A letter and a kid (8)

“Remember me for what I was, not what I couldn’t be…” That’s a line from a song Anne Clark sang on her album “Hopeless Cases”, released in 1987. The music builds ornamental spirals around her expressive voice. Which sounds like a suitable background to this.
It’s a snapshot. Taken right after my christening in 1972, in front of the plain, white church of Kleindorf. It shows what I was.
What I couldn’t be, what I cannot be is manifold. But what I was is unique.
You can see the whole family on the photo. To be honest, a stranger could mistake their solemn faces for grim glares and conclude they have assembled for a funeral. Or a vendetta. Sure enough, they look like a Sicilian Clan straight out of “The Godfather”.
Pretty spot-on, in some ways. My family can feel like a Sicilian Clan. Without the Sicilian origins, that is.
Anyway. There’s grandma Cilli, in the centre, holding me in her arms. She’s my godmother, that’s why her stance and her face reflect honour and pride. She’s holding me tight, she’s holding me safe. A knowing half-smile shows around her lips.
To her right, my father. In a dark suit. Black-haired, handsome, slender, well-proportioned. He’s laughing at the camera, his teeth blinking, white and spotless. Ask everyone to look solemn, and he’ll still manage somehow to laugh. He holds one of my tiny fingers in his big hand.
To Cilli’s left, my mother, wearing a mini-skirt, a white blouse, a light jacket, her gaze directed at my father’s head. She looks smitten. As if to protect me, she has placed one hand on my bald, shiny head.
The priest to her left leans slightly on her to make sure he’s on the photo. He folds his hands as if saying a prayer. Another protection for me. He crinkles his wise face into an enigmatic expression.
Up front, my cousins. Sulking because they hate wearing their Sunday best. They have already hated sitting still in church and putting up with that long, dull ceremony. Now, they’d rather play Cowboys and Red Indians than to behave well. One has scraped her knee on the way to church. The scab is barely visible under the seam of her short, white dress. She’s wearing an oxeye-daisy in her hair.
Aunt Lucia’s already grey hair stands out behind grandma Cilli and my parents. Her features are set, resolute, dynamic; she's holding my one-and-a-half-year-old sister Kathi in her arm. Who doesn’t look amused. No, the baby girl frowns as if questioning the whole thing.
My aunt’s other arm lies on grandma Berta’s shoulder. Berta leans against her daughter, a walking stick in her hand. She looks small and vulnerable, her lips drawn into a stern, unsmiling line.
Around the two, my other aunts and uncles.
Grandpa Ferdi stands on the right margin, you only see one half of his body, his protruding belly. He stands straight, upright, exhaling his workman’s pride, winking at the camera. You have to guess whether he’s doing it because something amuses him. Or because he’s staring into the sun.
On the other margin, grandpa Hans has been cut in two by the photographer, too. He wears a discreet, polite expression, as if he’d come across a stranger’s christening. As if he didn’t have anything to do with the rest of us.
In the very centre of the snapshot, a tiny worm, wound into a clear-coloured sheet. They say this was I. Only my hands and my hairless head jut out of the sheet. I seem to concentrate, to meditate something essential, my fat little face wrinkled with the effort.
But look closer.
You’ll discover that I’m fast asleep, probably dreaming, and ignoring the fuss and flurry they’re all making.



A letter and a kid (7)

My mother’s reaction when the midwife presented me, clean and peaceful after my first outburst of anger: she was too shocked for words.
That is, she seemed tired but joyful enough. Until the midwife trilled, “Yes, ma’am—it’s a boy!”, parting the white cloth in which she had wrapped me, discovering my baby willy and red balls. She expected enthusiasm, maybe a bout of misplaced pride.
Instead of that, my mother started to sob.
The midwife, fearing a precocious outbreak of Baby Blues, thought it best to lay me on my mother’s lap, tiptoe away while she still could and find comfort in the hip flask filled with schnapps she had stored away in the staff room.
But my mother doesn’t do Baby Blues. She’s more into the Anything-can-be-a-problem-Blues. Some say it’s because she’s a Virgo, always worried and angsty. Others believe it’s because she thinks life too easy-peasy and has to invent problems in order to feel alive. Anyway, she grabbed the midwife by the sleeve and whined, “What have I done to deserve this?”
“What’s the matter, ma’am? Aren’t you happy?” the midwife asked.
“Oh… yes, I am. Very much,” my mother lied, looking more miserable by the minute. “Really… happy’s the word, yes.”
“You don’t look happy to me!” The midwife lifted me up again and held me tight, fearing that she was talking to a madwoman who might take the baby and smash it against the wall.
My mother’s voice became tiny, tears still streaming down her cheeks. “Well, it’s a boy! know how to deal with a girl, wash her, powder her, you know. But how shall I deal with… that?” She made a lame gesture toward my baby privates, still in full sight. “It looks so… fragile. What if I do anything wrong?”
“Oh!” The midwife sighed with relief, hiding tiny noddle and eggs from view at last. “That. Don’t you worry, ma’am. We’ll show you. It’s… well, different, yes. But not very complicated. You will learn in no time. Now, do you want to hold your son for a second?”
My mother looked only half-persuaded. But her hormones kicked in at last. Or her maternal instinct. Or simply her sense of duty. “Yes,” she said. “Give me my son.”
The midwife complied, her face expressing ‘All’s well that ends well, and I can go have me a quencher’.
My mother pressed her nose to my neck and inhaled my sweet-sour baby smell. Then she kissed me on the forehead and whispered, “I love you, my little son!” And she did mean it.

