My husband and I celebrated July 4th in an unconventional way. We considered driving to a public fireworks display, but we just couldn’t face the traffic logjams that would follow. We turned on the TV to watch Macy’s fireworks program, but we just couldn’t stand the insipid pre-show banter and singing. (Damn you American Idol for bringing generic pop back from the grave.)
The Tunnel, a German film we’d acquired from Netflix, had been sitting around unwatched for a couple of weeks. The movie tells the factual story about the building of the Berlin wall and a group of volunteers who helped East Germans escape to West Germany. We thought it appropriate to watch people sweat, dig and cry for freedom over the faint, distant booms of fireworks.
A few days ago I was without phone or internet (21 hours; I was counting) and I used my cell phone to call my provider. I was put on hold (40 minutes; I was counting). That’s when I picked up a newsletter from an old friend who’d just returned from Germany. I decided this was a perfect time to finish reading it.
My friend’s husband Matt Schofield is somewhat famous, having been a Nieman fellow and a foreign correspondent, but Lorelei is known only to her wide circle of friends, extended family and church acquaintances. She does not make a living at writing like her husband, but her vivid phrasing has always attracted me.
After Lorelei and her family relocated to Germany five years ago, she would send out group emails titled, simply: Life in Berlin. They were hard to read. She goes into great detail, and unless you print out her newsletter, you’re going to get antsy about a third of the way through, and you’ll save it for later.
This time Lorelei snail-mailed a physical 10-page newsletter. The last one had gone out 18 months ago, so she had a lot of ground to cover. Two of her four children had gone off to college.
And her mother had died.
It was just so sad to look through all those things she had treasured—Dad’s war medals, old family photos, birth and death announcements, letters and cards from us kids. And what to do with them now? They really don’t mean so much to anyone but her. It seems pointless to keep them, but terribly sad and disrespectful to throw them away. And I look at all the stuff I have been keeping over the years—journals, letters, cards, photos. In no time at all, it will be so much useless junk that my poor kids will have to dispose of.
But the part that touched me most was about the place she’d just left.
I miss Berlin terribly. Most days I force myself not to think about it, but whenever I slip up and let the place or people or past into my thoughts, I am briefly reduced to tears. I miss all the things that no one can bring me — mass transit, amazing culture, gorgeous and interesting architecture, great bread and beer, foreign language, easy travel, that feeling of excitement that comes from being a stranger in a place where you never quite feel you know what is going on and always feel you are living a grand adventure.
In Lorelei’s letters, cities are explored, friendships are cemented, children are sent off into the world with great fanfare and babies are welcomed with a solemn kiss. This is a woman who has throughout her life reveled in symbols and rites of passage.
I often sense she’d prefer a more orderly world. Perhaps that’s the German Lutheran—by way of a Kansas pig farm—in Lorelei. There’s also a touch of wistfulness in her writing. She suffers with others who have suffered. That kind of compassion is exhausting, but I don’t think she can help herself.
Lorelei and I have more than once parted ways. Religion is the anchor of her life, and I have chosen the wayward path of a poet. Clashes were inevitable, but over the two decades we’ve known each other, we learned that you don’t choose whom you love. You’re stuck.
In 2001 when Lorelei was living in Boston while her husband completed a year at Harvard, I called to tell her I’d been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Of all the people I had to inform, only Lorelei started sobbing.
She’s not one to hold back. It gets her in trouble, but it also endears her in ways I don’t fully understand.
I used to wonder how I would describe Lorelei to her son if she’d died when her firstborn was a baby. I realized I could not do it. She was beyond my powers of wordsmithing, and that’s something a writer doesn’t like to admit.
May Lorelei find a little of her mother and a little of Berlin every day, wherever she happens to be.