’t want to stay here. Send me back to Germany!” That’s the story as it got told in later years. I can’t be sure, but it is in character.
They sent her to Canada instead, so she could reenter the country, sponsored by her American daughter and son-in-law, and begin all over. She became an American citizen finally, but never stopped saying “looking-glass” for mirror (“no reason to learn to pronounce this ridiculous r you Americans use”) and “maked a cake” at every opportunity. When I returned from Munich in 1961 with new words like Hubschrauber (helicopter) and Staubsauger (vacuum cleaner) and Lebensversicherung (life insurance), words which were not of her vocabulary, she was intensely proud of me. We had a little secret, she and I, which we kept from the McCornicks. That no matter what anybody might say, there was something quite magnificent about being German.
I teach at a Japanese university, but I teach in English. My students are comprised in large part of kikokushijo – so-called “returnees,” kids whose fathers live and work abroad, mostly in English-speaking countries and take their families with them. Many return to Japan only when they reach university age, and they, or their families decide it is time to fill in the missing pieces of a Japanese identity. It comes easily for a few, but for some it is intensely difficult. They are Americans, Canadians, Australians, culturally, but the world relates to them as Japanese. Their families, and commonly they themselves, want to be Japanese, but Japan has the nasty feature of responding to cultural identity as a zero-sum game. The more “foreign” you are, the less Japanese you can be. One girl broke down in a class once which I will never forget, and choked out that she had come to realize just then, in a discussion on bicultural identity, that she had “killed herself,” as she put it. She had destroyed the American she had become in order to become the Japanese she felt she must be.
Some time ago, after ten years of rejected applications, I was finally granted a permanent visa in Japan. I don’t know where the feelings came from, but it was a watershed moment. I remembered my friend Sandy telling me how her relationship with her mother was transformed when she got married. The world relates to you according to its expectations, and this holds true right down to the most intimate of relationships. In this case, right down to my own psyche. I would now have a different relationship with Japan. They could no longer ask me to leave if I lost my job. I was, to a much greater degree than I ever expected, one of “them.”
I found I took on the Japanese politicial disgrace with greater vehemence. It was my country now and these bastards were stealing my tax money. (It was my tax money before, but now I felt it was my duty to raise my voice a bit.) One day, in class, I got a bit carried away. Somebody expressed the view that one of her classmates “wasn’t very Japanese!” I let go. “Not very Japanese? What the hell is Japanese? I’m Japanese!”
They are used to my inclination toward the absurd, but they were genuinely confused. “Look, I live in Japan, I work in Japan, when I travel outside and come back it’s always clear to me I’m coming ‘home.’ I have thirty years of relationships with Japanese students and practically no experience with American students. When people ask me about what American students are like I make it up. I don’t tell them I am a Japanese professor who only teaches Japanese students and how the hell am I supposed to have that information!”
For me the question of being either/or is not merely insulting; it is profoundly contrary to reality. I am not a German, I am an American. But I am German. The Gundelachs, and even more, my grandmother, the German cultural nationalist, made America their home and English their language. But they lived a life of integration. Without ever articulating it, they showed me how it was possible to be a New Englander, a Californian, a Japanese all simultaneously.
I’m getting old now, and will probably not develop any more national or cultural identities, but if I do, it will not surprise me. I belong to the North American continent in a special way because the Johnstons, the McCornicks and the Gundelachs made that decision for me. And because Henry Aust was there, and because he saw what being an uncle could mean for them. Even if, as I suspect, he wasn’t a “real” uncle at all, as my sister would put it.
This is not the whole story. I’m stopping now because I am way over the line in terms of story boundaries. I haven’t begun to reveal what I suspect went wrong between the Gundelachs and Uncle Henry. Haven’t said a word about Nova Scotia, a province where I sense I am a second or third cousin to at least half the population. Haven’t told you about Willi Schultheiss, the son of a second marriage of this man who abandoned my grandmother with a newborn child in 1915. I met Willi in Hamburg when I was studying at Munich. He took me to Berlin and we stayed in the house of Axel Springer, the German newspaper king. Willi is one of Germany’s leading trainers of horses, and Springer’s wife wanted him for her Arabians.
But, as I said, I’m already way over the line. Tell you about Willi another day.
September 25, 2002