PRESS KIT INCLUDES:
- Media One-Sheet
- Photo of the Author, Catana Tully
- Author Biography
- About the Book by Tristine Rainer
- 2 Sample Reviews on Amazon
- Interview in Minority Report by J.M. Blackman
- Contact Information
- Writing Sample – Part I
Dr. Catana Tully grew up trilingual (German, Spanish, English) in Guatemala where she attended elementary and middle school. In tenth grade she entered a boarding school in Jamaica, WI and received her Advanced Level Higher Schools Certificate from Cambridge University, England. Expecting to become an international interpreter, she continued her studies at the Sprachen und Dolmetscher Institut in Munich, Germany. However, she was called to work in a play and discovered her affinity for the dramatic arts. She became the actress and fashion model Catana Cayetano and appeared in Film and TV work in Germany, Austria, and Italy. In Munich she met and married the American actor Frederick V. Tully and ultimately moved to the United States. They have a son, Patrick. In Upstate New York, she completed the BA in Cultural Studies, an MA in Latin American and Caribbean Literature, and a DA (doctor of Arts) in Humanistic Studies. She held the position of tenured Associate Professor at SUNY Empire State College, from which she retired in 2003. She returned in 2005 for part time work in ESC’s Center for International Programs, where she served as Mentor and instructor in the Lebanon program, and as Interim Program Director for the Dominican Republic. In 2011 she retired completely to dedicate herself to publishing Split at the Root. She is currently preparing an academic version discussing the psychological issues imbedded in the memoir.
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ABOUT THE BOOK
In this dramatic and beautifully written memoir, the author explores questions of race, adoption and identity, not as the professor of ethnic studies that she became, but as the Black child of German settlers in Guatemala, who called her their “little Moor.” Her journey into investigating the mystery of how these White foreigners became her parents begins when she reluctantly considered joining an African-American organization at the U.S. College where she taught. She realized it was not just her foreign accent that alienated her from Blacks. Under layers of privilege (private schools, international travel, the life of a fashion model and actress in Europe) she discovered that her most important story is one of disinheritance.
The author’s determination to find out who her mother and father really were, and why she was taken from them, tests the love of her White husband and their son, leads her to embrace and then reject the charismatic man she believes to be her biological father, and takes her to the jungles of Guatemala to find a family that has kept her memory alive as legend. In the book’s shocking ending, she learns truths about her mother, and the callous disrespect committed long ago against mother and child in the name of love.
Tristine Rainer, Director of the Center for Autobiographic Studies and author of The New Diary and Your Life as Story
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Firstly, this is a riveting oral history, autobiography, detective story, as well as a family history and an individual’s striving for knowledge, personal identity and closure. Catana Tully combined an impressionistic study of her natural environment with an impressive research effort to re-assemble her origins. The story resembles a palimpsest, a parchment that has been written on, partially erased, then written on again. While the German historian, von Ranke raised the bar of his profession by striving for Geschichte wie es eigentlich gewesen (history as it actually happened), Catana has arrived at a certitude that has allowed her to assert ownership over her own history and life. She has reached a very high plateau of historical understanding and re-creation while raising the bar for anyone who aspires to follow in her footsteps. The writer was actually “uprooted’ from her birth family and, in a sense orphaned because the German family never shared their name with her through adoption; rather they colonized her mind and Mutti s/mothered her with a dutiful love aimed at producing a trophy child who could bring honor into her unfulfilled life. There may be no second acts in life, but Catana has empowered herself and others to compose an epilogue that captures the essence of their personal histories – while raising the bar for this genre. Those who control the present control the past, and those who control the past control the future. When the German family expelled her birth family from her life, they erased Catana’s memories to control her life. The guilt she felt about this reality was mostly sadness over being apparently abandoned by Rosa, her birth mother, and consequently encouraged to deny her own roots. However, she became the beneficiary of greater opportunities for worldly success, but also a victim (of captivity) and an accessory to a crime of rejecting/abandoning her origins. It explains why Mutti disapproved of the Haitian artist’s portrait: its colorfulness was too accurate a depiction of her genuine cultural roots. Catana’s soulful re-creation of the first three years with Rosa was brilliant as was the excellent use she made of her multi-cultural heritage with her students in Albany.–FRANK RADER, PHD
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5.0 out of 5 stars Framing A Persona in Black and White, October 12, 2012
By Carolyn D. Broadaway “broadwaybooks” (Albany, NY United States)
This review is from: Split at the Root: A Memoir of Love and Lost Identity (Kindle Edition)
This is the compelling life story of a young Carib child, torn from her roots in an obscure coastal town and raised by wealthy German expatriates in Guatemala City, who struggles throughout a lifetime to reconcile her European upbringing and white identity with her dark skin. Her story takes us on a multi-cultural journey from Central America and the Caribbean through Europe and then the United States, offering profound insight into the relativity of racial identity and cultural assumptions. The style of this autobiography is vivid, dramatic, and moving. Particularly noteworthy is the lush and powerful way in which she evokes the immediate sensory experience of her childhood – the colors, tones, tastes, textures and scents etched upon her sense of the world. The narrative is wonderfully dramatic, at many points almost cinematic, as she lays before us the scenes, the people, words and gestures that shaped the unfolding of her mind and spirit. Particularly compelling is her portrait of her German mother, a strong woman of mature years, honed through difficult experience to face life squarely and independently, who struggles to prepare her Mohrle (little Moor) to find a place in educated and sophisticated society where her radiant spirit and keen intellect will outshine her dark skin. She teaches Mohrle the importance of the proper “frame,” and we see Mohrle build a series of protective frameworks in both her inner and outer worlds. We see her shape and play a role in life, and do not wonder but only cheer at her success as an actress of European stage, cinema and television. A move to the United States challenges all her protective frameworks as she discovers the difference between having dark skin and being Black in America. Brought into vivid relief by the racism of American culture, the deep contradictions and fears which lurk at the root of her identity prod her eventually to seek out her roots and to reclaim the birth mother whom she had rejected, in fear and confusion, as a young child. The image of her birth mother’s last visit and the recollection of her last words haunt the last part of the story, as Mohrle, now a professor of cultural studies, stops merely playing roles, albeit with consummate skill, and begins examining them. Throughout this story, vivid scenes of lived experience alternate with insightful commentary. The questions it explores strike at the heart of all of our lives: How do we frame the persona we present to the world? Ho do we reconcile the self-image we create and defend over a lifetime with the image we see in the mirror? How do we come to love and honor all of our mothers, and all of our heritage?
It is rare in this day of homogenized prose to come across any book, be it fiction or fact, that possesses an individual style while handling the language as artfully and as engagingly as Catana Tully does in “Split at the Root.” Moreover, Dr. Tully relates her autobiography while eschewing a point of view trapped by political correctness. Taking this fresh approach, she transcends simplistic racial and national stereotypes so that everyone you meet throughout her life shares a common humanity that surprises, but also lets us see such a portrait that we cannot but say, “Ah, that must be them” and “I wish I were there.” Colors, gradients of light during different times of day, the clothes people wear, the fragrances of foods and flora, the mannerisms of individuals and the inflections of voice–Dr. Tully uses them to paint portraits of people and the narratives they move through as she silently harbors deep questions about her identity and purpose in life. If you think you know Latin America, Jamaica, the British Isles, Germany or the United States, “Split at the Root” will teach you anew about people who call each of these places home — and, it will do it with an elegant, energetic prose style that we can only call original and Dr. Tully’s own. A must read for anyone who loves literature.
