A sprawling area of Berlin’s central cemetery has been cordoned off due to construction, and no matter which way I turn, I find myself moving away from my goal. Glancing down at the tombstones, I’m unable to squelch a buoyant thought: You’re all six feet under but I’m not! Then panic begins to prick the back of my neck. I can see the chapel, but can’t get to it. I’m jogging along in a heavy black coat and high-heeled boots, lost amongst the dead.
A familiar face saves me, the owner of the English bookshop I frequent, who waves from the chapel steps and points me toward the right path. He introduces me to a man whose eyes are familiar. Wally’s son. I mention the resemblance, eliciting a nod, a shifting of weight. Have I broken funeral etiquette? A drop of sweat trickles down my back and a maniacal smile stretches across my face. I duck into the chapel before I can break into song and dance.
The moments leading up to a funeral always make me giddy—the more tragic the death, the more inane my behavior. When I was seventeen, a girl I knew died of leukemia and I drove to her funeral screaming along with top forty radio, Guns and Roses blaring from my rusty Honda as I pulled into a church parking lot. Wally was ninety-two, though, and he died peacefully at home, so my usual pre-funeral-glee is of a relatively low-key variety. Perhaps this is also due to the fact that I haven’t eaten yet, having knocked a glass of orange juice onto my toast this morning. I didn’t have time to clean it up before I left, and now I slide into an empty pew and think of the heavy mahogany cutting board I never wanted, the mess on it that will be waiting for me when I come home.
My father always said he wanted to make me a table, and for the longest time I feared he would. The closest he ever got was the mahogany cutting board. Carpentry is his hobby. His sense of proportion is awkward, and he likes incorporating different kinds of wood with busy and vaguely tribal inlay elements that make me cringe. But he’s an expert with dovetail joints, a perfectionist who will scour a finished piece with infinitely increasing grades of sandpaper until the surface is smoother than a baby’s butt. He has an album full of photographs documenting the furniture he’s made for friends and acquaintances over the years: cherry, maple, oak, walnut—burnished to a high gloss, reflecting the flash in suburban homes.
The carpentry started after he retired. He also took art classes at the community center and began making sculptures out of wood and metal, even granite and marble. Like his furniture, they were impeccably crafted but formally naïve.
His newest creation was always the first thing he showed me when I came to visit. He had usually paid for the flight, but a rare flip-flop in the power balance between us was palpable at these moments; he had studied medicine and I had studied art. I never said what I really thought of his sculpture, but I think he could tell.
Anyway, we were always on edge around each other. Since our first falling out when I was a teenager, our relationship had evolved into a patchwork of hurt and misunderstanding, stitched together every so often with the fraying bond of love. But we had stretched this patchwork over a minefield of resentment and insecurity, so even if the stitches held tight, the weight of bad blood was likely to trigger a tripwire eventually.
From the second row of the nearly empty chapel I gaze at the closed casket, covered with a spray of red roses and baby’s breath. On it rests a framed photo of Wally taken long before I knew him—middle-aged, in possession of a thick head of dark hair, sporting that familiar smirk, as well as a wide collar and clunky black glasses. Had I even been born when it was taken? My stomach growls. A few more people file in. Beyond the casket is a shallow apse tiled with concentric mosaic arches, a giant gold cross at the center. Technically, Wally was a Jew, but I don’t think he’d give a damn.
Born as Wolf Morgenstern in 1926, he grew up in Berlin’s Scheunenviertel until, at the age of twelve, he was evacuated to England with the Kindertransport and given a new name. He never saw his family again, but after the war ended he returned to Berlin as the newly minted Wallace Morgan, a translator for the British army. Then he worked in a steel factory in Sheffield before somehow making his way to New York. There were menial jobs during the day, classes at night. Eventually he ended up teaching history at Brooklyn College, married to Rita, an editor at a communist publishing house. They had one child, the son I have just met.
