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.
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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. Before the quiet of the jungle surrounding us, spread the vast leaden Atlantic. 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.
My German mother was a sophisticated, sociable woman. She was 52 at my birth. In pictures of her youth she wore her auburn hair gathered in a bun at the nape of her neck. By the time I begin to remember 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 could enter my room and carry 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, don Pablo. 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.
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