blackbirdonline journalSpring 2022  Vol. 21  No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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In the first photograph of Opa Alfred and me, I am a few weeks old, eyes scrunched shut, in a long white dress and ruffled cap, cradled in my grandmother’s arms. It’s my baptism, and he’s wearing a black suit, his dark hair combed back. His head tilts toward me; he watches my face, smiling, with interested, horn-rimmed eyes. His arms dangle by his sides.

Over five million German men of Alfred’s generation never returned from World War II. Of those who did come home, few learned how to bend their arms to hold a child.

In January of 1947 Alfred carried the body of his newborn daughter to the cemetery from the hospital three times. The first two times the earth was frozen too hard to dig a grave. It was the middle of the Hunger Winter. Large cities, like Essen, had no coal, no bread. Several hundred thousand Germans starved to death. In Russia, between one and two million people died from lack of food. Two years earlier, Germany had starved the countries it had occupied. After the defeat, the Allies forbade Red Cross deliveries of food to Germany. Hunger turned to fear, to pain.

My grandfather, grandmother, and my three-year-old uncle all were hospitalized right before this new baby was born and died. My mother and my aunt, seven and nine years old, were parceled out to relatives. Seventy-four years later, my mother still repeats the few sentences she heard her father say about that time.

What I want is for someone to watch over him as he walks his youngest to her grave.


By the third time Alfred feels her weight before he has lifted her. She is there, already, on his shoulder, before he finds shirt, pants, socks, and coat in the narrow hospital locker, pulls them on. His bleeding ulcers don’t mean he has to stay in bed. So far, he has refused the stomach resection the doctors say he has to have, despite the crippling pain. On the stairs down from the third-floor men’s ward to the basement, she crushes his left collar bone, though he carries nothing yet. The memory embedded in his deltoid and trapezius seems all out of proportion to her tiny body’s relationship with gravity. He wonders what has pulled her down to earth.

The morgue attendant glances at him, wordless, then rolls out the tiny casket on a cart. Alfred hadn’t known there were such rooms in hospitals, such metal carts with creaking wheels. He should have known. He should have looked out from his own ward’s window, or from Lotte’s window in the maternity ward, or from little Alfred’s in children’s. All would have shown the cemetery across the street.

He slides his fingers under the small box. His eyes bore through cheap pine to the face he has seen only once. She is a sleeping cherub, her cheeks smooth and translucent, not crumpled like the faces of other newborns in the ward. Decades from now he will insist she is the most beautiful baby he has ever seen. Today there is no one to say this to.

He lifts. The attendant catches his wince, the electric hitch-and-stop in a movement that should be round. Men recognize it in each other: the fragments of shrapnel boring through flesh, irretrievable, lost beneath skin that closed in ragged craters where muscle should be smooth. Wordless, the attendant seizes the casket’s corners, slides her up onto Alfred’s left shoulder. Not the right. Never the right, which used to be his stronger arm.

Alfred takes his time along basement corridors, allows two breaks, one on each landing up the stairs, right hand against cement, waiting for blackness to pass behind his eyes. He should have eaten the oatmeal the nurse brought in at six. But if he had, he’d now be doubled up with pain. Better to just wait for dizziness to fade.

Outside the hospital’s back door, air slices lungs. Clouds press like lead. Since December, each day has set record lows, a cold so severe that earth breaks spades.

One step down the curb to cross the narrow street, one step back up. The gate through the cemetery hedge gapes straight across from the hospital entrance closest to the morgue. A bitter convenience. He doesn’t feel the gravel through his boots, just hears it grind. By now, it seems habitual. He is funeral-crashing, for the third time, with permission, but in the company of strangers. Babies this small are buried at the foot of other graves. The first time, and also the second time, the ground bounced the gravediggers’ pickaxes back toward their faces. The only way to know if a burial will actually take place is to show up at the time announced in the newspaper. Most of the phone lines that existed before the war still lie in shreds.

On this side of the cemetery, the path is lined with pint-sized graves. Engelchenfriedhof, they call it—graveyard of little angels. Headstones list months, lives too short to count in years. What he carries is too tiny for a stone. This time, their family doctor said to try again. He said that Alfred’s daughter will be welcome in this grave. This time, the grave belongs to the doctor’s child.

Ice whines beneath his boots, the puddles solid, covered with thin snow. Again, he wonders what to tell the priest about the baby’s name. “Heidemarie,” Lotte had said, before the surgery, before the nurses wheeled her gurney from the operating room straight to the bathroom, where they push patients they expect to die. Who made this the routine, this lady’s room seclusion at the end? Is it a Catholic thing? A medical acknowledgement that the dying deserve a quiet place? A cool place? Is it a kindness to other patients in the ward, an attempt to spare them the rasping breaths that mark the end?

The nuns who run the hospital never expected them to live. Not the baby, not her mother. Death may still prove them right. Lotte is out of the bathroom today, but this has been, what, her fourth caesarean? One for baby Alfred, three years ago. One for Anna, and, before that, one for Elfriede, who just turned eight. So: four. No. Five. The child between Anna and Alfred, the one who died inside her womb, the one they never got to name, too small to live, too large to remove in any other way. He has no memories of that surgery; by the time it happened he was on his way east in a railroad car filled with soldiers of his regiment. Shipping out to Prussia, toward what Lotte already suspected would become the Russian Front.