The next problem arose when my father came to discover his son. After a first explosion of joy, he fetched a chair and took me in his arms the way one picks up a piece of precious china. “How are we going to call him, darling?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” my mother replied, her tone meaning ‘I don’t care right now’. She had just delivered a baby, after all; she felt too weary to take a decision.
“Shall I ask Mom?” my cunning father asked.
This stirred the reaction he had hoped for. My mother sat up in bed, her eyes sparkling with determination. “Over. My. Dead. Body!” she hissed and held out her arms to reclaim me.
Amused, my father handed me back. “We could call him Johann, after your dad,” he proposed.
“Everyone will call him Hans. Or Hansi,” my mother said. “I don’t want people to use one of those hideous nicknames.”
“Ferdinand, after Dad?”
“People will call him Ferdi. Or Ferdl.”
“Josef? Christian? Sebastian?”
“Sepp, Chris, Wastl.” My mother shuddered. “Why not choose something special?”
“Alright. My son will become someone special anyway,” my father replied. “He will do the things I couldn’t: go to university, have a fine career.”
Both pondered the question for a moment. Until my mother came up with a name. A special name. None they had ever used before. They knew no one who had that name, either. “If we called him… Cornelius?” she suggested.
“Hm… Cornelius Dohr. Sounds good. Okay. Let’s call him Cornelius,” my father said. Sealing my fate without knowing it.


A letter and a kid (6)

Mother and father became a regular item. After some mutual probing and testing, father proposed, and mother accepted. That’s how you did things when you were a young couple in love. They married in July 1970.
For their honeymoon, my father bought his first car, a light blue VW Beetle. He took my mother to the Tyrol. The photos of their trip show a happy young couple: a black-haired, handsome, manly guy in grey knickerbockers and a blue shirt dashes his bright smile at the radiant girl at his side, who is wearing huge Diva-sunglasses, knickerbockers and a matching shirt, with the majestic, snow-covered mountain range in the background. You can almost smell the freshness, the crispness of the air, the couple’s bliss drawing like a white halo around them.
The photo underlines that my parents couldn’t take their eyes off each other.
Nor their hands, it would seem.
As a result, my sister was born nine months later: a beautiful, healthy girl with a shock of black hair screaming her anger of landing in this world.
Mother wanted to call her Doris; father preferred Kerstin. Finally, grandma Berta proposed Klara. She had always been fond of that first name. My parents shuddered and formed an immediate coalition.
A week later, my sister was christened Kathi in the plain, white church of Kleindorf.
The months after Kathi’s birth were no easy ones for my mother. As my father was working alongside Ferdinand in the coalmine, he didn’t earn buckets of money. Thus, it was decided that my parents would live with Berta and Ferdi for a while. Mother and father occupied a small, unheated room, hardly big enough for a double bed and a small cupboard. My mother had to share Berta’s kitchen, Berta’s stove.
That was no undiluted pleasure because grandma could be peculiar. Small and frail like a sparrow, she was a stern, proud woman who didn’t easily show whether she appreciated someone or not. She accepted her daughter-in-law in the manner in which she had always accepted the twists and turns of her life: with an unmoved, stoical face. She appreciated my sister’s birth in her own, inimitable, wry style, too. “Neat,” she said, nodding in my mother’s direction. “She’s good at girls. That’s better than nothing.”
My father was Berta’s youngest and favourite child; as a result, my mother’s arrival in the family provoked some kind of passive-aggressive resistance. This female… newcomer wouldn’t encroach on Berta’s territory or upset her ways of doing things—no way! Therefore grandma continued to cook the meals for her husband and her son, leaving a small corner on the stove for my mother, who would prepare her own food and warm the milk for her baby.
Thus, some months passed by, my mother swallowing her pride and bearing with Berta, getting some discreet help from Ferdinand once in a while. He wouldn’t take sides in the mute war raging between his wife and his daughter-in-law. But whenever my mother needed something, he’d mumble, “Certainly, certainly.” Which counted as a non-negotiable decision.
In the still of their chilly bedroom, my parents continued to fiddly-diddle. Comfort fiddly-diddling—didn’t cost much, eased tensions.
And surprise! My sister was only six months old when my mother became pregnant again.
The day she found out, she was immediately reminded of her uncomfortable situation. She hadn’t planned to raise a second kid in grandma Berta’s shadow. Anger, frustration and helplessness welled up in her, with no one around she could let it out on.
Huh! When my father came home from work that evening, expecting a peaceful moment with his beloved wife and his daughter, my mother had transformed into a pressure cooker in high steam. Oblivious as usual, he stroked her cheek and said, “You look a bit tense, darling.”
Tense?” my mother screamed. “Tense? I’m not tense, Mister Don’t-worry-I’ll-be-careful! I’m outright bloody livid!”
That was the only time he came within a whisker of being slapped by my mother. But remembering her dignity, she straightened her spine. And broke the news without further ado. Adding that this was the bloody straw that broke the bloody camel’s back. To crown her speech, she threatened my father that she’d bloody never bloody uncross her bloody legs again. Ever.
Unfazed, Father said, “Hush, hush, darling! What if we tried to find a flat for our own?”
Oh, he knew what my mother wanted to hear! Open-mouthed, she stared at him, dried her eyes—six “bloodys” in a row had made them quite teary—, forced a feeble smile, and asked, “Can we afford it?”
“There’s always a solution,” my father answered. Then, he drew her into a tight hug and murmured into her ear, “I love you darling. And we’ll love that new baby, too!”
That’s when my sister started to scream. She was hungry. Or jealous in advance.
I was born in July 1972 in the maternity ward of the nearest hospital, in a town called Knittelfeld. The first environment I discovered must have consisted of clinical whites and shiny steel, the small town, the meadows and peaks and forests of the Alps shimmering outside the hospital windows in idle summer colours.
To my utter disappointment, no fairy was stooping over my cradle whispering promises of a lucky fate. Only the round face of a midwife in her forties, gleaming cheeks and red nose testifying to the woman’s healthy penchant for high percentage liquors. We locked eyes, both flushed, one smiling, the other one frowning.
I was scandalized, sensing that this was just the beginning. Life would be a long series of disappointments, things would go downward from now on. I decided that a neat and piercing scream would best express my disarray, not knowing that my sister Kathi had already come to the same conclusion some months before.
That’s how I left a state of perfect, primitive and original happiness and entered life.