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MAY 9, 2013
How did you piece together such vibrant memories? There are certain details – like what Vati cooked for you one morning – that are so colorful, I wondered whether or not there were many more pictures than what are shared in the memoir.
There are many more pictures than the ones in the book. I had to be selective, so that’s what came out. I include different pictures on my blog.
Regarding the memories: they are vibrant because I took time to describe them. Because Vati was never in the kitchen, really, when he made pancakes was super special (it might have only happened two or three times.) And the fired kippers? Well, he was in trouble for a long time after that. to me it’s as if it happened yesterday! When writing memories, it’s important to pay attention to details. That way the reader feels part of the experience.
I love that at more than one point your son Patrick was the voice of reason for you concerning how you looked at black people, at yourself and at him. I felt as if maybe he was the only one who could have made this appeal to you. How do you think your son affected your discovery/reconciliation of yourself?
As I say in the book, Patrick is an old soul. Early on, his emotional development and his wisdom were beyond what one normally sees in a child. We have a very close connection and he has observed me all his life and understands my dilemma. At cross-roads he always helps me to understand what the situation is. He identifies as a mixed-race person and is comfortable in all societies. Race is not something he looks at when meeting a person; he looks at the person, that’s all.
I don’t know how reconciled I am, but I am at peace.
Notice that I use caps for Black and White when I mean race and culture. I make the difference, because no one is fully black or fully white, like the color.
You had a lot of mixed feelings about Mutti. I think every child feels that way about their mother, but your dynamic was certainly more compounded. Did you ever actively try to prevent this ambivalence with your son? This memoir had a great focus on your relationship with all of your parents, society and your own growth, but there didn’t seem to be much focus on the fact that your son is just as much a part of the legacy. How do you ensure he doesn’t experience what you did?
My son knows who his parents are. His White father (and that side of his family) was supportive in the most loving way. His Black mother was loving and fiercely protective of him. As an adult he is great friends with my Black nephews and nieces as well as with my German family. The next generation interacts organically with one another, and my Black and White families in Guatemala have connected with in quite a lovely way. My son is not “split at the root.” He knows where he comes from and embraces his racial and cultural mix.
I know there were a lot of times when you felt excluded from society, from certain racial groups. It seemed you often felt you belonged nowhere. Have you found peace with that? Have you found a place of belonging, or do those questions still trouble you? It seemed at the end of the memoir that you had found a comfortable place from which you could still ask questions and search.
Thank you for understanding that in the end, all is well with me. It took years of therapy and searching, and I am now in a very comfortable place, wherever I may be. That is because of my relationship with Farai… I love that Black man, for his Black wisdom, for his truly Black outlook and for teaching me the beauty of Black music, literature, cooking… the works, really. As I said, Fred was my soulmate and my pillar, my rock of Gibraltar, but Farai allows me to explore and continue to discover and appreciate my Blackness.
I think there was definitely a sense of fulfillment, or maybe the word is gratification, at the end of the memoir. And there’s closure to a certain degree as well. As a reader, it felt like a happy ending, which after a lifetime of conflicting emotions, had to be a relief. It was a relief to me.
Catana also shared that this past spring semester Split at the Root was required reading in a Master’s in Social Work course at University of Southern California. I can’t even fathom how exciting it must be to know your book, your life, is helping others discuss and understand identity. Fantastic!
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WRITING SAMPLE – PART I
The First Twenty Years
Fact and Fiction
I was born at the mouth of the Rio Dulce, a Central American jungle river that slowly makes its way to the ocean through dense tropical rain forests in a part of the world where, it is said, the great mysteries of the Land of Mu and Atlantis wait to be re-discovered. Even as I write today Livingston, the remote village of my birth, is only accessible by boat: no roads connect it to the rest of Guatemala.
As the sun pierced the horizon my new voice joined that of the village roosters in welcoming the day. I was born at sunrise, in a humble village hut; the first child of a young Black woman named Rosa. I didn’t grow up with her and although I knew her, it would take years before I would begin to remember her face.
I was told that, days after my birth I was brought to live in the Casa Grande, a mansion on the hill overlooking the village, the river, and the ocean. It belonged to don Pablo, a German exporter who lived there with his wife, doña Esther, and her daughter Miss Ruth. When they were forced to move to Guatemala City they took me with them because, doña Esther (whom I called Mutti, mommy in German) would tell me, she had fallen in love with me and couldn’t leave me behind. I don’t remember the village hut or the mansion on the hill for that matter, and only recall the family stories of what happened long ago.
“Tonight, I have a little story for my beautiful baby,” my German mother murmured in my ear on a hot tropical evening when I was very young, and began to spin the first of many tales she would weave entirely for me.
We sat in the cool of the terrace – me in the fold of her arm – and observed day slip into night. Two long-tailed birds drifted across the sky in the fading light as a solitary canoe glided into darkness on the river below. Surrounded by the quiet of the jungle, the vast, leaden Atlantic spread before us. In the comfort of her arms, I absorbed the darkening landscape and listened to the sound of distant waves unfolding on the beach. I lived for those moments, when I shared the solace of the waning day with her; I yearned for her closeness, her generous, soft breasts, the way she smelled. I loved to hear her refined German voice as she shaped her words.
“One morning not so long ago, I woke up very early,” Mutti whispered in my ear, “so early, it was still dark outside. I peeked into Ruth’s room and she, too, was already awake. So we decided to come out and sit on the terrace and wait for the sun to rise. The grass was wet with dew and the breeze rustled in the palms, just like now… The whole world smelled fresh and new, like the very first morning of the very first day.” Overjoyed, I looked at her, my little face beaming. This was already a wonderful story. “Suddenly, in the gray of the water,” Mutti pointed to the distance, “we saw a big, round leaf slowly floating down the Rio Dulce. And guess what,” she said, enlarging her eyes in amazement. “Right in the middle of this thick, beautiful leaf, sat a little brown baby.”
“Oh,” I said breathless and sat up to face her. “And then?”
“Then, Ruth and I ran down the hill as fast as we could, and…”
“We both got there at the very same time,” Mutti said, gently kissing my forehead. “And I pulled the leaf ashore, and picked up the baby and cuddled it in my arms, like this… and I kissed the little baby, like this… And then I said: Oh, what a beautiful little Mohrle, this is!”
“That’s me!” I shrieked with joy.
“Yes!” my mother said with a broad smile on her face, “that’s how you became my darling child.”
My first story was so thrilling that it never occurred to me to ask who had put me on the leaf, or what would have happened if Mutti and Ruth hadn’t seen me.
For as far back as I can think, I have been Mohrle, an endearing term in German: ‘little Moor.’ After more than half a century, I am still ‘Mohrle’ to those who knew me as a child.
In photos of my early days in Livingston, I am a well-groomed tropical baby in piquet shorts and a ribbon around my head. I sit on Mutti’s lap looking thoughtful while she smiles proudly into the camera. Sometimes I’m by myself with only the cloudless sky in the background; to that Mutti would say, “Mohrle you look like the happiest little cherub brought by angels and placed on the grassy hill.” In spite of the imprint of the coastal sun on my skin, I became in every way Mutti’s German child.
