My brother and I were three years old when my mom made the first attempt to escape with us to the West. Fences, ditches and surveillance towers did not yet fortify the newly established borders between the divided Germanys. Heavily armed border guards patrolled the unmarked dividing line between the East and the West. My mom planned to cross the densely forested border at a remote village with my sister and us two. Once safely across, my sister would take us by train to relatives in the West while my mother would return home to escape with my Dad via Berlin to the West to rejoin us later. At that time, the East German regime had not yet built the wall, and it was still possible to escape from the eastern part of the city to the West by the subway system, which still joined the two parts of Berlin.
The memories of that night are etched in my memory forever. My mom and my sister struggled to push our twin stroller over a rugged forest path at the approach of the night. When the going was getting too rough, my mother allowed us to walk a short distance ahead of them. My brother and I didn’t like being cooped up in the stroller for too long. We started to run and chase each other around a bend of the narrow path when a gigantic figure with a gun stepped out of the dense bush and blocked our way. We all stood motionless for a long moment until my mother and sister came around the path. My sister started to scream with fright, but my mother stayed calm. She tried to explain that we had lost our way, but she could not fool the guard. He told my mother that he would walk the other way pretending he never met us, on condition that she immediately returned to the village. If she refused to comply, he would have to shoot, as were his strict orders. If he showed mercy, his own life was at stake. He did show some pity by giving my mother directions to a house nearby. There we would find the porch door unlocked and spend the night under a roof. “There will be shooting tonight,” were his last words.
Once again, we experienced the unexpected mercy of an enemy soldier. We spent the night huddled in the corner of a spacious porch. My sister broke down, crying hysterically. We had never heard her cry before, and it scared us more than the sounds of shots fired in the distance. Part of my sister’s breakdown was that she experienced the first stages of pregnancy still unknown to her.A few months later, she married her long-time boyfriend, and soon after, our first nephew was born. Thus, my brother and I became uncle and aunt at the tender age of four.
Today I present a few of the other animals of my wife’s rock paintings. In many cases, she had been able to cover the entire rock thus making use of the form of the rock to bring out the shapes of the animals. Today’s pictures include a wolf, a cougar, a loon, a deer’s head and a cat. Enjoy.
“When you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.” Nora Ephron
Peter worries about the Future
This chapter contains a highly condensed version of our correspondence. Only parts that seemed relevant to the theme of the initial challenges facing us on either side of the Atlantic are included here. I reorganized some paragraphs only to enhance the flow of the narrative and sometimes added a sentence or two to make for better transitions. What remained is the fascinating account of the incredible journey of Biene’s engagement ring.
My dear Peter,
Your latest letter has made me so happy, and all your plans have touched my heart. I would love to write, o Peter, commit such a great ‘foolishness’, landing a job with the IBM Company and let me soon come to you so that through our closeness we can give each other strength to do all the things that you have described to me. But Peter, you are right; we must not be unreasonable. And perhaps time will pass more quickly and more easily than we think. I am so eagerly waiting for the moment, when your letter to my parents will have arrived. I cannot put into words at all how much I miss you. But because I know that you love me I can bear the long wait…
My dear Peter, now that I am going to England to work as an a-pair girl, I have a special wish. I can hardly overcome my fear to ask you for something that I so fervently desire. But I will directly ask you, because you love me. So I really don’t need to be bashful about it. You know, Peter, I would very much like to wear a ring from you, especially now as I am going to England. Not that I couldn’t be as faithful without the ring. You certainly know that, Peter! I wish that everyone could see that I belong to you and that I promised to be faithful to you. You know, Peter, it is a peculiar feeling, but I believe that I would feel like having some kind of protection, because everyone could see that I have you. Can you understand this, Peter? If I didn’t know how much you love me, I would have never found the courage to write you this…
In Love, Your Biene
My dear Biene,
If I had to report on my search for work or my planned studies at the university, I would have nothing to write today. I hope you do not get impatient that the questions about my job and teachers’ training have not been settled yet.
