The two laps around and through the Covenant Woods' parking lots and driveways on a hot July afternoon delivered more than expected. I eased the buggy out the door and on to the asphalt, where the temperature on a hot, sunny day is always twenty degrees higher than the surrounding area. A moment later, I saw a woman, a resident, coming in the opposite direction. We said "hello" and complained about the heat and humidity as we passed.
Not much of a conversation, but the woman spoke with a German accent, and that took me back to Myrna Drive in Bethel Park. It was a sunny, summer morning in 1975, I think. The occasion was a weekend celebration of Grandma's eightieth birthday, I think. In any event, Dad and I, and maybe brother Jim or brother Ed were at kitchen table. As we talked, Grandma wandered into the kitchen and began saying the nastiest things about Kaiser Willie.
Grandma was born in America, but her parents immigrated from Germany, and she grew up speaking both English and German. She spoke German at home, with relatives, and with her German-speaking friends. The church she grew up in conducted its services in German. Then came World War I, and speaking German in public was no longer a wise idea. Their church switched to having its services in English. If I remember correctly - I don't always - Grandma was born in 1895 and would have been nineteen when the war began in Europe and twenty-one when the United States formally entered the fray.
Neither Mom nor Aunt Jean learned to speak German. Well, Mom did pick up a little. She used an expression that began, Ach du liebe Zeit and went on for ten or twelve more words. Ach du liebe Zeit translates as "My goodness." An Internet search for "German expressions that begin with Ach du liebe Zeit" failed to turn up anything that looked at all like what Mom said. Or, maybe it did, and Mr. Monolingual here just passed it by. Mom also liked to say dummer Eisle, as in, "Tom, you dummer Eisle. Straighten up." By the time I realized Mom had been calling me a dumb ass, I'd already concluded that I often had been a dummer Eisle. No harm, no foul.
German didn't - POOF!! - disappear from Grandma's life. Most, if not all, of my Mom's relatives from Grandma's generation and older could speak German and very often did. As time went on, though, they moved away or passed away. Without opportunities to speak German, Grandma slowly lost the language. And with the language went her memories made while speaking German, and there were lots of them.
"I learned all my catechism in German. Now I can't even remember the Commandments," she said that morning in the kitchen. We laughed and told her that explained a lot. Now, forty years later, I can't imagine having so many memories, especially childhood memories of family times, in a language I no longer understand. Several women living here have German accents, wives of military men, I suppose. Gitta, my friend back in Ohio, speaks fluent German. And Russ can stumble around in it with what he remembers from German classes in high school and college. I bet if Grandma came for a visit she'd enjoy meeting them and conversing in the language she loved. But she'd have to ditch her halo and wings. Those things can intimidate mere mortals.
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