Esther, my German mother, was a sophisticated, sociable woman. She was 52 at my birth. In pictures of her youth her auburn hair is gathered in a bun at the nape of her neck. By the time I begin to see her, the hair was gray and wavy and kept short. Her eyes were deep hazel with a mischievous twinkle that betrayed a fine sense of humor. She had delicate, well-shaped lips and a large gently curved nose. Occasionally she longed for the wine country of southwest Germany where she was born. Hers was a powerful presence that gave me a profound sense of invincibility and security. Above all, I sought to please Mutti, and yearned for her approval long after I no longer needed to prove anything to anyone.
Of average but pleasant appearance, Mutti’s daughter Ruth, who was 30 at my birth, was light in structure and elegantly thin. She lacked Mutti’s effervescent personality but was gentle – a nurturer by nature – who complied with all her parents’ wishes. I still remember her bathing and dressing me and combing my hair when I was little. At night, after my evening toilet, she fired my imagination with fairytales extolling the virtues of honesty, patience, and cleanliness. Then she would ask me to fold my hands and together we recited the prayer “Ich bin klein, mein Herz ist rein” (I am young, my heart is pure). After tucking me into bed and a gentle good night kiss on my cheek, she rejoined the others in the living room, always leaving my door slightly ajar so a ray of light from the hall entered my room and carried me to peaceful dreams. As a child I loved her dearly and called her Mama until she had children of her own, which was after she married a man named Rudolf. Then I began to refer to her as “my sister Ruth.” I remember well how much I loved being with her, and how things were before she married.
The child of two doting women, I was also the daughter of an aging, moody man: Mutti’s husband, Pablo Doescher. I called him Vati, daddy in German. His eyes were cornflower blue and when he laughed he displayed a row of perfect, shiny teeth that seemed even whiter against his brawny skin. Mutti told me he was blond, strong, and agile in his youth, so he came to figure in my mind as a powerhouse, a giant of a man. In reality, though, I only knew him as a physically incapacitated, corpulent, elderly gentleman.
Vati was born in Hamburg in 1886, and belonged to those German coffee growers and exporters who settled in Latin America in the late nineteenth, early twentieth century to see that local produce found its way to Europe. Some belonged to well-established families of importers from Hamburg or Bremen, younger siblings who were sent overseas to participate in their families’ company affairs. Others, like Vati, left Germany in the employ of already established companies. Many were adventurers of the legendary, trailblazer sort, the devil may care type of men who with the help of machetes, Indians, and mules cleared their way through dense tropical vegetation and claimed arable land for their farms.
Vati arrived in Guatemala aged 21 in 1905 and settled in Livingston two years later. He worked for the Ferrocarril Verapaz, a German-owned railroad company founded in the late eighteen hundreds. The steam-powered engine was a charming relic of early private railroad enterprise. The line ran from Pancajché in the highlands, where the coffee was loaded, down to Panzós on the Rio Dulce and from there by barge to the port of Livingston on the Atlantic. “When a deadline had to be met,” Mutti would tell me, “Vati took his shirt off and worked together with the natives loading and unloading the cargo. He never expected anyone to do what he himself couldn’t. He may not have been easy to work for but he dealt fairly with everyone, and everyone deeply respected him.” Livingston was not peripheral when exports to Europe boomed.
My father was on his first vacation in Germany when WWI broke out in 1914, and was drafted into the German army. It was during that time he met Mutti and fell in love with her. When he returned to Livingston in 1920, she was a bride at his side. Shortly after his return, Pablo Doescher was appointed Honorary Consul of Germany in Livingston. As such, his responsibilities were not diplomatic but commercial, and necessary primarily with regard to shipping and loading issues and permits.
As removed geographically as my parents were from Germany, so too were they distanced from the atrocious political and social goings on there. Because of the charged period in history, and because it is a general misconception that all Germans in Latin America were Nazis, I must mention that neither Vati, Mutti, or Ruth had the minutest sympathy for the political or philosophical aspirations of the National Socialist Party. Vati was aware of the activities in Europe and abhorred the developments in his home. When Hitler was named chancellor with dictatorial powers in 1933, Vati renounced his consular position. The German Ambassador in Guatemala City, a Herr von Kuhlman, also an avowed anti-Nazi, beseeched Vati to stay at his post, which he ultimately did in support of his friend. Neither had wanted to gamble as to who would be sent as Vati’s replacement.
World War II would cause great difficulty for Germans living in Latin America. After Pearl Harbor, Guatemala, like most Latin American republics, joined the cause of the allies on the side of the United States, and German property was confiscated just about everywhere. My parents were given a few weeks to pack their belongings and move inland to Guatemala City. Then the United States demanded that German men be incarcerated, or if the prisons were inadequate, be shipped to US internment camps. After we had left Livingston in January 1942 and settled in Guatemala City, my father, together with the other German men, was deported like a criminal to a camp in Mc Allen, Texas.
The postcards addressed to Mohrle Doescher came with regularity and have yellowed in the decades since I received them. “Mein liebes kleines Mohrle,” (my dear little Mohrle) Vati writes to me in one, “I just received your pretty paintings and Mutti’s letter telling me what a wonderful child you are. I can tell that you are very careful and tidy. The minute your envelope arrived, I got this card so I could thank you right away. I miss you so very much. Soon I will be back to play with you and Schaeffi. Please give Mutti a hug for me, little Mohrle. I love you with all my heart, Vati.” After Mutti read those words to me, I hugged her really tight. In those moments of sheer joy, I was the happiest girl in the world.
While in the camp, Vati contracted a nervous disorder that left him partially paralyzed and barely able to walk. I was almost five in 1945 when Vati came home, lying on a stretcher. My memories of those early days after his return are quite clear, for I kept him company and accompanied him on slow walks with our dog. Eventually he learned to move about quite well using a cane. On most unusual occasions when the maids had the day off and neither Ruth nor Mutti were home, Vati made my dinner: pancakes. I would find the bowl wherein he mixed flour, milk, and eggs; and I got the frying pan from the low cabinet because he could not bend down and keep his balance. I can still taste those delectable morsels today: a little burned on one side, on the other just right, sprinkled with cinnamon sugar and served with a glass of cold milk.
The women in the German community, whether they liked each other or not, forged strong ties and held together like family. A young mother of 3, who had married a significantly older man, was left somewhere in the nowhere lowlands of Guatemala trying to make ends meet with her broken Spanish. Hannali, the middle child, was my age and came to stay with us several times a year for months at a time. As dissimilar in appearance as two individuals can be, Hannali and I were one in thought and action and could well have been one soul that came to earth through two different mothers. So much so, that people sometimes wondered whether Ruth perhaps wasn’t pulling their leg when she said we were her twins.
Sometimes Hannali caught me observing her. “What?” She’d ask, as I looked and just looked at her.
