I imagine my mom as a slender German girl, long strawberry-blonde hair, standing still in her school uniform in front of a gray and cheerless building, with all she owned in a suitcase, wondering when her mom would be coming back to get her. She did not know initially it was a German Catholic schoolhouse for disobedient girls or why her mom arranged for her to go there. Later on the nuns confessed, We don’t know why you were sent here because you are such a good, well-behaved girl. It was surprising that the nuns were nice enough to confess that to her, now realizing that parents chose to give their daughters to this facility to endure a strict environment with nuns who seemed naturally programmed to be harsh and cold.
Instead of spending her youth creating family memories, she was exposed to unending prison-like routines, being told when to eat and drink and days filled with chores and cleaning. It was a no-nonsense environment, where mom’s closest friend there suffered extreme abdominal pains one evening. The nuns were convinced that the girl was faking the pain just to get some attention and made her go to bed with the rest of the girls as normal. Later, when the girl was near death, they took her to the hospital. She died before morning because her appendix burst and she did not get medical attention in time. I’ve wondered whether the parents of that young girl ever regretted leaving their daughter in that place.
Good times were nonexistent. As my mom described her life to me, the only story she has ever laughed about was one evening when she was thirsty. The nuns would not give her a drink because it was after dinner and past the time they allowed the girls to have drinks. After the nuns went out of the room, she snuck into the next room, stole the holy water, and drank it all. It wasn’t much of a thirst quencher, but it was enough for her that night.
There were three behavioral categories for the girls: those who behaved fairly well; those who acted up occasionally, but never really uncontrollably; and those who constantly caused trouble and were at risk of harming themselves and thrashing out at others. My mom maintained good behavior and was placed in the first group. This allowed her to walk unattended, so long as it was within the parameters the nuns provided. She was also able to earn money through chores so that she could buy items like snacks or new underwear.
Parents were also able to visit during allotted times, often happily coming around to see how the militant environment was slowly beating the spirit out of their child. While many of the girls enjoyed seeing anyone outside of the facility and receiving goodies from home or the store, her own mom, or Mutti, rarely showed up. When she did, my mom says the only thing she ever asked for was a small can of Nutella. Her Mutti, a stout woman with short, puffy blonde hair, refused to bring it until my mom apologized for everything bad she had done. Still, her repeated apologies for not cleaning the house or whatever other childhood mistakes she could possibly have committed went unforgiven because her Mutti said it was not good enough.
The girls claimed the school had the longest road in Germany because they would be driven up the road, but they would not go back down it until years later. My mom got out after three years, when she was around sixteen years old. Apparently, the only reason she had been left at the school was because her Mutti wanted a break from having to raise her. Plus, she was able to collect the monthly government allowance, a child support payment, without having to spend it on my mom.
I imagine my mom’s childhood colored like the general weather in Germany: dreary, foggy, and often saturated in muted gray tones. They were poor. My mom tries to make light of the memories she and her siblings did have—like fighting over the last bits of meat on the soup bones they received free of charge from the butcher. There no affection nor much laughter in their household either. She once told me she has no memories of her Mutti hugging her, or even telling her that she loved her.
Her grandmother was even worse. She was as selfish as they come, not willing to share even her food with kids who were hungry. She would often wear a necklace of sausages linked together around her neck so no one else would touch it. When she wasn’t wearing it, she would hide it in her bed. At night, my mom claims she could hear her smacking her lips as she snacked on her protein necklace.
My mom also went through the heartache of losing both her father and a sister, Edith, in two separate motorcycle accidents. Her dad was driving a motorcycle and fatally crashed when she was only six years old. Without acceptance or affection from her Mutti, she and her siblings were left to mourn over the death alone. Edith died just a couple years after my mom and dad married, traveled across the country, and were stationed in California. She received the terrible news of her sister’s death and had to fly back to Germany. I’ve only seen one picture of Edith, where she is straddled bareback on a white horse. My mom says she was horse crazy and loved to work with them. She also talks about how her sister would sneak out at night, but her Mutti would punish both of them for the crime. Other than that, I never heard any other description or memories about her.
Fast-forward forty years and my mom lives in the States, after meeting and marrying my dad when he was stationed in Germany. She has also turned into a stout Frau, but with straight blonde hair and a particular, stubborn German disposition. She is the only one of her family who left Germany and also the only one who maintains the overseas relationships. She calls her Mutti about once a month and her sister Margot (Mar gut) and her brother Gunther (Goon ta) a few times a year. She rarely calls Dieter, the youngest and the only one their Mutti seemed to like out of all her kids. Still, when she calls home, she endures more distress than she should.