Gradually I am beginning to worry about us and the more I think about the future the more anxious I get. You know, I have a restless heart that is incessantly driving me, even at times troubling and tormenting me, especially when things are not going the way I had planned. This restlessness engenders a yearning for inner peace and security. Dear Biene, you are my alter ego. In you I found everything I did not have. Without you I would be nothing. Because I love you so much, I also want you to be always happy when you are with me. Out of love you are willing to follow me no matter where I live. You emphasized in your last letter that you would even go and cut trees with me if necessary. But did you consider how much you would have to give up not just for a few days, but rather for a lifetime? You would no longer see your dear friends, your classmates, your brother, your father, and your mother. Later I cannot be the substitute for all these dear people. Instead I would like to be your husband and life’s companion. Dear Biene, to put it frankly I fear you will leave far more behind in Germany than what you will gain in Canada. You see, this is how I feel right now. You are on my mind all the time. You walk with me, you talk with me, and I hear warning voices. Perhaps I am totally off base, and one day we will meet again sharing the desire for happiness, security, and contentedness, for which your restless heart is yearning just as much as mine is. However, never would I want that my wish become an obligation on your part. Think it over thoroughly and give me your honest opinion. Please don’t be sad that I have given so much thought to this matter. I am only thinking about what I can do for you to make you happy…
Hello, my name is Gertrud Klopp. I am semiretired and live in Fauquier. Although, I loved drawing and painting as a child, I did not actively pursue this hobby until about ten years ago. Inspired by a book, I started painting animals on rocks with acrylics. Rock painting is probably one of the oldest art forms. It appeals to me because rocks are natural products and come in infinite shapes and sizes. A painted rock is like a sculptured object and can be safely displayed outside. Acrylic paints are wonderful! They allow me to repaint areas I am not satisfied with and eliminate the need to start the project all over again. Every summer while camping I have lots of fun collecting and painting rocks in nature’s inspiring work shop.
In the meantime Biene had graduated with reasonably high marks and sent me a telegram to the Tannenberg barracks to tell me the good news. Her parents were so delighted over her success that they granted her permission to visit me again in Watzenborn. Before she came, she had presented me with her idea of writing a family chronicle that would later enable us to look back at our roots.
In addition I had tossed in the proposal of starting a book with blank pages, which we would fill with our vision for the time, when we would be together in Canada. A description of our dream house would be part of this endeavour. Biene wholeheartedly embraced this idea and to this end immediately bought a leather-bound book, which could be locked with a tiny key. In spite of the hustle and bustle of the graduation festivities and inevitable farewell parties she had already made her first entry with the full force of her innate romantic creativity:
Our Little Dream House
Now when under the first sun rays of spring the forces of nature begin to stir, I can hardly wait, until everything is blooming and the green, which is still slumbering in the swollen buds, breaks forth. Not too long ago I came across this photo and each time I look at it, dreams of a little home of my desires are awakening. You said indeed that we will set no limits to how far our fantasy will carry us, as long as it won’t do us any harm. This is how I imagine our little fantasy home to look like.
So picture this. It is spring. Only nature has progressed a little farther than here today. For everywhere fruit trees are already blossoming and in the sea of blossoms glimmers the first tender green of rupturing buds. You walk along the edge of a small town and are caught in the intoxicating scent of flowering splendour. All of a sudden you see out of the white shimmer a little house emerge. Sheer happiness makes your heart beat faster, and you believe to dream anew like on every day; for this is our little home embedded by this blooming island. It is as I said only a little house made entirely out of dark wood reminiscent a little of a log cabin. It looks neither opulent nor grandiose, but endearing and inviting instead.
Through the large windows the sun and the fresh aromatic air pours into the small cozy rooms. The sun glides over the furniture, which is not so ultramodern as to appear cold and nondescript, but every piece is reassuringly firm and solid and for that reason snug and comfortable. At this moment I must think of the chairs, which Aunt Lucie had painted. Such a piece of furniture is no longer dead, but in a small way radiates life.
Oh, I forget to mention that every window bedecked by a flower box is overflowing with flowers just like on that little photo. Our little home appears as if one day it would be overgrown by nature’s luscious growth, which should provide protection against the cold months, when icy winds drive us inside into the heated room.
Apart from that we spend most of the time in our little yard and even sleep there, when the summer nights are warm and the mosquitoes do not sting us too much. We sleep in hammocks and gaze at the starry sky before falling asleep.
In the winter when it is stormy and desolate, our large tiled stove or fireplace will radiate warmth into the small rooms just like the sun in the summer. Where the rooms are located, I am not so sure about it yet, but I think it would be best to place our bedrooms under the roof; for the slanted attic walls seem so cozy with a bed underneath. Also your study is upstairs, where you have the most quiet and can work fast. Thus, you can devote a lot of time to us. By us I mean everything that is dear to us, the plants and the trees in the yard, the little house, the animals and – I hardly dare to write it again – our children. I believe, if only a fraction of all this may become reality, I would be the happiest woman of the entire world!
Reading the description of Biene’s vision of our dream house, I was amazed at how far her thoughts and ideas had ventured forth with such precise details as if taken from a prophetic book. What astounded me the most, was how much the slow-moving train of life, in which we traveled together, had accelerated in recent weeks and months. Was is not only eight months ago that my novella ‘Carthage’ so fervently written and presented to her as a gift prompted here to say ‘I believe, we love each other’? And now her heart and soul envisioned us as husband and wife having a family in the home of her dreams.
Sitting on Mother’s sofa Biene and I shared these wondrous thoughts that have so prophetically crystallized into words written down in Biene’s special dream book. They were clear and easy to grasp and to attach our hopes to. They gave us a sense of purpose and direction, a blueprint for our entire lifespan.
