On his 7th birthday my grandson burst into tears. The excitement had been too much, a party at school where he was the center of attention and then the next day a birthday celebration at home. Still crying, he reached for pen and paper, began to draw a soaring Spiderman, and was soon rapt in concentration, calming himself through his artwork. Watching his change of mood, I drifted back seventy years to when I turned seven and had to regain my equilibrium.
I had entered first grade midway through the official school year, having been discharged following several months quarantined in a children’s hospital, gravely ill with multiple infectious diseases. It was postwar Germany in the winter of 1946, and I had never been away from my family. That separation would haunt me for decades. I either avoided relationships or clung to them fiercely even after they had vanished from my life.
During the year I convalesced, chaos was rampant in Germany. We lacked firewood and coal and the food shortage was severe. After the midday meal my mother rested with my one-year-old sister while I began my chores. Wild berries needed to be picked, elderberries for soup had to be plucked from bushes, nettles gathered for a salad with carrots pulled from sandy soil to spice up the green mix. Sugar beets were also in demand so I rushed to overcrowded fields to compete with other scavengers in search of a stray beet here and there. Every household boiled sweet turnips to make molasses. Excursions with my father to the black market in town were routine. There we would barter for eggs or milk in exchange for a family valuable. Coal train spotting was a part of our daily lives. All neighboring families participated. When we children heard the hoot and steam-belching of a freight train, someone ran to fetch adults. As soon as the train halted at the crossing signal, men and women jumped aboard the open wagons and tossed down as much coal as possible before the locomotive let out a long sigh and the train chugged on. We children busily picked up priceless lumps, stuffing them into burlap bags to be dragged home.
When I finished my tasks, I was free to roam until suppertime. My parents sternly warned me never to be tardy. I did not need to be reminded because I looked forward to evenings when my mother read and sang to me at bedtime, which was so comforting and reassuring.
We lived like that for two years in a dilapidated out-building located on a large estate where acquaintances from before the war had taken us in. In my spare time I had hours to myself. I made no friends after my companion Eric died in the hospital. His bed had been next to mine and I missed him with all my heart. I wanted no other friend.
But I did take care of a white rabbit with a black nose. I named him Snowflake and saved him several times from the knife. I carried him with me in a wicker basket with a lid, once even to school where I was forbidden to bring him again. One day, after subsisting on fruits and vegetables and watery soup for a long time, my father ignored my pleading and my rabbit ended up on the dinner table. But my father could not eat. We all sat in silence and immobile, with tears streaming down our cheeks. Finally, no longer able to resist the allure of meat, we relented and our forks angled for the delicious chunks.
In my spare time, I also tended an animal cemetery which I had created in a nearby wood shortly after my release from the hospital. Mainly birds, some field mice, lots of lizards, and an assortment of spiders and flies slumbered under small mounds of soil. I decorated the graves with crosses made from sticks and piled flowers on top of the tiny hills. Nobody knew about this resting place, and though my mother had secretly followed me there on occasion, she never mentioned it.
Once while picking blackberries I came upon a hideout. A thick row of hedges separated two large meadows with a pond for ducks, geese and waterlilies in between. It had started to sprinkle when I spotted a small entrance beneath a thorny thicket. It looked as if an animal had used it as its burrow. I crawled inside where it was dry, a curl-up space with enough room for me to sit comfortably. I fell in love with that womblike place at once. A few days later I dragged a tattered blanket there which I wrapped around myself when it was cold. I escaped to my newly acquired den whenever possible and brought my teddy bear, Börle, and other valuable items with me. In a Care package from America were a coloring book with crayons and a fishing cap from Florida. A sweater my mother had knitted from leftover yarn stayed with me rain or shine. It could be rolled up and used as a soft cushion for my head.
As time stretched before me I was alone but never bored. I watched when the rain spattered down, unable to penetrate the thick cover of the hedge which I had fortified with branches and scraps of cloth taken from my mother’s sewing basket. I loved the raindrops. They reminded me of my mother’s pearls which she had worn in the air raid shelter. Large spiders helped me beautify my cave. Their fine webs resembled strands of my beloved grandmother’s silvery hair. She had accompanied us on our flight from our home in Silesia to western Germany as the Russian army advanced. She was now stranded with distant relatives, miles from where we had found shelter. I knew that I would have taken her to my magical dwelling if she had visited.
I often daydreamed. Clouds were my inspiration. I saw shapes of bearded grandfather-like faces on misty days, and on bright ones my eyes followed fleets of sleek sailboats or herds of running deer. I imagined myself sitting atop a big billowy cloud, drifting away. Bird song put me in a trance-like state, and I learned to imitate birds’ twitters and warbles. Every time a hare hopped across the grass in front of my crawlspace I believed it would befriend me if I held out one of my precious carrots. I giggled when the animal stopped for a second and then dashed away. Börle, my beloved companion, was an attentive listener. I told him countless stories. I spoke about the kind nurse in the hospital who, on the day my friend Eric died, carried me to a broad windowsill to watch the snow descending in fluffy cotton wisps. I talked to my furry bear about my parents and my baby sister. I painted a wonderful future when we would all live in a castle furnished with long tables sagging under the weight of apples and loaves of bread and even ice cream that I had glimpsed in my coloring book, and where not a single rat would scurry across our beds at night.
Through the slats in my hedge I could tell when the afternoon sun moved on and it was time to go home. I was never late because my mother had been ailing since the birth of my sister and the constant worry about food stressed her out. I did not want to upset her or my father who, although university educated, now baled hay and helped with farm chores. After work he always slumped into the only upholstered chair in the room looking haggard and gray.
One day I fell asleep in my cozy enclosure. It was already dark when I awoke with a start. With Börle under one arm I ran as fast as I could and when I burst through the door I noticed a deep furrow between my mother’s eyebrows. I knew instantly that she had been worried but she only hugged me tight. There was little privacy in our cramped domicile and that night I could overhear my father whisper, “Just let her be.”
We moved two years later to a nice apartment in town where I skipped a grade to be with my age mates. I formed a deep friendship with a plump, brown-eyed girl in my class. In the third grade my very first essay about Snowflake was published in a nature magazine. The following spring I made a trip back to the cemetery which by then was overgrown with dense weeds and ferns. All traces of the animal graves were lost. And I searched in vain for the hedge around my magical sanctum. It had been cut down, no longer a habitat for birds, mice or a recuperating little girl. Only the pond still shimmered with bluish lilies as dragonflies danced over its sleepy surface.
As an adult I have often written about the war and the scars it left. But not until I observed my young grandson regain his composure by applying himself to his drawing did I think back to how I had once found repose in using my imagination to contend with early life experiences.