The Americans gave each family two rabbits, which we were to care for over the summer and eventually cook. Well, as you might imagine, Tante Ingrid and I got quite attached to the little critters. When the time came for rabbit stew, we were despondent. We begged Mutti to please save them. And somehow — despite having had no meat for God knows how long — she agreed. She must have been so exasperated with us, but she agreed.
I come from a family of repeaters. We repeat the questions that had unsatisfactory answers, the jokes that got particularly good receptions, the requests willfully ignored, but most of all, we repeat the stories. This frequent repetition is born of equal parts scatterbrained-ness and hardheaded-ness that are both undoubtedly encoded in some highly conserved part of my lineage’s DNA. It’s also born of the belief that a good yarn deserves many audiences.
We were walking home from school, my sister and I holding hands and our mother holding the baby. With no warning — no signs, no sirens, no scuffle, I mean nothing — Mutti stopped short. “We have to go to the bomb shelter,” she told us, matter of fact. I was upset. There was nothing to do in there except sit around, and we were almost home. She shooed us to the shelter for no other reason than a feeling in her gut. Well, it was lucky I didn’t get my way, because when we emerged hours later, our entire house was gone.
Tellings and re-tellings of stories like these have become comfortable theatre. I know when to laugh and gasp, when to exclaim and sigh. Like thumbing a dog-eared page or hearing that unmistakable opening chord, I know when my favorite parts are coming. The anticipation heightens the experience.
I find it almost intolerable when someone remarks, “You’ve told me this already.” Of course I have. You know it, I know it, but to speak of it out loud is unbearably deflating. The jig is up. The magic of a re-telling is completely dependent on a mutual agreement between the teller and her audience to sustain the illusion that they have never had this exchange before. And anyway, nothing really sticks the first time. I learned this lesson the hard way in medical school.
Ingrid and I set off on our road trip almost as soon as I arrived in the US. She had the summer off, and I had no job yet. We drove from park to park, us two girls and our tent. And you know, for all that time, we stayed only four nights in a hotel. Oh! You don’t know how good those showers felt. Hot water, clean soap, starched washcloths … heaven. We went as far south as Santa Fe, as far north as Anchorage. My favorite place though, was the Canadian Rockies. I’ll never forget the ranger we met there. He was such a nice man. He took us into the back country on horseback. I’ve never seen such beauty. We never would have seen it without him.
My grandmother was born in Germany, right before the world went to war for the second time in the still new twentieth century. Her childhood is like science fiction to me: otherworldly, engrossing, impossible. She was reedy, with bright, sharp eyes and copper hair cropped short in defiance of the tedium of braiding. Her mother measured the coffee each morning with utmost precision, determined not to waste a single bean. Her father fought in World War I and, along with the rest of the German troops, was abandoned in Russia. He walked the entire way back, equally dependent on foraged roots from the Russian countryside and charity from the Russian strangers to survive. He returned home cachectic, with less than one hundred and fifty pounds on his six-foot frame. He did not return home from World War II. After fleeing to the south of Germany, then Poland, then Switzerland, my grandmother came to the United States on a freighter with almost no other passengers. The way she tells it, she warded off seasickness by staying perpetually above board — rain be damned. On the journey across, she plodded through an English-German dictionary, memorizing as best as she could.
I lived in New York City with a girlfriend for three months when I first arrived in the States. I was so eager to explore the island. One day, I walked from the tip of Manhattan all the way up to Harlem. You can really see so much more on foot. I couldn’t believe the buildings, the neighborhoods, the smells, the different people. Don’t worry, I took the bus back to my apartment — I was tired! But I will never forget that day, that city.
On the one hand, psychoanalysts Carl Jung and Erik Erikson both emphasized the importance of older people revisiting and reflecting on life events in order to make sense of their lives and how they lived them. It’s a reckoning of sorts: a final attempt to form a coherent narrative about the planet and their place in it; a chance to smooth over any lingering cognitive dissonance born from years of existing in a messy and uncertain world. Telling and re-telling stories, particularly important ones from childhood, is critical to this psychological endeavor.
On the other hand, frequent repetition is one of the earliest predictors of Alzheimer disease. In the beginning, patients tend to repeat questions. As the pathology progresses, they repeat sentences, and then stories.
This dichotomy is startling, though perhaps it should not be. Pathology often mirrors physiology, with slight deviations from the norm compounding to create symptoms that, when cumulative, are devastating. But there’s something about stories that, as David Foster Wallace more colorfully put it, reflect the core of what it means to be a human being. As indisputably important as objective evidence, hard data, randomized control trials and the like are, when it comes down to it, the stories are what make us care. They open us to camaraderie, love, empathy, appreciation, understanding — to each other. They help remind us we’re not trudging onward alone. For the stories to be the symptoms is cruel.
Well, you know, Brandy was our second dog and boy, was she a menace. I mean, truly something else. I still remember one summer, when your mother was a little girl, cooking a roast beef all day for your grandfather. I set it on the counter to rest and stepped outside to call the girls in — I wasn’t even a minute gone. Well! When I came back in the roast was on the ground, half-eaten. Brandy looked up at me with her big eyes, and you know what? I could only laugh.
I come from a family of repeaters. My perpetually spry, unfailingly chic grandmother is now chief among us. My grandmother — queen of the butterkuchen, the curious object, the sale rack — reigning over us all in her Eames chair. She is re-reading her favorite books now: Wallace Stegner, Thornton Wilder, Isabel Allende, Thomas Mann. She has told me this many times. She recently loaned me a collection of Stegner’s short stories.
Each is new to me.