Sunday, September 28, 2008

Doors, Rainbows and White Crosses

(The following is a copy of the initial report I am submitting to the Lilly Endowment as part of the requirement for receiving the grant. I don't think it is quite what they expect, but this is what I needed to write. It begins with the snapshot moment I have in my last post. Sorry, it's a long post.)

“A cool mist lightly caresses my face as we climb the slight incline of smooth red brick. Ten steps away, I spy another door. My steps hesitate as I approach, afraid to look, afraid not to. My eyes search hopefully from top to bottom, side to side, desperate in their quest for an answer. My heart grows heavier with each step past the door. I had so hoped that this would be the door. The weight in my heart grows heavier still as I blink back the tears. A stairway looms ahead, its mass of metal, bolts and taut wire pointing to a dead-end. .

My feet begin the slow pivot as I turn back. Something catches my eye, seeing, but not believing. My heart skips a beat then quickens, thump-thump-thump-thump in rapid succession. There is a slight shadow in the middle left panel of the door. My eyes zoom in on the shadow as I try to make sense of what they are seeing. A light touch of my hand pushes open the secret door-within-a-door. My heart is in my throat, a roadblock to the words I try to say. “Jim,” I whisper, “It’s the door.” Words deny me. Tears blur my vision and mingle with the cool mist on my cheeks.

In that moment, I lose myself and become a young soldier of so long ago, standing tall and brave and proud. The journey of four thousand miles and a year of planning bring me to this single moment. Raw emotions rise to the surface as the memory replays itself in my mind as a movie running in slow motion, frame by single frame.”

To the casual observer, this snapshot moment may not appear to have much significance. To me, however, it meant everything. It was the pinnacle moment of my entire proposal and ensuing trip. The hours that followed this moment also hold a special place in my heart. In those hours, I was able to walk the same path my father did, find that special door, drink “the best beer in the world” (according to my dad) and sleep where my father slept in the post-war summer of 1945. I was covered with a sea of emotion. Still, as I write this, the emotion sweeps over me again.

My husband and I arrived in Andechs, Germany on the fourth day of our trip. It had rained off and on during the afternoon. As we left our car in the parking lot at the base of the hill below the church, my stomach became a twist of knots. What if we came all this way to find that this was not the town and church we were searching for? What would I do? Fortunately, it was unnecessary to answer those questions for I found everything and more.

Once we found the door, we entered the Bräustüberl, or Beer Garden. Activity was high as people came in and out. Tables were filled with companions and travelers guarding steins filled with amber liquid. Pig knuckles, sauerkraut and gigantic pretzels engulfed the table tops. Jim and I each ordered a weissbier and a pretzel and found our way to a booth built for eight. I looked around at the people milling about. From everywhere rose the voices of German people speaking in their mother tongue. As I searched the crowd, I wondered aloud if any of them could be locals. We continued to peruse the crowd. Behind us in the next booth, was a crowd of older German men. “Jim, do you think they are from this town?” I asked. With a shrug of his shoulders and a “we have nothing to lose” attitude, he got up from the table. My heart filled with hope and hesitation as Jim approached the men with a photo in one hand and a German-English dictionary in the other. In halting German, which improved with each weissbier, Jim did his best to explain what we were looking for.

The photo he held in his hand was the only clue to where my father once slept. It was a photo of my father as a young soldier standing in front of a German gasthof (guest house). Only a portion of the building could be seen behind him and just a hint of its name could be read. What were the chances they would know it? What were the chances it still existed? Was it even in this town? Six old men crowded around the photo. Fingers pointing and excited voices rose above the din. Curious eyes from neighboring tables were upon all of us. One man, whose name we would learn is Hermann, did his best to explain. What we believed he was saying in rapid German was that he knew this gasthof. He would point to the picture and then point down the road. Soon, he waved us to follow him. As we walked down the hill toward the parking lot, we realized he was taking us to the gasthof. I so hoped he was taking us to the gasthof. Into our rental car we climbed, Jim and Hermann in the front seats with me sitting with anticipation in the back.

