Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Goodbye, Forever Part 4

Love. Does. Stuff??? Vat is dat?
December 2013

I said goodbye. 

I don’t even know how it happened. One minute I was holding her hand, weeping into her chest. The next, I was in my cousin’s car, headed to her house so I wouldn’t need to spend the night alone in a hotel room.

I knew yesterday would be tough. I’ve been talking about it to everyone in the last week. I really just didn’t know how tough it would be. 

Or how hard the sobs would leave my lungs.

Or how the tears won’t stop pouring, even in the middle of a crowded airport. 

I spent most of Tuesday with her, leaving the bedroom when she needed to sleep. The rule is, she gets to talk for 30 minutes before needing to rest her voice. The hospice nurse came in the early afternoon, giving us an update. Her body is slowly going, but her infectious attitude is a gift from God. 

She should have remained quiet when the nurse left, but she wanted to call her club - the German club for which she cooked and entertained long before I entered this world - to let them know she wouldn’t be coming to visit anymore. She was just too tired. 

Walking in to check on her, I took the handset and placed it on the receiver. I sat by her bed. Okay Tante Lucy, you need to rest a little now.

Oh, my Sunshine, stay vith me little bit. I can rest later. When you go? 

Not until this evening. You rest. I’ll come back. 

No, no, Andrea. You stay. I rest when you go.

Already speaking 30 minutes past her given allotment, she kept the conversation going another two hours. She told stories of the club, cooking dumplings, making the best gravy the Cleveland Germans had ever eaten, and devouring cheese strudel. I love dat cheese strudel.

She talked about parties, and slot machines, and dancing on tables. Vell, I did not go on table, but I vanted to.

I held her silkened, puckered hand which completely covered mine. She let go only once, to reach for an envelope on her bedside table. 

Tante Lucy, no! I don’t need that!

She placed $20 in my palm. 

Now, Andrea, dis makes me happy. I vant to give you so much and I cannot do much right now. If you take dis, my heart, my chest will be zo happy. You go and buy yourself some-ting. It can be a snack on the airplane. Or it can be a highball. (Her favorite cocktail) But you take dis. You make me happy.

I put the money in my pocket. She grabbed my hand once more and pulled it close to her heart.

Andrea, Sunshine, you take da bad stuff and you let it go. You can only think of da good stuff. Dat other stuff don’t matter. You think of good, and you think of peace, and you get rid of dat other stuff. You only remember da good.

I will Tante Lucy, I will.

I kept a strong facade. I held a smile on my face. I kissed her cheek a few times. I told her I loved her so very much.

With the Great-Nieces
December 2013
I love you too, sveetheart. And you...and you...

She closed her eyes.

You tell dose girls and Edd dat I love dem very, very much.

Tears did not fall from my eyes. They exploded from my chest. I tried so hard to keep calm. I failed.

I buried my head in her gut and wailed out all the pain, all the sadness, all the loneliness, all the anger, all the confusion, all my love.

Now, now, Andrea, you mustn’t be sad. You must be happy. I am happy. Stephen will take care of Uncle Joe. I vill go be vith Oma and Opa. And Earl, from the club, who makes da best highballs, he is now gone. He vill be dere to make me dose highballs. And I vill be dancing on da tables.

Somehow, after many hugs and kisses later, I managed to leave the room. 

That was the last time I will see my Tante Lucy.

I promised I would call her and talk to her on the telephone. When she’s not allowed to talk, I will text her daughter-in-law to relay messages and pictures. When she can no longer process messages, I will pray for the Lord to take her peacefully, without pain. 

And once she’s gone, I’m betting we will hear strange tapping sounds coming from the sky. Don’t be alarmed. It’ll be Tante Lucy, dancing on the tables.

Related Posts:
Goodbye, Forever Part 1
Goodbye, Forever Part 2
Goodbye, Forever Part 3
My Big, Fat, German Family Reunion

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Goodbye, Forever Part 3

It’s supposed to be another scorcher back home in Portland, but here in Brookpark, OH, the gloom and drizzle match my mood. Today is the last day I have with my Tante Lucy. Forever.

I played nursemaid this morning while my 95-year old uncle drove himself to the barbershop. My aunt’s appearance and behavior reflects more what I anticipated when I arrived. She’s tired. Her breathing labors and wheezes. Her voice is quiet. But she still calls me her “sunshine”. She still manages to smile. 

I’m crumbling. She’s the strong one, not I. 

