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Posts Tagged ‘Etter’


This is Emma and Rudolf, close to their wedding day.

I only know Emma in flashes. In the first flash she stands with the man she loves, my great-grandfather Rudolf. She is persuading her parents to overlook his less than aristocratic birth, to see instead what she sees—a man with a fine mind and a drive to succeed. She wins that battle, though her family never really forgives her for taking Rudolf’s name, leaving her “von” behind her.

In the next flash she stands on a rough pier in Bremen, enormously pregnant, clutching her toddler daughter’s hand, keeping an eye on her energetic son as he runs back and forth, shouting, “Wir gehen nach Amerika! Wir gehen nach Amerika!” Rudolf stands with her, holding their tickets. He has $3,000 dollars in his pocket along with the Kuypchinski’s address. The Kuypchinskis are their destination in Wisconsin, the bit of home they will find waiting for them in America.

I see her next in bed in one of the Kaiser Wilhelm II’s cabins, dreadfully seasick, and in labor. The ship rolls in a storm, back and forth, back and forth. She heaves, and pushes, heaves, and pushes. At last she gives birth to a tiny daughter, Alitor.

Emma spends the remainder of the voyage in the bed, Alitor beside her, and small Meta in a basket on the floor. She tries to keep a hand on Meta’s basket, but seasickness and birth have weakened her, and the basket slips from her fingers and slides across the cabin when the ship rolls one way. It slides back to her when the ship rolls the other. Emma keeps grabbing for the basket, and losing her grip, and watching her daughter sail away from her, only to return, time after time.

I see Emma next in her house. Snow lies deep and pristine all around. Branches snap and crack in the cold. Emma’s mother-in-law Anna sits on the porch, holding Alitor wrapped in shawls and blankets. It is Wisconsin, and midwinter, and that night Alitor begins to cough. In a flash and an eternity, baby Alitor is gone. Emma’s arms are empty.

Emma (left) Bill (second from right) and cousins, I believe.

In the flashes, Emma is never center stage—she is the woman at the stove, a gentle presence at the heart of a family whirlwind. Her eight surviving children grow strong and musical. They start a band, and travel the area, providing dance music at house parties. They court, and marry. The family thrives.

That’s what’s important to Emma: family. Emma and Rudolf’s farm becomes a safe haven for more and more of her family. They set off from Klein Morin in Posen, journey to that pier in Bremen, cross the Atlantic, pass through Ellis Island and New York, then venture home to Emma in Wisconsin. They stay until they have enough English and money to navigate in America, then buy their own farms close by, or, in the case of the daughters, become farm wives or maids for wealthy families.

Emma, front and center, with her children behind her.

And still Emma is there, in her house at the farm. She is there the night the house catches fire. The family wakes and flees the blaze searing their backs and heels. Morning finds them with the clothes on their backs and a box of pictures—all they salvaged from the fire.

Rudolf, their sons, their friends, and their scattered family rally around to rebuild. And still the family in the Old Country keeps on coming. When Emma’s first child after Alitor, her son Wilhelm, marries, he brings his wife Gladys to the farm. His first two babies are born in the new birthing room just off Emma’s kitchen. It feels very modern and convenient, does that birthing room—purpose built with cupboards for all of the linens and paraphernalia birth requires, and close to the stove for hot water.

When Bill’s family moves into their own home a few miles away Emma misses her grandchildren terribly and woos them with gingersnaps with they come home to the farm each Sunday for chicken dinner and baseball. It all feels very American.

When Bill has a truck accident the children come back to the farm to live, while Bill’s wife goes to work in a furniture factory to pay their mortgage. Emma feeds the children, and her youngest sons—still little more than boys themselves–drive the children to school each day in their Model A’s and play with them when they aren’t working with Rudolf on the farm. Her oldest daughter Meta takes a shine to Bill’s oldest daughter. And so the farm becomes home to her children’s children.

Emma, with two of her daughters

Those are good days for Emma, at the center of the family from Posen, and the family from her body. And then one day Rudolf goes to bed, sick with some mysterious malady. The doctor says he can smell the cancer on Rudolf. Maybe he can. Rudolf lies in the birthing room just off the kitchen, dying in the bed where his grandchildren were born. He becomes convinced that Emma is trying to poison him, and refuses to eat. His grandchildren stand in the birthing room door and throw shoes at him until Emma makes them stop.

Emma and Rudolf, in their driveway

When he dies Emma goes on keeping house for her youngest sons, the two designated to stay home and care for her in her old age. Bill’s children grow up. Her granddaughter, my mother, moves across America with her own husband and young daughter, to start again. And then, amid her dwindling family, Emma herself begins to slip away.

It’s little things at first: A burned pot of potatoes, laundry left wet in the basket rather than hung on the line. The gingersnap jar stands empty. The vorgarten–the flowers she loved and planted on the gentle slope between her new house and the road–lies indifferently watered and poorly weeded. It gets worse. Emma, for whom home and family has always been everything, forgets them. While her sons work the family farm she begins to wander. Her sons seek her out when she goes voyaging alone and confused on roads and paths that have become foreign to her. They find her clothing first, and then Emma herself, naked, lost, seeking the home and children she can no longer find.

https://magicdogpress.wordpress.com/2021/01/10/emmas-family/
Emma, with two of Bill’s grandchildren.

Emma, who has been the center of the family, swings in increasingly irregular orbits. She cannot hold, and so they put her away. It’s called the County Home. Emma’s grandchildren call it the Poor Farm. It’s where families put people like Emma in those days before nursing homes. It’s where the county also houses the orphans, the indigent, and everybody else who no longer comfortably fits in the world.

And there Emma stays. Alone. My mother says they didn’t visit her because “she wouldn’t have wanted us to see her like that.” Maybe she’s right. I know my mother loved her—she wept bitterly when Emma died three months after I was born. At least the people at the County Home probably kept Emma clothed, inside, off the roads and out of the Wisconsin winter. But even now, nearly sixty years after my birth and her death, I think of her, spending her last days in a strange place, amid strange people, strange sounds, strange food, and strange smells, far from home and family. I wish it could have been different.

I never knew Emma, but the world she built lives on for decades after her death. The year I turn ten the whole family meets at the farm for a picnic and baseball. Dinner is an enormous cauldron of what Emma’s family call “barbecue” but most people call “sloppy Joes.” Emma’s daughters cook the barbecue over a fire outside the back door of Emma’s kitchen that green, humid summer day. We, Emma’s family, fill the farm to bursting, children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren running, laughing, arguing, and eating. Women wear light summer dresses. The men wear plaid shirts and khakis, or bib overalls. One or two bold sons-in-law wear bermuda shorts. The air is filled with German and English, spoken in rich Wisconsin dialect.

The last flash comes one winter’s day. I am young and lost, and far from home. Somehow I find myself back to the farm. I sit in Emma’s kitchen with Great Uncle Fred, who has custody of the pictures rescued from the fire long ago. Thin winter sun pours over us, and over the pictures Uncle Fred has spread on the old formica table. His thick brown farmer’s fingers gently slide the pictures around as he tells me stories and laughs gently. Across the kitchen stands Emma’s stove, not far from the birthing room door. The winter house smells sharp, like cedar and damp wool. The sun warms my head, though icy air swirls around our ankles. At last I understand that though Emma and I only shared the world for a few short months,  I have found my family right where Emma left it for me.

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