(Begun in December, 2014)
I always hated December.
December reminds me of the 1970s synthetic velvet darkness draping over HR Puffin Stuff, The Banana Splits and the Dark Shadows TV world I was growing up in.
That incessant dry-ice smoke on the sidewalks, streaming in, like the endless CREATURE FEATURE films we watched on a Saturday afternoon.
We accepted the fraud, and we laughed and it chilled us. But we knew, it was unreal and in that unreal we reveled. And still I stayed disturbed. Something lingered inside me.
The laughter ending.
The fake fog.
December coming quick.
The suffocation was rolling in.
December was about ugly Dr. Zhivago winter coats with black fake fur that my mother forced me to wear. I looked like a Russian wooden egg doll or worse, a cheap DADA geometric shape that only later seemed cool when I studied Kandinsky and saw images of Hugo Ball and his decadent, mischievous Dada gatherings. Still, it didn’t make me feel better about December. I looked skewered and felted, a stabbed ritualistic offering rolled up in blue wool and make-believe fur, to offer the Germanic Gods that seemed to sing in the opera my father was playing upstairs on the record player, when there was no more money left at the end of the month and my mother couldn’t stop braying at his incessant financial mistakes.
It was about school being closed and time to stay indoors and feeling trapped like Anne Frank.
It was a game I played all the time.
I was trapped in the secret rooms in the house.
And no one would ever find me.
That is until the Nazi entities came.
But I was sure I would out smart them.
Me and Angelique and Barnabas Collins.
We were a force, that no one could understand,
hidden behind fake walls, fake fur and fake fog.
It was about winter sports, like ice-skating in Goose Pond Park, a shabby little pond where I felt all eyes were cursing me to fall in. I was forced to learn how to ice skate. I think my mother wanted me to be Dorothy Hamill. But all these forced skating scenes reminded me of the film HORROR HOTEL where the 100s of townsfolk were staring and willing me to fall into a small hole in the ice and forever have me haunting the pond, swimming endlessly under the ice trying to find that dammed circle of escape. HORROR HOTEL had nothing to do with ice-skating, but we used to watch CREATURE FEATURE on Saturday after the cartoons and so these films framed my velvety 70s vision. Half the time I would think everyone on the street was in a Christopher Lee film, a Satanist and out to ridicule me.
I lived for films like THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD, THE ATTACK OF THE CRAB PEOPLE, MOTHRA and THE BLACK SLEEP,
I could only visualize my mother was the witch, coming back from the 1600s with her coven and they wanted me in that pond.
Drown witch drown!
Yes, I was terrified of winter.
My mother loved December.
My mother loved Christmas.
There was a feeling on the streets of Jamaica Queens, that reminded me of A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS. When you listen to the song “Christmas Time is Here” and watch the cartoon, it seems that everywhere Charlie Brown walks this existential landscape in a perpetual Homelawn Street nighttime-scape. That is how I saw Jamaica, Queens. Everlasting darkness, even at 8 am in the morning!
Dissonance in suburbia mixed in with Vince Guaraldi.
Spending a lot of time indoors meant the house became this
treasure hunting ground but also to me it was like THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD. I had fears about the house. Secret rooms found in secret rooms found in another secret room.
During our prison sentence indoors, I remember going on one of my secret espionage expeditions in the house, searching for things that my mother wouldn’t tell me about. If I was unlucky, I would find all the broken things she had found along her route to her job at Mr. Johnson, the old man she cared for and his wife who had MS and was bed bound. Broken coffee pots, broken clocks and broken cats.
The basement and attic were the places of wonder and excitement. I found bedpans from old ladies my mother cared for, my old crib, old boarders would leave straw hats and old playboy magazines. One time I found my mother’s steel obstetric objects, needles, clamps, strange medical objects shiny and cold from a profession thrown in a white cotton sack under the stairs.
If I was lucky I would find the treasure trove and hit the jackpot.
If I was unlucky, I would find the past. I would find my mother.
The one I didn’t know. The one I feared.
I was sure she lived in one of those secret rooms.
