We’ve stayed after school today to practice for the German competition. I’ve chosen not to take a written or oral test or enter any of the contests I know I’ll fail, but to recite a German poem from memory. Mrs. Olson calls me to the front of the near-empty classroom. I stand there, look at the kind faces of my three classmates and freeze.
“In meine…,” Mrs. Olson prompts.
“In meine Heimat kam ich wieder…”
“Not kaaam, kam, the A is short.”
I’m blank again.
“Go on, I von’t interrupt you anymore.”
I rattle it off:
In meine Heimat kam ich wieder,
Es war die alte Heimat noch,
Dieselbe Luft, dieselben Lieder,
Und alles war ein andres doch.
Die Welle rauschte wie vorzeiten,
Am Waldweg sprang wie sonst das Reh,
Von Fern erklang ein Abendläuten,
Die Berge glänzten aus dem See.
Doch vor dem Haus, wo uns vor Jahren
Die Mutter stets empfing, dort sah
Ich fremde Menschen, sah ein fremd Gebaren;
Wie weh, wie weh mir da geschah!
Mir war, als rief es aus den Wogen:
Flieh, flieh, und ohne Wiederkehr!
Die du geliebt, sind alle fortgezogen
Und kehren nimmer, nimmermehr.
I can’t believe I remembered every line! I grin at my little audience. Mrs. Olson frowns.
“Slower, slower! That was much too fast.”
“Try it again, but slow down, calm down, there is time. Think of the meaning.”
I recite it again, concentrating on speaking slowly. I finish.
Mrs. Olson smiles, but looks at me sadly and says, “You’ve never known loss, have you? You have never lost a loved one.”
“Um, I guess not…,” I stutter. I search my memory, but the only funeral I can remember was a great uncle’s and I was very young and frightened. But I didn’t miss him: I barely knew him.
Of course, Mrs. Olson has known loss. We all know her story. How she, a German speaker living in Alsace-Lorraine, then part of France, lived through the war, was forced to work as an interpreter for the Nazis, how she survived but lost everything, then met Mr. Olson and came to the United States. In that moment, I feel stupid and too young and lucky all rolled into one.
I’m really not good at learning languages, not like Paul, a lanky boy in my class who not only takes German and French, but is teaching himself Gaelic and puts Elvish lines from Tolkien on the chalkboard in the back of the room in his beautiful handwriting. He will go on to win quite a few prizes at our upcoming competition and I, although I recite too quickly and softly and have never known loss, will win the poetry recital contest. When we emerge from the coolness of the building on the college campus where the competition is held and into the heat outside, I let out a whoop, then hop down a grassy knoll in my skirt and high-heeled sandals. My classmates have never seen me act so effusively. They laugh and will later tell the class about it. Mrs. Olson will explain that I probably won because the judges were so tired of hearing “Die Lorelei” over and over and over again. I know she’s right.
I always remembered the look on Mrs. Olson’s face and my shame at not reading this lovely poem to her with enough feeling. Then, two years ago, I was reading a novel called What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons. The book is loosely autobiographical and tells of her mother’s illness and death. The story wrenched my heart not because I knew how the writer felt, but because I’d never felt that kind of love from or for my own mother.
Suddenly, Mrs. Olson and that day in our German classroom came back and this time, I didn’t feel any shame, but anger at her presumptuousness. She knew nothing about me. She made me feel stupid and shallow and I wasn’t. I’m not. I was nervous and shy; uncertain how to pronounce these words in this foreign language.
Naturally, I chose “Heimkehr” by Heinrich Heine because it spoke to me. The poem was about returning home to find “it was still my old home: the same air, the same songs, yet all was different.” But, of course, the final lines of the poem imply that Heine not only lost his home; that his mother and the people he loved “moved away” to never, ever return. They are dead.
I admit my losses weren’t shattering like Heine’s or Mrs. Olson’s. I was just homesick. It had been four years since we left Pittsburgh and moved to Florida and I had only slowly found my footing in my new environment. Yet this longing for what I wish I’d had – a loving, stable home, self-assurance to express what I felt without fear – will always taunt me and, consciously or intuitively, inform everything I do: the men I love, the way I raise my children, the poems I read, the stories that touch me.
Can we lose what we never had?
