A letter and a kid (2)

I’ve grown up in a little village in the mountains. My mom has not. She was born in the southernmost, flattest part of Styria. You can check on Google Maps—see that appendix that bores into Slovenia like a probing finger? Near the tip of that finger, bordered by the river Mur and a rivulet called Kutschenitza, you find Murnitz, the small hamlet where my mother comes from. If you zoom, that is.
Keywords such as agriculture, Catholic devoutness, conservatism, and exaggerated Germanic pride define this region. The first three always go together in Austria, even today. As for the last one, it’s historical.
Let me explain. When the Habsburg Empire still existed, the local gentry administrating the duchy of Styria spoke German. Whereas the common folk—peasants, craftsmen, workers—would communicate in Slovenian.
Little by little, though, people wanted to imitate the upper class. Pathetic yet human. Anyway, they started to look down on those speaking Slovenian in public, even scorn them. What with the growing nationalisms of the 19th and 20th centuries, you had to choose your side. Now, a clean family name like Müller, Maier, Drechsler was easy proof genuine Germanic origins. But if your last name was Stepanovic, for instance, you were hard-pressed to pretend the same. And the less Germanic you were, the more Germanic you’d try to act.
In the plains of the South where my grandparents lived, people cultivated wheat, corn, vegetables, and fruits. Pumpkins, cucumbers, potatoes. Apples, walnuts, plums. I remember vast and wild forests, too. I remember beech trees, chestnut trees, oak trees, ash trees, linden-trees, birch trees, rowans, maples, hornbeams, and weeping willows. I remember high grass with daffodils in springtime.
A few kilometres to the North began the softly undulating hill country, covered with vineyards. Another strong memory of mine: our family autumn strolls up there. The sun, ready to set early, shed gentle light on the landscapes, oblique rays wiping out any neat contour and blurring everything in warm colours. The grapevines’ regular patterns followed gentle slopes and dingles like as many meticulously combed strands of hair. Vine leaves and forests were aflame with yellow and red and brown hues, only a few recalcitrant trees braving the season, their foliage still green, but it was a dark green, an almost nostalgic green. When I narrowed my eyes, I could guess the reaped fields in the distance, all ochre and brown. The traditional farms, low buildings with small windows and thick, calcimined walls, pressed against the ground as if the weight and immensity of the sky had flattened them.
So, that’s where my mother grew up. In a house built at the edge of a forest, down in the plains, a mere five-minutes’ walk from the Kutschenitza and Yugoslavia, as the country was called back then. Her mother Cilli with the tell-tale maiden name Stepanovic was working for the local notable, the Count Stürgkh. My grandfather Hans Drechsler was a carpenter. Cilli and Hans had married after the war; my mom was their only child.
How odd. I don’t have a clear picture of these guys in my mind. My mom’s parents, I mean.
I remember their physical features, but the rest is harder to define. Oh, I remember grandma Cilli as a warm and generous woman. But that’s about all. She died from cancer when I was a little kid.
And grandpa Hans would always remain a faraway person. You know, someone you could describe as discreet because he’d always stay outside, at the edge, sleek and elusive like a fish you’d try to catch with your bare hands. Especially after Cilli’s death, he would disappear from the family circle in small, maybe involuntary steps, but with determined steadfastness.
Of course, he would show up for the usual family reunions such as Christmas, because my mom insisted each time. Of course, I would see him during my holidays, when the family spent several weeks in his house at the edge of the forest. Of course, he would tell me countless stories of the war, when he’d enrolled in the Wehrmacht. He’d been to Norway, he’d suffered from diarrhoea in Greece. But the man always acted as if his daughter, his son-in-law, his grandchildren were mere strangers whose existence he accepted politely, but whose departure he never regretted.
To me, Cilli and Hans feel like a man and a woman who have stepped out of a dense wall of fog, two hard-working persons in their middle ages whose only purpose has been to welcome me at my birth, offer me a regular change of environment during my childhood and teenage years, and disappear at last without too great an impact on my own existence.
I guess that’s what my mother feels, too. She hardly ever mentions them. The memories we share concern the parcels grandma Cilli sent us with home-grown vegetables and fruits and stuff. And the banknotes grandpa Hans would slip into three plain, white envelopes at Christmas. One for my mom, one for my sister, one for me. Nothing for my dad; Hans liked him, but never considered him family.
By the way, and just for the record: grandpa Hans would always ask my mother to get him the three envelopes. Five minutes before the Christmas presents were distributed.


