Vagaries and vicissitudes are unavoidable in life. Synchronicities are inevitable, as well. Reading the January Visiting Writer’s blog sent me on a beam of clarity to last summer’s trip to Germany. Kevin, the second love of my life, whom I met in an amazing way after my first husband blew his brains out, was born in Bremen, Germany, to an Irish-American sailor and a German woman, shortly after the end of World War II. A war is a twist of fate that we pray should never happen to anyone, yet wars continue on our beautiful, abused planet.
My husband’s name is Kevin Wilhelm Brady – Kevin to satisfy his Irish Catholic godparents, and Wilhelm for his grandfather, Dr. Wilhelm Bartels. Dr. Bartels was in his forties when he was drafted by the Nazi government into military duty, despite not being a member of the party. He was sent to the harsh, frigid Russian front. Probably the worst place to serve, and probably chosen for him because they needed a medical officer to tend to the wounded soldiers, but wanted to punish him for not being overtly loyal to their horrific cause. How different that must have been from his practice of general medicine, caring for the citizens of Hamburg. How devastating for his family of wife and four daughters, who were scattered to various relatives in different parts of their nation, reeling from Allied invasion and certain defeat.
Yet if it were not for my mother-in-law, Renate, Kevin Wilhelm would not have come to America, nor would he have entered my lonely life many decades later. Recently, Kevin wanted to visit his uncles, aunts, and cousins in Germany. So in the summer of 2014, we booked our flight from Norfolk to JFK to Dusseldorf to Hamburg. Most of his family lives in the small village of Sprötze, about thirty minutes to the south from Hamburg, and about an hour west of Bremen. We had an apartment in Sprötze overlooking the red-tiled roofs and tidy gardens of Kevin’s Tante (Aunt) Anke’s neighborhood. The weather was crystal clear with sunshine and blue skies until the day of our departure for home, when it began to rain.
What an incredible vacation we had in and around Lower Saxony, in northwestern Germany where Sprötze, Hamburg, and Bremen are located.
Bremen is picturesque; medieval and modern all at once. Many buildings are old, really old, some built in 1100. Every window box overflows with geraniums.
Hearty food is the rule, and since everyone walks or bikes, there is little concern for watching one’s waistline. Kevin’s aunt said to me, “In America you have lost your legs.” Food for thought! People stop for coffee and strudel or ice cream in the afternoon, and we visited Biergartens and outdoor wine bars.
There’s no speed limit on the Autobahn, and one can travel from village to city on a clean, smooth running train that is on time to the minute. The people are friendly, the culture is old, the infrastructure is new, and the toilets have two flushers – one for a little water and one for a little more.
Seeing Germany was magical for me. There is even the Fairy Tale Road, connecting the towns and villages that inspired the Brothers Grimm. Beginning in Frankfurt, the road winds through forests and cobbled streets, ending in Kevin’s hometown of Bremen, also home of the Bremen Town Musicians. We saw the ancient church where Kevin’s parents were married. We had lunch in the Schnoor district where tiny lanes date back to the 15th century, followed by coffee in an outdoor café on the River Weser.
Charmed as we were, we wanted to move there. But Kevin’s mother, in her desire to become an American citizen as soon as possible after immigration, and to assimilate into American culture, decided not to teach the German language to Kevin and his younger brothers. I bought a set of Pimsleur CDs but mastered only a few phrases. Down pat, I’ve got Bitte, Danke, and Entschuden Sie mich, woher is das Opernhaus? (Please, Thanks, and Excuse me, where is the Opera House?)
The language barrier and other logistics makes moving to Germany out of the question.
The post-World War II years brought Kevin to America, and they took me to Hawaii from my birthplace of Richmond, Virginia. If there was ever a magical spot on this planet, it’s surely Hawaii.
Feeling the call of our childhood home, my sister and I vacationed in Hawaii in the summer of 2005. We splashed through the waterfalls, rain forests, and beaches of the islands. We visited Kane’aki Heiau, a sacred Hawaiian gathering place built in the 16th century, and attended Sunday service at the Cathedral of St. Andrew, built on ground given to the Anglican Church in the 19th century by King Kamehameha IV and Queen Emma. We ate poi at a luau and breathed in the fragrant air blown across the island paradise by constant trade winds.
Our home, where we lived until I was fourteen, still stands. Situated in the lush Manoa Valley, the house has mountain vistas and gorgeously designed gardens. A monkeypod tree sweeps its strong arms over the emerald green front yard, and a hedgerow of shrimp plant constantly blooms with gorgeous salmon-hued flowers on the side of the house where a lava rock chimney rises. Behind the fenced back garden just off the lanai is a banana plant and a wood rose vining up an avocado tree.
During my childhood, I played under spider lily blooms, which I pretended were my tiny fairy friends. They looked like they were wearing ballerina skirts, and their long delicate fingers tickled my face. The back garden had two gates opening underneath arbors covered with stephanotis vines. The waxy white flowers smelled delicious and I loved lying in the dirt under the spider lilies, pretending to be a fairy drinking nectar from the flowering stephanotis. Some people call it the Hawaiian wedding flower.
I yearned to move back to the islands, yet I know that my home is now in southeastern Virginia. I’ve lived here since my first wedding, over forty years ago, and indeed Virginia is home. My roots are here. My friends are here. I’m happy here, though tragedies have occurred in my life during this forty-year span – my two daughters died, and my husband committed suicide.
For about twenty years, I’ve met monthly with a small women’s group in Virginia Beach. These women are part of the network of resources I drew upon to sustain the calamities that befell me. From time to time, our group throws an I Ching to answer a collective question. A few weeks ago, an answer about misfortune came from the I Ching, the Book of Changes, “None of us escapes such moments; they are simply a part of living. By meeting them in the correct spirit and … bending instead of breaking, you weather the adversity….”
This hexagram reminded me of words I wrote in my book, A Mosaic Heart: Reshaping the Shards of a Shattered Life:
Grief and tragedies happen, and they bear down upon us with dreadful weight. Yet I believe that we can each respond like the deeply rooted, old-growth trees that surround my house. During hurricanes, blizzards, and ice storms, I’ve watched the trees—oaks, beeches, maples, dogwoods, sweet gums, yellow poplars, hollies, pines, and cedars—bend and bow but rarely break. Almost always after storms, they respond to the call of the sun’s rays and the nurturance of spring rains, growing taller and stronger every year.
I stand as proof that the human spirit is capable of responding to suffering with just such resilience.
I’m at home. My heart is at home.