We’re in the back yard of our second neighbors’ house. Beyond the narrow patch of lawn, we crouch in the bushes overlooking Three Degree Road with long sticks in our hands, shooting at the cars passing by, shouting, “bang, bang!”
Like our house, this house has its garage doors facing the only access up a sloped driveway, but their garage fits two cars. The redbrick house belongs to the oldest daughter of the Nowaks, our next-door neighbors, and her husband. Their children are younger than us, not even in school yet.
The Nowaks’ youngest daughter is named Carol. She’s very tall and my mother calls her a tomboy. It’s Carol who I’m shooting at cars with because my sister is at summer camp and Carol has to make do by playing with me. She’s older than my sister, but her parents are much, much older than mine. To me, they look like grandparents (and, well, they are) and live in an older, stone-clad, one-story house between our house and their daughter’s.
We’d moved to this house at the end of the long, limestone gravel driveway in 1965, when I was four. It was built of yellow brick, like our old house in Ford City, but it was more modern, with a garage in the basement and a huge backyard. On one side, actually behind the house, a hill rose steeply up, and in front of the house, opposite the front door and the big picture window in the living room, a hill dropped steeply down. We were surrounded by woods on three sides.
In the summer, we’re awakened in the morning by an almost deafening chorus of birds. If we’re not sent to our grandparents in Ohio for vacation church school and until we’re old enough to go to summer camp, my sister and I are on our own most of the day. If Carol comes over, I’m usually left out of the play because I’m a little sissy. If she doesn’t, Kate and I might go out and pick wild blackberries from the bushes on the hill heading up from our yard. Or just take turns flying on our tall old swing made of iron pipes. Its seat is hard rubber and the chains it hangs from are thick and can really hurt your fingers if you don’t forget to keep them out of the way when you wind around and around and around and then let go to swing in circles. We also have a small, new swing set next to the old swing, but it’s for babies.
One day, Kate shows me the way up the hill. We walk through our backyard, past the little apple tree to a spot where some rocks are stacked in a makeshift wall. We climb over that and there’s a pathway worn into the ground, heading straight up. I have to grab hold of branches, it’s so steep. Then the slope ends and there’s a cleared pathway on a terrace running the length of the hillside back towards our house. We follow that all the way until we could almost jump from it to the roof of our patio – well, Batman and Robin could – and Kate finds another worn climbing track and begins the ascent.
“Are you sure?” I ask timidly.
“I do it all the time.”
“If you’re too chicken, go back.”
I’m too insulted and curious and follow her up and up, gaining my footing where she had, grabbing onto roots and weeds, hoping there’s no poison ivy.
In no time we’re at the edge of a backyard. Kate scoots through the yard, me behind her and we reach a street. A lady’s street, I think since the sign says Lillian Road. We turn right and walk past a few houses, it bends to the left and we can hear traffic. We slip through a hedge and are in the parking lot of Pines Plaza! I’ve only ever been here with my parents in the car. We head straight to Sun Drug to look at the pets department and the comic books.
Summer vacations are very long when you’re young. There’s a four square-feet patch of earth close to the house where the grass won’t grow: That’s home plate. The left pole of the swing set is first base, the lilac bush is second and the apple tree is third. But you can’t always play softball or hide-and-seek in the back yard, so sometimes, in spite of warnings about copperheads, we slip down the hill from a place behind our daddy’s shed – literally slip if it had rained – all the way to the creek. (It’s actually called Girty’s Run, but we didn’t know that then and just called it “the crick.”) The terrain levels out in one spot a few yards from the water and the earth is stomped smooth from our feet and there are stumps we can sit on and I wish we’d brought along a picnic. Vines hang from the tall trees and we can swing on them like Tarzan until we show it to our cousins and they swing too much and there aren’t any more vines.
There are bugs with long legs that hop across the water. We try to build a dam and almost succeed but the water always finds a way through it. There are tadpoles and tiny fish in the creek. I put some tadpoles in a jar, wanting to raise them until they transform into frogs, but don’t know what to feed them. I set them free again.
Across the creek and running parallel to it is a large paved loop of the drive behind the car wash. Early evenings and Saturdays, cars fill it up waiting to drive through the automated car wash. But when the car wash closes, it’s ours. My sister rides her bike down our bumpy driveway while I walk mine behind her, crying, “Wait up!” We turn left at the end, walk over a little bridge, past the apartment building where we get our hair cut short in the downstairs beauty parlor once a year, and then turn into the car wash drive.