“Nothing,” I’d answer, embarrassed at being caught staring. I loved the freckles on her nose that looked like caramelized specks of sugar, or how her deep blue eyes turned purple when she got mad. But above all, I loved her straight, flaxen hair that flew around her head bending to the slightest breeze. I had no freckles, my eyes did not change color when I got mad, and my hair, in contrast to hers, was always immaculately well arranged. But my invariably perfect presentation came at a price, and Hannali commiserated with me every morning by sitting next to me on the bathroom bench while Ruth opened the four braids she had carefully woven the previous day. Meticulously, she combed through every bit of my kinky hair. “We’ll be done sooner if you hold still,” Ruth would inevitably say, “it hurts me more than it does you, Mohrle.” Of course it was never soon and it’s debatable who suffered more, but in the end my four braids were held in place with silver clasps and I looked as perfect as a doll. One thing was certain: having my kind of hair may have been painful, but I looked well groomed all day. I would have given anything, however, for the sort of hair that required the inconvenience of having clips holding it in place when the wind disheveled it. Many years later, I painted freckles on my nose with an eyebrow pencil.
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When Cold Winds Began to Blow
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.
The Christmas pageantry, created for me alone, was so convincing that I already had little breasts and was menstruating when Mutti found it necessary to tell me Christkind, Nikolaus, and the angels did not really exist.
As I look back at my childhood, I try to find a moment in time or space when I could have felt, or would have wanted to feel any different about myself. The festive Christmas seasons were only part of the powerful experiences that seduced my soul and transformed my spirit into becoming a German child.
* * *
The Child in the Potato Box
In 1946 we bought Chalet Catalina, a recently finished, modest house that accommodated us perfectly. We were already living there on the day I accompanied Ruth and the maid to the busy smelly market. I was not yet six, but even blindfolded could have pointed to saddles, knives, and umbrellas and told you they were next to chili peppers, garlic, and tomatoes. Stands of sticky mangoes, over-ripe bananas, and honey-sweet pineapples were across from those where fried tacos, refried beans, and braised pork were being prepared. Many eyes followed me, and not because I was the only clean child in the place. People as dark as me were an uncommon sight in Guatemala City, and it was obvious by my demeanor and by the language I spoke with Ruth that I belonged to her.
I was born with an inherent dislike for dirt and disorder and that place had too much of both. The dirt that accompanied poverty, the vendor children who came too close for my liking; their sticky, unclean hands, their uncombed, dusty hair with pieces of dried grass in it, the limp rags they wore which, like their bodies, had not been washed in days, all disgusted me. We reached a grimier stand than most, where in a crumbling, moist, cardboard box, half filled with potatoes, a particularly filthy child cried desperately. He stretched out his pasty arms at everyone hoping someone might take pity and release him from the misery of his predicament. Body fluids oozed out of every orifice: the little nose was caked with mucus, saliva ran from the open screaming mouth, tears left a wet trail on the dusty child’s face, and the contents of the rags hanging around his hips streamed down short toddler legs soaking the feet. I stood there, revolted by his shrieks and sickened at the sight of him. When Ruth saw my disgusted face, she simply took my hand and moved us on.
Once at home, I played in my sandbox until it was time to wash for lunch. I was called to table but wasn’t hungry. No matter how much they tried to talk me into eating, I stubbornly refused. At her wits end, Mutti declared I should not be given food until dinner, which suited me just fine. But I soon forgot.
After my nap I went to the pantry looking for my crackers and milk. The maid reminded me that I was punished and sent me off for get permission to be given food. When I asked Mutti if I could have my snack, she told me to apologize for the scene at lunch.
“I hate that horrible ugly food! I’m never going to eat vegetables! I’m hungry now, and I want my Saltines with marmalade!” I reacted furiously.
Ruth walked by. “Dear me,” she chimed in, “What is this? Where is our dear sweet Mohrle?” She came into the room with an expression of shock. “I must have left our Mohrle at the market!” she exclaimed. “This is the horrible child from the potato box!” With that, she made two big steps toward me and grabbed my hand. “I have to take this awful child back to the market and find our darling Mohrle,” she said and began to drag me out of the room.
It took several seconds before I realized what was happening. In panic I shrieked: “No! No! I’m your Mohrle. It’s me! I’m here!”
Ruth stopped, looked at me as the tears poured down my face. “Oh, I… don’t… think… so…” she said slowly, “our Mohrle would never make such a spectacle; our Mohrle would apologize.”
“Looook at meee!” I screeched, almost delirious. “You know it’s me! Can’t you see it’s me? I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I sobbed.
An apology had been extracted and I was no longer in danger of being exchanged for the horrible child in the market. All was well again. I wiped away my tears and whimpered as I sat at the table in the pantry eating my crackers with butter and orange marmalade. Each time I swallowed, the lump in my throat threatened to choke me.
The episode remained in my memory as funny, because Mutti and Ruth sometimes brought it up and we would laugh long and hard about it. Even though there was no malice intended and it was meant as a joke, I now understand how appalling and agonizing a shock it must have been to me as a young child, that the people closest to me and who I trusted most, could mistake me for someone else. My friends knew they could never be confused with a child in a filthy potato box at the crummy market. Without a single word, they recognized their genetic kinship with their parents and siblings.
I had no such reference.
* * *
Various Shades of Dark
I figure my birthmother, Rosa, was 21 or 22 at my birth and 9 or 10 years younger than Ruth. Agatha, Mutti’s housekeeper in Livingston, was Rosa’s godmother. It was customary then, and might perhaps still be so, that a well-situated godmother cares for her godchild. That’s how Rosa came to live in the German household. She was, however, not employed by the family. Mutti, Vati, and Ruth knew her very well and liked her a lot. Above all, they admired her remarkable talent for languages. Just by listening to conversations of people around her, Rosa became comfortable speaking German and English in addition to her native Spanish.
According to Mutti, when Rosa found herself pregnant and unmarried, she assured Rosa that if the baby was a girl, she, Mutti, would raise the child. “See,” Mutti would say to me smiling and pinching my cheek, “you wanted me to be your mother because you came out being a little girl.”
“You would not have kept me if I’d been a boy?” I asked Mutti. How horrible… where would I be? Where the Black people lived! What a terrible thought! It’s not that I had reason to worry. I just wondered…
“Now Mohrle, what would I have done with a little Black boy?” Mutti said raising her eyebrows and shaking her head. And so, without another word, it was absolutely clear in my child’s mind that something was seriously wrong with Black boys. In my evening prayers I made sure to add a silent one thanking God for giving me a vagina.
After telling me stories of how I arrived in her life, I also heard that the carpenter made a crib of shiny rosewood as a gift for me. The sheets covering the mattress were made of imported white linen with white lilies embroidered around the edges. The little crib was placed next to Mutti’s bed, so she would be first by my side if I cried during the night. Thus, I had to understand that I was in every way Mutti’s child.
On one occasion, my birthmother Rosa took me to the village to show me to her friends. Whatever some well-meaning woman gave me to eat or drink made me sick, and I was burning up with fever by the time we returned home in the evening. “When I saw you,” Mutti said with an alarmed expression, “I quickly wrapped you in ice-cold towels to bring the temperature down. Had I not done that, Mohrle, you would have died.” A pained look clouded her eyes as she recalled the scary night. That was probably the last time anyone in the village laid eyes on me.
