By Kathleen Spivack
I am walking with my father in the mountains, high above the tree line. He is telling me about leaving Europe during “The War”…Yet there are secrets he has never spoken of. But today in Rocky Mountain National Park, he is seventy years old and sports a cowboy hat and shirt and Bolen tie just like an American in an old Hollywood German– refugee-made Western movie.
I am walking with my father in the mountains, high above the tree line. He is telling me about leaving Europe during “The War” which, in shorthand, has to come to stand for the Second World War only. The First World War is referred to as “The Great War” (which my parents also lived through), but now it is “The War” he is talking about. More specifically he is talking about the political and social climate before the war and how and why he and my mother left Austria, and how and why all of our relatives and almost all of their friends also left. My father is seventy at this time. We are in the mountains of Colorado above timberline, and he has decided this is finally time to tell me a few things about our shared family past. Not much, because he must make sure–here I am imagining—that there are no SS men or spies hiding behind the boulders. Also, I am never sure he is telling the truth; he can be infuriating, spinning different versions at different times. But he has decided to take me up into the mountains for some straight family talk. My adored father is of course my best friend, my soul mate and perhaps the one person in the family who appreciates my spitfire funny eccentric opinionated, outwardly contained and inwardly passionately wild nature. Something electric leaps across our generations and even near the end of his life, when he has completely lost his hearing, he will telephone me and we’ll talk for hours.
Yet, there are secrets he has never spoken of. But today in Rocky Mountain National Park, he is seventy years old and sports a cowboy hat and shirt and Bolen tie just like an American in an old Hollywood German- refugee-made Western movie.
He has been hinting, – oh, it almost always works!-that he will die imminently, as he has done for the last twenty five years over various occasions, the most notably when I married a man he had not personally chosen to be my lawful wedded husband. But I did it– — and here is my father still very much alive-and he will be so for almost twenty six more happy and productive years, — and I have two children of my own, and my father and I – after seven years in which I did not set foot in the family home– exist in a relationship of perfect understanding; i.e. mordant humor and a darker shadow side.
My father and I walk slowly in the mountains with our packs, pausing now and then to look at the view, and he is talking and I am listening in the strange, filtered light.
“How could you do it?” I ask. “How could you simply leave? How could you leave everything and everyone behind you? How did you know?” The situation of leaving one’s country seems so complex to me as to appear insurmountable. I can’t imagine leaving my country, my friends, and most of all, my language. “I would probably have been one of those who hung on to the bitter end and who didn’t leave and paid for it,” I tell him.
My father does not understand my doubts and thoughts. “No, no, it was simple. We all left. That is all. We knew Hitler was coming to power, and we just left. Lots of Vienna saw the handwriting on the wall. Not to leave would have been a mistake.” It seemed perfectly clear to him. He can’t even understand my doubts and questions. Unspoken confidences hang in the air, but my father is opaque, even to me. It is as if we, the children and these parents, have created a bond of unspoken history. As if the only shield against this bright new world has been the pretense that darkness and struggle did not exist before.
I admire my parents who seem so easily to have been able to transplant to a completely different culture and language. Yet they remain predominantly “European,” keeping their language and customs between them. They have been secretive with us children, rarely speaking of the past, of places and people that were important to them. “Not in front of the children,” came often from my mother’s lips when we were growing up. Nevertheless, even from early childhood I was to know lifetime of insomnia, of unnamed night terrors, a shadow on my heart, fear of sleeping, and fear of waking up screaming.We were deliberately sheltered and protected from “The War” when we were growing up in Vermont. But knowledge cobwebbed the corners. Newspapers were banned from the house. I never saw an issue of Life magazine until after “The War” in a doctor’s office. The black and white images of liberated Concentration Camp survivors, which my mother had tried so hard to hide from us, looked straight into our eyes.