The day before Christmas Eve, I found an incredible amount of DAWN dolls, and DAWN dresses. DAWN was not BARBIE. Dawn was anorexic compared to the full-figured KALI goddess doll. DAWN was smaller, but a grown woman with all lady attributes, yet she was mini and accessible.
For some reason my mother loved DAWN.
I think she was simply curious about the world her daughter was growing up in.
Maybe she saw DAWN as me? Why couldn’t I just be DAWN.
Life would be so much more easier.
“Katharina, why don’t you just get a London Fog Raincoat” she would always yell, when I came home with a shaved head in the year of 1980.
My mother was a strong woman on her own, forging her way in the 1970s time of Watergate and endings of Vietnam. She worked every day of the week, morning, night and weekends. My mother never depended on my father, as I sensed she was disappointed from the beginning that he wasn’t a man she could count on, no less a man who lied.
The biggest lie that only later I would learn.
That made them marry under the beaming sunlight of a desperate betrayal dipped in quick-silver darkness.
My mother was not a modern woman.
She was a German immigrant from WW2, nevertheless a fearless woman one would certainly call today a feminist in that she paved her own path without a man.
She did what she was trained to do as a young person in Germany: survive and work and make a life. This was her muscle. Don’t question. Keep going. Training to be a midwife in Nazi Germany, I guess this is where she got her discipline. No questions asked, there was always a way and she would find it. Willful and not taking no for an answer she found a way to pay the bills, send her kids to Catholic school and buy her own house in the 1960s. All on a salary of caring for old people after the Nursing Board rejected her knowing she was an experienced midwife with 15 years experience as a qualified nurse. She was hired as a cleaner instead.
It may sound so simple and typical today, but when you try to view the world with her eyes of WW2, 1945, living in Berlin among the rubble, ruins and explosive endings, considering she was a German who lost to the Americans, I would say her resilience was an incredible flourish of fidelity and faith. Her time in America was painfully difficult and filled with prejudice and judgment. Yet there was no question to be asked. She just moved ahead.
Like a general.
I believe that is why she came to brag over and over again to me in the 80s how proud she was to be an “American”.
It meant everything to her. To have another chance.
To be part of another country, another life.
I wore a red star.
I hated America.
She called me a Communist.
My mother was curious about this 1970s time. She wore bright nylon orange and blue dresses, half price at Korvettes, but really she was a 1950s person.
She definitely did not fit into my 1970s world.
I didn’t see ladies like her in 17 MAGAZINE, big busted, girdle held, overweight German immigrant Sauerbraten Frau-beings.
I didn’t know how to process who she was.
All I knew is that I was embarrassed.
So when I found those DAWN dresses, a bundle of DAWN thrills, I must say I really didn’t know who they were for. There must have been about 10 dresses.
This didn’t seem normal.
It was as if someone was buying someone a new wardrobe, a new identity and a new life.
A new Dawn doll was enclosed with all the new dresses.
I recall my first thought was this was for someone else.
This had to be for someone else.
I was not a “good girl” during that time nor any time to be honest!
I knew I didn’t deserve all this.
Nevertheless, she had forgotten all my screams and criticisms, insecurities and confusions and she bought such lovely items to make me happy.
She did this a lot.
I recall many birthdays when I was screaming at her like
some possessed demonized Linda Blair, and always she seemed
to overcompensate and gave me things, that truly I never
could imagine why she would do that. A delicate gold necklace with a ruby in a rose and a charm for being the “best” daughter.
She tried hard to win me.
But she never did.
It seemed I got worse and worse.
It seemed like my anger and hate would grow more.
The treasure trove of Dawn fashions saw Dawn as a bride.
Dawn as a secretary, (Mondrian neck scarf and hat!)
Angie with short air was there always looking like some
There was a line called THE MODEL AGENCY for Dawn.
Ball gowns, poodle and high heels included.
I was not Dawn.
I loved people like STARSKY from STARSKY & HUTCH, because I wanted to be like him. And I did not want to be like Dawn. That was clear.
I recall my attitude during Christmas was always a disappointment to my mother.
I recall year by year I would blame her for everything.
I would blame her for slavery. We all had seen ROOTS.