I can’t recall ever saying “mother” to Rosa. She was plain Rosa, someone who would ruin my day each time she showed up. I don’t remember ever having a conversation with her and can’t recall anything she said to me, or to anyone else for that matter. I was Mutti’s child, and the dark woman with the sad black eyes filled me with profound fear. I had only one picture of her. In it we are playing with water in an enameled pan. She’s laughing, but she’s looking down at me, so one can’t see the features of her face. I’m surprised I never tore it up. I probably looked like her, and I dreaded the thought that she might intend to snatch me and take me to the place where she and all the other Black people lived. I probably even looked like all of them and no one would have known I was different. The thought gave me goose bumps and chills ran down my spine. I made sure I stayed at least three arm’s length away from her so I could outrun her if she tried to grab me. Although she never did anything to justify such a feeling of mistrust, I lived with a certain degree of apprehension when I saw the woman who had brought me into this world. It upset me that she was Black and powerless: I didn’t want to belong to her. If she had a child, I didn’t want to be it. She depressed me. Why did she come? Ohhh! Why did she come to see me?
Why had she always come? Why would she visit, even when she knew I preferred not to see her? Why was there always tension when she was around? Was it only I who became apprehensive at her presence, or did she also affect Mutti and Ruth? I was so embarrassed and ashamed at having her as a mother that it never occurred to me to see whether she made others uncomfortable, too. She must have. She did. I can feel it in my gut: she did… I can feel her heart speaking volumes each time it beat, and that she’d have screamed had she not remained silent.
Gil was my birthfather’s name. I think he came by when I was four or five, but I don’t remember him. He was one of several children the American Honorary Consul for the area had with a village woman. Gil’s father was White and had lived in the tropics all his life. Mutti said his face was always as red as a boiled lobster under his broad-rimmed Panama hat. She called him Old Man Reed. I don’t know why, but I gathered Mutti thought less of him and not necessarily because he didn’t have a lovely tan like Vati’s.
That’s what I knew about my genetic parents from hearsay and experience.
Sometimes Black men came from the coast to visit. I also kept my distance from them. They invariably brought live shrimp and lobsters, and fresh fish frozen in a block of ice: special delicacies for the cook to prepare. We sat on the verandah drinking ice-cold lemonade with sprigs of mint leaves, listened to how much life in Livingston had changed and how everyone missed don Pablo and the secure existence he had provided. I only remember one of those men by name, Chico Blanco, for I associated the wiry man with colors: his skin was dark brown, his eyes were green like Prell shampoo, and his name was white.
When I sat at the dinner table to enjoy the heavenly gifts from the sea, I flat out failed to associate the delicious meal with those who had brought it. What was a delicacy for us, I realized later, the Black people on the coast enjoyed regularly.
* * *
Power and Ownership
My apprehensions did not go unnoticed, so Mutti found it necessary to appease my fears by telling me that as soon as we had settled in the city she requested an audience with the President. I was probably three when I heard the story for the first time.
“I wanted to make sure he knew you are my child,” Mutti said, and showed me the dark blue dress with white pinstripes and the blue and white pumps she wore for the occasion. She recounted her nervous walk up the steps of the presidential palace and how two soldiers of the guard accompanied her through one wood-paneled salon after another until, at the end of a long dark hall, she was asked to wait in front of a massive door while her arrival was announced to the President of the republic. Once inside the governing chambers, she implored him by saying that if he had intentions of also deporting German women and children, he allow her to keep little Mohrle: “I’ve been her mother from the day she was born, and I won’t survive the separation,” she said to him. Then, in an imposing, deep voice he answered, “Gentil señora, Doña Esther, usted no se preocupe” (don’t you worry about a thing). Mutti would look at me and conclude slowly and in a calm voice: “He is a sensible man, Mohrle. He knows that with me you have a better home than with anyone else in the world. The main thing,” Mutti impressed upon me, “is that we will never be separated. You will see, my little darling,” she concluded embracing me and chirping lightheartedly like a morning bird, “he will keep his word. You are my child forever.”
The highest word in the land had decreed I was forever Mutti’s child and she had every right to keep me. No one was allowed to separate me from her. No Black people, no political situation. If Mutti and Ruth had to join Vati in the imprisonment camp, I would go with them. It was a powerful story that, as she repeated it through the years, never changed.
* * *
A Little Girl Dreaming
“Really?” was Mutti’s answer when I told her at breakfast that I had seen my husband. “Well, what was he like?” She asked, not very interested in my exciting dream. After all I was only six or seven years old.
“He has brown hair, very pretty thick eyebrows, and his eyes are light green. He is very, very good looking, and he makes me laugh,” my face glowed as I recalled the handsome apparition.
“Oh, is he kind and loving, too?” came a perfunctory response as she placed a dollop of marmalade on her buttered roll.
“He loves me as much as Vati loves you,” I beamed, “and he is very kind, and very funny. We go for walks and throw stones into puddles. And he sings silly songs so I laugh. We like to laugh and laugh.”
Mutti smiled. “That’s just wonderful, Mohrle! He sounds like a very nice, friendly husband. How old is he?”
“Oh, he’s much, much older than me. Probably 16,” I figured after some reflection.
Every time variations of the dream recurred I spent the day swooning and telling everyone in the house I’d again seen my beautiful husband.
At some point after one of the apparitions, Mutti felt she had to bring some reality into the situation. “Mohrle,” she took one of my hands, “he may be handsome and funny and generous and all the wonderful things you see in your dreams, but real men aren’t that perfect, child. How about painting him on the wall? You go ahead and paint him on the wall, that way he will always stay as lovely as he is in your dreams.”
How could I ever do his beauty justice? That was silly. I didn’t paint him on the wall. What I did, was not talk about him anymore. But I could not interfere with the phantom’s nocturnal visits, which lasted years and ended in early adolescence.
* * *
Body and Soul: Philosophy
Once in Catalina, we became neighbors with a German family whose three daughters were close to me in age. Putzi, the youngest, wandered over to our house most often. We giggled and laughed, shared secrets and got into all sorts of mischief, and became inseparable. When one was punished the other also suffered the consequences. In a family of Hanseatic blondes, my friend was the fairest. Her features seemed chiseled in alabaster; her hair, thin and shiny like finest silk, was cut in a pageboy. When she laughed, light, caught like ripples on water, sparkled in her pale blue eyes.
It must have been a special day when Ruth bought me a Brownie camera that took black and white photographs. She showed me how it worked and then took pictures of Putzi and me. A week later, we saw the photographs. They came in a double-sided envelope with the positives in one side and the negatives in the other. In the positive images, as in reality, I was dark and my friend light. We discovered, however, much to our amazement, that in the negatives, I was light, and she dark.
“Maybe, the camera captures a picture of our soul,” Putzi whispered mysteriously cupping a hand to my ear. “Maybe white people in reality are devils and dark people angels,” she added and we curled up giggling. Just then Marta walked by with the freshly ironed laundry.
“I wonder how she looks in a negative,” I whispered to Putzi. We looked for Ruth and finding her, asked her to capture our faces with caramel-colored Marta. On seeing the negatives, Putzi decided that Indians were saints in purgatory because their jet-black hair glowed like a halo invisible to regular eyes.
Such was the nature of our observations and our early philosophical conclusions regarding skin color, angels, and purgatory.
* * *
Mischief in the Kitchen with Vati
Early one Sunday morning – it was so early, not even the maids were up – I heard my father’s uneven step go by my room. I sat up to listen and heard sounds coming from the pantry.
