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German days

Waking in the dim quiet of Josef and Marlies’ downstairs apartment always made me feel good. Virginia, Nick, and I were, in part, on vacation. Without daily deadlines or routines, we woke when we wanted. Since I almost always wake before my family, I had the chance to listen to the quiet and my family’s sleeping sounds. I sat in the dim light coming through the window and felt a deep sense of gratitude. I had come this far. I was with people I loved in a place that meant a great deal to me.

After a good, long time, I walked past Josef’s wine cellar and climbed the winding stairs. Marlies always had coffee ready and the table set with stout bread, sliced sausages and smoked meats, and her homemade jellies and jams. I sat at the table outside on the terrace drinking coffee and looking across the valley and the town at the towering vineyards in the distance.

Since most of the Mosel, Saar, and Ruwer valleys lay in the coolest part of Germany, grapes have to make an effort to ripen. This is especially true for the noble Riesling vines that ripen slowly and take their character from the individual vineyards and the soil they grow in. Vineyard owners almost always plant on the south and west sides of hills. The vineyards climb the steep hillsides so that each vine catches the most amount of sun during the day. River valleys provide the steep grades for the vineyards. The warmth that the rivers and valleys capture and hold help keep the vines growing even on the chilliest days.

This was no less true in Wawern than the rest of the Mosel, Saar, Ruwer wine region. As I watched the sun play across the great fields of vines, I felt a warmth born of memory and love. Despite my youthful desire to cloak alcoholism with purpose, I really did love grapes and grape growing. The work suited me. Physical labor in the sun and rain provided an outlet for my inner tensions and doubts. I remembered those days three decades hence and the way that I often laid down for a break in the sunshine. The burn of the shale on my back rendered off to a warm glow. The yellow-red light through my eyelids almost always led me off to the noisy and unfettered borders between waking and sleeping. The rest that those moments afforded me was often deeper and more refreshing than a drunken night’s sleep.

As I sat there, Marlies came out and talked about Joachim. She wondered if I thought of him.

“Every day,” I said. “I miss him and the thought that he was there, you know, present for me even when long periods of time passed between our conversations.”

“It is a terrible thing,” she said, “to watch a child die. Joachim made us so proud with his achievements and the way that he lived what we can only call a full life.

She looked out over the valley toward the vineyards. While sadness often appeared in her bright eyes, she had the air of resignation, of acceptance that I had not heard or seen in her before. She would never get over the death of Joachim completely, I thought. It had been three years, which was not a lot of time for a loving mother. But I knew she would absorb her loss and turn it to good, as she always had with hardship in the past.

I told Marlies I loved her and that I felt closer to her than my own mother, the same way that I held Joachim dearer than my own brother. If family is who we chose them to be, then I had made good choices, despite the person I thought I was.

After breakfast, we made our way along a path through the farm fields and up into the woods outside of town. The sun shone full and only a few puffy clouds wandered through the sky. Marlies and Virginia chatted with each other, though Marlies knew only a little English and Virginia no German. Still, much passed between them. Two sympathetic souls overcome language barriers somehow. Ahead Josef and Nick chattered away at each other. Josef held his arm around Nick. The scene made me profoundly happy and I walked by myself, eating the occasional blackberry that grew along the fence lines. I picked flowers and rolled a stem of grass between my teeth.

Years before, Josef and Marlies bought a strip of woods where they built a small Grillhuette for weekends and family gatherings. We entered the forest from a forester’s road at the top of a great hill. We were on the opposite side of the Ayler Kupp, where the great vineyards of Ayl rose above the Saar Valley floor. The canopy cast the forest floor in dim shadow. The woods had a hollow, echoing quality so that the cuckoo calls pulsed beneath the trees in echoes. We were quiet, as the forest exerted a kind of hush on all things in it, except the Nick. He skipped down the hill, though he only had a forest trail to tell him where he was going. After a while, he began to whoop and talk to himself as he moved ahead of us. Marlies and Josef moved slowly to their treasures below. I held Marlies’ hand and ushered her around sharp turns in the trail. All around the hut and pond, cedar, oak, and fir trees held wooden staves with names etched upon them. They were trees that the Fricks had “given” their children, grandchildren, and friends. Nick would soon have a tree, a fir, of his own.

Josef had tended his bit of forest much like he tended his vines and orchard. He cut away the riff-raff that cluttered the forest floor and encouraged the oaks, firs, and elms to fill the forest canopy. He encouraged the cedars that grew in the space between the canopy and the forest floor. The steps hewn into the ground and supported with tree limbs led down the steep hill to the grill hut. There, Josef had captured spring water for a small goldfish pond.

The grill hut had the air of age on it. Josef bemoaned the state the grill hut and pond. As Josef grew older, he came here less frequently. His ability to keep up with the work of tending the forest diminished. While the woods were still free of undergrowth, the grill hut and fishpond had fallen to disrepair. Moss grew on all sides of the hut and some of the wood had rotted over time. The fishpond no longer flowed with spring water. Feral hogs had ripped up the water-gathering apparatus that Josef and built on the mouth of the tiny spring. The pond itself became nothing more than a catch basin for rainwater, and a mosquito pond.

Marlies didn’t mind all this as much as Josef, who seemed to miss the work he once was able to do without physical limitations. But those days were gone, he said. That was all right. He had a good and comfortable life at home. Hopefully, he made a good example for his children so that they, one day, could enjoy the woods with their families as he had with his. When he was gone, he said, the woods would go to Bernd, Joachim’s older brother. He had already bought his daughter Barbara a strip of woods next to his, and she, someday, might treasure that, although it had been some time since she visited the woods with Josef and Marlies or by herself.

We stayed a while at the grill hut, quiet, thinking. I looked over at Marlies and Josef, sitting on a bench holding hands. They had lived long and well. They had felt the greatest grief parents can. But they were happy with one another. Virginia and I would be like them someday, I thought to myself. Someday.

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