Germans from Russia Symposium
North Dakota State University
Fargo, North Dakota
My Grandmother's Tongue
Department of English, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa
The poems included in "Mother
Tongue" began as an attempt to retrieve a portion of personal
history that I felt slipping away after the death of my grandmother.
It seems to be a common experience among descendants of Germans
from Russia that we often feel we were not given enough detailed
information about our origins. That frustration takes voice in "Mother
There are perhaps many reasons why we were left with little of what could be classified as cultural roots from our German-Russian ancestors. There was a great need on the part of German-Russians to inculcate their children in the ways of the new world. For the greater part of this century due to the wars in Europe, it has not been desirable to be either a "kraut" or a "rooskie", so as a reaction to this double-edged sword, our ancestors tended to keep a cultural low profile. This is not to say, however, that culture was not handed down. It is there, in our recipes, in our language, but in terms of hard information (i.e., names of actual villages, accounts of sea and land voyages coming to America), we are left with very little to go on.
Many ethnic groups in this country are facing this same dilemma. The problem, when seen on a larger scale, can be termed as a loss of the storyteller. In many cultures, including the one our German-Russian ancestors came from, it was the job of the story teller to remember and tell stories, to hand down vital cultural information. It is up to us --we who are left -- to find ways to preserve and hand down what we know about the people to whom we owe our very existence.
For a greater part of this century, the people of this country have been under the impression that we should only look forward, never back. This is the lesson my grandmother tried to teach me. For her, it was an act of survival; it was perhaps too painful to look back, and she always believed that what was to come was going to be better. In looking backwards as far as I am able, I have hoped to preserve what I knew of them, my grandmother and grandfather, to honor them and to use their memory as a basis out of which I might move forward into the future.
Life can be only be understood backwards,
but it must be lived forwards.
I. THE HEARING
The nurses did not tell me
cutting a ragged path
was not mine.
They were all the time
tugging at you
like they knew you, saying
Lydia, You bad girl,
you have been throwing off
your covers again.
The nurses did not tell me
is the last to go.
I always wanted stories of the place
where you had come from. I wanted stale bread, shared between hands,
and stony fields passed through in the middle of the night.
I wanted superstitious women dancing around campfires, but when I asked, you would say, Oh. We all came from the same place.
(Thank you for being so specific, grandma, thank you. Now I know: low-Germans.
You had come from somewhere else where you had also been desecrating the language).
On the subject of naming my mother Gladys Violet, you said, I was going to name her Wiolet Gladys, but I thought, Wiolet, everybody has that name. (I always meant to tell you, Lydia in this country we say Violet, not Wiolet. And you do not go to wisit someone, you visit. The same goes for p's and b's. In English, there is no such thing as a botatoe.)
When I got to the first grade and
found out somersaults were not called butzle books, I was not bitter.
And later, when I discovered lovers did not appreciate being called
poopsie pie, I tried to stop but every time I went to pinch them,
this is what came out.
You liked to tell jokes. You told them good, in English, stopping at the right places, just the way they had been told to you. But when it came to punch lines you would stop, lean toward grandpa and say it to him, in German. The two of you would laugh and rock in your seats.
When I protested you said, There's no way to say, in English.
There's no way to say, in English.
This was years ago
I stood vigil over you
another time. You were a wreck
in a cotton nightgown.
Your king size bed supported you,
wracking side to side,
like a child with a high fever .
You walked in
while they were trying to
resuscitate him. You saw
a circle of uniforms,
a nurse forced you from the room,
they lost him anyway,
you never had a chance to say
We might as well get him in here too.
The day he pulled a rotten molar
from his mouth with a pliers,
the smug look on his face
when he came to the kitchen
to show us the long root.
He said, I brought this tooth with me
His rhubarb wine that used to knock me
on my ass every time I came over
for Sunday dinner .
Grandpa making the rounds with his tray
of shot glasses, one glass for everyone,
no matter how small.
After supper we did tipsy dishes.
Grandma would wash. Grandpa would dry.
I would put away.
III. GRANDFATHER'S HANDS
Grandfather's hands in the sausage tub,
where I would sit and watch him add
salt, pepper, garlic, salt, pepper ,
garlic, then knead everything together
with his hairy knuckles.