My bride from the Simien Mountains

Sweeping, I am always sweeping
the muddy, red ground in front of our hut,
and singing songs of love and longing,
of ecstasy and muggy nights,
songs that only our skinny goats can hear
in the loneliness of the rough, green mountains

By and by, my skin has turned as dark as yours
while the days float by
and die, one by one, like mayflies,
and rain veils percolate from a leaky, white sky,
and sometimes a yellow glow pierces the morning haze,
and sometimes our chilly evenings gleam,
orange and ginger,
into a lightless night

You wear white smiles
and strong perfumes:
fresh coffee, berbere and mitmita;
together, we grind the teff for our daily injera,
prepare a skillet full of doro wat,
clap our hands

The first day, I've been bold and stupid, saying,
‘You and your people never really entered history.
Your present is too full of nostalgia
for the lost paradise of childhood
to leave room for progress.’
Showing me your big teeth,
you've just laughed,
‘I prefer our stories to your history.’

And then, you've started telling me
tales of foxes and hyenas,
travellers and brides,
donkeys and mules,
leopards, apes,
baboons and trees,
and weeks have turned into months,
springs into autumns,
and my hair has turned grey,
and my voice as gentle,
my lips as welcoming,
my smile as wide and warm
as yours


A letter and a kid (5)

Oh. Yes. Wow! The letter. I prattle and blat, and the letter-story seems to be nowhere in sight. Sorry. But I warned you: I’m a procrastinator. And a dreamer. We dreamers always focus on dispensable details. We rarely do essentials.
Anyway, even dispensable details teach us a lesson. In probability, for instance. I mean, what were the odds for me to be born? On my mom’s side, grandma Cilli could’ve been living in Slovenia instead of Austria, right? And grandpa Hans could’ve been killed during the war like the millions that were.
On my dad’s side, things look just as haphazard. There was only a little chance for grandma Berta and grandpa Ferdinand to meet. After they did, Ferdi the Communist could’ve been shot by the Nazis like his comrades. My dad could’ve been killed by an Allied bomb.
But my grandparents did survive, against all odds. They did meet. They did have kids. My mom on one side, my dad on the other.
And what were the odds of my parents meeting? Mom and dad were living more than a hundred kilometres apart, after all. Back in the 50s and 60s, considering both their upbringing and social origins, what would’ve been the expected turn of events for them? They could’ve stayed within a ten-kilometre-reach of where they were born. Most people did back then. They could’ve married someone in their vicinity. They would’ve had kids. But different kids. Not me.
So you would be reading a different story right now.
Or no story at all.
See? That’s a dreamer’s material. Would’aves and could’aves.
And don’t tell me it was predestination. I don’t believe in that. I prefer to believe in odds. The odder the odds, the better the result. Just look at me.
Right. Back to our letter.
At sixteen, my mother left her parents’ home to start an apprenticeship as a sales assistant. Her training took place in a small town some kilometres north of Murnitz. Times were serious and grim for a youngster, back then. You didn’t have much of a ball. It wasn’t all about the latest jeans-fashion, or spending hours on a mobile talking and texting, or sulking in one’s bedroom because the parents wouldn’t allow you to spend the night at your best friend’s.
My mom attended a vocational school every second week. And worked in a grocery store the rest of the time. She lived with six other girls at their employer’s, in a cold, sparsely furnished room. Food was scarce, too, because the owner of the grocery store was a no-nonsense skinflint. He treated his apprentices like slaves.
Sometimes, my mom would do the inventory with her boss. He would sit on a chair, reading items off a list, and she would haste from one corner to the other to check the stocks. Apart from the boss’s mumbled words, the storeroom was completely silent. Once, my mom’s stomach started to rumble. She tried to still the noise, ashamed, but secretly hoping that her boss might notice, too. He might conclude that she was hungry. Maybe he’d finally get it that the portions he served were too small.
