I have tried thus far to express my feelings of events as they were occurring and not as I see them now. But now I want to scrutinize this past in terms of my developed understanding of the dynamics of family relationships on individual motivation – matters dealt with in Bridge. When I was a child, mother was our intimate companion, she could understand the life we were living and she gave freely of her time in relating to us. We got stories of her background and felt we understood her as a person. In contrast, Papa was remote and harsh; his laconic treatment of his past gave no window into his own being. Most of what we knew about him came from mother and I now think it was often with a tinge of antipathy. In short, we were always on mother’s side, so that when I heard the disputes emanating from their bedroom, I just assumed that it was papa bullying her, never considering that there might be adequate justification. The actual content of these stormy quarrels was never available to me, either in what the voices said or in later conversations; there never were any explanations.
Earlier I said their marriage was not one made in heaven. Papa’s lack of intimacy made it impossible for me to know what his marital expectations had been, while, as I noted earlier, mother’s silence on their courtship was eloquent. The simple fact is that my parents were not shaped in the same mold. It may have worked well in the early years when they were deeply into the many involvements of reproduction and were sufficiently well off to live in the Burgher lifestyle which was natural to papa and accessible to mother, though not in her nature. By the time I became an observer of this scene, our father’s reversal of fortunes had deprived such a lifestyle of its delights and, in effect, enabled mother’s more Bohemian inclinations to come to the fore. I suspect that, whatever the immediate causus belli of any particular dispute might have been, the underlying hostility derived from this essential incompatibility.
It is idle to speculate on what life would have been like if papa’s trainload of coffee had not been lost in 1910 and if the uninsured lumber mill had not burnt down in 1913 (dates that eerily coincide with the birth of his two sons) and he would have gone on to be the prosperous Burgher that his ambitions had visualized; yet we might hazard a glimpse. Mother would have had many rewards and a rich, if somewhat dull, social life, but I doubt she would have had as much gratification as she got in the penurious conditions she sustained, little as that was. Likewise, my own youth would have been richer but less fulfilling of my needs. Mother was unsuited to the role of head of a prosperous household but would have done what was required without liking it. But this is extrapolating my own feelings –I will return to that later.
The documents on papa’s history make it clear that he wanted to follow the path to success that his father had pioneered. Information that Tex gives in his oral history, shows that papa made repeated efforts to get a business going, moving back and forth between Mexico and Germany and we can presume he came to San Antonio because things were not going well in Mexico. All this suggests he did not have the talent for the career he set for himself. This was not from lack of intelligence or knowledge, because he was a smart man, but whether it was from lack of self-confidence, too literal a reading of ethics to engage in the knavish behavior that seems necessary to a business career, or to a lack of audacity, I cannot say. At any rate, he seems always to have been a loser – starting with his parents’ shipping him off to live with an aunt, his not being able to keep up intellectually with a younger brother (even worse than not keeping up with an older one, I’m sure) and then failing miserably in his efforts to fulfill the self-expectations in emulation of the model set by his idealized father.
By the time papa appears on my radar screen he is a tired, frustrated old man, still in his early fifties, eking out a living with a demeaning job of no social value, living in a modest house with a wife uncaring about those old Germanic values, and unable, as a result of his own failure, to pour out the German wines he once imported for Burgher associates. He sees the remnants of his former elegance slowly fall to the wrecking ball of time and his wife going back to teach school to keep a fragile livelihood from slipping into true poverty. He finds himself living in an alien culture in the land to which he had come to seek his fortune and finding it far harder than the adjustment to life in Mexico had been, largely because his own wife and his growing children were part of that alien culture. Think back on that dinner when he ordered me to speak German. Here he was, listening to his own flesh and blood talking in an incomprehensible language about incomprehensible events, his wife and children listening in full comprehension, while he himself hasn’t the foggiest idea of what it is all about. This isn’t the English he knows well, but some current teen-age jargon that might as well be Hottentot. The alien off-spring he had spawned were taking over the lair. Or recall that earlier event at the same table, when Buntz pipes up shaming him by calling attention to the déclassé quality of the dessert being served in front of his self-important boss. God knows, he wanted to be one of us; how else could you explain that trip to Austin to see a football game? It is sad that I can remember nothing about that trip – how it was planned, whether we stayed overnight, if we visited anyone else, nothing but that awful moment. And I remember it now with great remorse because I realize what a defeat he suffered from his “ignorant” remark. Even now, as I tell this, tears well up in my eyes thinking about the effort he had made to participate and his inability to do so. The persistence of his inner world still rested on his German childhood, as he showed when I told him I was taking fencing at the University. “That’s good,” he said, “every young man should learn to defend himself.”
The power of the demons from his cultural background are the only explanation I can give for his last and most ferocious outburst that I encountered. I was home from college for a holiday in 34 or 35, just after Prohibition had been repealed and the three of us were having supper on that all-purpose back porch when I quite deferentially asked why he didn’t go back to importing – this time specializing in wine, as he probably knew more about German wines than anybody in San Antonio. His response was the most virulent outburst of temper I had ever experienced, totally out of keeping with the innocent and, I think, reasonable suggestion I had made. His tirade accused me of insolence and he threatened to disown me. Mother and I were aghast. She more than I, for she later told me that she was so angered that she never felt the same about him again and even gave thought to leaving him. I was more saddened than angered, for it uncovered the fantasy world that was still there — there was nothing to be disinherited from.