Yesterday, I posted some of the hell she’s been through growing up in war-torn Prussia and Germany. Here is a bit more of the story which gave my Tante her strength. 

Very early one morning in June, 1947 about 4:00 a.m., Mom took us four kids and my cousins, Agnes, Siegfried, Leni, and Gertrud, along with her two cousins and one other child to a train station. We were put on a freight train with only two loaves of bread. The Russians checked the train out, but did not see us. We went to Pommern and then we had to get off the train. We spent four to six weeks in a camp there with very little to eat. We were all hungry.
 Agnes and I had to report for work every morning. They picked us up in a truck and we had to pick currants, if we were caught eating any we would be punished. For our work we were given soup and bread. The soup we ate and the bread we took back to our family. It took us eight weeks until the family was all back together again. 
When we were finally allowed to return to West Germany, Mom became very ill and they sent her to the hospital in Lubeck. Anni, Mary, and Gerhard were allowed to stay with her because they were young.  
My cousins were sent to Island Westerland in the North Sea. Leni and I were sent to Schleswig Holstein with only the clothes on our backs. We had no bed, we slept on the floor and shared on pillow that was given to us by an old lady. There were no blankets so we covered ourselves with our coats. We had very little to eat and no money until we found out where Dad was.  
In the meantime, Mom and the kids were sent to camp north of Schleswig Holstein, and Leni and I went there to get them. First I bought something for everyone to eat. They were all very hungry. Then we left on a train to go to Dad in Otternhagen. He was working for the English soldiers. I was working for a farmer there until I got hurt. We could not afford a doctor.  
In 1950, Mom applied for passage to America. It took two years. On March 14, 1952, Mom, Dad, Anni, Maria, and Gerhard went to Bremer Hafen and left for the U.S.A. on the army ship, U.S. Tyler. After thirteen days, they arrived at Ellis Island. They were placed on a bus and sent to Iowa. Dad was working for Mr. Long, who paid for the cost of the trip. On the ship they met Gotthard Krause and Max Hickle. Anni worked on the ship in the kitchen. They ate fried chicken and white bread.  
I came to America in 1956. I arrived in Cleveland where Mom and Mary picked me up. Max Hickle’s boss was supposed to be my sponsor, but he did not sign the papers. Mom then asked Gotthard Krause to be my sponsor.  
Anni left Iowa for Cleveland at sixteen years old. Max Hickle was working for Republic Steel. He sent money to Mr. Long to pay off the debt in 1952. Mom, Dad, Mary and Gerhard come to Cleveland. Max and Anni were married on 5-3-53.  
In 1956, Dad bought a house on Overlook Drive. I met Joseph Keonig at that house. We were married on 9-29-56. Stephen was born 1-14-58. In 1969 we moved to Thompson Blvd., Brook Park. 

This tale gives you an idea of who my Tante Lucy is, though not the whole picture. Life was easier in America, but definitely not without it’s struggles. My cousins grew up with an aunt they respected and who also put the fear of God into them. My parents started their family 10 years after Dad's sisters were finished having kids, so there is quite a generation gap between my siblings and I and our cousins. By the time we arrived, Tante Lucy was still hard working, but more jovial and nurturing. 

Sitting in her living room, maybe for the last time, I can hear her breath from the bedroom. She’ll be sleeping more and talking less as the days pass. I’ll try to keep my smile in the next few hours, but the lump in my throat pushes it’s way up. 

How can I possibly say goodbye?

Related Posts:
Goodbye, Forever Part 1
Goodbye, Forever Part 2
My Big, Fat, German Family Reunion

Monday, September 15, 2014

Goodbye, Forever Part 2

This afternoon, I had the pleasure of meeting my aunt’s hospice nurse. I told her I had envisioned my aunt to be close to unresponsive during my visit. Quite the contrary, she talks a mile a minute. The nurse smiled and said, “People who are strong can sometimes rise above how sick they really are.”

When describing my Tante Lucy, “strong” is an understatement. The woman is a warrior. 

I’ve mentioned she’s been to hell and back a few times. A few years ago, Tante Lucy dictated some of her story and my cousin transcribed. I’d like to share a few excerpts with you. She’s been through more tragedy in one day than I will ever experience in my entire life. 

Back row: Opa, Oma, Tante Lucy
Front row: Dad, Tante Mary, Tante Anni

(Words in italic are my comments for explanation.)