I would blame her for the young Black kids on Jamaica Avenue and their rage.
I would blame her for being a Nazi.
I would blame her. It was all her fault.
I wasn’t a grateful child.
I was confused.
No one explained things to me.
I wanted answers early on.
I wanted to understand at 5 years old why there were so many “bums” on the street. There were already homeless men sleeping on the street on Hillside Avenue. And for me I couldn’t sleep. I was disturbed.
I was five.
I’m still disturbed. I didn’t understand how a society could allow this to be.
It seemed like we were living in a war zone in Jamaica.
There was rage on the streets, in the earth steaming up at us.
My own rage and resentment was stacking up, like the LIFE magazines in the piles found in the living room that my father couldn’t throw away.
I had a sense my mother felt that December would save the day. As if the month of December was a “time-out” sort of month, where we could all take a break from our own personal “World War” at home.
The rest of the year, my mother seemed to become cracked and parched year by year falling further down into displeasure, disappointment, unhappiness and loss.
As November began slowly slipping away, to my amazement my mother moved in to anchor a place of joy and excitement.
Maybe she came out of the attic and the basement in Decemeber.
Maybe her failures and losses that she disposed of in a white sack, found their way into her heart again and she was revived, given oxygen, given sustenance, given nutrition, given life again.
She would take these delicately stained red, blue, and green Christmas lights and fashion them around the huge front bay window in the house. They were like the Jolly Rancher candies, watermelon, cherry and apple sweet translucent licks lighting up this small patch of Homelawn Street.
I have a sense now, that maybe December gave her entry into her own childhood, allowance to indulge in her memories and actualize them. And forget about her disappointment.
She would bake her special cookies, Vanilla Horns with powdered sugar, and placed them in a tin box with fake rubies, and emeralds. She made sure MITCH MILLER was always on the record player and of course her favorite German record with KLING GLOCKCHEN KLING A LING A LING on it. She loved everything about the week leading up to the 24th of December.
I hated it.
When the German wooden nativity set would come out of its old MACY’S shoe box, hidden in the attic from the year before, I would play with the Baby Jesus and the Three Kings, making up kidnapping stories, hiding Baby Jesus until the ransom was paid. BABY JESUS JOHN GOTTI STYLE. There was talk about the Gambino Family in Howard Beach, and my mother had a good German friend who lived right next door to many Mafia men. I could see my mother in the Mafia. She wouldn’t let anything get in her way. My mother was tough and hard. When she realized she had no money to pay someone to tar the roof, she put on her A&P MANAGER coat (God knows where she found that rare vintage fashion find!) and climbed up to DO IT HERSELF! Plus, she also TARRED the driveway with BLACKTOP, doing it all herself, looking like some German BRUMHILDE PAUL BUNYON! Back to the NATIVITY!! So I was going to keep Baby Jesus away until she budged. In place of the Baby Jesus, I would place one of the camels in the manger, in hope that the Camel would be worshipped instead. Who cares about the stupid baby, I would think. My mother would be exasperated that I would do such a thing, no less think about kidnapping Das Heilige Kindchen (the holy child!). She would force me to give up the baby and place it back in its correct position in the nativity. The camel stood way to the side of the Nativity scene, even though I knew, the poor animal was just like the Jesus figure, whipped and scourged and eventually murdered as a sacrifice for the good of humanity.
I already cared more for the animals than the humanoids.
My mother was deeply religious.
I seemed to get more pagan by the day.
We would watch and sing the songs from RUDOLPH,
And FROSTY THE SNOWMAN. The best was SANTA CLAUS IS COMING TO TOWN, with “Put one foot in front of the other and soon you’ll be walking out the door,” was our favorite and that memory just slams you back to 1970s kid nihilism because we would laugh thinking, we won’t be walking out the door, we would be “falling down the well.”
These sappy songs seemed to help, oddly enough.
