8/31/14

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.

2 comments:

  1. I'm loving this though you're killing me with the tease of the letter - I want to know!!! I particularly love the line "pressed against the ground as if the weight and immensity of the sky had flattened them". Just beautiful.

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    1. :-) Just wait and see, hehe. Thanks for reading & commenting. And for being patient ;-)

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