(Pre-WWII Prussia)I am Lucy Koenig. I was born to Rosa Kontowski on April 30, 1930, father unknown. We lived with my grandparents. I went to school for 8 years. After, I left home to work for a teacher’s family with four children, ages 16, 14, 12, and 10. I worked for 8 months until the war got too close and I went home to be by my family. That family I worked for got killed. Only one son survived. I went to visit him one time. It was a hard time for me until we were all together in America.
 Our father, Josef Weinert, was born in Sternsee on a farm, maybe 20km away from our village. Rosa met Josef in 1935 and they married in 1936. She wore a sky blue dress and a veil. I was six years old. I loved him as my dad. He gave me his name. 
My sister Anna Marie was born in ’37, Maria Magdalene in ’39, Gerhard (Andee’s Dad) in ’44, and Karl Heinz in ’48. He lived only 4 months and died on 12-30-48.
The war started in 1939, our father was the first to go and they sent him to France. He was wounded by a grenade. He learned of Gerhard’s birth while at war. He was sent to a hospital close to us for his injury. When the Russians came, he fled to West Germany somewhere near Hanover. 
We lost our home on 1-30-45. The first few soldiers came and looked at the house. In two hours we were forced to leave. Our mother and the younger children left. I was forced to stay behind with my cousins, Hedwig and Agnes to work. 
The family was staying with friends not far from were I was. During the day, they brought all of us to work on the farm. Mom and the other adults were on one part of the farm taking care of the animals. The teenagers were on the other part doing chores. I did not have contact with Mom, but I could see her come and go on the trucks.
In April, 1945, another group of Russians came and took Mom and many others away. I was lucky. They didn’t see me. First, I hid in a harvesting machine. I could hear them calling, “Panika” (young girl). I crawled on my belly through the fields. We ran and hid in the haystacks. There were ten girls - they found the other nine and took four with them; my friend, Margaret, two others, and my cousin, Hedwig. (Tante Lucy has marks on her arm from the probing pitchforks.)
Mom came home three months later and was very ill. We were re-united with Dad about two years later.
This was part of the hellish journey my aunt experienced. It’s still a little hard for me to process - especially all of the story at once. Tomorrow, I’ll post more. Hopefully you’ll grow to appreciate this woman as much as I do.

Related Posts:

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Goodbye, Forever. Part 1

Hanging out with Dad and Tante Lucy

My aunt is dying. Cancer. Seems to be the number one taker of lives among my friends and family lately. Tante Lucy is 84, the end of days not abnormal for someone her age. The problem is, I have no idea how to say, “goodbye”.

When my grandparents passed away, it was just time. Grandpa and Grandma both declined mentally, so when they left a sense of peace came over all of us. With Opa and Oma, old age took them suddenly and without pain. I’ve argued with God about taking friends my own age away with cancer. I don’t know if I will ever understand. But even then, I’ve seen their bodies deteriorate and when they went to be with Jesus, I knew they finally had relief.

Now I’m in a brand new situation. My tante, who has been through hell - more hell than I can conjure in my imagination - and survived, is now fighting the one battle she will not win. She’s asked to see us all before she goes. Seeing her is the easy part. She calls me her “Sunshine”. (I know. I’m baffled as well. At least I will go down in history as someone’s sunshine.) The question is: when I fly back home on Wednesday, how will I say farewell knowing I will never see her on this earth again?

The expectation is too much to endure.

I’ve only been here one day and I won’t want to leave. I want to stay as long as she does. It doesn’t make sense, I know, but she’s always been in my life. What will I do when she’s not?

Who is that cute kid?

In the last week, I’ve told my friends I wished Tante Lucy would have passed peacefully in her sleep. Then we wouldn’t have to “say goodbye”. We would have cried, said we’re happy she’s with Jesus, and been thankful for the great times we shared together. 

Now, I’m so glad my wish wasn’t granted. Selfishly, I cherish the moments I sit by her bedside listening to her thick German accent, the one she and my Oma always kept here in America. My hand wants to stay permanently in hers, I hate letting go even for a moment. My cousins, they’ll be with her until the end. My brother lives close enough to make a drive when he needs to and my sister is arranging her own time to visit. My dad will leave soon and he will kiss his oldest sister for the last time.

Me? I don’t know what will happen yet. And I try to busy my brain so I don’t have to think. But just like Grover in  “The Monster at the End of This Book”, the inevitable will show up on the last page and I’ll need to say auf Wiedersehen to my Tante Lucy one last time.

