We walked to school the other day, the girls and I. That is, I walked; Annika rode in her stroller; and Katrina zipped along on her scooter, slowing beside me to talk, and then, with one push, gliding ahead, her red gingham dress flapping at her legs. It’s finally gotten warm here, hot and humid even.
She slowed down as we neared a bed of flowers in front of the train station. “Mom, these plants…the smell of them smells like Grandma and Grandpa’s house.”
I have a bit of a cold, so I didn’t smell much of anything. But I vividly remember a hot summer’s afternoon, a few years after we were married. I was walking home from the bus stop after work, when some combination of plants and fertilizer and heat and humidity drew me back to my grandparents’ house in New Jersey.
Mind you, my grandparents moved from New Jersey to Pennsylvania when I was relatively young, and I have a very poor long-term memory. But suddenly I saw the long flagstone walk, punctuated with one or two stairs at a time, that led down to the back door of Nana and Pop-pop’s house. It was surrounded by rhododendron bushes, I believe, and looked like a haven after a long car ride. And I remember the smell of growing things and soil.
What seems a bit quirky to me is that I remember places in much more detail than events. I have very few memories of events in that New Jersey house, but I can tell you the layout of the house and even what some of the furniture looked like.
“Mom,” said Katrina later that afternoon, “I wish I could rewind to when I was three.”
“You mean, you want to be three again?” I asked, a bit worriedly.
“No, I want to rewind like in a movie. And I want to see when I was a baby, and see your grandma and grandpa, and then, even before I was born!” she said. “And then come back to being seven.”
She has seen the pictures of herself as a few-months-old baby, being held by my Pop-pop. And others of her and my Gram. And thanks to my fading memory (and perhaps the extreme exhaustion that marked my experience of Katrina’s first few months), I remember the photographs themselves better than being there and taking them.
Living in Germany brings my past back to me sometimes, in unexpected ways. My mom’s side of the family is almost exclusively of German ancestry; my dad’s side also has a significant German flavor. I didn’t pay much attention to this, really, living in America. We are all Americans, right?
But in public, here, I catch glimpses of my family. The (ahem) aristocratic noses, strong jaws, long-ish faces. I see my sister’s swingy blonde hair, the way my dad walks, the angular planes of my step-brothers’ cheeks. My aunt, a naturalist and writer, said to me once that she felt like she “found her people” when she visited Germany, and as I see the hardy folk of all ages trekking through the forested parks in the area, I can see why.
And then there’s our neighbor.
Herr A. is an older man who lives with his wife one house over. He owns a bit of land behind our backyard, one part planted with trees, and the other a potato patch. The rest of his yard is separated from our sight by the typical (for Germany) high hedge. But from an upstairs window, I can see his back yard, nearly taken up by a huge vegetable garden.
Gardening runs in our family too, although I seem to have a black thumb. The garden itself reminds me of the one my dad had when we were growing up. The one his dad helped him out with sometimes. And I hear my Gram’s voice, “Pull up your pants, George!” And I see Pap in brown pants and beige-ish collared shirt, and suspenders, maybe? Just the back of him, because there was no way I was getting any closer to garden work than eating fresh tomatoes.
But Herr A. himself? He brings Pop-pop back. His shock of white hair--sometimes hidden by a beat-up hat--his nondescript “slacks” and shirt, his lean but slightly stooped posture, his weathered skin. His face is his own, but from afar, as he plants and hoes, he could be my maternal grandfather.
I was lucky to know my grandparents through my adulthood. One of the many small griefs of our five-year infertility was not having children in time for two of my grandparents to meet them.
Katrina has a better memory than I do, I think (I’m not sure how she could have a worse one). I wonder what she will remember about her past. When she is my age, what sights and smells and sounds will bring her back to Grandma’s horse barn, to the park below Grammy and Pap’s, to Grandpa’s basement computer room or Grammy’s kitchen? And when or if she visits Germany in adulthood, will she remember the walk to school? Will the cobblestoned roads and sidewalks evoke the vibrations of riding a scooter over them? Will the faces in this by-then foreign land bring her back home?