Before, in Harburg, I only felt threatened by my family, once I came back I felt like the whole town was against me. Everybody knew my shame. I walked through town with my head lowered. I couldn’t stop imagining the faces of the townspeople laughing and pointing at me saying, “remember her?”
Thirty-six years ago I convinced myself I wasn’t worth much. Even after I grew up and left Harburg these same thoughts followed me and became my handicap. The turning point came when I turned 36. I finished my masters in tailoring and fashion design. I worked as an interior decorator and was part owner of a high fashion boutique.
Even though I had gained knowledge and developed my talents, my inner voice kept saying, “you are not good enough”. I knew that as long as I worked by myself I could use my abilities and no one would criticize me.
After a 1996 robbery in the business I began working for the Air force Hotel in Wiesbaden as a desk clerk. I wanted to learn English. My inner voice, however, kept saying I was not good enough to work as a desk clerk. My fellow workers soon discovered my insecurities. Because I felt grateful to have the job I was constantly given assignments no one else would have.
I thought back to an icy December and it was frigid cold in the house. We kids hadn’t had a proper meal in some time, except of oatmeal with sugar, cocoa and milk. The past summer the gas station closed for good. People said my father ran it into the ground. He spent all the money on his inventions or on his girlfriend. He was only interested in his orchestra and the choir that he directed. Others said my mother had let the business go down. I didn’t know which version was the truth and which was a lie, maybe both, but by that time I really didn’t care anymore.
Nigg and I felt cheated. We had been told that we would take over the business one day. The hours we worked were for nothing. There was no question that my father’s music and research for his inventions were more important than his family. He never earned a penny. Everything we owned came from our mother or from our grandpa. One day our mother, in one of her hate spells, said, “If you kids had to live from what your father brings home you would have starved to death long ago.”
The older I got, the less I understood my mother and why she didn’t turn my father loose. She knew he had been having an affair with his secretary for years, yet she would do anything to prevent him from leaving. The whole situation disgusted me. Whatever my father did, or said, was the law. My mother accepted any pain and humiliation from him.
Once he showed us a picture of a woman in a Red Cross nurse’s uniform. She had light blue eyes, a beautiful face framed by black hair and a petite figure. “Yes,” he boasted, “this is the woman I met right after the war.” Then pointing to my mother he said, “she is nothing but a big fat pig. And you,” then pointing to me, “will one day get this fat.”
I looked at my mother, waiting for her to strike back. I knew she was hurt by his stupid comments, but with tears brimming in her eyes she said, “Your father didn’t really mean it the way it sounds, I really should lose weight.”
I was disgusted.
That same evening she pulled Nigg and me into the bedroom. She acted subdued, asking if we would like to have a Christmas with plenty of presents, and a good meal with a goose on the table. Nigg and I looked at each other. We knew she was not talking about us having a good meal, but our stomachs told us to say yes. Knowing the game she played, we had to do something very unpleasant. She waved a sheet of paper and said, “I found this unpaid bill in the paperwork from the gas station. All you have to do is drive to this address and collect the money. Don’t accept any excuses. I know them. They always keep money at home.”
Something warned me, but the hunger, the almost empty tank of heating oil and Christmas the following week were all too real. When she handed me the bill I noticed the amount of three thousand Deutsch Marks. Just wanting reassurance I asked, “Why don’t you or father go and talk to these people?”
She slapped me across my mouth and said, “Do you want to tell us adults what to do? That’s okay,” she said, “if you don’t want to go, your brothers won’t have any food and thanks to you, no Christmas.”
Nigg grabbed the bill out of my hand and said, “Let’s go.”
We had to ask Wolfi, a school friend, if he could borrow his father’s van. Our car was out of gas. We could always depend on him. Fifteen minutes later we were on the way.
“It’s only fourteen kilometers,” Nigg said, “if we hurry we will be back in an hour and I can eat something.”
It was dark and snowing hard. The road following the empty fields was icy. Nigg was thirteen-years-old and very short for his age. Even thought it was against the law for him to drive, he had been driving for almost a year. Our parents expected it. Every time a car passed, or we drove through a town I slid my legs under his butt so he would appear taller. Finally, when we entered the town of Wemding, where the people lived, we were forced to ask for help.
I said, “We’ll have to ask someone where they live, we don’t know where to look for the street.”
We stopped at a Gasthaus and I asked the innkeeper for directions. The first thing the man said was, “What’s a little girl like you doing out on the street at night?” He gave me directions and added, “Tell your parents children have no business being out at night.”
I was glad the man didn’t come outside with me he would have had a fit seeing another child driving a car. I didn’t realize just how late it really was when we knocked on the door. When the man answered in his pajamas I knew they had already been asleep.
I showed him the bill and told him our mother sent us to collect. He said, “I don’t know anything about it. My wife takes care of the bills. Come in while I wake her up.”
After the man left the room Nigg said, “That wasn’t too hard at all, now we’ll have a nice Christmas.”
When the man’s wife came in I knew something was wrong. She was furious. She flashed a receipt signed by my mother a year before. She said, “I told your mother a week ago to stop asking me for money!”
I was so embarrassed I wished the floor would open up and swallow us. Then I heard Nigg say, “If we don’t bring money home we won’t have any food and the heating oil is running out too.”
The woman’s voice changed when she said, “Go sit by the table.” She brought us fresh milk, homemade liverwurst and bread.
I was embarrassed and said, “No, thank you, we have to go.”
Nigg acted like he didn’t hear me. He wasn’t at all shy and sat down to eat. By now I couldn’t resist and sat down to eat. The woman watched Nigg eating and said, “You sure are hungry, when was the last time you ate?” She didn’t wait for an answer; she got up and wrapped some of the food. “Here, take it.” She said, “Merry Christmas.” And handed us a bag full of food and some money.
At that moment I grew up. I knew what it meant to bring shame into a family, but I also knew it wasn’t our fault.
Because of the snowstorm it was harder to drive back home. But that wasn’t the only reason. “What are we going to say? She doesn’t want to hear the truth,” I said.
“Don’t worry,” Nigg answered, “the food and the money are proof enough that we were there.”
“How much longer?” I asked.
“Why?” He said, “I’m not in a hurry to get there.”
“Me neither, my stomach is rumbling, I have to go to the bathroom.”
“No wonder,” Nigg smirked, “first we don’t eat for days and then we gobble down fat liverwurst and fresh cow milk.”
The snowstorm turned into icy rain and the road looked like a mirror. We slowed down to a crawl of about 5 km per hour.
“Nigg, stop, I have to throw up!”
I made it out of the car just in time. The vomiting and diarrhea started at the same time. I was so glad nobody was on the road that night. Soaking wet and shaking I crawled back into the van.
“This stupid van does not have a heater,” Nigg complained, “but we will be home soon.”
When I handed the food and money to our mother she yelled angrily, “Is this all?” I walked out of the kitchen, when she asked me, “What is your problem?” Without saying a thing I went to bed thinking, I hate that woman.
The next day my mother went shopping and bought cigars, butter and ham for my father. We kids got noodle soup without meat and a slice of bread with margarine. Christmas Eve came and went. We had no Christmas tree, no presents, not even a decent meal for us kids. My father got some new gloves and a warm scarf. Father always got the best, it didn’t matter if we had money or not, and we got leftovers.