It took a long time and lots of skinned knees before I could ride a bicycle without training wheels. From then on, I was wobbly, but free. I’d go around and around and around that smooth, oval drive, flying like the wind.
At the back of the car wash drive a path led into the woods. It was worn and wide enough for us to bike on it; at least it gave me practice on an unpaved surface. A few times we biked or walked it to see how far we could go before we got too hungry or scared of where we’d end up. It seemed to go on forever. Much later, I learned that was because it used to be the bed of a trolley line that went all the way to Butler.
When our cousins come to visit, a badminton net is put up and a wading pool filled. My daddy only once takes a pile of kids for a ride around the backyard on a little trailer hitched to his tiller. On summer evenings, the yard is lit up by lightning bugs that we catch in jars. From our bedroom, we hear the squeaky-wheel cry of pheasants and the screeches of the blue jays. Groundhogs and rabbits amble or hop away when we go out to play. In the fall, on a good day, daddy rakes all the leaves – ALL the leaves – in the backyard into huge piles we can jump in. In the winter, we can sled down the hill from our front yard to the top section of the driveway. One very cold winter, the sleds don’t stop but carry us all the way across the wide turnaround, past the red Ford van, down the driveway and almost into the street. I don’t know how to brake, so throw myself off.
* * *
Two years ago, I took my son with me on a weekend trip to Pittsburgh. On our last day, I rented a car and we drove first up Federal Street to our old church, which stood gray and abandoned in a now shabby, run-down neighborhood looking over the city. We drove further on along Perry Highway. I stayed in the right lane so I could drive slowly and see familiar sights. We turned right on Three Degree Road and past the three mailboxes at the end of our old driveway. Not the same mailboxes, but set up in the same spot. We passed the intersection and drove on to my elementary school to find a heap of rubble. They had only recently torn it down.
I turned the car around and drove back to the three mailboxes and this time, I turned onto the drive, for the first time steering a car up its slope, past the two houses on the left. I parked where our visitors had always parked and we got out of the car. A young man came towards me from my old front yard.
“Hey, lady, you can’t park there, you’re blocking me.”
And, yes, they now had extended the drive up our sledding hill and there were two cars parked right by the front door, where the oak tree stood that once dropped a branch on my dad’s head.
“Hi! Sorry, we won’t be long. I just wanted…well…I grew up in this house and just wanted to show it to my son here.”
“Oh, wow. Sure. When was that?”
We conversed and he motioned for us to come closer. I asked him about the Nowaks, barely listening to his reply as I gazed at the front of my old house and peered past his cars into the back yard. It was landscaped. The hill my sister and I scrambled up was now was bare of wild bushes and brambles and planted with ferns. There was a swimming pool, there were two decks. The hill on the other side that we slid down to the creek was blocked by a tall wooden fence. A little boy peered curiously out the big front window. The man’s wife had joined him and we chitchatted awhile.
“Would you like to see inside?” she asked.
My heart leaped in my ribcage. I knew if I did, I would cry. And it was a long drive back to our AirBnB in the city.
“Oh, no, I don’t want to be a bother. Just wanted to see the place. Thanks so much. You all have a nice day.”
My father was the pastor of Memorial Lutheran Church on East Street on the North Side of Pittsburgh. In the early 1970s, our church and most of the houses on that stretch of East Street were torn down to make way for the I-279 Parkway. As a result, Memorial Lutheran Church merged with St. Luke’s, which was located up the hill on Federal Street Extension, and together they would be called St. Luke’s Memorial Lutheran Church. And there, in the fifth grade Sunday school class, I first encountered Sue, the first kid in Sunday school who ever knew as much about the Bible as I did. And her dad wasn’t even a pastor! He was a mailman!
Sue was my first best friend. And in spite of being bright and always raising her hand to answer questions, she was coooooooooool. She used slang I’d never heard (and rarely understood), she snorted when she laughed and was always chewing a stick of cinnamon gum. Sitting up in the balcony together during church services, she’d give me the other half of her stick of gum when she decided I “needed” it. In my eyes, she was cool, self-confident, self-possessed; all I wished I could be. When she joked or kidded with me, which she did a lot, she’d poke me and say, “Psych!” I had no idea what that meant. She spelled it S-I-K-E in the notes she passed me on that balcony, so maybe she didn’t know either. But she knew her Bible and she knew her way around the North Side and downtown Pittsburgh, too, places I’d never gone without my parents.
