When we arrived in Los Angeles in 1949, the first thing my mother’s uncle, our sponsor said was “No German is spoken in this house.” At eight years old, I was not bothered and learned English in a couple of months over the summer. So, when school started at Saint Cecilias, I did not miss a grade. We had already learned cursive, numbers were the same and the only read mystery was why they were collecting nickels to buy Chinese babies. Nickels could be got by returning empty bottles to the grocery store. I was, you might say, acculturated quickly.
However, I did not get to stay at Saint Cecilia’s long, just long enough to make my first communion. It turned out the Uncle and Aunt did not like having a girl unsupervised in their rental house until the mother came home from work. So, my mother was persuaded to send me to a boarding school in Glendora. The school also ran a summer camp, so I was quite content for a couple of years. Mother came to visit once a months. Laundry was sent home to be washed in a cardboard box.
It wasn’t anything particular, but I generally shied away from Germans after the uncle got rid of us. In Santiago, Chile, where my mother planned to start a new life in 1954, I did attend the German elementary school, but the curriculum was in three languages (German, Spanish and English) and, while the housemates did speak German, as did my classmates, the new life only lasted nine months and then we headed to New York. Our sponsors, who sent me to the Ursulines, mostly spoke English, as was required of a medical professional. People who had had to flee Germany were quite content not to speak the mother tongue.
How did I retain the language? By reading the classics my grandmother sent me one book at a time. So, I read Shakespeare in a German translation and that was quite pleasant. It did not register with me that my grandmother sending books was sort of peculiar since my mother had always insisted that her mother did not allow her to read and that was why she never developed the habit. She did order some condensed books from the Reader’s Digest Book Club. But I sort of doubt they were read.
All of this goes to explain why I was largely unaware of the extent of the German population in the U.S. and Donald Trump’s German heritage did not register until today, when I discovered that German Americans are the largest ethnic group at 16% of the U.S. population. There are two thirds as many Germans here as in Germany. And many of them apparently share some unfortunate cultural characteristics perpetrated, I would argue, by abusive males.
Certainly my uncle was a ne’er do well. Nominally a housepainter, which involved him mixing old paints together to slap on a house, He spent most the time I knew him sitting by the kitchen window drinking wine. I suppose having his wife’s bedridden mother in the house provided some money. Their teenage son, who looked a bit like Elvis Presley, was a lost cause and eventually ended up dead in the trunk of his own car before he was thirty. He had shown up at our apartment in the Bronx when I was in high school, but I never knew what for and he did not stay.
All of which goes to say that dysfunctional families are not destiny. I was content and lucky to be educated by a group of cloistered nuns. They were my village for five years and made it clear I was not suitable nun material. In addition to Latin, they taught me French. Piano was a no go. I could not remember the notes.
What I will never forget is my mother’s favorite saying.
“KOMMST DU NICHT WILLIG, DANN BRAUCH ICH GEWALT.”
I was not bothered because I was always obedient and it took me a long time to understand the psychological implications of the threat of violence. That I was about six inches taller than my mother at age thirteen probably made the prospect of force from that quarter a bit ludicrous.
It is not ludicrous when it is expressed by the POTUS. Lucky for us he’s also a coward and his goons, albeit numerous, are outnumbered.