I have said nothing yet about my trip to Germany. It was not any old sightseeing tour, mind; nor was it a carefully mapped out homecoming, which makes it all the more difficult to capture in a few indifferent words. The thing is, I had not been to my native country in over two decades; and, during that time, not going back to what folks presume to be my home evolved into a programmatic, defining rejection of the notion that home equals country of origin. I vowed never to return, except in a pine box. That I did go back at last, in the similarly confining encasement that is the cabin of a budget airline craft, required a great deal of preliminary introspection—and a leap over the shadow to which I had tried to relegate my past.
The department at the university where I teach was taking students to Berlin for its annual outing. Previously, I had been on the departmental trip to Budapest; and while that adventure was an adulterated delight, owing to transportation problems in the form of a broken bus and a missed flight, I thought that it would be petty to stick to my principles and stay put while my partner, as head of the School, was joining our students and colleagues for a week in the town known for Cabaret, communism, and Currywurst. Besides, Berlin is too far from my native Rhineland to be thought of as “home” or trigger unwanted back-where-I-come-from reminiscences. So, to Berlin I agreed to go . . .
Now, a few days before we were scheduled to depart for the German capital—which hadn’t been capital at the time I left former West Germany for the East Coast of the United States—I received one of those infrequent e-missives from the fatherland that are reserved mainly for anniversaries, holidays, and assorted disasters. My sister’s message read that my grandmother had contracted a virus while hospitalized for a fracture—her first hospitalization in well over half a century—and that, unless I acted posthaste, I might never see her alive again.
Unlike the mater of my father (both deceased), my maternal grandmother had kept in touch with me during my years abroad. She had learned, decided—or perhaps never thought twice—to accept me, which, given her youth in fascist Germany, is a triumph of spirit over doctrine. For years, she had been sending her regards to my same-sex partners, companions my other grandmother thought best accommodated behind barbed wire, if they were to be granted living space at all.
So, a few days before I was scheduled to depart for Berlin, I booked a flight to Düsseldorf to see Oma. I suffered a great deal of anxiety going by myself, going to see relatives I had abandoned years ago and walking down streets I had known during what, not in retrospect only, was an unhappy youth.
Luckily, I had friends on whom I could count: a cousin came to collect me from the rather remote airport and old friends offered quarters and shoulders should my visit prove overwhelming . . . or my arrival too late. Such comforts notwithstanding, it was disconcerting to visit Ella at the hospital, especially since it involved having to wear a protective mask that obscured my face so that she did not recognize me. I had not announced my visit lest she might think that, if even the prodigal grandson was coming to see her, her condition must truly be touch-and-go. It was sobering to be greeted like a stranger, but also deserved, I thought—until at last there was a look of recognition in her eyes and a warm smile radiating from her lips.
Not having booked a hotel room, I stayed in grandmother’s apartment that night. There I was, sleeping in the bed of a woman who might not see another morning and who, as it turned out, would never sleep in it again, though live she did.
We all have our security blankets, I suppose. Mine is made out of immaterial stuff, a fabric as gossamer and yet as tangible as the air on a sultry summer’s evening as I had known it well to the west of Wales. Lying there, alone in Ella’s bed, I surrounded myself with voices at once strange and familiar; voices of a safe, distant past—a past that was none of mine.
On a night rendered restless by thoughts of loss and futility—a life in danger and a life wasted in the refusal to be faced—I belatedly tuned in The Couple Next Door, a late-1950s serialized radio sitcom. Written by and starring Peg Lynch, whom I had once seen performing one of her husband-and-wife sketches during an old-time radio convention, The Couple controlled the crowds with which my thoughts were teeming. It comforted like no cotton coverlet could, warmed like no drop of Scotch. Though not soundly, I did sleep that night, wrapped up as I was in a cocoon of sound . . . a quilt to muffle the guilt I felt for not returning sooner and for being defined instead by a quarter century of negation . . .