It was corny, but there was something truly authentic in the plea. These “cartoons” were devised in the mid 60s and we were normally watching the Vietnam war play itself out with Walter Cronkite every evening on the news. My brother reminded me that every night, my father was obsessed with the news, but most of the time as he sat on the floor watching the fat – back color tv (that had a tendency to overheat every other week) and he would take his hands to shield us from what was being shown. Dead bodies, bloodied, torn limbs, the running girl with napalm. That was where we were. When I think now, that the Civil Rights marches, police violence, segregation, all this was playing out during those “kid” years, in a subliminal way inside all of us. So these “Christmas Specials” well, they were oddly macabre. Not just because of the reality of the time, but all the characters were weird. All the characters from Frosty, Rudolph, the strange wooden claymation elves, the Grinch. They seemed deformed. There was nothing attractive to any of these TV specials! Even Charlie Brown, think how honest the show was. Charlie was depressed. Most of his comrades were too. They were deeply flawed and they were all outsiders. I didn’t feel hope when watching these shows, but I felt a tiny moment of belonging to the misfits. Even the island of misfit toys from RUDLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER made us feel a sense of place. I guess social commentary about the time. Love thy Neighbor. Why do you hate so much? Why do you destroy the “other”. Stop beating to death your Black neighbor. Stop the war for Gods sake! Stop destroying what is “other” and what is “different”!
While we watched, my mother was in her own
German Christmas fantasy world.
She wanted the German radio station so she could hear
her German Christmas songs.
She recalled the Christmases when she was the one to cut the head of a goose.
When the Christmas gift for each child would be an orange.
Even though she loved her America she knew there was an emphasis on buying “stuff” and she was never one for buying us this “stuff”. We were lucky if we got a new pair of Wranger Jeans once in our child life and a pair of Blue canvas Keds that would last for years. We didn’t have money lets be clear.
That is why finding that DAWN TREASURE TROVE was so unusual.
I could see she was trying to “Put one foot in front of the other” herself. She would take everything that made her life horrific and put it behind her and move forward. I could see she was always trying.
But she failed most of the time.
I know I helped in that failure.
I was brutal as a kid.
I degraded my mother.
I laughed at her.
At her clothing.
At her accent.
People I know tell me “You were only a teenager, rebelling. It was normal”.
I find these statements so superficial and artificially reductive without really searching deeply and feeling what those actions were based on.
All teens do that.
No. They don’t. Police were called at times, as I grew out of control.
My mother didn’t know what to do with me.
Why my rage was so dangerous. Why the whole house was a prison-camp.
As Che Guevera said “Feel deeply inside of every injustice.”
He called us to FEEL DEEPLY.
He called for the human to feel what the other one feels.
As Susan Sontag said “Regard the pain of others.”
Why don’t we? We still don’t. The outrage is off the charts now.
So deep is outrage that people stop being outraged.
Why did I see the bums, but refused to see my mother?
Both were suffering.
To everyone, a teenager was out of control.
To an immigrant German woman, overweight, unloved by her husband, ridiculed by her kids, bad English skills,
in a foreign land, with no friends, no help, her child
spitting at her, cut severely deep into her spirit and her sense of confidence and strength.
I could say that in modern terms, I was not just a bully to her.
I terrorized her.
So deep that only now, spending Christmas alone for many years in another country, where another language is spoken, I am in this by myself. I can only recall my actions.
And understand how my mother truly felt.
Here in Germany where my mother came from, I see her.
How her flight from a ruined homeland, after WW2 made her feel.
How her dreams where splattered.
How nothing ended up the way she envisioned.
Especially the children she hoped would be at the very least her balm, her family.
Her children came to massacre so to speak.
Not even family existed at the end.
Rejection from anyone is brutal.
Especially when it goes on and on and one is not accepted, nor acknowledged.
A Buddhist friend once said to me, “If we could see how our negative actions ripen and what they turn into we would never carry those actions out.”
This statement imprints itself on me every moment every day.
I believe it was destined for her to start her dying process in her special month of December, and finally take her last breath on December 26, the day after her favorite day.
Like a child in wonder, her breath was lost in the mystery
of a birth.
December was a month she could find life again and she chose this month to cease. It was strange. It was necessary. It was to be.
Most people think when a mother leaves your life, that is where it ends. But I can claim that the real relationship with my mother began December 26th, 1999.
When she made her exit, I had opened all the doors.