You'll notice the title of the post reads, "part 1". It's because this story isn't over.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

5 Reasons Home-schooling Made Me a Calmer Public School Parent

Our kids have entered a new school year. For our family, the daily schedule looks a tad different. 

A couple of years ago, we decided to homeschool our youngest daughter. Last year, we kept both girls at home. Sending them back into the public school system was not a decision we made lightly. 

As a former teacher, I have been known to be on edge about our kids getting the education I believe they need. Now, however, my stress level is way down in regards to the hours our daughters are spending under the academic guidance of others.

Two years as a homeschooling parent changed my educational outlook. I’m pretty confident my kids will succeed scholastically for the following reasons:

1. Success isn’t about grades or standardized tests.

My eldest is a model student in the public school system. Tell her a fact and she’ll memorize it until the test is finished. She doesn’t speak out of turn and she acts like a young adult. 

My youngest, on the other hand, will question concepts, may look like she’s paying attention when actually her brain is focused on literature during a math lesson, or become frustrated when she’s not done with a science experiment at class end.

Of the two - which do you think gets better grades on tests? 
Of the two - which do you think actually retains the information she’s learned?

This year, if one comes home with a report card full of As, I will be proud. If one comes home with a report card full of “incompletes” and lower grades, yet can share with me the information taught, I will also be proud. The state can try to standardize learning all they want, but no piece of paper will tell me how smart my daughters are.

2. Education doesn’t only happen in the classroom.

We made the choice to homeschool after a trip to Washington, D.C. Back in Portland, Annika’s 5th grade classmates studied our country’s political system. As her class read about the government, we visited the White House, the Capitol building, and Mount Vernon. Edd and I observed as Annika gobbled every morsel of history trivia fed to her. This girl retained way more experiencing life than she did sitting behind a desk. 

Pulling kids out of public school for an extended period of time is a hassle, but with all due respect to my daughters’ educators, I will never hesitate to allow a school absence when a different learning opportunity is available.

3. If the kids don’t feel well, they will stay home.

This should be common sense, right? Not for me. 

Our conversations in the past:

Mom, I don’t feel good.
Get up and eat. You’ll feel better.
I still don’t feel good.
You’re just tired. Go to school. If you’re still sick, go to the nurse.
Okay. You can stay home. But if you think you’re done throwing up, you could probably still make it...

I don’t know why I’ve always been so adamant the girls attend school when they clearly don’t feel well. It’s not fair to them or the students around them if they are truly sick. 

Homeschooling has given me a different attitude regarding the whole “not feeling good” vibe. If they miss a day or two due to illness, I can relax knowing they won't fail. They will catch up and I'm here to help.

4. The girls are independent.

Ready for the bus.

You’d think hanging around me for most off the day would cause the girls to shy away from others. Nope! In the week Emma’s been in school, she’s already researched clubs on her own and emailed a teacher to ask for a different seating assignment. Annika’s teacher let me know she is fearless in class participation and sharing her work. 

Who are these girls and what have they done with my daughters?

I’m not exactly sure how to pinpoint the reason for their ├╝ber-confidence. When they were home, they were a part of choosing the curriculum. When I gave them assignments and a due date, they paced themselves in order to complete expectations. I remained pretty hands-off unless they asked for help. 

Whatever the reason, in a day when some parents are taking all decision making skills away from their children, I’m happy to let mine take care of themselves for a bit. It leaves more time for me to watch soap operas and eat bonbons.

5. No matter what happens, our girls will be okay.

Nothing at the schools Emma and Annika attend will harm them academically. 

We live in a suburban environment, surrounded by like-minded parents anxious for our individual offspring to succeed in life. Parent volunteer opportunities have wait-lists. Parties are planned for holidays. If our kids struggle, we get them tutors. PE only two days a week? No problem - they are in extra-curricular sports after school. 

Three and a half miles down the road, another elementary school qualifies with a Title 1 rating. A few middle class neighborhoods feed into these grades, but so do low-income apartments and homeless shelters. 

My friends who teach at the Title 1 don’t have parent volunteer waiting lists. They are lucky if they can get helping adults in during the school day at all. Guess where I will spend my volunteer hours this year?

Regardless of what happens at their public schools, our girls have two parents who will do everything we can to make sure they grow into capable, confident young adults. 

My job now is to support the girls, support their teachers, and not worry about what happens between the hours of 8:00 am-3:00 pm. And if things don't work out, I know there is always classroom space at our dining room table.