His hairy knuckles reminding me of
on the steering wheel driving me
to school in the fin-tailed Chevy
at 5 miles per hour ,
left turns taking an eternity
of stutter steps, inch-by-inch,
not hand-over-hand like my brother
learned in Driver's Ed.
Grandfather's hands on the wheel,
Memorial Day drives to Tappen,
to put flowers on the boys' graves.
The three small wreathes
riding with me in the back seat
like well-behaved children.
The silence in the car afterward,
except for the sound of the blinker
from the last left turn,
clicking on and off
all the way home.
IV. HELPING GRANDMA OUT THE BED
On your one trip
to the city
you complimented me
on my lack
and fell upon my waterbed
with the zeal
of a woman
who had never been.
I left you there
to test it
returning to find you
on the sideboard.
Your legs, too short
to reach the floor .
Your bottom, lodged
in the crack
and too wide
to do anything about.
Help me out the bed,
and we joined hands.
Me, planting a foot
in the crevice
until we laughed you
V. LOOSENING THE GRIP
That card game we used to play,
which I never knew the meaning of
or understood how to play.
But somehow, always in the end
things would come around for me.
A deuce would take on
a red card would be considered good.
You would poke me,
say the cards seemed to like me,
tell me I had luck,
I always knew
that you were lying.
You thought all these years
that I was Little Debbie
of breakfast food fame.
Every letter you sent
contained a picture of myself
carved off a donut box,
your knife having rounded,
each fine feature,
each luxurious curl.
Lydia, I'm not Little Debbie
and you, you are gone now,
and I'm sorry about it,
but I have to kill you
in this poem.
I have to take the wringer washer
out of your basement
and dismantle it.
I have to untie the hot towels
you wrapped around my head,
to relieve the migraines,
you thought, I inherited from you.
I have to loosen their grip.
And that old woman you took me to,
who cured me of eczema
by saying a prayer and burying
a lock of my hair. I have to
kill her too.
I have to dig up what was buried,
and repeat the words
she said. I have to
say them to myself.
I have to say them
WATCHING JOANN CASTLE PLAY
Saturday nights, before mom and dad
went to polka, we'd watch Lawrence Welk.
We'd watch Bobby throw Cissy and catch her.
Joe Feeney sang My Wild Irish Rose.
The black tap man clicked across the stage.
Lawrence emceeing in that corny German brogue
my father did not hesitate to remind us
he laughed all the way to the bank with.
Everybody singing, everybody swaying
in chiffon and sports coats, everybody smiling
those that's-entertainment-the-show-must -go-on-
smiles. There was one woman we waited for
and that was Joann Castle. Joann Castle
and her mile-high, honey-blonde beehive,
and her big, big back that never quite fit
in to her backless gowns. Joann Castle
with her hands on the keys, playing
the honky tonk. As we watched from behind
Lawrence counted her off a one and a two and
away she would go, her bare arms flappin
her big bottom bouncin, she'd be jammin
the keys, rappin, like tongues they was flappin.
When she turned to face the camera,
her pearly whites still tinklin that ivory tune,
even the foggies in the back row
felt inclined to say, Joann Castle, man.
She's been to Chicago. She's been to New York.
Shit man, she's even been to New Orleans.
A rose by your bedside
you would never know,
the nurses tried to tell me
I tried to tell them
how you always knew
to plant the tulips
inside the dahlias
inside the gladiolas
and leave a space
in the middle, the place
where I always found you
when I came to visit.
Hard to believe, you gone,
almost two years now
and this lily, brought to me
by my love last Easter
to help me through
the first year , how I swore
I'd keep it alive, all year.
You would have laughed
at my despair when it began
to make its slow descent
back to the earth. First
the white trumpets
dropping off. Then leaf
after leaf retracting
until all that was left
was the brown stalk
which I cut down to nothing.
It disgusted me so.
Alone, through the valley
of darkness, we all must walk,
an old man told me
at your funeral. He said
he was your friend.
He told me, you knew that.
You would have laughed
at my surprise, this winter
when the green shoots
appeared. Weeds, I thought
but watered them
and now they are lilies,
three of them, climbing
back off of themselves,
preparing to tell it all
over again. These things
we call miracles. It would be
enough to make you laugh.