I wanted her to be free. Not trapped indoors. I did not want her to linger through her suffering in that house.
I thought I was finally free.
That she was also free. But this was not how it was to be.
She has taught me more by NOT being around than if she continued to live. I searched myself and saw the films and scenes play deep into the night trying to understand my time with her and why she and I could never really get to know each other and really try to befriend each other. To learn respect and honor.
We were like enemies from another life.
Every moment fighting, every moment misunderstanding, defensive, insulted, offensive. We were battling our entire time together while alive. There was rarely a moment of peace between us. A neutral terrain never existed where we could both feel vulnerable enough to be truthful and honest without me cutting her down or she criticizing me. I was not what she had envisioned a daughter to be. I guess I didn’t like this kind of “mother.” It was such a rare moment, when we didn’t fight that I recall many times when it felt “good” we would start to fight because we were so used to it and that felt more “comfortable”.
I still really don’t know.
Some say your mother could have been your lover in another time line of past life.
So passionate were our fights and misunderstandings.
I can search the crevices, the vacant veins, missed moments and travesties of our demise. I relook at the tarnished spaces I grew up in and was not able to fix, to wrap in the swollen and caustic rancor of such a foul mess of a confused and angry beginning of life. I’m still trying to untangle these barbed thorny wires that hold our stories together at age 50 plus.
While the comrades who had calm and decent MOTHER / DAUGHTER unifications went on to become successful filmmakers and journalists, I at 50 still feel haunted, ashamed, incomplete, unhinged, displaced, and questing to find absolution.
It was easy for me to see my mother as an overweight,
orange nylon dress wearing immigrant and dismiss her.
But now in Berlin, I see my mother before she turned to make her decisive moment.
She stands in a crepe black elegant dress, fit for a 1940s Gene Tierney, already standing strong in her pride as a midwife in 1950s post war Berlin in front of the beautiful hospital she worked at.
She delivered over 1,000 babies from what I know.
She loved her profession. I’ve visited the beautiful hospitals
with gardens and green celebrating your every move, in these forest wonderlands.
She was never political, but she was outraged at how bad things were in America. Where my father brought her in Jamaica Queens, it was not the paradise she sought nor the uplift she truly needed. She became stuck right in the middle of another war zone and I recall so clear one terrible moment after arguing the whole WW2 “what Germans knew and didn’t know”, situation, she screamed at me, “Has anyone ever ask me about my suffering? Have you and your brother or anyone ever thought to ask me how I and my family suffered, but I know that doesn’t matter.” I think she wanted to return to Germany when she found out I was on the way. And because she stayed, her life was a misery. I sometimes have thought over the years that her resentment of me had to do with her biggest sacrifice, in that she stayed in America within a loveless, unappreciated and cruel union that only ended up exploding over time causing sickness, disease and a way too early death for such a strong powerful Worker Woman. Yet through this pocked landscape, I only remember my mother helping every person she met. Every person in the neighborhood that looked in need, she was there. She always went out of her way as if it was her calling, like a priest or a nun. I think she was compelled into this because she saw and experienced so much suffering.
She had deep empathy.
She had deep compassion for all.
She was a tough, but also nosey in her wonder of others and what they were doing, where they were going and what their lives were! The lives she could never have. While watering the grass, she would greet stranger, “Hello, where are you going today, to your job.” And then somehow they would stop and talk, making a new friend. I wonder how she did this with such ease, such charisma. She met many people, and she was loved by many. Oddly enough she had more friends than I’ve ever had. I think she felt she had a mandate as a nurse, as a midwife to serve and care and to GIVE every second of the day to another person and not to focus on herself as one is more inclined today.
And in turn.
She had a dead marriage.
Her kids turned against her.
And it felt as if she was being punished,
if I’m truly objective and looking at it
from an aerial perspective.
I think she felt that too.
I walk these streets in Berlin and I see her from time to time.
On the side of a building reaching out through WW2, the holes of a gunned down wall, cobblestones wobbling like loose teeth, vines of ivy warping the structures that stand firm and proud they endured and wouldn’t be taken down.
I feel my mother so close now.
I know her as another.
What she did in a war zone.
