Monday, September 3, 2012

Unwelcome Visit

It’s the summer of our grand (well, 10-day) European tour, occasioned by David giving a paper at an international Law & Society conference in Budapest. We’re in Bad Reichenhall, Germany, a spa town redolent of the heady fragrance of blooming linden trees, just like I remember. David and I locate the address we seek, Traunfeldstrasse 3, and ring the bell at the gate. The grounds are ringed with a stone fence and close-set trees, affording just a glimpse of the substantial gabled two-storey house I once knew so well.

A women emerges from within and shoos us away. The family are having lunch, she says. Come back another time.

But we’ve come all the way from the United States, I protest, from Indiana. I used to live in this house. See, here in my mother’s memoir is a photograph of it. We’ve come to see the house that holds so many memories for me. Grumbling, the women—the maid? the cook? the wife?—turns back into the house. We wait at the gate to see what happens. 

Presently the man of the house, a blond businessman of about 40, approaches. I explain all over again about having lived here. The man indicates that somebody else came here about five years ago—must have been my brother Peter, making a similar excursion down memory lane. See, I said, my mother wrote about living here in her memoir—I show the photo to prove it, then realize my faux pas. The words are there fairly jumping out on the page: “We loved this place and felt no compunctions about displacing the owner, Bad Reichenhall’s former Nazi Burgermeister (mayor).” Er, well, I would sure appreciate it if we could come in and take a look…

Peeking around him...Oh, yeah, I remember a big walnut tree right there where I rescued a fallen nestling. We made a nest of cotton for it in a bowl, fed it ground walnuts, encouraged it to fly, but it fell victim to the Siamese cats; we buried it over there in the back corner, put a tiny cross on its grave…And that’s where there were nettles, under the three evergreens at the north end of the yard—ouch!...And I remember climbing, then falling out of, the apple tree…the Christmas pageant organized by our nursemaid Elfrieda, where the painted backdop fell down in mid-performance (it’s captured on home movies)…the cocks crowing at dawn, and the church bells…taking the “cure” for my sinus infection at the baths that the town is named for…the big bowls of thin soup served up by nuns at long tables at my brother’s elementary school…the curved window seat in my parents bedroom…playing with Gisela, the cook’s daughter who lived with us…

All this I do not verbalize, but the man must feel the urgency of my mission. He grants us permission to take a quick look around the grounds, lets me photograph the house from the same vantage point as in my mother’s book. No entry into the home, sorry. I don’t blame him and, in fact, am by now somewhat embarrassed.

This never occurred to me: He’s no doubt the descendant of that Nazi mayor whose house the US Army appropriated after the war with Germany and gave to our family to live in while my father worked for the CIA in nearby Salzburg. What to me brings fond memories from the tender age of four or five no doubt recalls in him the forced removal of his own parents to an apartment over the corner pharmacy for the duration of our stay, and perhaps that of others before and after us. Now here’s this la-di-da Indiana lady invading his family’s privacy, bringing up events better forgotten.

I try to make amends, gushing about what a wonderful house it was and how happy the memories of my sojourn there. With profuse thank yous I make for the gate, and we slink away for a restorative Bavarian iced coffee.   

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