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Apple Strudel

The January before her death in 2013, my mother Susi came to Florida to visit me. She was living in my half-sister Jackie’s Colorado home and wanted to get out of the cold and snow for a few weeks. During her visit, we both worked hard to be kind to one another. COPD and emphysema limited her activity; a trip to the grocery store sent her to bed for the afternoon. So we dallied over lunches, settled under the oak trees in the backyard and looked out over the lake.

We did not talk about the important things we needed to talk about, such as what was happening in her life all those years ago in a small German town when she left her accidental infant daughter behind with her mother and took on the world in a dance troupe. The anger and resentment of a lifetime stopped boiling in me. The questions still plaguing me receded in the urgency to spend quality time together, knowing it would soon end.

I had adopted a rescue horse in North Carolina and was taking riding lessons in anticipation of her delivery to Florida. I took Mom with me to the ranch on the day of my lesson and sat her in a spot of sunshine near the fence in the paddock. The ancient mare I was learning to ride on shared her grassy acre with a spirited young gelding. As I saddled the mare, the gelding sauntered over to my mother nodding off in her chair. He gently began sniffing her face, her hair, her body. A slow smile spread across Mom’s face. She sat perfectly still, at ease and delighted. The sniffing went on for many minutes. When Mom opened her eyes, she was nose to nose with her new friend. She stroked the gelding’s soft muzzle.

I exclaimed about the gelding’s interest in her and his gentleness as his lips nibbled at her hair. That afternoon, as we cradled cups of hot tea, she told me a story.

To the best of my recollection:

I was about four or five, I guess. We were living together at the time, our small family, before my father was sent away. He would swoop me up onto his shoulders and off to the stables we would go. I ran around the sweet-smelling barn, small enough to walk under the horses, and stroked their warm bellies with my fat fingers. My father swung me on a horse’s back, no saddle, and led me around the paddock. He also played a mean harmonica and showed me how to blow into one. He loved photography and showed me how to look into the lens and frame a picture. My father called me his “little Felix.” I knew he loved me and was proud of me. And then he was gone. I missed him so.

Here was a blink into her childhood and the father she loved and felt loved by. A lance-corporal in Hitler’s Wehrmacht, he oversaw the building of housing and stables as the National Socialist German worker’s Party gained strength and prepared for war. Gone for months at a time, his visits home remained seared in her memory.

The good and the bad.

At six years old, Mom may have witnessed the altercation between her parents when her father came home from a deployment to find his wife pregnant. She may have heard the awful shouting as he insisted the baby could not be his; the timing was off. She may have heard the screams and begging during the awful beating that her mother took. She may have heard him yell over and over to flush the bastard down the toilet. Her mother remained locked in the bathroom, pleading, her father a madman standing guard at the door. After three days, Felix grabbed his belongings and stormed out of the flat. Soon he was deployed to the frontlines in France. Soon word came that he had died from a self-inflicted bullet wound to his head.

The nightmares that plagued my mother kept her pain alive and saturated her years with sadness and anxiety. Many nights I heard her scuttling into the kitchen, click of her lighter preparing me for the acrid smell of her cigarette before it drifted into my bedroom. But she never spoke to me of the war horrors she must have seen, or the pain of a family in so much turmoil. So now I can try to understand how a mother can leave her accidental infant behind. Of the need to escape the memories. Of never wanting to be a putzfrau in a small town, living a small life and doing what she had always done: clean and take care of others. To have a chance to dance, wear fantastic costumes, be regaled by princes and dignitaries in exotic countries far away, well, this was an opportunity that only came once.

One snowy December day when I was five years old, a vision appeared at mine and Oma’s front door. I stared up at her and thought of a doll: a porcelain face with blue eyes and bud lips, a cloud of dark hair illuminated by the light from the open doorway. The woman beamed at me. One of her front teeth was chipped in a crooked line. Her arms were filled with brightly wrapped gifts. A faint, smoky smell of cigarettes swirled around her. Oma introduced her as deine Mutti. Your mother. Behind her stood a wide man in a dark green uniform, legs splayed, arms crossed in front of his ample girth as he squinted down at me. His teeth clenched a pipe, his brown eyes warm and inquisitive.