There are only about fifteen people in the chapel when the music finally starts, a violin resounding with infinite pathos. I realize it’s the theme from Schindler’s List. The film came out the summer I moved to Germany, and I saw it the week before I got on the plane to Berlin, sobbing the entire way through, my eyes nearly swollen shut as I left the theater. But now the music strikes me as melodramatic.
Wally was in his mid-eighties when we met through the owner of the English bookshop. I had arrived late to a dinner party and the seat next to Wally was the only empty place. Great, I get stuck with gramps, I had thought. But the minute he opened his mouth I was fascinated. We talked about books and politics and it was soon clear: this old man was a radical! And an enigma. He had a Brooklyn accent but spoke perfect German. At one point, having talked myself into a corner, I stammered, then offered a bashful smile. Suddenly, I was unsure of what I had meant to say, or if I had the right to say it at all.
Wally looked me squarely in the eye with a big smile and shouted, “Well, say what you think!” An older man who encouraged me to express my opinion? As a woman with daddy issues, this was irresistible.
Since I was a small child, my father had tamped down hard on my urge to voice my thoughts. He was a physician—analytical, fact-based, invested in hierarchy. And I was a creative and highly sensitive child—erratic, ruled by emotion, moved to speak out by injustice and beauty, as well as a much too vague sense of what I did and did not want. He called me mouthy, dramatic, obnoxious, disobedient, opinionated. Didn’t I know I should be seen but not heard?
After retiring, Wally and Rita sublet their place in Manhattan and traveled to Berlin, planning to spend a year in the city from which he had been exiled as a child. But Rita became ill and they had to extend their stay abroad while she underwent treatment for cancer. By the time she died, the people to whom they had sublet their Manhattan apartment had stopped paying the rent and been evicted. Wally was stranded in Berlin and would live out the rest of his life in this foreign place, the city of his childhood. A homecoming of sorts.
He soon amassed a circle of younger friends whom he met through the English bookshop. He loved to talk about them: “A doesn’t read enough; B thinks he’s writing the great American novel; C works for that foundation that’s just a front for the CIA.” I snickered along with him, soaking up the gossip about this group I barely knew, imagining I was special, safe from his judgement.
Someone sniffles and I glance around, recognizing a few versions of myself in the chapel: Wally’s women. I wasn’t the only one. It seems he had a type—smart, angular, difficult, decades younger than himself. For a while, Wally and I went out to dinner so frequently my daughter began to worry that I was having an affair. My husband just laughed when I said I had another date with Wally; he didn’t feel threatened by a senior citizen. But if Wally had had his way, our relationship would have been physical.
“People think all friendship becomes Platonic, that you just forget about sex when you get old,” he said more than once with a naughty sparkle in his bleary eyes, at which point I would quickly change the subject.
Once I confided in him that I had had an affair. Perhaps I was sending a sign that I didn’t think of him that way. Or maybe I was hoping he would open up to me in return. I knew he missed Rita. There was a poster-sized print of her face on his living room wall: dark hair, angular face.
“Oh, everyone has affairs,” he said, unimpressed with my candor, dropping it with a shrug and moving on to the open relationship between Sartre and de Beauvoir. He said they were ahead of their time. If only. I often felt behind my time: Wally’s seemed so much more vibrant—hanging out in post-war Harlem’s jazz clubs, dodging McCarthyism at work, helping Rita secure an illegal abortion in Mad-Men-Era Manhattan. His tales ignited my fantasy.
But we also talked about the present, grumbling about the Germans and laughing at the Americans. We talked about the qualities of a good bagel but also about how the concept of gender was changing. He was well read, and I pretended to be, heading home to look things up. He gave me books by Proust and Angela Carter, but also cheap outdated cookbooks that had belonged to Rita, the kind you find on bargain tables: Real Chinese or 1001 Muffins. I never even got through the first volume of Proust and I felt insulted by the cookbooks—I wanted to be seen as a writer not a housewife, though I was still navigating the gaping divide between these two identities myself.
Sometimes he talked about England, the noise and filth in the factory, but he never talked about his childhood in Berlin, his family. Wary of the tidal surge of emotion I might unleash, I didn’t really ask. And now I can’t.