At night when I heard the planes going over as a child, I would lie in bed and cry into my pillow, worrying that these were German planes coming to seek out my family in the hills of Bennington, Vermont, where my father had gotten a pittance of a job, teaching Comparative Religion. I sensed intuitively what my mother tried so hard to protect me from knowing. The same spirit that allowed my parents to leave Europe kept them in a state of readiness in case they had to leave again suddenly. The places we lived in were always bare, possessions were few, and nothing unnecessary was ever said to anyone lest they or we should ever be interrogated.
Although our household was full of refugees during the war, all speaking volubly in German, Russian, and Hungarian, I recollect no political discussions whatever. There were endless quarrels and stories and jokes. My parents did not seem to look back, nor did they allow that in their household. They had four children, and we were of two different cultures; my brother and I lived under the family’s authoritarian Germanic rules and threats and discipline: Struwelpeter, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, dire consequence and elbows off the table etc. But by the time the younger sisters came along our parents were more Americanized, despite the Viennese accent which American ladies pronounced “charming,” and which my father played to the hilt, kissing Betty Freidan’s hand when she came to debate him, for instance.
But back to the main story. Here we are in Colorado, hiking: two wannabe “Americans” roaming the majestic West, with peanut butter sandwiches, cowboy hats, dew-sweating fuzzy khaki canteens clanking along with each step, canvas “rucksacks,” waxen Hershey bars melting in our pockets, and plastic hot-smelling ponchos, ambling down a sunny trail. The heady mentholated scent of sagebrush; the uncomfortable straps of the rucksacks. Then, out of the blue, my father mentions almost off handedly that most of my surviving female relatives committed suicide. After, he says
I say nothing: put one foot in front of the other. There will be no way of verifying this, I am quite sure. I knew some of these women, they lived with us, then moving elsewhere after the war; but nothing was said around their subsequent deaths. No explanation given. My first inner reaction to my father’s disclosure is a kind of rage; why has he suddenly decided to tell me this, and why now? I have two children to raise by myself; I can’t afford the indulgence of exploring this question. My second reaction is almost like relief; finally I understand the shadow of all the suffering, unsaid, that has weighed over my entire life, the sense of darkness, despair, terror that has haunted/ still does my nights. So that’s what it is. Recognition.
Twenty eight years later, when I am seventy myself, and only after my father’s death, I will learn—and not from my mother –who is still alive at the time of this writing —of members of our immediate family who perished in the camps of war and who have never been spoken of nor referred to by either of my parents. Nor by my grandparents, who lived with us most of the time. They lost members of their families, their sisters, etc. Not a word ever said. Ever.
We grew up in two cultures, European and American, trying desperately to bridge the gap and in many ways not fitting into either. In the course of our growing up I lived intimately with displaced persons. “Leaving” to me implies leaving home: the beloved, the homeland, the familiar, what does it mean to leave: to be uprooted and to make a new life? What does it mean to have the courage to leave? How did our parents do it? Could we, if we had to? How did they put themselves together afterwards? How did they integrate their past and their present?
As we descend down together into the tree- line our footsteps match each other. We don’t speak; we don’t need to. Above the trail, the clouds start coming in. Survivors appear as we walk: the stunted windblown pines we passed on the way up, hardy and twisted, their roots gripping in for the years to come. Then we enter the ash grove with its pale dapple. We walk more quickly now, a fresh burst of energy for the finish. The perfectly shaped ash leaves catch the light and sparkle, refracting in all directions.
Kathleen Spivack’s memoir, With Robert Lowell and His Circle: Plath, Sexton, Bishop, Kunitz will be published in 2012 by the University Press of New England. Kathleen came to Boston in 1959 to study with Robert Lowell. The memoir looks at personal friendships and work.
Kathleen’s last book A History of Yearning, Sow’s Ear Chapbook winner, 2010, was awarded the London Book Festival First Prize, among others. Recent work received the Allen Ginsberg Award, the Knightville Poetry prize 2011, The New Guard Review, and is a Pushcart nominee. “The Tolstoi Quartet?s Story” a novella, won the Carpe Articulum 2011 Short Fiction Award.
The daughter of Peter Drucker, this essay,”The Tundra” takes place in the clear air of the Colorado mountains?and the clear air of truth.