But he continued as if nothing had happened.
My mom’s best friend was called Karin. They’d help each other backcomb their hairdos, they’d starch their petticoats together, they’d smoke the odd cigarette, hidden behind a chestnut tree. The sixties were roaring somewhere else; in London, maybe, or in New York. Not in that little town. And yet, in their shy and nice ways, the two girls enjoyed their last teenage years. They worked hard, they learned their lessons, they snickered and covered their mouths when a handsome young man entered the grocery store. And regained their composure after their boss’s wife had shot them a murderous glance.
Finally, Karin finished her apprenticeship and found a job in a grocery store situated in my village. Without hesitating a second, she moved to Kleindorf. The store where she was working was a stone’s throw from where my grandparents were living. Just across the street, in fact.
It’s in that grocery store that Karin saw my father for the first time.
And that’s when she wrote the letter to my mom. My dad wasn’t the main subject; Karin was just babbling on about her situation, the region, the regular customers. It was nothing but a harmless letter a young woman would write to her best friend.
“There’s this young guy,” Karin wrote. “Quite a looker, lemme tell you! Black hair, mischievous smile, coal black eyes. A pity, though—he’s got a glass eye!” Now, luck would have it that the owners of that grocery store were looking for a second sales assistant. Karin innocently suggested my mom, “She’s excellent. She’ll do the job, I promise. And she’s about to finish her apprenticeship!”
So my mom received a second letter with a job proposal. For a moment, she was undecided. The place was so far away from home! Would she be able to like her new environment? Would she be able to leave behind everything she knew? Her parents, her little rivulet, the farmers, the softly rolling hills?
Finally, she made up her mind. A job was a job, and hell!, she wouldn’t spend her life fretting over things she had no answer for. She accepted, packed her few belongings, informed her parents, and moved to the village.
That happened in—wait. 1967? 1968?
The rest was simple. One day, my dad entered the grocery store and approached the counter. Karin nudged my mom, whispering, “That’s the one! You know—the guy with the glass eye!” Then, she disappeared in the back shop to have a look at the stocks.
My mom served the young man and couldn’t help but notice that oh yes!, the young fellow was just as good-looking as Karin had told her. Mischievous smile that discovered cute little dimples; curious and sparkling coal black eyes; full, dark hair. He seemed a tad small for a lad, but lean and—she shivered with the thought—beefy, yes, outright beefy! When they proceeded to the cashier’s desk, she enjoyed the sight of his tight little bum and his muscular calves.
While cashing in the money, she continued to check him out. Discreetly, of course; she didn’t want to be taken for an easy lay. Still, that glass-eye-thing intrigued her. To her amazement, she couldn’t detect even a trace of this peculiar item. Had science progressed so much that glass-eyes had become invisible? How then had Karin been able to spot it? she asked herself.
My dad noticed that the unknown young woman was ogling him with interest. You have to know that, when my mom discreetly checks out someone, she stops short of staring open-mouthed at the person. So dad moved closer, her sweet smell enveloping him. Definitely—this young lass looked as if she was searching some kind of answer in his face!
My dad realized that he liked what he saw, too: a soft, young woman with a bob cut, generous curves, and a romantic longing in her eyes. Damn yes, he liked it a lot. And—bzing! The two weren't aware that good old Cupid was preparing to take aim and shoot one of his arrows. But shoot he did. And Cupid being Cupid, he hit two hearts spot-on.