In this memory, which has haunted me the whole of my life, I am perhaps two and a half years old, and dressed in a special dress made of maroon velvet and lace. I am playing in a fountain that is ornate—and dry. The dryness is a striking fact, for until this moment of recollection, I know it only as a fountain that furiously spurts; I am accustomed to leaping away from its spray.
I have virtually no memories of my early years aside from this one, which I attribute to the fact of a wartime childhood.
In the memory I am filled with a distinctive mood I've not known since, and which I can only describe as a feeling of luxury—not of a trivial, material kind but in the fullness of the word's meaning: safety and ease, the promise of endless comfort, the implicit guarantee that all is right with the world and always will be.
My mother is nearby; I can sense her, if I do not see her. Then the moment blurs, and time skips long minutes, perhaps even hours. The sun has moved; it is now overhead and hot on the crown of my head. I look down to see that my dress is crumpled, its hem soiled. I see my mother crouched over the steps leading up to our grand home. She seems busy with something, though I cannot make out what.
At that moment she turns. She smiles. I am momentarily puzzled. I do not know why I am puzzled. That puzzlement has marked my relations with my kind soul of a mother for as long as I can remember. It is something I learned early on to try to hide from her. Only when I became a woman myself did I realize that my efforts had been unsuccessful—that my mother was all too aware of the odd distance between us, with which this puzzlement is intimately connected. This distance came from me, I feel certain, and has been a great sorrow for my mother, with all the losses she has suffered, and me her only child.
I glance over to where my mother now lies. Her body is so reduced by illness that she is almost invisible among the bedclothes. I recoil from the rattle of her breath. I grit my teeth against my own selfishness, and struggle to find something to say, though my mother no longer seems conscious. But they say the dying can hear, whether they appear to or not.
I approach the bed, lower myself beside her, and rest my head on the pillow next to hers.
Her eyes are closed. Her face looks unfamiliar; the deep lines I'm used to seeing are oddly smoothed away, as if she were undergoing a rapid undoing of years. I gaze into her softened features, imagining that this is how she gazed into my sleeping face when I was an infant. I struggle to imagine how she felt in just such a moment, but cannot catch on to it. I reach up to stroke her face.
Her eyes snap open, alert in a way I've not seen in months. "I failed you," she says, her voice almost robust. This comes as a shock, because my mother has not spoken in weeks.
"Hilde, whatever are you saying?" I reply. I have called my mother by her first name since I was a teenager, just one of the many little oddities in our relations. Her eyes are clouded with distress. She touches my face.
"Christiane, my Christiane," she says, her eyes leaking tears that settle in the creases of her cheeks, which seem to have reappeared with her alertness. "You've been a good daughter. I know how hard you've tried."
Something clutches in my chest. I know I've not been much of a daughter to her; I feel I've not been a daughter at all. I try to stifle the rising sob without much success.
"Ssssh," my mother says, batting at the tears that are now slipping down my cheeks. "It's not your fault. You see, I took it all away."
A terrible confusion takes hold of me. I feel as if a gauzy black curtain were being pulled around me.
"Hilde, what are you talking about? What is it you're trying to say?"
Her arm drops; she closes her eyes. Again, that odd dissolving of the heavy creases in her face.
"The house on Kronenstrasse. You know the number? Number fifty-eight."
I want to grab her, to shake her, to shriek at my mother: What? What did you take? What is not my fault? But I say nothing. I just lie there, the tears now flooding my eyes, looking into the smooth face that is no longer the face of my mother, that is now only a mask.
My father was killed in the early weeks of the war; all I know is that he fell on Polish soil, though even this my mother did not tell me; it was revealed during one of my surreptitious raids on the small stash of items she had hidden—she mistakenly supposed—beneath her bed. She had kept the notification of his death, an official Nazi document stating that my father, Hermann Kueper, was killed on September 13, 1939, west of Warsaw, in the Battle of Bzura: a hero, in the name of the Third Reich.
The rest I've pieced together using intuition and the few bare facts at my disposal. We fled Heidelberg after my father's death, when my mother was no longer able to find work to support us. I don't know what happened to the house in my memory, or to the wealth that must have gone along with it. My mother never wanted to talk about the past. At some point I stopped asking. I do know that we ended up retreating to Bad Gandersheim, in the Harz Mountains, where we stayed with a distant cousin.
I don't know how my mother secured passage to America after the war ended—only that we arrived in New York Harbor with refugee status. We had no relatives in New York or anywhere else in the United States, at least none that I ever heard of or met.
I know that my mother was grateful to be on American soil, and that this gratitude did not waver. She never complained that she was reduced in our new land to working as a maid. She took on her work with commitment and dignity. A good livelihood was cause for thanks, she said. She was proud to be on staff at the Plaza, such an old and respected hotel.
I know why I cherish the memory of playing in the fountain. I also know why it pains me still. Within that moment is a fullness of feeling I don't otherwise have in my life.
I give my mother a simple funeral. She had few friends. Eight people attend, including the priest and me—four retired fellow workers from the Plaza and two of my mother's elderly neighbors.
A week later I pack a small suitcase, take two of the many vacation weeks I have accrued, and buy a ticket to Frankfurt, with a train link to Heidelberg.