Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Tie A Yellow Ribbon 'Round The Old Oak Tree

I love my Daddy.

Today is his birthday, and he lives not far from the university where I work; not far from the small town where I grew up. So I went to see him in between my classes today. I brought a small cooler packed with the following: a jar of pickled herring, a tub of sour cream, a loaf of Roggenbrot, and six Dabs. I know what my Daddy likes.

We exchanged pleasantries and updates, having not seen one another since Christmas, and then he said, "I'm going to Germany on April 2."

"Without me?" I asked, in disbelief.

At Christmas, we had talked about the letter from his brother's family, all of whom still live in the village in Germany that my father is from. They had been on a road trip north, into the former East Germany, and had come upon a town that bore our family name. Now, if your last name is, say, Jackson, you might feel a special affinity to Jackson, Mississippi, but my family name is uncommon enough that I literally know everyone in Canada who bears it. It was nothing short of bizarre, seeing it there, on a huge black and yellow sign, in the photo my cousin Evelyne sent.

We talked about going to Germany, to see it. And, of course, to visit the relatives. My father has one brother and three sisters who, collectively, have produced 13 first cousins for me — and they all live in the same town. The last time I was in Germany was 1995. My father, 1997. The last time we were there together, I was ten years old.

How could he make plans to go without me?

I suppose I shouldn't be so surprised.

My father was born in Bessarabia, into an enclave of Germans living in what is now land-locked and dirt-poor Moldova. Which is pretty much what it was then, though in 1938 it was part of Romania. Two hundred or so German families, my mother's included, had lived there peacefully for over two hundred years, on land granted to them by Catherine the Great; happily minding their own farming business until one summer day in 1940 when the Russians showed up and, at gunpoint, ordered the families to pack up what they could and get out. Go back to your homeland, Germany. Hitler wants you. We do not.

As they say on the Dab Web site, Jedes Land Braucht Seine Legende

My father remembers none of that. What he does remember is growing up in a devastated village in post-war Germany, seeing people roaming the streets with dog leashes, hoping to encounter a stray that could be brought home for dinner. There was never enough food for him and his four siblings. There was never enough money.

At the age of twelve he was sent away, Dickensian style, to apprentice for a blacksmith in Stuttgart. He ran away, and later, at 18, he ran to Canada. When he arrived in the Niagara Peninsula in 1956 he made the Scarlett O'Hara promise.

He laid bricks for 45 years, getting paid by the hour, and working as many hours as he could. We were never poor, but we may have seemed so. Both my parents drove Volkswagen Beetles. We didn't have a colour television until 1975, and we never had cable. We never went on vacation, other than camping up north. My parents had only one child, and my mother worked, which, in the 1960s was taken by the parents of my suburban friends to mean my father couldn't support a family on his own. They didn't know my parents had paid off the mortgage on their first house two years after moving into it. We never had money trouble, and I was never hungry.

My father saved almost every penny he ever earned. He's retired now, and I know that he looks at his bank book every day, just to admire the figure recorded there. I've seen him do it. He is very proud of himself, as he should be, and I am very proud of him. And I am not exaggerating when I tell you that the figure in that bank book is a number between one and nine, followed by five zeros, and that the first digit is closer to nine than it is to one.

We had a lengthy conversation between bites of pickled herring.

OK, argument.

The reason my father won't take me to Germany with him is that he doesn't want to pay for my plane ticket. It might cost as much as $1,200. That would be the only appreciable expense, seeing as how when we go to Germany we stay with relatives (as they do when they come here).

Under the best of circumstances my father frustrates me. He's a difficult man to have a conversation with. He doesn't listen. He interrupts. He repeats himself. And acorns don't fall that far from their oak trees.

I felt the possibility of tears, and my father is not the sort of man for whom tears have the effect of softening up. Quite the opposite, in fact. Were I to cry over this he would consider me weak and foolish, and would want even less to have me accompany him.

I got up from the table, half my Dab remaining in its glass, kissed my Daddy goodbye, and left.

I love my Daddy, but he makes it so hard sometimes.
* * *

Go to the next story in sequence, in which we find out what happened in New York. Or, read this story, in which Sass learns the hard way that, when it comes to her father, it's better to leave well enough alone.

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