In the sixth grade, I was five foot one, weighed 71 pounds, and was pale and redheaded. The year before, I was allowed to let my hair grow long for the first time. Sue was tiny and had long brown hair. My mom used to call us Mutt & Jeff. By the seventh grade I was five foot five and a half, but Sue stayed little. In a home movie of the two of us dancing around my living room, dressed up and pretending we were Janis Joplin, she comes up to my shoulder.
Back when my parents moved from Ford City to Pittsburgh in 1965, they decided they didn’t want to live on the North Side but preferred the more suburban North Hills where the public schools were said to be the best in the state. The drive to church every Sunday took 45 minutes. We still didn’t live in regular suburbia though. Our house was located in what seemed like utter seclusion at the end of a long, gravel driveway on a busy street. I couldn’t walk to my friends’ houses, and I don’t recall there being any busses.
When I would visit Sue for the weekend, I was in a different world. Her house was in the hilly part of the North Side, so there was a long, concrete stairway from the street to the front porch of the old brick house her family lived in. Sue’s mother was a homemaker, very pretty, kind and devout. Sue’s teenage older sister looked like their mom and Sue looked more like her dad, with an upturned nose and impish face. She also had an adult brother who’d long moved out.
In the seventh grade, we started junior high. Sue and I still sat together on the balcony in church and she would tell me about the boys at school who had crushes on her. I visited her more often because we were in Catechism class on Saturdays, and I’d simply go home with her afterwards and then my parents would take me home after church on Sunday.
When we weren’t in her bedroom playing records or going through her big sister’s makeup and nail polish, we’d get on a PAT Transit bus, which would wind its way through the narrow streets and around the frightening curves of the hills down toward the river. We’d get off near a new shopping mall not far from the brand new Three Rivers Stadium and wander around the department stores, where we’d pick out the appliances at Sears for our future shared apartment. Or we’d spend hours exploring the zany items on the shelves at Spencer Gifts.
And although I was the brainier one of the two of us, I was always enthralled by Sue. She had “street” knowledge and skills I would never acquire. She went to a school where you had to know how to fight, and she could! Most of all, I was grateful that she accepted me – as uncool as I was – and that she assumed that one day we’d both graduate high school, get jobs and be roommates.
We had our first communion together and then, during the monthly communion services, Sue and I would be silly and take our emptied little glasses of Manischewitz wine back up to the balcony and lick them clean.
Then came eighth grade. Now we were almost teenagers with our little bras holding up nothing and thinking more and more about boys and even jobs, since we started babysitting for the first time. I was also old enough to have a proper teenager’s birthday party in the basement! I planned my own party, the cake, the snacks, the soft drinks, I chose the records we’d dance to, decorated the basement and tried my hardest to make it look like a cool teen hangout.
Two of my girlfriends at junior high, Linda and Nancy, were also a Mutt & Jeff. Linda was the willowy, smart, hilariously funny one, Nancy was the little, impish, tough one. They came to my thirteenth birthday party. So did, I see in the old silent home movie documenting the day, most of my little clique of nerdy, nice girlfriends from junior high. And so did Sue. The old 8 mm movie rolls faded terribly years later in a damp closet in Florida, and being copied onto videocassette and then later onto DVD didn’t improve the quality. But there is a group of longhaired girls in bell-bottom pants in a paneled basement room. The camera is focused on me, opening my presents: Three 45s! A Snoopy poster! My sister and brother come downstairs with a birthday cake. Then there are girls dancing. Then there are only two dancing. They are the same height and build, both have long brown hair and they are doing a complicated line dance. The camera doesn’t show their feet. They dance and dance while we all watch.
That was the day my best friend was stolen from me. Nancy and Sue, who had so much in common, were now best friends. I’d hear about Sue from Nancy at school and hear about Nancy from Sue at church and feel left out and sad. It confirmed my deepest fears: I would never be cool, not enough. In my autograph book at the end of that year, the last in junior high, Nancy wrote: “Because of YOU, I met SUE!”
Just after I started ninth grade, we moved to Florida. Sue wasn’t a good pen pal, but she did send me pictures of herself in a new winter coat, of her pet parakeet, the little boy she babysat, and the snow outside her house, to show me what I was missing.
