At Christmas, the house would be redolent with the smells of anise, clove and cinnamon as mother made cookies from her old German cookbook. We celebrated Christmas with a tree, on which hung real candles and under which a farm scene replaced the crèche. Chinese glass chimes would call us to Bescherung, the exchange of gifts which in German custom took place on Christmas Eve, followed by a special dinner for the family and, when one existed, a girl friend or beaux.
There was a flaw in this Christmas Eve in the early days; we were each supposed to recite a poem or bit of prose in German before presents were distributed – a task I regularly failed at and that took fun out of the anticipation of Christmas. I wonder if this contributed to two of my outstanding failures; the inability to learn foreign languages and to recite from memory.
There was also the problem of finding adequate presents with the limited money I had managed to save from my miserable magazine sales. The obvious thing to buy was a beautiful German harmonica, for these were dumped on the market as a means of complying with a stupid condition placed on Weimar Germany. You had first to ask yourself, “When was the last time I gave one of these?”
But the tree, which theoretically hadn’t been seen until the magic Chinese chimes were jiggled to call us in, was always a delight and the next morning the house was filled with guests to share mother’s Herringsalat, a wonderful north European dish made up of diced veal, beets, onions, boiled potatoes, parsley, apple, and the eponymous herring. It was the one party that included both the German-Americans of the early years and the newer friends. A bowl of Herringsalat was always taken to Unkie to give him a nostalgic memory of the delight in tasting one of his mother’s dishes – for his wife, Aunt Mary, though of German descent, had not brought anything Germanic to her marriage. .
We regularly had “Februarian” parties. Buntz and my birthdays were a week apart and two young friends also had birthdays in February and somebody dreamt up having a joint party that took on the aura of being a tradition. The other two were girls; one was Wilma Welles, the younger sister of Thea’s friend, Juanima, a librarian, and other was Jocarle, the daughter of Leah Johnson, the children’s librarian where Thea had been page. The Welleses were Christian Scientists and seemed very déclassé to me but the Johnsons were Unitarians. (There was a brief period when we went to the Unitarian church responsive to mother’s feeling that we should have the social life but it didn’t take.) Our party was always at 315. Each had a theme and involved a kind of roast for the four honorees. This “Little Women” sort of family activity was augmented occasionally as, for instance, the farewell part for mother before her trip to Germany in 1929.1 This was one where Thea, who played the part of mother, didn’t feel left out, as she had with the Februarian parties. I never felt particularly honored but once, years later, she expressed an understandable childish envy – and evinced a less understanding lingering resentment.
Not all was wine and roses. One Sunday dinner at that Mission Style dining table with just the family present I was telling about something of moment that had happened at school. I was excited and filled with boyish enthusiasm about whatever it was when, all of a sudden, papa’s fist hit the table, accompanied by a shouted, “Sprich Deutsch, Bengel!” German had not been the household language in my experience though it had once been and was still the ideal, so the demand came out of the blue. The outburst shocked the others; it silenced me completely. I did speak German but did not have the command of it for translating these highly American experiences and was humiliated and angry. I have used this incident to explain my inability to learn foreign languages –a dubious and self-serving bit of psychologizing.
It isn’t that papa didn’t try to be one of us. A most poignant memory from this period is of the whole family going to Austin to see a Texas Longhorns football game. Imagine how this was for him: three hours of tedious driving each way, the expense of five tickets; the long walk to the stadium on a hot afternoon, three hours on uncomfortable benches in a Texas autumn sun; watching badly choreographed helmeted men in an incomprehensible dance. I have no idea what had inspired this junket, nor anything about the trip, whether we stayed over night, if with friends or at a hotel. All that I can say is that it must have been costly for him; a great sacrifice of time, money and energy. The whole event is encapsulated for me in a 30-second bite, starting from when the Longhorns made a great passing play and we all got up and shouted and ending just as the roar abated and papa said in a loud voice, “What happened, did somebody make a homerun?”
“God,” I thought, “did any child in the whole world have such a stupid father?”
One social event that used the artifacts from the early posh days was a dinner given for an executive of the company for which papa worked and his wife. The silver was polished, linen tablecloth put on the extended Mission style table and the hand-painted plates and other elegances from the old days put to use. Wine was served. Willy, our washerwoman, brought in to do special duty as housemaid, served us. She managed this with an uncertain competence that had mother on tenterhooks. But after she had drained the glasses as they came back to the kitchen, she walked in on tiptoes with a discernable list to the left to serve the desert, a bowl of canned peaches. Willie’s insecurities were upstaged by Buntz, showing more talent for quick calculation than for social decorum, announced that “there are two for each and a little bit of the juice.” This was accepted with silence, but after the guests left Buntz got the one beating for which I actually remember the context.