In the formal parlor, I was placed in the man’s lap. Das ist deine neue Papa, my mother explained. I wiggled nervously, fascinated by this new American daddy’s Army uniform and babbled away with questions about the pins and ribbons on his jacket. He remained silent, frowning slightly. I trembled with excitement, looked back and forth between these parents I had so extraordinarily been gifted with. Yet my chest began to feel thick and my stomach knotted. In a moment, I understood. I twisted around to stare at Oma. I knew life was about to change.

My mother was always a shell to me, a hard, outer carapace that I couldn’t—wouldn’t— penetrate. Only since her death have I gotten a sense of the meat and bones and heart and blood and viscera inside the shell. And, most of all, her essence. To do her justice, I have to accept her as the person she wanted to be, not as the mother I wanted her to be. As children, we don’t often think about our parents’ lives before they were our parents. We see them as caretakers from whom we eventually break away from, their job being done for better or worse. Love emanates from this bond. Sometimes, we have to look deeper to find it.

Mom hated to cook. Packaged potato flakes in a yellow soupy mash, khaki-colored beans out of a can, a chunk of some kind of gray-tinted meat was a typical meal. All through elementary and middle school, I came home mid-afternoons to find dinner already cooking on the stove. We ate promptly at 6:00, after my stepfather came home from work. This meant that already processed food had been simmering for several hours.

One afternoon, I came home to an inexplicable transformation: Mom up to her elbows in freshly made dough, the scent of apples, vanilla, and cinnamon thick in the air. Flour dusted the kitchen table, puffs wafting towards escape through an open window. Boxes of golden raisins, packages of vanille Zucker (sent from Aunt Christel in Germany) and mounds of tart Granny Smith and sweet Golden Delicious apple slices—almost slivered—sat piled on the edge of the large table awaiting their turn.

I straddled a stool, picked away at the apples and raisins, and marveled at her deft movements. Her gnarled arthritic fingers, yet strong and sure, massaged the flour and water mixture into a mound. A firm thumb created a volcano crater. Into this she poured a raw beaten egg. Gently, very gently, my mother swirled the dough around and around, further and further, until the egg was absorbed and the mound flattened. She twirled and whirled. A tad more flour, a few droplets more water. When the dough lay glistening, it was ready for the large wooden rolling pin left over from Oma’s kitchen. Mom’s shoulder muscles contracted again and again as she slammed and rolled, rolled and slammed. When it was over, she rested for a moment, her breath coming out in short bursts.

Satisfied that the perfect oval had the perfect thin-ness, she sprinkled a fine layer of salt overall. With lips pursed, Mom became a painter at her palette. Apple slices became rows of sentinels; raisins spiraled through the air to land randomly with a plop; freshly grated cinnamon and the precious vanilla sugar rained down on the waiting landscape. I held my breath as she rolled this mountainous pile into a log, the apple slices poking through their almost translucent cover. And then, my mother, as if she held an infant in her arms, tenderly snuggled her creation into a round pyrex bowl. Shavings of creamy butter, a cup of frothy milk, and a fond pat followed before it was gently placed into the oven.

What came out was a bubbling, heavenly-scented concoction: a brown, crispy crust alternated with moist, doughy parts where the log had overlapped. My German mother served this as the evening meal. She proudly presented her masterpiece before positioning it in the center of the table. Sitting back, she watched with satisfaction as my siblings and I wolfed down the coveted results of her labor. Only later, after we had our fill, would she scoop a dollop onto her plate and lift a still-steaming forkful of amber apples and thick doughy goo to her mouth.

I should have seen the love she was offering, one of the few ways she knew how.


BIO


German born, Maddie Lock fell in love with words as she learned the English language. Her essays have been published in various journals and anthologies, including Under the Sun, The RavensPerch, Gravel, Ruminate, Wanderlust-Journal, and Unleash Press. She has recently completed a memoir about her scattered roots. Find out more at www.maddielock.com.



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