In the summer of 1976, we went back north during summer vacation and Sue and I went downtown together. I have four black and white snapshots of views by the river, one of her by the water with a bridge and the fountain at Point Park behind her. And then we lost touch. Later, when I was in college, her mother was in touch with my mother and sent her Sue’s address. She was married and living in Texas. I wrote to her, but we soon slipped apart again. Many, many years later, she found me again, via email or MySpace. This time, I was the one who didn’t keep in touch. I’d long cut myself off from any church, but she’d gone the other way and was now evangelical. In my eyes, at least, we’d swapped places: She was backward; I was cool.
Sometimes, I make up a scenario in my head where Jimmy tells someone in Philadelphia my little secret. He will one day, of course, and it’s not really a secret and I shouldn’t keep it to myself. But then, say, if that person is my pushy neighbor Cynthia, she will drag me to a Monday night session at La Rose and make a scene until I get up and sing. She’s that type.
I can’t deny that I’m a singer. As a young person I always joined the chorus at school or the youth choir at church. I had a very soft singing voice but in high school, I successfully auditioned for the girl’s ensemble. In my senior year my chorus teacher asked me to sing a solo on two bars of “Over the Rainbow.” Our arrangement of the song required me to go from a low to a high E (Some—-where…). Both the octave and singing in public were terrifying to me, but I pulled it off.
In college, I was in the “Chorale,” and once, since I was taking voice lessons, I was asked to sing a classical duet with another soprano. It was really tough vocally, packed with sixteenth notes sung in quick succession, but I did fine until we actually had an audience. Although I appeared calm, my insides jiggled like jelly throughout the performance. That put any ambitions of rock-star fame out of my mind!
Yes, I did have ambitions. My voice got stronger and better and I knew I could sing…there was only one problem: my fear of singing in public. So I never pursued anything that would force me onto a stage alone.
I stopped singing altogether when I moved to Germany. I tried to join a few choirs, but didn’t enjoy the people or the music. I only sang lullabies for a while.
It was when my fortieth birthday was looming that I felt like doing something out of the ordinary. I asked four girlfriends to get together and rehearse a few old pop and Motown hits to perform at my birthday party. It wasn’t very professional, but it was a lot of fun. I also sang one solo, “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” and my insides jiggled again even though the audience were my friends and family.
Of those five singers, three of us decided we didn’t want to stop rehearsing. We formed a trio, called ourselves “Lipstick” and sang at little local festivals, birthdays, anniversaries, things like that. Being in a trio kept my nerves and tummy in check.
I sang first soprano in the group, the highest part. I was having trouble controlling my voice, so I found a teacher. She was so happy to have a promising student (I would learn why at her rather embarrassing students’ recital), she wanted to train me as a coloratura, but that’s another story. Her lessons helped me with Lipstick, but when I started listening to the music I wanted to sing, I wasn’t sure how to approach it: the ranges were all wrong. I’d spent most of my life listening to pop, rock, folk, standards and classical music, but the music I wanted to sing, the music that I couldn’t stop listening to and piling up CDs of, was called jazz.
I searched the Internet for “vocal jazz workshop” and found only one in Europe, and it was in Scotland. I was accepted, paid the fee, picked out my required two lead sheets, and flew to Glasgow.
If I had one week of my life to re-live, I’d pick that one. I not only made life-long friends, I came away from it with the confidence that I was a jazz singer. Fionna, our teacher, had no words of criticism for me. My voice was “like honey,” she said, my sense of rhythm, phrasing and harmony were sound, and I could abandon classical vocal training and sing using my alto speaking voice (What a relief! It was easy!). Also, although each student had to get up and sing multiple times during classes and once at the final concert, I never had jiggling jelly in my belly.
I spent the next eight years being a jazz singer on the side (my day job was freelance, so I could be flexible). I went to more workshops, I traveled to other cities to sing at jam sessions and meet musicians, I recorded a CD, I got a few gigs in Berlin and Brussels, but not many. Trying to promote myself, I gained a tiny MySpace following, began writing songs. I ended up spending far more money than I ever earned as a singer: travel and accommodations cost more than I could earn on a gig in a jazz club, and I also spent a chunk of my savings to record a second CD in a good studio with the best musicians I could find.