“What did your mom have to say?” I will often ask after she stops jabbering her perfectly accented native tongue and hangs up the phone.
“Oh, not much.” she sighs when replying.
“She had to say something. You were on the phone for over an hour.”
“Well, she said Dieter needed some money, so she gave him some of her pension.”
“She just said that Dieter’s wife moved away from him and he lost custody of his own daughter.”
“She vasn’t very happy. She told me she never shoulda had me ‘cause she never loved me as a kid anyways.”
As if a mechanical routine, she still calls. Her devoted, forgiving intentions never change.
Most recently, she has noticed that her aging, 84-year-old Mutti’s health has been deteriorating, with no sympathy nor help from any of her nearby kids. The last time she talked to her Mutti, Dieter had placed her in an inpatient hospital against her will and took nearly all of her pension that was left. After an evaluation with the doctor, who said that she seemed mentally fine, she found out that he had placed her in a nuthouse. After some time, she was able to get released.
“I can’t believe Dieter would do that to her,” my distraught mother cried at the kitchen table.
“Well, you don’t know the whole story. Maybe there’s more to it,” I said.
“It doesn’t matter. Nobody deserves that. I should be the one over there helping her.”
“I don’t think you could help the circumstances. Sometimes you just reap what you sow. Look at how she treated you all as kids and still today she has never apologized, shown love, or accepted your offers of help,” I said with as much compassion as I could.
A few months after this, my mother again attempted to call her Mutti, without any answer. After a month or two of unanswered calls, her oldest brother, who only calls once or twice a year and only when he’s drunk, just happened to call her. It is unmistakable when he calls because of his deep voice that bellows Wie gehts? (vee gates) in response to my English Hello. She asked Gunter if he knew whether anything had happened to their Mutti, but received no good answer. Laughing, he said that they had stuffed her in a box and thrown her in the trash. My mom did not know if he was serious. Unlike her, he still holds a grudge against their Mutti for his terrible childhood and shows no forgiveness or sympathy. I’ve always thought those deep, aging crevices on his cheeks and forehead were formed from the years of stress and heartache he has endured.
Unhappy with this answer, the next day my mom called Margot. I’ve never known much about her other than she chain smokes, works as a janitor at the local high school, and generally seems to have a passive personality. She had no answers for my mom, either, because she hadn’t talked to their Mutti in several years.
Still unsettled, she finally called her youngest brother, Dieter. He was the tall, thin, good-looking one of the bunch, with a model-like face; a strong eyebrow and jaw line along with a striking gaze. For most of his life their Mutti showed favor to him, telling my mom how she was saving all her inheritance for him alone. I’m sure he had a sensitive soft spot deep inside, but his siblings never saw it and throughout much of his adulthood, it was masked by too much alcohol.
My mom hadn’t called her younger brother in several years, but she was determined to find out what was going on with her Mutti. Not knowing much of the German language, I could only pick up her unhappiness with the conversation by her direct, loud tone. Dieter claimed he had to take her to the mental hospital because she was going crazy and had no memory. She often left her house without knowing where she was in town and when she was in the hospital, she’d tried to escape three times, but he made sure they took her back. He told her this while proclaiming that he inherited everything of hers, so she would not have anything if she was released anyways. Mutti resided in this hospital for almost a year.
Despite this information, my mother continued to call her Mutti’s apartment phone, hoping for her to answer. She struggled with the thought of her sane Mutti stuck in a hospital without any affection from anyone; surrounded by adults screaming, throwing tantrums and others not competent enough to carry a conversation. Then, on Christmas day, she called her Mutti again and finally heard the Hallo she had been waiting so long to hear. It was the same voice she had always heard, but this time with an aging and unfamiliar memory. Her Mutti could not remember Gunter, her own firstborn son, being married and having a daughter, nor could she remember the number of kids she had. Mom tried to convince her of the reality, but her Mutti only denied it. That night I woke up in the middle of the night to my mom yelling out and crying, She doesn’t know who I am! and She did not have three kids. What about me?
Out of this entire family, my heart aches for my own mom. She has devotedly called her Mutti for thirty years, showing respect, giving loyalty, and sending her an open invitation to our home at any time. My mom realizes that her Mutti never received kindness or love from anyone and, in conversation with me, has asked, How could my mom ever give love if she never received it? My response has always been, You were able to.
Rose Shrader is a lecturer at Indiana State University, teaching freshman composition classes. She is currently working on a memoir that focuses on her life before and after a car accident in 2002 that resulted in complete paralysis from the chest down. And while much of her writing does revolve around her life as a quadriplegic, it is also more varied at times. She has been published in Diverse Voices Quarterly, Cobalt, and Blood and Thunder.