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The luckiest person I know

Silence filled the house. Down in the basement apartment, where Nick, Virginia, and I were staying, the roots of a grapevine adorned with colored glass drops floated in a corner. Markus’ paintings of hairy-footed horses—like Clydesdales—hung on the walls. The horses all seemed to be in motion, running, something that Markus couldn’t do in the last years of his life. Riders wore thick horn-rimmed glasses, just as I’d seen him wear in pictures of him in his youth. Family pictures through the years hung all over—smiling children and beaming parents. An American flag, a handwoven rug, hung on another wall. Vases and tureens, ornate pillboxes and hand-made flowers stood on the wide window sill. Everything in that room spoke of friendship and connection to other people. Some were gifts. The Frick kids fashioned others. School art assignments. Mother and son and mother and daughter projects.

My German friends shared the tradition of coffee and cake in the afternoon. The Fricks always had an afternoon tea. They ate a light lunch and then laid in for some rest, after which they drank coffee and ate some bits of cake and cookies. Afterward they took a walk through the village or went for a hike in the woods above.

The routine for the next five days went something like this: We woke around 8 or 9 a.m., which is not late for the jet-lagged. A light breakfast consisted of coffee and bread with butter. Fresh fruit and Marlies’ jellies and jams always sat on the table. Since Josef grew a fig tree outside his front door, we ate fresh figs at every sitting. In the mid-morning, we sat again for coffee and a light sandwich or bread and fruit, perhaps vegetables from the garden. A walk through the village or drive into a neighboring town that had a grocery store took up the next few hours until we sat to a stouter lunch, usually of bread and a soup that Marlies concocted from vegetables from Josef’s garden. A nap or short rest of about an hour took up the next part of the afternoon, after which we sat to cake and coffee. A hike in the woods above the village, a walk in the farm fields, or a trip up through the vineyards to take in the magnificent vistas of the valley and hills filled in the afternoon.

Sometimes Nick and I helped Josef in the garden hoeing, mowing, and picking vegetables. We worked in the basement finishing projects that Josef had begun. We restacked wine bottles in his extensive cellar collection. Nick had me read the labels, some in old German Gothic script. The bottles spoke from all the German wine regions with a greater percentage from the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer. Nick wondered at the very old, unlabeled bottles—a 1936 Wawerner Herrenberg, a few bottles of the same vineyard from 1959 and 1976, and some 1976 Kanzemer Altenberg, a 1996 wine from Oberremmeler Huette. We cleaned tools in the garage and tore rags Josef used to tie up his garden plants. In the evening, we ate a larger dinner of some roast or sausage, fresh salad, and cooked vegetables—mostly potatoes fried, brazed, boiled, and baked– and followed that up with reading and maybe watching the news on television.

That first day was a struggle. After we returned from the cemetery where we visited Markus’ grave, we sat to a dinner of Sicilian soup, bread, and boiled potatoes. We talked about life at our home in Kansas City, what Virginia did as a nurse in the oncology unit at her hospital, and how Nick was getting along in school.

Translation was taking a toll on me. When I left Germany the first time, I had some grasp of the language. I could hardly be called fluent, but I had good working knowledge of German. My language improved over the years, both from communicating with my friends and reading the novels of Heinrich Boell and Guenter Grass, as well as others. But translation always demanded muscles I didn’t develop for many years and that are still weak. I speak German without first having to think in English, mostly because I learned German organically, outside of book learning and translations. Virginia, not quite understanding how difficult translation was for me, wanted me to explain infinitely complicated and colloquial things to the Fricks. The Fricks on the other hand, took it a little easier on me. They posed questions about work and school, and my recent award of Ph.D. in history. Regardless, toward the end of the day, my mind was as weary and mushy as my jet-lagged body.

The sun played against the hills in the distance and the shadows on the wetlands grew long. Night fell with hardly a whisper outside our chatty crew. Marlies fired candles that bathed the busily decorated porch in warm light. The faces were lively and pleasant in the yellow glow. I couldn’t help but think of how much all these people had formed me. The Fricks exerted a parent-like presence in my life. Virginia made me grow up and take responsibility for things that I’d often neglected as a benefit of single life. And Nick made me a father again, which had its own rewards.

Translation, speaking German for a sustained period for the first time in three years, jet lag, and lack of sleep all ganged up on me in a swoop. Too many voices, too many different things to keep track of assailed me until I could hardly understand what anyone said. The capacity to speak either German or English left me.

When I finally lay down in the basement apartment of the house on a huge, firm bed, I listened to the voices crisscrossing in my head. I thought of these people and what they meant to me. I am only reluctantly a family man. I never meant to marry or have children, and now I had both. Nick came to us when he was just over four years old. My daughter, Sydney, had accompanied us to Germany before. She was now working and living her own life. Marlies and Josef were closer to me than my own parents, and Joachim had been my closest friend and confidant. Their faces flashed through my mind. Memories good and bad came with them. What did I do to deserve these people in my life? I’d been a drunk. I disappeared from people’s lives for years at a time. Now I hadn’t had a drink in 24 years. My life became something, a unique animal, on its own, almost without my guidance. Other people had stepped in with care and support, friends and colleagues. But how could I be responsible for such good? I was the luckiest person I knew.

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