I got out of bed and tiptoed out to see what was going on. Sure enough, Vati was in the kitchen, and he was wearing his faded red and gray plaid don’t-mess-with-me-today shirt. I stood in the shadows and watched him close the refrigerator door and wobble to the counter with something wrapped in white paper. Then he noticed me.
“Ah, Mohrle,” he whispered, greeting me cheerfully. “I’m going to make the best Sunday breakfast there is, and I invite you to be my guest.”
“Why are you up so early?” I asked softly. “It’s still dark outside.”
“I am the only one who can prepare this,” he winked at me and grinned sheepishly. “We’ll have finished cooking and eating by the time the others even realize we were here.” Then he opened the package and displayed the delicacy: an oily, golden fish. “Smoked herring! Imported smoked kippers: the best I’ve seen in a long time.” Vati explained proudly. “Can you scramble eggs?” he asked me, almost as an afterthought.
“I can beat eggs really well,” I said quickly, eager to be recruited.
“Good. Go find six and beat them up in something. And add a little milk and pepper, no salt,” he instructed. “When the fish is fried to a crisp, we’ll pour the eggs over it and let the whole thing set. Then,” his deep blue eyes sparkled with anticipation, “it will be ready to eat.” Without another word, he turned, picked up the knife and sharpener and crisscrossed the instruments in rhythm, like a magician. Carefully, he pared the leathery, golden skin off the fish.
As his accomplice, I also found the big frying pan and showed him where the oval serving platter and the dishes were kept. Then I set the dining room table for two, with fish forks and knives, as he directed.
“We need brown bread for this, do you know where they keep it?” He asked. I did, and also took it to the table.
The fried kippers and scrambled eggs melded in my mouth as the most delicious food I had ever tasted in my life, and I knew for sure that my father was absolutely the best cook in the world. He washed his fish down with a beer and a shooter of schnapps. I had ginger ale. It was not even five-thirty and we had eaten every last crumb of the best imaginable breakfast. I looked at my father’s pleased face and somewhere in my young mind understood that the smell and taste of this Nordic dish had returned him to the winters of his youth, in that far away, gray, cold Hamburg.
Mutti heard an earful from the maids, of course; they had to clean up the oily kitchen and live in the smell of stale fried fish for days. Everyone had enough to say, and Vati wore his don’t-mess-with-me-today shirt until the odor had left the house and the comments behind his back ended.
* * *
School and Scholarship
In addition to doing the necessary sewing for the household Zoilita, our seamstress, was also my first academic teacher. Sometimes in the afternoons she had me practice drawing straight and curved lines in calligraphy notebooks. Under her tutelage I learned how to read and write in Spanish. Zoilita also taught me arithmetic, so by the time I entered first grade at six, I was ready to engage in advanced class work.
My German friends went to a school that was immediately behind Catalina. It would have been logical for me to join them, but I had to walk eight blocks to a different school because the director, a haughty woman named Reyes Guerra, had in fact refused to accept me. “We can’t have your negrita here; we have to keep our standards.” I heard Mutti tell Vati and Ruth what had been said, and they were furious with the ignorant woman. I stood in the shadows, pale with shame and deeply humiliated that my mother had been treated with such disrespect because I was Black. I tiptoed to my room, and sat at my desk and cried a little bit. My young heart ached, lonely and forlorn, in a world where no one knew about or could have anticipated the hurt. Deeply embarrassed to talk to anyone about what I overheard, I resolved never to greet Reyes Guerra.
Had Rosa or my father Gil been around, and had I trusted them with my secret, I would probably have received a healthy perspective on prejudice and racism. I would have understood that it had only been Mutti’s ego that got a dent, and that she was resilient.
Fortunately for me, I was accepted in a fine school run by German Jews, and received the very best elementary education a child could access in the Guatemala of the 40’s and 50’s.
On my first day of school, Ruth neatly combed my hair and arranged it into four braids as usual. Zoilita had made a light blue dress with puffy sleeves and a sash that tied into a bow in the back. Over it I wore the blue sweater with mother of pearl buttons Mutti had knit for me. Mutti held my hand as we walked several blocks over a sweet-smelling carpet of mauve jacaranda petals that covered the sidewalks.
The school, a wooden two-story building with many windows, sat in the middle of a large block. As soon as we entered the grounds, Miss Lehnsen came out of the building to greet us. She shook my hand and said to Mutti that it was a particularly special day for her and brother, the director. They were honored to have Catana in their school. We were all smiling. Then Mutti kissed me good-bye, and Miss Lehnsen took my hand and accompanied me to my classroom.
The Lehnsens had fled Hitler’s Germany and had many Jewish children in the school. When Mutti talked to them about enrolling me, they were overjoyed. Accepting me could be seen as a gesture they bore no ill feelings toward the Guatemalan German community. I was, and yet was not, a German child. Being a German child was a distinction I particularly cherished.
My grades were excellent throughout, and I burst with pride at report card time when, during cocktails and before dinner, the remarkable outcomes and the teacher’s positive comments were discussed in detail. One day, early in third grade, I heard Mutti say that such consistent excellence should be rewarded with a scholarship. She told me it would be an honor and I gathered that she really wanted me to receive the distinction. Soon enough I ended up horrified at discovering that students with scholarships went to school for less, sometimes no money. I related that to poverty and certainly did not want the association. Poor people had dark skin. It was a feature of mine I resented. I didn’t want anyone to think I belonged to the poor as well. And so: my grades began to slip. Eventually I was so successful at being a mediocre student that I was in serious peril of having to repeat fourth grade. A little more effort in my work, and the grades improved and I passed easily. It was no big deal for me, but a great relief for Mutti, who never found out what had caused the academic deterioration.
As all children, I interacted with society according to my parent’s social standing, and I figured that in order to be as White as my German friends I had to be mediocre, as I sometimes heard they were. It became etched in my psyche that White people excelled by being and connections, not by effort, certainly not knowledge. I had heard that this one or the other one was not particularly smart. From what I saw, this one or the other one was living in a nice house, had servants, drove a car. Those of whom I’d heard comments regarding superior intelligence were maids or gardeners. Yet they had nothing but long hours of tiring work to show for it. By the time I was 8 at most, it was clear to me that only dark people had to work hard, and in spite of that they would never achieve the social rank commensurate with the effort they expended. Neither their loyalty to the boss nor the integrity of their work, nor the keen knowledge in their field ever mattered: they were inferior because of their color. They were not paid more for their expertise and they could never leave the conditions into which they had been born.
I had to become White in every aspect. I saw myself as belonging fully to the privileged social class in which I was growing up. Being White became part of my fabric; as long as I was German I’d have everything I needed flowing to me from invisible channels, forever.
No scholarship for me, my parents had to pay for my education.