Singing on a stage with a good band was one of the most exhilarating highs of my life. Something about the nature of jazz kept my fear of performing at bay. I think it’s because you’re so involved with creating something with the musicians, and it’s a little like singing in a trio or a chorus: you’re not “alone” on stage; you’re part of a unit. When things clicked and the band made it easy, oh my, how wonderful! If only I could do it every month, every week, every night! But I never “made it” the way I’d hoped. It’s what I wanted the most, but vocal jazz isn’t a big thing in Continental Europe. Maybe I needed a promoter, or perhaps it was my age (one bassist told me so), or maybe I’m deluding myself and really not very good (Jimmy says I am, and he should know).
After I met Jimmy, a bona fide jazz musician, and began getting gigs for him in Europe, he also played drums behind me: one time in Munich and for two concerts very close to my home in Bonn. They were at a venue in an old converted mill in the countryside. My first concert there was packed. Due to the crowd, I was paid well, I sold CDs, all my local friends came and treated me like a star, and so did the strangers. The owners gave me a second date, and for that I had flyers and posters made, advertising as much as I could. That night, only five people showed up to hear us.
That was my last concert, but it’s not the reason I stopped singing. By the time I moved to New York, I had come to realize that the world has plenty of jazz singers, perhaps too many. Also, the more I learn about the music they call jazz, the more I know that as pleasant as my voice may be, and as easy as it may come to me, I can never hold a candle to my idols Ella, Sarah and Carmen.
This isn’t to say I won’t ever perform again. But it won’t be because someone says, “Oh, Faith, get up and sing!” It will be me thinking, “Gosh, I want to get up and sing!” It might be jazz, it might be folk music; it might be at a campfire or a jam session or my own birthday party. Time will tell. But please: Don’t tell Cynthia!
After a few more weeks of summer heat, it cooled off last night. It began to rain and has rained all day, but not the usual heavy storms, just a constant, light rain. I moved my parched potted plants from the porch to the front walk and they and I are content with that.
It’s a culmination of things, I’m sure: being alone in my house for two weeks and my sweetheart telling me he’d have to put off his trip here for a few more days, physical work and perspiration tiring me out, feeling cut off because I haven’t heard much from my loved ones, the gentle rain, thinking so much about the past – in part because I can’t see much in the future…
…But today I heard some loud bird cries, geese passing overhead perhaps or maybe just a flock of crows. It was too cloudy to try to see anything in the sky. It reminded me of the cranes flying over our house in Heimerzheim and I began to cry.
Twice every year, tens of thousands of cranes migrate from Scandinavia and northern Germany to Spain and northern Africa and back. Twice every year, thousands of them flew over our house for days on end. We’d hear a strange incessant noise in the middle of the night and soon learned it was them flying over us, maybe a mile or more high, in huge V-shaped groups, all the while calling to each other. We’d hear them in the daytime, in March maybe, or in October, and run outside to look up and see them all: tiny specks in multiple V formations filling the sky and calling, calling in their high-pitched, trumpeting voices.
They come together from different locations to converge on what is called the “western European flyway,” headed together to resting places they have stopped in for eons and then to either their wintering or breeding grounds. And although I knew they flew over very many houses and were visible from many, many towns and villages on clear days and audible on cloudy ones, it always felt very special that they never failed to signal the change of seasons by flying over our house.
I don’t have a big back yard anymore that I can run out and see a large expanse of sky from and there is no one to call out to, “The cranes! The cranes are flying! Come see!”
It was my choice to return to the United States. I had longed to come back the entire thirty years I lived abroad. I hated being a foreigner, different, never belonging, never feeling as if I wanted to belong, even. Although my life in Germany gave me a career of sorts, wonderful children, and a handful of close friends, I never wanted to stay.
The German mindset, their love of conformity, of sameness, of routines, rubbed me the wrong way as does a singular, very common trait among them to think they know everything — regardless of a lack of first-hand experience — because they are so well informed by their media. Except at the seashore, the landscape didn’t inspire me; it was too cramped, too over-populated, I felt closed in. (My husband came home on our fifteenth anniversary not with a bouquet of roses, but with a Venus flytrap. I laughed until I cried.)
So I stubbornly tore myself away, finally, five years ago. Me, a single, middle-aged empty-nester: I did not want to grow old in Germany. Instead, I will grow old here in this city where my ancestors are buried.