A letter and a kid (1)

I’m not sure I wanted to be born. Don’t get me wrong: I’m no suicide candidate. I cherish life. Mine, far from turning out a long and calm river so far, has taken me up and down. But I’ve always considered a waste of time and energy to deplore things I can’t change. I’m used to ups and downs now.
Deep inside, though, I keep thinking that my previous state must have been delightful. Those nine months when I was kind of floating in my mother’s womb, starting as a single cell that divided into two, then four, then eight and more, eventually growing into something more complex, more complicated.
Maybe the whole problem started with that cell division thing? Maybe I was happiest when I existed as a simple one-cell organism? It just figures, right? Since that didn’t last long. Happy times never do.
My point is that after a short period of pure bliss, bad things started to happen. They started the moment I was born. We’re talking about the pre-epidural years, here, so the first things I heard were my mom’s piercing screams and the midwife barking, “Push! Chrissake, woman, push!
Of course, my memories don’t reach back that far. I only know these things from hearsay, which always lacks the ring of truth that memories, even false ones, have. Yet as far as my pre-birth period is concerned, I can’t be wrong. My mom’s such a warm-hearted, emotional and nurturing woman that I’m certain I was fine in her womb. Fine and happy.
The repercussions of that early, let’s say pre-historical happiness still show through in my character. First of all, I’m an optimist. Go beat me. Secondly, I like to live in my bubble. I guess you can call me a procrastinator.
I’ve got this theory. About procrastinators.
They come in three forms, okay? Let’s begin with the lazybones. People who dodge anything looking like work, even remotely. Their astute assumption is that most things, when left until later, tend to be done by others.
Type #2 are the conflict-haters. They make every effort to avoid confrontations, dithering over decisions and actions until someone else decides or acts in their place. Those guys need to be thick-skinned because others will badmouth them as cowards or people pleasers. I should know; I’m one of them. A bit. Or a lot. Depends on who you ask.
That doesn’t imply those guys are losers. If they manage to ignore all the badmouthing, they can still get into politics and become natural success stories. Pity I was never tempted by that path.
Now, type #3. This is important, okay? The idealists. Caught in the reflections of their bubble and allergic to the many vicissitudes reality casts their way. They live like ostriches, their heads buried deep in the sand. Theirs is a world of imagination and dreams. Don’t ask them to deal with situations requiring a quick response. Open-eyed and numb, they’ll stare at problems like rabbits surprised by a cobra.
But unlike the two other types, if the going gets so tough that their bubble bursts for good, they’re able to shake off the shards. And do something.
Not always the right thing.
But still.
And that’s me. Cornelius in a nutshell.
But wasn’t I talking about my birth? Sorry, I’m a fuss-head.
So. I was born, we got that. But I would never have been conceived if there hadn’t been that letter. Yes, I’m that old. People still wrote letters back then, you know.
To be precise, it’s not the whole letter. It’s one sentence. That triggered it all off, I mean. My parents meeting, falling in love, marrying, engaging in regular fiddly-diddling, until—ta-da!—the afore-mentioned single cell that was to become fabulous me appeared in my mom’s uterus.



That Saturday, Cornelius got a call from his sister. After they had assured each other everything was fine, Kathi said: “It’s Mom’s birthday next week.” 
“I know.” 
“Yeah, I guess. But do you think you can remember to call her this year?” 
“Of course!” 
“No need to sound offended, Cee! I just want to make sure you really do.” 
“I mean it. Really. I don’t want to go through another drama like last year.” 
“Alright”, Cornelius said. “Phone call on D-day. No birthday card. Promised.” 
“I count on you, okay?” 
Cornelius preferred to change the subject and talked about the banana cake he had prepared the weekend before. “Had some over-ripe bananas. You know, nobody wants to eat them here when they get almost black. So I googled ‘banana cake’ and found a nice recipe. Really simple, not too sweet…” 
“Hey, can you mail me the link?”, Kathi asked. “Got the same problem here. Was thinking of using the bananas to make me a milk-shake, but a four-banana-milk-shake for one person…” 
“Okay, I’ll send it right now. It’s in English, though.” 
“I’ll use Google Translate, don’t worry.” 
Only two days later, Kathi called again. “Cee? Got a minute?” 
“Why, yes. Shoot. What’s the matter?” 
“Oh, nothing important. But tell me: have you really followed that banana cake recipe you sent me? Or did you change something?” 
Cornelius said no, he had followed the recipe step by step, the way they explained it on the website. 
“I must have done something wrong then,” Kathi sighed. “I invited Bernd and Tim over for cake and coffee, last Sunday. And I had prepared your banana cake.” 
“Well, first I thought it was just me. Then I saw Bernd’s and Tim’s faces and knew it wasn’t.” 
“Well, the cake was … disgusting.” Cornelius heard his sister shudder. “I mean, like, really disgusting? Uneatable. It tasted strongly of flour and… rotten bananas.” 
“Ah, that.” Cornelius nodded, even if he knew his sister couldn’t see him. “Yes, I know. René and I didn’t like it, either.” 
There was a longish silence. Then, Kathi burst out with laughter: “You fucking moron! You know how embarrassed I was in front of Bernd and Tim? Of course, they were too busy making fun of me to notice.” 
“Oh, sorry…” 
“Couldn’t you tell me?” She still laughed. “Why on earth did you mail me the recipe without warning me?” 
“I wanted to know if I had done something wrong or if the recipe was shit. And, after all, you never ever asked me if the cake had been any good.”