01 January 1970

Where it began ... (Part 2)

Then come my own first memories.

I am moving down the long corridor of our apartment. It is dark but not completely. I cannot tell if I am walking or riding on a toy car, but my movement is smooth and I believe I can hear wheels rolling on the hardwood floor. From my perspective I can tell I am standing very low. A door stands open on my left and I turn my head to look inside the room. I can see the sink and the bathtub, and I can see the skylight and through it the overcast winter sky. Underneath the skylight my father is sitting on the toilet. He is reading the newspaper. He looks up. He talks to me. But I can't understand what he is saying. I am left with an unpleasant feeling.

Another one.

We don't live in the apartment anymore but have moved into the house up on the mountain where the rich people live. My father is carrying me on his shoulder with my head facing backward, and I can see my mother standing in the kitchen, becoming smaller and smaller. We are walking down into the basement. It is pitch-black. I am screaming now. He doesn't say a word. He opens a door, and then another, and then turns on the light. Then he slips me off his shoulder, puts me on the cast plaster floor, turns me around. Through my tears I can see a heap of coal and above it a naked light bulb. I am afraid what he is going to do to me. In a quiet voice he is telling me that if I don't stop crying RIGHT NOW(!!), he will leave me in the coal cellar and turn the light off. I am having a hard time, but I do stop crying.

First memories are special, and it bothers me that mine are of my father. My parents divorced when I was three, which was a surprise to nobody, least of all them. Mutti was 22, my father was 38. I never saw him again. (Which is not entirely true, but true for all practical purposes.) But Mutti took good care of me, although not always, because she was young. Still, she would have been deserving of my first memory.

My first memory of Mutti: We are watching race cars race up a mountain road. My mother is very pretty, with her long legs and her hair blonde now. Race marshals are waving black flags at her. The next day we are driving up the mountain. There are skid marks on the road, and my mother stops the car. A couple of steps into the woods there are scratch marks on a tree. Underneath it my mother finds a small piece of bark with a burgundy splash on it. My mother says that it is the blood of the driver that died the day before. She says his name is Toni Pelizzoni. The name is easy to remember. He died on 7 September 1969. There is a date. He was twenty-two years old, and I was four-and-a-half.

Photo: Commemorative cross to Toni Pelizzoni's fatal accident on 7 Sep 1969. Source: Michael Baumann (4 Sep 2012)

There is also a first memory of my Oma. I am five or six, and I live with her, except for weekends.

The telephone calls come in the middle of the night, certainly after midnight. I really can't say how frequently, but often enough that I don't consider them rare. I always wake at the first ring. Actually, before the first ring. I am a light sleeper. There is a clicking sound before the first ring. Oma has a shared line and the clicking indicates the switch. Then it rings.

Once ...

I can hear Oma get up quickly. I pretend to be asleep.

Twice ...

Putting on her dressing gown she tiptoes out of the bedroom, the wooden floor boards creaking under her weight. She closes the door so that the ringing doesn't wake me.

Thrice ...

Oma knows that it will be Mutti on the other end. Drunken Mutti. Why she is calling, I don't know.

I am lying in my grandfather's bed. Raising my head from the pillow, I can see Oma's silhouette through the rippled glass of the bedroom door, at the end of the hallway, in front of the gilded mirror. She is sitting on the ottoman, hunched over. I can hear her whisper. First angry. Then pleading. It is always the same.

"Listen to me, ... No, listen to me, .... Please, listen to me, ... Please, don't sin against yourself, ... Hello. Hello?"


Mutti had hung up.

Then I can hear Oma dial, the clicking sound again. Dialling again. Silence again.

Oma is helpless. What should she do?

Should she call Mutti again? But then, if Mutti called, the line would be busy.

But if she doesn't call, wouldn't Mutti think that she doesn't care? Should she call the ambulance? A doctor? The police?

Every couple of minutes I can hear Oma sigh then try call Mutti. But Mutti doesn't pick up. When there is a busy signal, Oma hangs up quickly, hoping that Mutti -- her daughter, my mother -- will call again.

Mutti always does.

Everything is hunky-dory, the events never to be discussed.

Afterwards I can see Oma's dark silhouette sit by the telephone. I know she is crying. I never get up to comfort her.

After she returns to bed, I can tell from her breathing that she doesn't sleep. She can't. I can't. And then it is time to get up, to get me ready for school.

Realistically these events could not have played out more than a couple of times in my childhood. And each time it couldn't have been more than an hour from the first assaulting call to the last reconciliatory one.

I felt bad for Oma.

I didn't feel bad for Mutti. I didn't understand her then.

(Was that why I never respond well to threats?)

All my first memories are sad memories. Maybe sad memories are formed more easily. Maybe they are stored more firmly. Maybe they are retrieved more readily.

But who is to say that what I remember really happened the way I remember it?