Friday, January 11, 2019

A Life Well-Lived

My grandmother was a war refugee during Hitler’s attempted coup of Western Europe. She lived in Romania in a town called Weilau within the province of Transylvania. (Yes, just like Dracula.) Her name was, simply, Katherine Gross. She was part of a Saxon community who, for some reason, did not bestow their babies with middle names. When she was on the cusp of giving birth to my father—also no middle name—the Russians were simultaneously on the cusp of closing in on Romania.

So my grandmother, heavy with child, caravanned by oxen and covered wagon to Austria, where American soldiers had set up a displaced persons camp,  just outside of Salzburg. One starry night along the way, my father was born inside of a farmhouse in a little town called Bergheim. Sounds like a cross between The Sound of Music and The Nativity Scene, I know, but he has the birth certificate with a swastika on it to prove it. His parents wrapped him in swaddling clothes and continued their epic journey.

Life in the camp was rough. They lived in tents and were literally dirt poor. My father has memories of his mother serving straw soup for dinner. No nutritional value, but it was warm going down and kept his belly full. After living in the camp for 5 years, a rare opportunity presented itself. My grandfather’s sister Susan had married an American soldier and moved to the states with him. She sent a letter to my grandparents inviting them to join her in New Jersey and offered to pay their fare. Without any hesitation, they bid adieu to Austria and boarded a boat christened the U.S.S. America.

By the time I was born, my grandmother already had stark white hair that she pinned back into a bun with bobby pins. She couldn’t stand up straight anymore due to arthritis and also probably due to birthing four strapping boys (two of whom became NFL football players), so she walked hunched over with her hands clasped behind her back for support. I used to follow right behind her as she fed chickens in the backyard, mimicking her unusual gait as I scattered feed in the chicken coop with her. She never learned to speak English, so we didn’t talk much, but I still loved just basking in her gentle, quiet presence. The only thing I actually ever remember her saying is, “Yah, Yah,” in a thick German accent as she smiled and nodded like she understood. But if there’s one thing I learned just from spending time with my grandmother when I was little, it’s that love and a life well-lived need no translation.