The drive was over almost as soon as it began. We pulled into a small parking lot across from a small grocery store and behind what I suspected was the place for which we searched. We entered a door in the back and walked through a small hallway. Doors led to unknown spaces on either side. Hermann pointed to one door and motioned for us to enter. We were greeted by a fair-haired man in his thirties. This man and his wife now owned the gasthof and the name had been changed from Gaststätte Zum Seefelder Hof to Gasthof Erlinger Hof. Hermann explained to the innkeeper why we were there. He showed him the picture of my father in front of the gasthof. The man looked at the picture then glanced about the room. He signaled us to wait and wove his way among the tables. He examined some pictures hanging on the wall in the
restaurant. He would look, give a slight shake of his head and move to another picture. At the third picture, he removed it from the wall and brought it to us. It was a picture of the gasthof taken in the same era as the one of my father. It was identical to the one of my dad, only the young soldier was missing from it. I just held that picture in my hand and cried. I cried even more and gave the innkeeper a hug. I think it was an awkward moment for him, but he was gracious.

After a few minutes, arrangements were made for us to spend the night at Gasthof Erlinger Hof. The innkeeper brought us back through the hallway where we first entered and through another door which led to a stairway. Once again in such a short span of time, I stood without breathing. The stairway my dad had described rose before me, strong and solid. “Dad,” I could barely breath, “I wish you were here.” Again, I wept. As we climbed the stairway, I pointed to a window in my father’s picture, indicating that this was the room he slept in (the window just above the front door). He pointed to the door leading to that room and indicated that that was now part of his family’s living space. Nevertheless, he let us go in. We stood looking out the window and I thought of my father. I tried to envision the world he witnessed when he stood in that very spot.

We were soon in our own room and I looked about. The room had been modernized and no trace of a bygone era could be found. It did not matter. As I stood in the room, I tried to absorb all that had transpired in such a short period of time. This had all been so easy. Within one hour of finding that door, I was standing in the very gasthof my father had been living in over sixty years before. The emotion was overwhelming. I had guarded my emotions as I planned this trip and as I began this journey. I knew the chances of locating the town, the church, the door were slim. To find the gasthof from an incomplete picture would be near impossible. Yet all this and more was found.

Writing this report has been incredibly difficult. With each word I type I relive those precious moments. The waves of emotion sweep over me again and again. Tears pour.

Fortunately, the very evening after I found the door, we located an internet café. We had but 30 minutes to closing, but the owner graciously gave us a bit of extra time. In a mad dash, I jotted down a quick email and sent it to my dad. My sister-in-law read it to him as he lay in bed. He was pleased and was able to laugh at a few of our antics and at a few stories I shared with him. I looked forward to talking with him about our adventures and to sharing the photographs we took. I wanted to see his face and to hear his laugh.

Four days after these few hours in Andechs, my father died. Jim and I were staying in Kuchls, Austria when I learned of his death. I believe it was the hand of God that brought us to such a beautiful place to hear heartbreaking news. We were there only by serendipitous events. We arrived in Kuchls in the late afternoon. After having settled into our room overlooking the Austrian Alps, we took a walk around a small lake on our way to dinner. A light rain had come and gone and the clouds were clearing. I stopped dead in my tracks. Over the Alps arched a beautiful rainbow. I looked at my watch --- 6:30 pm, Austrian time. I didn’t say a word to Jim, but I knew when I saw that rainbow that my father was dying. Though torn with sadness, I felt a great peace.

The next morning, I woke quite early. Jim was still asleep, so I lay there a bit. From our bed, I could look out the window and take in the beauty of those mountains rising above. My waking thoughts were of my dad. I knew what I would find when I opened my email later that morning. Again, a great peace blanketed me. I took my laptop and my camera out to the patio and thought and wrote and prayed. I was drawn again to the beauty of the mountains stretching before me. I sat in awe. After a time, my eyes were drawn to a small object reflecting the sun nearer the base of the mountain. A simple, white cross stood as a sentinel overlooking this little town. Tears flowed as my heart ached.

It feels as if I were an actor performing in an over-melodramatic motion picture. The Alps, the rainbow, the simple, white cross all symbolically crafted to tap within the viewer great emotion. But I wasn’t an actor. I was just a daughter who loves her father, a man mighty and brave with a keen sense of duty. All I wanted to do with this trip was to honor him. What I could not know was that this journey would result in my ability to grieve his death in such an enormously fulfilling way.

My gratitude to the Lilly Endowment cannot be expressed in words.

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