I’m doing fine. I hope I’ll find friends here, but know it will take awhile. I like my neighborhood, my neighbors. I love it that people say “Hello,” “How ya doin’?” everywhere I go. It delights me to know that whenever I leave the house I will have a pleasant conversation with some stranger. I missed that in Germany. When I go to Germany to visit and friends ask, “Don’t you miss living here?” I say, emphatically, “No!” And, truly, I don’t. I miss them sometimes, of course. But it seems I see more of them during my annual trips back than I did when I lived there. There you go.
So although being reminded of the cranes made me sad, it’s not a bitter sadness or regret. I suppose it’s just life, feeling the years pass, and remembering the time when my boys were young, the cranes flew over our house twice a year, and the sense of wonder it gave me every time they did.
I haven’t written a poem I liked in many, many years, but this spilled out of me yesterday.
The butter-hued heads of tiny daffodils are nodding in agreement,
Purple and white crocuses shout their approval,
Buds are emerging on the branches of the nine-bark,
And across the way, a blanket of dandelions announces defiance
As a robin side-eyes me.
Don’t get me wrong: I’ve marched.
Allow me to aver: I’ll vote.
But under the tight roof of my house
No rectangles glow,
Loudspeakers are silent;
Ears awaiting only the toll of distant bells,
The blaring of horns,
As I choose to revel solely
in the coming of the spring.
A little more than a year ago, I was driving through this neighborhood on my way to look at houses for sale, zigzagging between empty plastic garbage cans that were being propelled down the middle of the streets by the wind. Now that I live here, it’s the same: It seems almost every Friday – or Saturday if there was a holiday – the wind is blowing, my neighbor’s wind chimes are chiming and the trashcans and trash are flying about.
For one, the City of Philadelphia asks its residents to put out their recycling in open plastic bins. For another, even plastic bins with lids are lightweight and prone to acting like sails in the wind. So, each week I tuck my flimsy recyclables as tightly as I can into my sturdy little blue bins and cross my fingers. The rest of my trash I put in a black trash bag, which usually stays put even in a gale, thank goodness. I only put the black bag out when it’s full, so often only twice a month.
I can’t recall the garbage collection practices of my youth. I grew up in a house set back a-ways from a four-lane street in Pittsburgh in the 1960s. I’m pretty certain someone must have carried the trashcans from the three houses lining our long, shared driveway down to Three Degree Road, where our three mailboxes also stood in a neat row. My sister and brother and I had light chores to do each Saturday: I dusted, my sister vacuumed and my brother emptied the wastepaper baskets and trashcans.
Although there was no such thing as (or even word as) recycling, I don’t think people produced nearly as much garbage then as they do now. There weren’t beverage cans and bottles stacked in everyone’s fridges. There was a carton of milk and a pitcher of homemade iced tea and another of Kool-Aid. Orange juice came frozen in cans and one can made a large pitcher that lasted a week in our house. My parents didn’t drink alcohol, so we had no cans or bottles of beer or wine either. Food packaging consisted of boxes or metal canisters or paper bags. No single servings, no little metallic coffee pod things. The wastepaper baskets would have been full of just that: wastepaper. None was recycled but at least you could expect it to decompose quickly wherever it ended up.
Not surprisingly, I also can’t remember much about garbage collection in North Miami in the early 1970s when we moved there. I suppose my brother carried the can or cans the few steps to the street each week. He did it because he was a boy and that’s what boys did.
So, let’s simply skip all I’ve forgotten and fast forward to me living in Germany in the 1980s and discovering a whole new world and attitude when it came to rubbish.
Then and now, Germans drank a lot of bottled, carbonated water, something I never took a liking to. The water came in glass liter bottles you could buy singly or in a case of 12 (I think). Once emptied, the bottles with lids were taken back from whence they came and you got your deposit back. It is and was similar with beer, but the bottles were smaller and you threw the caps away. The rest of your glass, the non-returnables, you would carry to the nearest set of glass receptacles, which in our case was across the street when I first moved to Bonn. There were three, usually: one for brown glass, one for green glass and one for clear glass and any other color.
The rest of our trash we put in the huge green trash container outside our apartment building. It had four wheels, a heavy lid and a bar on the back that the garbage men would fit on the back of the garbage truck, which, at the switch of a button, lifted and emptied the contents into its innards.