The morning sun was shining brilliantly into the living room. Early spring was in the air and beckoned us to go for a stroll past the meadows behind the house towards the old mill into the nearby woods. There I once almost lost my way in the maze of trails and roads riding my new bicycle. We directed our path to a hunter’s lookout tower, which was overlooking a small clearing in the woods. We climbed up the wooden ladder to gain a higher vantage point for us. Once we had sat down on the sturdy bench, we no longer allowed our mind to dwell on our plans for the future, but had the strong urge to follow the ancient Roman saying ‘Carpe diem.’ We kissed. It was a very long and sweet kiss indeed. And if there were no other needs in this world, such as for food, drink, and shelter, you would in all likelihood still find us there today. So much we were wrapped up in enjoying the presence. The scene would have inspired the illustrious romantic English poet John Keats to compose a sequel to his famous poem ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’ entitled ‘Ode to a Hunter’s Lookout’, where our bliss would have been frozen in time for all eternity.
A most unconventional, secret engagement had taken place. Biene and I did not feel any need to share the joyful news of our clandestine arrangement with anyone. While our parents, relatives and friends saw our love story unfolding before their eyes, they did not suspect anything more than what was normal at our age to do, to have a few dates, to meet at regular albeit long intervals. However, breaking well-established and meaningful conventions, such as a formal engagement, was not without peril, which we in our elevated state of romantic ecstasy did not foresee and whose warning signs we did not heed.
Another danger was lurking from deep within me, the tendency to fast forward into the future, then to look back from an imaginary vantage point and view in horror all the possible things that could go wrong. The worst of these mental acrobatics was that I was afraid that I would have to take the blame for Biene’s future hardships, suffering and pain. These were the thoughts that were passing through my convoluted mind. In simple terms, I was also a bit scared about having the boldness to ask her to marry me in the light of having ahead very little income, an uncertain future, and a long period of separation. So I wrote in a letter:
“Now I recall something else I wanted to tell you. I would very much like, when I am no longer in Germany, that you feel obligated by nothing except by your heart and feeling. Do you know what I mean? We have always striven to be honest even when we found it hard to do so. But it is exactly that honesty, which unites us so firmly. Perhaps you had expected to hear from me more concise plans on our walk through the snow to the old mill and back. See, my dear Biene, this was also the reason, why I found it so difficult to talk. I do not wish to exert any pressure on you. When I tell you, I need you –I really need you -, then in a sense I have already exerted pressure. Therefore, dear Biene, I urge you to let your heart decide.”
The promise we made to each other on our wintry walk was barely one week old. And already I had cast doubts on the strength of our love for each other. I was very lucky that Biene did not take it as an insult. Even though it had never been my intention, one could have accused me of putting her love to the test. Of course, from her response I could tell that she felt saddened by the doubts I still had about her true feelings. But at the same time, my letter had compelled her to say that she loved me so much that she could belong to no one but me. I had to smile when I read the following lines,
“And if you were as poor as a church mouse, I would rather be a church mouse. Peter, don’t laugh, I really mean it. I would also like to give you a sign. May I give you my ring? It is the most precious thing I possess except for your letters and the book you wrote for me. Never would I have parted with it, but with you I find it easy to do. You must not think I am superstitious, but I believe it will bring you luck. And one day, dear Peter, when you write to me, ‘Biene, come to me!’ you can return it to me. Oh Peter, it makes me so indescribably happy to believe in a future with you. I am always thinking of us and I am indescribably happy about our secret. Dear Peter, I am so thankful that you have always stuck with me even though I so often hurt you, because I didn’t know that I loved you so much.”
The ring turned out to be a very precious family heirloom that was being passed down from Biene’s great-grandmother to her grandmother Gertrud and then, after the latter had passed away, finally to Biene. It was symbolic in more than one way. But the meaning as an engagement ring escaped me completely at the time. Of course, I was happy with it as a gift and as a token of Biene’s love. It was a bit too small to wear on my ring finger. To be sure, if I had, it would have raised a few eyebrows in my military environment. But I did wear it on my little finger during the night and turned it a few times to let it do its magic. Alas, in spite of all that talk about talking frankly and freely, I never understood the real meaning of Biene’s gift, and Biene did not have the courage to ask me for an engagement ring. If the reader thinks I needed to be rich and gainfully employed, before humbly falling on his knees to ask for her hand in marriage, he would have been misled by the Anglo-American custom of buying a diamond ring for one’s sweetheart. In Germany, all one needs is a golden ring, which one wears on the ring finger of the right hand for the engagement and on the left hand at the wedding. What a simple and affordable tradition! Yet, I was blind and did not interpret Biene’s gift as her most ardent desire to wear a ring from me, before we separated for a very long time.