* * *
Europe had been at war. Germany was burning, or had been. I was too young to understand the dimensions of the devastation and too removed to be affected by it. But the war had separated Ruth from her love, a man named Rudolf, who was stuck overseas and couldn’t return to Guatemala to marry her. Until he actually came back in 1950, my evening prayers ended, “Please, dear God, let Mama’s novio come back.” He was the ‘novio,’ the fiancé. Twice a month I saw Ruth in the pantry lovingly prepare a “care package” she would send to him. I knew him only in imaginary terms. However, if I ever had a wish, from the time I knew what wishing was about until his arrival when I was ten, it was always: “Please have Mama’s novio return.” At night, hoping to catch a falling star, I’d stretch out of my window to scan the sky above the somber silhouettes of the cypress trees, or when the setting sun fired the sky in bright magenta, I knew where to find a barely visible silvery Venus: seeing the evening star and casting one’s desires on it would surely make them come true. Or, when driving with Ruth from the suburbs to the city, a train might be crossing over the bridge on seventh avenue just as our car drove under it and Ruth would say: “Quick, make a wish!” And I’d shut my eyes real tight and in my mind formulate my only request. I never wanted anything for myself or for anyone else. I loved Ruth so dearly that her innermost longing also became mine.
According to Mutti, Vati had once already derailed Ruth’s intentions to marry Rudolph, and the war had been on his side, for it caused a ten-year interruption in the lover’s lives. No one could tell what was worse for Ruth: Vati’s dislike for the man she loved, or the disruption the war brought by keeping them apart.
It was a Thursday in 1950. I know that detail because the maids have Thursday afternoons off, so that only Vati, Mutti and I were in the house. I was in the hall going toward my room, chewing the first bite I’d taken out of an apple, when Vati’s voice exploded like a sonic boom that caused Catalina’s thick walls to tremble. Oh, my God! My heart almost stopped beating. I could hardly breathe and my hands broke out in sweat. What was he saying? It was a loud guttural roar; the words made no sense. It was all horrible gibberish! Once in a while I heard Mutti’s voice coming through the ruckus, and for the first time in my life I feared for her wellbeing. It was all so loud and scary that I couldn’t think, much less act. I quickly slipped into my room and threw myself on the bed, holding on to the apple for dear life and feeling sick to my stomach. That’s how Mutti found me.
“Mohrle, it’s not so bad. Vati’s just having a fit,” she said helping me to sit up. Tears of fear and confusion welled up in my eyes. I felt alone and forsaken even though Mutti was next to me. And she was next to me smiling as if nothing was going on! She hugged me again and held me close. Still grinning broadly, she handed me a piece of paper. My hands trembled as I took it, while two fat tears plopped on my lap. I was too distraught to understand that the telegram was signed “Los recién casados” (the newlyweds).
“Mohrle,” Mutti continued cheerfully, “don’t you see? Ruth and Rudolf have married. Rudolf got off the ship in El Salvador and Ruth went there to meet him. It was a big secret, and now they’re already husband and wife!”
“I thought that was good,” I stammered, nauseated at the news and totally confused by the situation. Here Mutti was sitting next to me, acting as if the world were colored baby pink and smelled of roses, and there was Vati in his room, bellowing like a deranged Orangutan.
“Of course it’s good news,” Mutti said sealing her words with another hug. “Vati’s having a fit just for the sake of having a fit.” With a graceful wave of her hand she dismissed his tantrum. “Please don’t cry any more little one, everything is fine. We should be happy for Ruth; she’s missed Rudolf for many, many years.”
Vati would quiet down, and I sighed with relief that it was over, but he was only catching his breath to take up hollering again. My tears dried, but my heart ached and it hurt to breathe. I hoped Marta might have returned early, but there was no one in the back of the house. Where was Ruth when I needed her? She was with Rudolf… and a foreboding feeling seeped into me as I knew Ruth would never be the same again.
Preparations for a small reception were soon underway. Vati got over his fit and began to act with more civility. He was in charge of the beverages and to include me in the celebration, bought two small bottles of my favorite grape-flavored soda. Hors d’oeuvres were prepared, champagne cocktails would abound for friends who were expected to come by and welcome the new couple. The late morning arrival was accompanied by great overall excitement in Catalina.
I was the only child among the welcoming group at the airport. I wore my prettiest cream-colored dress, and my hair was neat with silver clasps holding my braids, as always. Ruth was all smiles and hugged and kissed me and said I looked as perfect as a pearl in an oyster. Rudolph? Never as much as looked at me. Not once, during the entire time. I had not taken my eyes off him and knew that he had not as much as thrown a glance in my direction. By the time we arrived in Catalina, I had accepted his dismissal as rejection and was deeply disappointed.
Everyone settled in the living room. Vati served cocktails and the maids, in pink and white uniforms, went from person to person, offering hors d’oeuvres. I chose to sit on a stool removed from the commotion and chatter. As a matter of courtesy, Marta asked me what I’d like to drink. No one was paying any attention to me, whatsoever. I answered in a low voice, “A Grapette, please.”
The man who had ignored my presence, who in the past two and a half hours had not as much as glanced at me, threw me a cursory, split-second look and, instantly dismissing me, said, “So you, too, drink that kind of dirt.”
All blood drained from my body; I turned to stone, or so it felt. I was injured beyond words. His comment was the single most shocking affront I had ever experienced. Never had anyone made me feel so humiliated. I had suspected it, but now I knew why he had so blatantly ignored my presence: I belonged to the people one doesn’t see, and I had proven him right for I had asked for a colorful, sweet drink, something Europeans would not have ordered. My taste had betrayed who I was: a child of “those brown or Black” people who guzzle beverages that are too sweet, too orange, too pink, too purple. How tasteless of me!
The wound had been inflicted, and I began to hate him with every fiber in my body. He had taken my Mama, had used up all my innermost desires and wishes, and then he rejected me. And he did so because I was Black. All my shooting stars had culminated into a single monumental, painful disappointment. I was left with nothing more to wish for, so I stopped wishing, sadly aware that innermost desires can, when granted, turn into unbearable heartache. Rudolf was the first European individual who had, palpably and to my face, made me feel inferior. I never forgave him. I began to see him as an arrogant pathetic fortune hunter. In that, I must have agreed with Vati. I understood with a child’s visceral senses that, although Mutti acted as if she were happy, she was only relieved that Ruth was finally no longer single. Rudolph had a fine education and knowledge of business, and instead of staying in Europe and re-building that part of the world where he belonged, he figured correctly that he could move ahead faster in an underdeveloped country where his White skin placed him in an advantaged position. After one night (or was it two?) Vati had enough and kicked him out. I remember looking out the window and seeing him walk away, suitcase in hand, toward the gate en route to the bus stop. As long as Vati lived, Rudolf never slept in Catalina again. He found employment with acquaintances in Retalhuleu, and soon he and Ruth moved there. My Mama embarked on her married life in another town and my world, as I had known it, had indeed come to an end.
* * *
Bigger Changes Were in Store
Five days before my eleventh birthday I left for school in the morning, as usual. Mutti and Vati were in Cobán visiting friends, so I thought nothing of it when Tante Annemarie picked me up at school in the afternoon. I would spend the rest of the day with her children, she said, and if I wanted I could stay for dinner. Dinner at her house meant Spaetzle. I loved Spaetzle. As my parents were not Swabian like Tante Annemarie, the dish was never prepared in our home. I spent hours laughing, chasing and being chased, hiding and seeking in and out of closets, in and out of the house.
It was dark when I saw our Ford pull up. Someone opened the back door and I got in, and that someone told me, as the car was driving home, that Vati had died during the previous night. I don’t remember who drove. But someone sitting in the back with me, probably Ruth, told me. I must have stopped breathing, and it must have felt as if my heart should stop beating. But I didn’t cry; I showed no emotion. That much I remember.