One too many surgeries to survive. One too many pregnancies. When he stepped into her ward this morning, running clandestine reconnaissance in bathrobe and slippers, Lotte’s face slacked somewhere between asleep and comatose. All he wanted was to stay, to sit and hold her hand, to lean his forehead on her shoulder. There was no time. He also needed to look in on little Alfred, in the children’s ward. The appendectomy has left him pale and scared, but he is looking better this morning, more alert. What makes a child’s appendix flare just as his father’s ulcer bleeds, just as his mother is rolled into life-threatening surgery? When the boy asked for his mum, Alfred told him she needed rest, that she would be in to see him just as soon as she was well.

Snow squeals beneath his feet, the sound of temperatures far below the freezing point. The nuns told him they rushed in the priest to baptize the baby within an hour after Lotte’s surgery, a habitual race against devil or death, or maybe both. Alfred wonders what they imagine they have done, slapping a name onto a soul. Do they see it as a postal address on her forehead, ensuring delivery to heaven instead of hell? As a checkmark toward their own entrance tickets into paradise? His stomach stabs, burns, stops his steps. He fights the urge to let the box slide from his shoulder, curl in around the pain. What the hell were they thinking, disregarding a dying mother’s wish to name her child? Was it that Heidemarie smells of Heide, heath, honey, sun, a summer spent in freedom, running barefoot through sand and purple blooms, skylarks singing overhead? Or did they object to heath sounding like “heathen?” What business is it of theirs? What right do they have to disregard a dying mother’s wish?

The stabbing eases. He draws a breath, takes a step. He doesn’t really mind the name they picked: Maria—Mary, like the virgin. He remembers how Lotte scoffed at the whole virginity idea, called it the magical thinking of a church of men. But she does pray to Mary, trusts her to know the perils of a birth. For sure, Mary knows all about carrying your child toward a grave.

Maria breit’ den Mantel aus—Mother Mary Spread Thy Cloak. They’d played the old hymn on the radio, in a filthy Russian dacha, four Christmases ago. The cockroaches. The lice. Someone had lit a candle. Alfred had imagined Mary’s blue coat floating down to cover up this city, his family, his home, to hide it from the planes. By then, of course, the major damage had been done. His comrades had huddled around the radio, cold and homesick and grateful for an evening that brought something approaching full rations. He had been looking at his boots. It wasn’t shameful to feel tears, not at Christmas, not when you were thousands of miles from where bombs were dropping toward children you had seen for one month out of every other year they’d been alive. But seeing his own sorrow multiplied on his comrades’ ash-gray faces would have meant they’d all melt down. And they couldn’t do it, not on a single bottle of beer per man.

He still carries the photographs Lotte sent that year, the faces stenciled into his brain: Elfriede’s topknot and pinched cheeks, Anna’s round chin. He trips, slips, catches the baby’s casket as it skips, the weight of the body inside less than the pine encasing it, the pain in his right shoulder bright hot as his arm jerks upward for the catch. The only image of who he carries now is in his mind. No way to get it printed. No way that Lotte will ever see. No way to know if Lotte will open her eyes again on any of them: Alfred in his hospital crib, Anna and Elfriede stashed away with relatives who don’t have enough to eat themselves. The acid in his stomach burns, screams for him to put down the casket, double over around the searing pain. He can’t. Not put the casket down, not stop walking, not have the surgery the doctors say he has to have. What do they think he is going to do, risk bleeding out while Lotte is about to die downstairs? And leave the children where? With whom?


Alfred did lay Heidemarie into the grave on this third walk to the cemetery. He never had the stomach surgery. He struggled with the pain, on and off, decade after decade, through all of my mother’s childhood and adolescence, until I was born and I, too, at fourteen months old, came down with gastric ulcerations. I cried for hours and hours, day after day, week after week. Lotte finally packed both of us off to Essen, to see a homeopathic doctor she had learned to trust during the war. His sugar powders, administered by my grandmother with religious fervor over the next several days, resolved the pain for both my grandfather and for me.

On endoscopic images of stomach walls, ulcers range from small white splotches of dead mucosal cells to deepening, widening, oozing pits, to fountains of spurting blood, life-threatening hemorrhage. A break in the protective mucosal layer allows stomach acid to eat its way through muscle and blood vessel walls—the body digesting itself. Medicine has no good answers to the question how ulcers get passed on in families. Is it bacteria, transmitted through shared ice cream cones, a kiss? Is it genes? No one else in my family suffers from stomach ulcers. No science explains why a homeopathic powder would heal decades-old internal wounds. My best explanation is in the photographs my mother’s camera caught of us: my grandfather’s eyes on my living, breathing skin. I am alive, here, now, a baby outside a casket.

Maybe seeing his own pain on my scrunched face was what it took to put the casket down. Maybe what it took was this: my tears, my screams, his hands on the steering wheel of the tiny BMW Isetta, his Rollermobil, halfway between a motorbike and a car. The roads back to Essen, the turns through the familiar town, most houses rebuilt, my grandmother squeezed in next to him, me in her arms. The return drive, medicine in purse, heading home, away from Essen, toward something new, something that could begin again, toward a break from pain.

There is a picture of my Opa Alfred and me, right around that time. My eyes are open wide toward the camera; I’m learning how to walk but, for now, I’m sitting in a stroller. Slender, straight-backed, he crouches beside me, earnest gaze on my face. His right hand rests on his right knee, the left clenches my stroller’s metal frame.  

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