I have never been back to the country of my birth.
I do not think of myself as German, though neither do I think of myself as American.
From the train station in Heidelberg I take a taxi directly to my hotel, a small pension around the corner from the grand old Hotel Zum Ritter. I deposit my suitcase and walk for two hours or more, surprised by the magnificence of the city. I don't know what I expected, but I know it was other than what I have found. I walk along the river, past the Old Bridge, with its impressive stone arches and stern guard tower, and beyond the last of the bridges, where the river curves and the city opens out into the expansive greenery of its parks. On the way back I pause by Karl's Gate and stand for a moment, looking up at the huge arch, a visual echo of Germany's historical military passion. I take Haupstrasse past the castle and then wend my way back toward the town hall.
My mother and I spoke German to each other until I was a teenager, when, like many children of immigrants, I started refusing to speak anything but English. Now, though, in the first little transactions I make—talking to a taxi driver, and to a waiter in a café—my German comes back in fits and starts. It's like trying to get an irascible old workhorse back into action—brutish and reluctant, but in the end obliging and strong.
I consult the map I bought at the airport and locate the government building where housing records are kept. On my way there I stop at a small café and drink an espresso at the bar.
Tracking down the owner of the house is remarkably easy: one Herr Eduard Sturmer. The city registry is orderly and efficient, true to German stereotype.
I call from a public telephone on the street outside the housing office. The phone is answered by a man who sounds about my age and who informs me that Herr Sturmer, his father, died a little more than a week ago.
"I'm terribly sorry," I say, aware of my American accent and also of the uncanny coincidence. A little over two weeks ago my own mother breathed her last.
"I'm so sorry," I repeat.
"We had the funeral only yesterday. We wanted to wait for my sister to fly in from New York."
A sister in New York. I can hear the pounding of my heart in my ears.
Only now does the man on the line think to ask why I am calling. I know all too well the strange overturning of etiquette that comes with new grief. I recall how, after my mother was packed away in the slightly shabby and oddly inappropriate blue van en route to the funeral parlor, I went into the kitchen, washed the few dishes I'd left in the sink—which included a glass from which my mother had, earlier in the day, taken her last sips of water—and then turned off the lights, locked the apartment, and went back out into the world. I found myself entering the corner deli where my mother had bought liverwurst and ham for more than forty years. Around me the day was alive with people going about their Saturday-morning business. How could they all be so calm? I thought. I wanted to shout out to the deli owner, "Don't you realize what has happened? My mother has died! Nothing will ever be the same!"
A well-dressed young woman standing next to me, who was surveying the pastry case, turned and gave me a polite smile. I felt like slapping her face. Instead I ordered a quarter pound of liverwurst and the same of ham, my mother's regular order in the years since I'd stopped living with her.
Outside the store I deposited my purchase in a trash can.
"The house," I say to the man on the other end of the telephone line, who is waiting for my reply.
"We haven't decided yet what we're going to do with it. My father's death was very sudden, you understand."
"Perhaps in the meantime you'd be willing to rent it?" Without any forethought this absurd and impractical suggestion slips from my mouth.
"That might be a good idea. Let me talk it over with my sister."
I hang up the phone and look out onto the street, aware of how everything seems uncannily familiar and yet completely unknown.
My mind is racing with practical details that ten minutes ago would have made no sense whatsoever. Quitting my job, subletting my apartment in New York, dealing with my mother's landlord to put her belongings in storage. Canceling subscriptions, transferring utilities, sending for some of my things. I will enlist my best friend to help put the pieces in place. I'll call my bank to transfer funds from my savings.
Several hours of phone calls, I figure, looking out onto a square where sooty little sparrows hop cheerfully up and down the arm of a statue of a German poet from a lost age—that's all I'll need to undo my life.
This undoing is disconcertingly easy. When I call my boss at Columbia University, where for ten years I have served as assistant dean of the School of General Studies, he takes the news of my request for leave just a little too much in stride. We will have no trouble filling the position in your absence, he assures me; don't give the matter another thought. My best friend also seems just a bit too nonchalant. Yes, certainly she can tie up the loose ends—she's happy to do so. I'll miss you, Christiane. Both seem to have been waiting for just this unlikely scenario, and to wish to wrap things up as quickly as possible.
In any case, here I am, three days later, with all the arrangements made, my life in New York put neatly in storage.
We meet at the son's residence, in a leafy suburb. I come to a quick and ready agreement with Herr Sturmer's son and daughter for what seems a ridiculously low rent, given the grandeur of the house as it stands in my memory. No doubt my childhood perception enlarged and embellished the place. Besides, Herr Sturmer's children are probably people of means, and are perhaps simply grateful to have a final disposition of the house pushed off into the future.
The son types up an agreement, which all three of us sign: I will take the house for six months.
Two days is all they need, they say, to clear the house of their father's belongings. "My father lived a simple life," the son tells me. "Besides, the house is small; the move shouldn't take long." As for the furniture and household goods, they'll leave them for me.
"You can bring your suitcase and just move in," the daughter says, mustering more cheer in her state of mourning than I am able to achieve in mine. "It will feel like home in no time."
I am a little taken aback. How can anyone refer to the house as small, even taking into account the distortion of childhood memory?