The house was somber when I entered. I had seen houses where someone had died. They were filled with flowers and wreaths and more flowers. But all the flowers in Catalina had already followed the coffin, and only the maids were still wearing black. Mutti would later tell me that, shortly after going to bed on that fateful night, Vati called out for her, and when she reached him he only had time to whisper, “I love you, Esther” before inhaling for the last time. The end comes swiftly when the aorta ruptures, and it all seems more abrupt in the tropics where burial must occur within twenty-four hours of death.
I don’t know if I wept for Vati then. I guess I must have when I was alone and no one could see me; when I realized I would never see him again, never hold his hand and go for walks with him again. Things went on in the family as if nothing had happened. My birthday party was canceled, of course, and I have never celebrated my birthday since.
Vati was loving and patient with me. Although he suffered from vicious mood swings, his foul mood was never directed at me or at my friends. I miss him to this very day and have always compared every man I’ve fallen in love with to him. Was he as charming? Was he as powerful? Could his voice make people tremble; could his word and a single look demand instant attention and be enough to have things done at once? But above all: would he love me as much as Vati had loved Mutti? Vati was splendid in every way. I loved that father. I was his Mohrle in the dearest, gentlest way one can be someone’s beloved child.
As fate would have had it, Vati’s death came a few months after the marriage. He had hated Rudolf with every fiber of his being, and Mutti likewise never stopped mistrusting the man to the very end. I had to bury my hurt and my hatchet and accept the grumpy individual who had entered my life. In time, however, I recognized that someone I had deeply despised was probably not that bad a person after all. We managed to establish a cordial, though somewhat distant relationship. What delighted me most about Rudolf was the brilliantly striking wit he sometimes coupled with a naughty sense of humor. He twisted his mouth into a crooked grin and his grey eyes had a wicked sparkle when he laughed. It wasn’t often that I did, but he liked to see me “get” his jokes.
Vati knew I had two secrets. First, that I wanted to have a Bible; and second, that I was enamored with Humperdinck’s opera Hansel and Gretel after seeing it being performed in Guatemala. On the Christmas after his death, among my presents in that festive room aglow with candlelight lay, unwrapped, a white leather-bound gold leaf Bible and, hidden under a pile of gifts was the complete recording of Humperdinck’s opera. I was told Vati had ordered them for me in the States before his death, and Vati’s saintliness became even more cemented in my love for him. Many, too many years later, I learned by chance that it was Rudolf who had ordered the Bible and the opera for me.
Rudolf began to shape my early intellectual tastes by generously exposing me to what nourished his own spirit: German literature, music, and art. Sometimes when I caught him coming through the garden toward the house, I could tell by the bounce in his gait that a book he had ordered for me at the bookstore had arrived.
I lived in a colorful, sensuous world, where volcanoes are chiseled into a cobalt blue horizon and purple orchids, striped bromeliads, and gigantic ferns abound. Cozy in my bright world, I devoured tales of cloudy marshland skies where shrouded ghosts swept through layers of fog on clammy northern dikes. Rudolf fostered my soul’s longing for the elegiac tones and shades of a deeply European nostalgia.
* * *
My Family in the Pfalz
I was passing by Vati’s room one afternoon; we still called it Vati’s room although he had died over a year ago. Two upholstered chairs and a small round table with a reading lamp took the corner space where his bed had been. Mutti was sitting at the massive mahogany desk that remained as it had, facing the garden. “What do you think of this poem Mohrle?” I heard her call to me. I entered the room and took the paper from her hand. The date on the top left corner read October 1952. She was sixty-four then, I twelve.
“It’s beautiful Mutti, honestly,” I said after reading the words, and felt she must have been a little sad, for her writing conveyed a deep nostalgia for the hills, valleys, and chatty brooks of the Pfalz, the countryside of her youth. “I didn’t know you wrote poems,” I said pulling a chair over to sit next to her desk. “Please tell me again about the Pfalz. Tell me again about Germany,” I begged. And so began another of those afternoons when my mother offered me glimpses of her youth.
“The Pfalz, long ago Mohrle,” she smiled mildly, “was part of the Holy Roman Empire.”
“Roman? Like Julius Caesar, Roman?”
“Yes,” and I could tell her sadness was gone. “The Romans made themselves comfortable on the banks of the Rhine and began to cultivate grapes. Those people loved their wine,” she raised her hand like taking an imaginary sip. I had seen pictures in the National Geographic of terraced land along the Rhine.
In melodic mellow tones, Mutti brought back the beauty of the fields and streams where she had wandered in her youth; and I learned about geography and history, about the Romanesque, Gothic, and Baroque cathedrals and castles that dotted the landscape. As Mutti talked about princes, electors, and archdukes, my mind filled the spaces with pictures of armor-clad knights singing to golden-haired princesses in towers, like in the drawings of Andersen’s fairy tales. “When you finish high school I’ll take you to my beloved Pfalz, and we’ll stroll over the cobblestoned streets and you can run in the fields and skip on pebbles in the chatty brooks as I did,” she promised. And so, the Pfalz became more and more a part of me. So much so that I never questioned it could not be, not even in the farthest recesses of my mind.
Most people spoke French and German because the Pfalz was a buffer state between France and the German principalities. “The simpler people made up pretentious words. For instance,” Mutti laughed at the recollection, “regular soap is ‘Seife,’ as you know, but when the soap came from France, the simpletons called it ‘savon-seif’ – soap-soap,” and she contorted her face to make it look really boorish. We burst out laughing, and together chanted “Saffon-seif, saffon-seif!” and I squinched my face like she did, and we continued to laugh and laugh.
What I loved most were her colorful descriptions of the food; the clear white wine she said was “the nectar of gods and a gift to the educated palate.” Liverwursts and bratwursts seasoned with aromatic herbs were served on a bed of Sauerkraut that had been cured in champagne and sweetened with apples and grapes; and the crusty, grainy dark bread with a slab of fresh butter must have been divine, because Mutti had not given up trying to get the maids to replicate it.
I wanted so much to be a little like Mutti, or at least a little like the people in the Pfalz. I knew the answer, so did not ask why my nose was small when she said the Pfaelzer, like the French and the Italians, have large noses. Mutti’s eyes were not Nordic blue like Vati’s but hazel, and before years left silver strands, her hair was chestnut with auburn highlights. Ruth was also a brunette, had a large nose, and chocolate-colored eyes. They all looked alike: Tante Gustl, who was four years older than Mutti, and Tante Lisl, who was two years her senior. The former lived in Güntherstal, deep in the Black Forest, the latter in Saarbrücken on the border with France. Sight unseen, I loved everyone in that family and I dreamed of meeting my aunts and uncles, my many cousins and everybody else I was hearing about.
Like an oasis in the desert that attracts all water within its reach, I thirsted for Mutti’s stories. With each one, I became more and more her child; her family was my family, her history my history. I had ancestry that dated all the way back to Julius Caesar; I had a family in Germany; I had aunts, uncles, cousins. In my subconscious I knew better, but I adopted them all as my own and they became an integral part of the framework that offered me security. The contentment of belonging to such a fine group of people and having such a wonderful history left no room to squeeze a serious thought about my own background. I didn’t think to ask about Rosa and her community; I wanted only to know about Mutti’s world.