My favorite kind of trash was called Sperrmüll. I’d never experienced anything like it and therefore took a very long time to learn the English term for it, roughly “bulky trash.” Once a month or four times a year, depending on where you lived, you could put large things out for collection. We furnished our apartment with it. Bo’s desk was a beaut from the bulky trash, our sofa, our kitchen table and chairs, a gorgeous chrome arched floor lamp, and on and on. You knew the economy was doing well when people threw a lot of nice stuff away. When times were hard, they didn’t and the pickings weren’t so good. We would actually get on our bikes and ride around the evening before bulky trash was collected to search for treasure. If we found something really big, one of us would wait there and “guard” it while the other rode home to get the car.
Vans and trucks roamed the streets on those days – it wasn’t just students like us searching for free stuff. And the nicer the neighborhood, the nicer the stuff!
Germany has always been pioneering when it comes to anything environmental or ecological. Soon enough we began not just taking our glass to special containers, but everyone or every building had their own separate bins: blue for paper, green or brown for organic trash and black for Restmüll, literally the “rest of the trash.”
In the 1990s, the Green Dot was introduced. It’s a system for recycling that caused of a lot of controversy even then but still exists today. The Green Dot logo is put on recyclable packaging and the manufacturers have to contribute to the cost of collection and recycling. The system is financed by a license fee paid by the producers of the products, hence the less packaging, the less they pay.
For the regular citizen it involves putting anything you buy with a green dot on it into a clear, yellow plastic garbage bag for collection. The bags are distributed in rolls by the municipality. Not a bad idea.
Also in the early 1990s, the city of Bonn built a waste incineration plant for the “rest of the trash.” It’s got a very pretty smokestack and is right in the middle of the city. It was somewhat controversial, but is so high-tech that its fumes aren’t toxic. Its steam creates about 500,000 megawatt hours of power per year, and it can burn 10 to 12 tons per hour or about 250,000 tons of waste each year.
Yes, far more trash is recycled in Germany than incinerated.
Before the plant was built, Bonn buried its trash in a landfill on the outskirts of town. Later, I would drive through that landscape every few days and it was a strange place. The former landfill was fenced off and covered with pipes and little structures. The pipes went into the ground to help lead off the gasses and heat created by the rotting garbage. The gasses were monitored and controlled. There was one crossing where you had to slow down because the road had a big bump and dip in it. I used to drive over it fast to give the kids a little thrill. Oddly, every ten years or so they would straighten that bump out, but it always came back: The ground was really moving.
We later moved from Bonn to a village on its outskirts. There, as homeowners, we paid for trash collection. The more trash you produced, the more you paid. You could get different sized black trash bins and would pay according to the size: we had the smallest. We were able to save money by composting our organic rubbish, too. Basically, all we put in our black trash bin were old tissues, dirty rags, and dirty diapers.
As for the wind, German trash bins are also plastic, but very rugged and heavy, on two wheels with a hinged lid. They don’t blow away in a gale. Only the yellow recyclable bags did.
From 2013 until 2017, I lived in an apartment building in Queens, New York. Even New York City has a recycling system, but not many people seem to care about it. In our building, although the landlord put up signs about separating your trash and although we actually did, what ends up on the street each week is everything jumbled together in huge black bags by a custodial worker. There are always a few clear bags with plastic recyclables in them, but never ours. The building next door is far more exemplary with just as many bags for recycling and paper as for regular trash.
Then I moved to East Mount Airy and had to learn everything again. What I didn’t know at first was that they won’t take Styrofoam for recycling. The system seems to be very good here, but most of my neighbors really only recycle bottles, cans and newspapers. There’s a rewards program, but for some reason I haven’t been allowed to sign up for it online. Out of habit, I still separate my paper from the rest and have two blue bins. Last week I had so little that I put my paper and plastic together in one bin – oh, my!
The other thing I’ve learned is the mysterious wind phenomenon. It happens every week, I swear! And every week, once the bins have been emptied, I pick up anything off the street that blew out and carry my bins and my neighbors’ back to our respective front porches because I’m usually home all day and because my neighbor always shovels my sidewalk when it snows. That’s what else I’ve learned: how wonderful neighbors can be if you live in Philadelphia.
Not my trash, but the results of one of the windier trash day fiascos.