By Brenda Reeser
When I was with my Tante Irma we used to walk arm-in-arm. I think women are comfortable doing that in Germany. Walking arm-in-arm together. My German is primitive, so by holding on to her I could express how much I loved her, and how much I respected her. Her hands were rough from the years of toil. The furrows on her face were deep. She was a tall woman, in later years, stooped. Her hair was dark auburn. Her eyes were squinted and framed by unruly eyebrows. She was a fearless woman and exuded confidence with everything she did.
My Tante Irma was one of five children who grew up in Loxstedt, a small town in Northern Germany, near Bremerhaven, a seaport on the North Sea. She and Uncle Christel married and operated a modest farm he inherited, in Schiffdorf. The land was flat and loamy, ideal for farming! Uncle Christel’s mother was born a Niemitz and the family story is that his mom was related to the famous US Admiral Nimitz.
Uncle Christel, a gentle man, came home demoralized by the ravages of W.W. II. His ship was sunk in the North Sea. His older brother, a young lieutenant, supposedly with a brilliant mind, was killed by partisans who attacked the military train he was on. The gravity of the war stayed with Uncle Christel throughout his life. He sat quietly in the living room while others competed to regale one another with tall tales: hunting, farming, the war. His dissipated eyes suggested he was familiar with human depravity. But I am told he had a beautiful voice and was a member of the choir in Schiffdorf. On his birthday the choir came to his home and sang to him.
Because of diabetes he was blind in his old age, and although he was familiar with the patterns of the house, he was strongly dependent upon Tante Irma. I remember them at the kitchen table, her talking in soft tones, pouring him tea and gently combing his hair, making sure his part was straight. He died in his bed at home, Tante Irma talking to him all the while.
Her strength and endurance are what made them able to continue after the war. She could grow food. She could earn a living by selling her vegetables. She went by horse and buggy to the Wochenmarkt (weekly farmer’s market) in Bremerhaven. My cousin, Bodo, now living here in the U.S. used to like to go with her (his aunt too) when he could. Bodo helped by tying the washed carrots and radishes into bundles. Peas, beans, lettuce and onions were sold to regular customers who knew the freshness of her produce. She also sold early maturing potatoes or Frühkartoffel, her freshly killed chickens, and fresh eggs.
By selling vegetables at the farmer’s market each week she was able to build a beautiful modern brick home, built for two families. I always admired her flower garden in her front yard: layered flamboyant perennials surrounded by colorful annuals. My cousin Claus and his wife live upstairs and when Doug and I visit, we usually stay with them.
Bodo recently shared this story with me. “Brenda, I was visiting Tante Irma during school vacation. She and another farm woman went to the “Alte Land”, an area near the Elbe river, famous for the cherry orchards. They took off early in the morning on their “milk bikes”. These bikes had an attachment where you could hang two large milk cans to the side of the bike. The bikes had only one gear, so pedaling was hard when you got some headwind, or went up a small slope in the road. Tante Irma and her friend came back late on the same day in the dark. The milk cans were filled with black cherries. I estimate the distance of the “Alte Land to be between 30-40 miles. We were allowed to eat a few cherries, but the bulk was preserved in glass jars.”
When Doug and I visited we often watched her sweeping the barnyard with a broom made from tree twigs. I watched as she rhythmically swept until everything was brushed, cleared and clean. She continued to deliver eggs to the neighbors until well into her 70’s. We met her on the bicycle path when walking. “Guten Morgen,” she said with shouts of laughter, showing off a little. Tante Irma liked wearing Uncle Christel’s white cotton socks. I have a memory of her sitting outside facing the sun in her over-sized bathrobe, socks scrunched up to her calves She was comfortable in her slip and bra in front of anyone, so when coming home from an occasion she would take off her impeccable white blouse, quickly slip on an apron and begin frying potatoes for dinner.
She visited us once here in Andes during the month of September. She enjoyed walking along Dingle Hill Road, taking in all the rustic beauty of our countryside. She was mesmerized by the fall colors of the maple trees. She never tired of being outdoors busying herself with picking up sticks along the road gathering kindling wood.
During her stay here Doug prepared lobster for her and she was fascinated when the lobsters were put into the pot of boiling water. Poking her face carefully down toward the boiling water she asked, “Ist es Communist?” We treated her to champagne and smoked salmon at Windows on the World at the top of the World Trade Center. A few years later nobody had the heart to tell her about 9/11.
She died in her home at the age of 90. Margit, her daughter-in-law, was there to look after her. Social workers came in to bathe her regularly. I think of Tante Irma often. I think about our similarities and our differences because she is my blood relative. She had few inhibitions. I still have. She could surpass trauma! I can too! I am not sure I could kill a chicken. But I like wearing Doug’s big socks, scrunched to my calves. ~