|In Split at the Root: A Memoir of Love and Lost Identity, I tell the story of growing up within a culture and a race that was different to my own. Here’s an excerpt:Guatemala City is only 15 degrees north of the Equator, but at five thousand feet above sea level the altitude allows for November, December, and January to be cold dry months. Cold, of course, is relative where the world is in full bloom, where hummingbirds hover at golden honeysuckle blossoms and lizards, ants, and lady-bugs scurry along sun-warmed patio tiles.
Once the rainy season ended and November winds began to blow, our home released the scent of allspice, cardamom, nutmeg, and cinnamon: German spice loaves and Christmas cookies were being made. Sometimes Marta, our cook, tied an oversized kitchen towel around my neck and sat me at the pantry table where Simeón, our houseboy, was shelling nuts. Rather than stare at people working, I could blanch the almonds soaking in warm water, which meant squeezing the soggy skin at one end to make the nut shoot out the other.
There were chocolate spirals, anise stars, jelly filled sugar cookies; powdered almond moons, crispy walnut crowns, lemon glazed hazelnut balls, candied fruit clusters. Marta grouped them in large airtight glass containers and placed them on top of the pantry cabinets. Every time I saw them I thought: jewels in jars. At Christmas they would be arranged on trays and given to our friends as gifts.
Partly as a family tradition but also because the war had limited our resources, we made our presents. During afternoon tea, with the voices of the Vienna Boy’s Choir flowing out of the gramophone and the active fireplace warming us, Mutti and Ruth knit while my young fingers molded clay or embroidered gifts requiring little supervision and less accuracy.
December sixth was Nikolaus, day of the generous saint who wandered through the night leaving a little something – a red imported apple, or a juicy orange, or perhaps some crayons – in a shoe I placed outside my bedroom door before going to sleep.
On afternoons, when the winds were less severe, Mutti and I might take our German shepherd, Schaeffi, for a walk along Avenida de la Reforma. We lived on a broad, tree-lined avenue with sidewalks, bridle paths, and paved streets for vehicles, each separated by grassy islands, pink oleander bushes, and towering cypress trees. Our steps would take us past the homes of friends to the outlook post where we admired the volcanoes: the dormant majestic Agua; the four-coned Pacaya, smoldering like an impaled dragon set to disgorge its fiery insides; the double-headed Acatenango; and lastly, true to its name, eternally spewing ashes and smoke, the Fuego. The air, crisp and clear and sharp as a knife, smelled of cypress and eucalyptus.
The setting sun lit up the sky in a series of blazing shades of tangerine, magenta, to ever-deeper crimson. Invariably the firmament reminded me of our oven at home when we opened it to retrieve the cookie sheets. I believed at times, when the sky seemed particularly inflamed, that angels in heaven were busy, not making Christmas cookies as we were on earth, but baking people. Those individuals who were closer to the heat became darker than the ones who had been farther away. That was my very own theory of creation; through it I explained to myself why I was darker than those around me: I had been closer to the fire.
My active participation in the feast began when Ruth brought out an old leather-bound volume of nineteenth century German Christmas poetry. We read some poems and I would choose one to memorize and recite on Christmas Eve. I treasured the heavy old book, its musty smell, the brittle, mustard colored pages, and I’d lose myself in the delicate drawings of snowy landscapes and scenes of yesteryear, imagining myself walking in the Black Forest, in Güntherstal perhaps – where Tante Gustl, Mutti’s older sister lived – or stomping, knee deep in the snow of a wintry landscape. Or I’d admire a booth at the Christmas market in Freiburg; perhaps I was part of a chapel’s choir singing O Tannenbaum. Whether I was five or eight or twelve, the book made me nostalgic for a Europe I had never known, and for a feast that was not part of my culture.
On Christmas Eve, that most special of days for a German child, I was not allowed to enter the living room until we exchanged our gifts in the early evening, as Christkind and angels were decorating our tree, and only adults were allowed in. Whenever I tiptoed by – I don’t know how they sensed me coming – they went whoosh… whoosh… and moved the drapes, pretending that the heavenly helpers had flapped their huge wings as they flew out of the room. Ruth then appeared and accompanied me to the bathroom or out of the area.
At five-thirty, wearing my newest white dress, I waited in my room until Ruth came for me. “Want me to hear your poem one more time?” She’d ask, and I’d run through the verses just to make sure I knew them. Hand-in-hand we walked out of my room, past all the lit candles in the hall, to the drawn drapes. A gentle squeeze, and Ruth let go my hand before slipping through the drapes to join the adults.
My heart beat hard in my chest as I waited to be invited in. Then came the Christmas bell’s silvery chime, and ever so slowly the drapes drew aside revealing a room aglow in candlelight. In the far left corner, a long-needled Guatemalan pine reached the ceiling. Its branches, covered with sparkly snow-like powder, held white candles, white stars, white pine cones, glass icicles: it was a symphony in white. Our cellophane-wrapped gifts, like giant sapphires, emeralds, and rubies, reflected in myriad colors the lights in the room. On silver platters were dates, figs, Christmas Stolen, cookies, red apples from Oregon, and large red California grapes.
All eyes, however, were on me. I waited for Mutti’s nod. Then a step forward, a curtsy, and I began my recitation. I never stumbled, never erred, not with a single word. “That was beautiful,” Mutti always praised, her face glowing with pride as she came toward me. Taking my hand, she slowly led me across the room to the tree. When I was little, she picked me up so I could see the decorations at the top. “What do you think, Mohrle?” she whispered. I was always breathless. “It’s just beautiful… so beautiful, Mutti,” I murmured amazed. It was the same every year.
Mutti led me to a table from which gifts spilled to the floor. Someone offered a few appropriate words of gratitude while Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht played in the background. The adults raised their champagne cocktails and we wished each other “Frohe Weihnachten.” My glass had bubbly lemonade and a maraschino cherry in it.
Read more: Split at the Root: A Memoir of Love and Lost Identity (Kindle) or Split at the Root: A Memoir of Love and Lost Identity.