How she hid in basements, how she maneuvered, how she foraged for food,
how she could find water, how she could help others that were in worse shape than she was, how she
kept her thoughts focused, how she didn’t shake and fear.
How did she escape rape?
Did she escape rape?
How much could she hold within her
iron clad essence?
How did she move through the German 1945 downfall. From the Dresden bombing night howl that she witnessed from a train, towards a small town near Berlin and find her first job taking over from a nurse who had just hung herself, delivering babies from women birthing their first child the last months of WW2, as Hitler killed himself at the end of April, 1945.
I am getting to know my mother in another dimension of existence where in fact, I know she still lives. Like the many dimensions we all can linger and swirl in.
I still don’t know much.
But I know it took me since 1989 to get to Berlin, but I am here and I am learning more and more about the silence, the secrets, the confusion of my mother and my father during the years of 1935 to 1955.
I have already found out the first of many secrets.
One that she may have never even told my father.
On some register her name was found as a “forced laborer” in a subcamp of Ravensbrueck concentration camp.
I am still researching, but her name was found only a few months ago.
I still don’t know a lot.
But I do know that she loved Christmas more than any time.
It was the first time I heard her sing.
I recall looking at her face.
I could see her fear, that I would laugh.
It was this small vulnerability of a mother showing her frailty.
Her feeble humanness.
I know I still hate December.
I know that I still can’t buy a tree.
I know that all I recall is a hospital bed, and the slow disintegration of this woman.
I know that I carry the deepest shame of how I handled my mother as I grew and even later on in my 20s.
I know that I can’t take the Christmas ornaments out of the mummified 1960s box in the attic in Jamaica Queens and dazzle at the 1950s jeweled delicacy, and at the persistence in remaining eternal reminders of beauty, hope and a few days of revival and redemption.
Maybe I’ll never be able to do that.
But I have learned one thing.
I had a mother.
She loved December.
She loved baking special tasty cookies.
She was always hungry because of not having enough
food during the war years.
That she would eat whatever I left on the plate.
She pronounced VEHICLE BUREAU, not with a long e but as one would say SENSIBLE….
And I know that she loved me.
I know when I returned in December 1999, and saw her sitting on her bed, and the tears came as she said “Now can I go back to myself.” knowing that I had returned to go through what was to come. She had work to do. She had death to confront and she needed me and my brother there.
The love was intact.
It simply was.
In 2014, alone and without family, trudging through the European landscape in quest of placement and hope, I forget this concept.
I consider myself a buccaneer, a pirate in quest of probably the same treasures I was in quest of at 10 years old.
I don’t even think of these concepts, such as:
“To be loved.”
One forgets. Running. Surviving. Hustling.
When your parents die, you forget.
A shocking realization moves over my brain.
I was loved by someone.
I had a mother.
I was a child.
And I was loved.
She may have not liked me.
But she did love me.
In a year where it is becoming normal to see video footage
of young innocent Black / POC being murdered by white police officers,
who have illogical fear, who should not be even hired to “protect” but should be punished by working in an all BLACK/POC organization so as to WAKE UP! Who never admit they were wrong, who are exonerated and who go on, as a mother must continue without her
child, knowing this is a sin. Knowing that none of this has made sense. Another December.
One should hate December.
When I hear the testimony of Police Officer Darren Brown, describe Michael Brown, a young unarmed Black teenager as a monster and a demon.
All I think: this young kid was a child.
This young kid had a mother.
This young kid was a son.
He was loved.
He was held and comforted.
Even for a second.
That second is a lifetime in December.
We get old.
We look at each other.
Hunched over in the street.
This person had a mother once.
This person was once a child.
This person was loved.
We were loved.
We are alone now.
December is hard.
December is cold.
My mother was here once.
I am here now.
And we are together
in the moment we remember
there was love that lived here.
In the ether.
In the air.
The clouds remind us.
The love doesn’t leave.
That love still lives here.
It exists like an aura, when we recall the mother.
We illuminate in the memory.
Even if she did want me to be a stupid Dawn doll.
The mother is here.
The mother is everlasting.
The mother will always return.
Especially in December.
Let there be light.