My gaze darts back and forth between the photo of young Wally, the flower arrangements, the box containing dead Wally. When is someone going to stand up and say something? After all, there is so much to say. Surely something about the circular nature of life, for Wally ended up right back where he started, his lifetime the strangest merry-go-round.
I never knew why his son, who grew up in Brooklyn and became a doctor, had moved to Berlin. Perhaps the son’s presence here had been part of the reason Rita and Wally came to Berlin. But Wally didn’t seem to like his son at all. He confided to me more than once in his nasally whine: “There’s just something wrong with him.” The words stung because I knew my own father had said things like this about me—to my mother, to teachers and psychiatrists, even to my husband.
When Wally complained about his son, I would reciprocate by griping about my father—his inability to understand anything that deviated from the norm, his obsession with golf, his pushy wife, his middlebrow taste and midwest morality. Wally agreed with my diagnosis: repression. But secretly I wondered if that wasn’t Wally’s problem as well. And what was wrong with the son—had he somehow absorbed the tremendous trauma his father seemed to shrug off like the vague memory of a bad meal?
I’ve never been to a funeral where no one gives a eulogy, but that is apparently what this is. It’s just Wally in his coffin and an eclectic playlist one of the bookshop people must have put together. After Schindler’s List we heard “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess. Then “Sunrise, Sunset” from Fiddler on the Roof, and a Chopin Nocturne that became the theme for another Holocaust film, The Pianist. The mix is a little heavy handed. I think Wally would have rolled his eyes.
Once I told Wally I suspected my father’s German roots were Jewish.
“So, what—you want a prize? Everyone thinks Jews are so special.”
I laughed and changed the subject. But still I wondered. For some reason people often assumed I was Jewish. It seemed plausible that Sophy Winterstein, my paternal great-grandmother, had cast off this part of her identity when she traded Prussia for Michigan. She raised her children to be God-fearing Lutherans.
My father told me that growing up, German was the language of women. His earliest memory was of listening to Sophy and her daughter Natalie, his mother, speaking German in the kitchen. He was kept in a playpen and distinctly remembered feeling trapped behind the bars of the enclosure, unable to communicate. He also remembered drawing and making things out of clay in school, but when he was around ten he was told art was for girls, so he took up football.
It was in a rare open moment that he had revealed these memories, his gaze trained on some distant point. Otherwise he was often closed off, jaw clenched. When he relaxed over a beer, he would attempt to enlighten me about sports and technology, holding my eye but ignoring the fact that my interests lay elsewhere. He scoffed at any discussion that veered into the philosophical and called anything beyond his ken “esoteric.” If I pressed too far, he would just roll his eyes: “Well, aren’t you the little intellectual.”
It’s a relief when the hired pallbearers approach. On the way to the chapel I saw them smoking; leaning against the hearse they looked bored, but now their expressions are appropriately somber. Their cheap shoes track fresh mud over the red carpet. Wally, hoisted above in his box, leads the way as we drift toward the gravesite, a crystalline sky above us.
We were in an Italian restaurant when Wally told me he was having trouble sleeping since getting out of rehab.
“Yeah, I was in the hospital because of a lung infection and they said I was addicted to sleeping pills. Ridiculous. I only needed them to sleep. The doctors made me detox in rehab—with the junkies! And now I can’t sleep again.”
“Watch out,” I said, pointing to the sauce that was dripping down his chin.
Too late, it had already landed on his tie.
“Oh, no, this is going to stain.”
“You can get it out with Gallseife,” I said, referring to a wonder-product I had learned about from my mother in-law.
“Can you do that?”
He was daring me to make an offer but I resisted.
“You can get it at any drugstore.”
The waiter brought the bill, eying me with a mix of suspicion and pity. Female escort? Doting daughter? Wally slapped down his bank card, but when it came time to punch in the numbers, he had forgotten them. The waiter looked even more confused when I offered my card. People could never figure us out, and neither could I. Charity case? Father figure?
After we left the Italian restaurant, he insisted on paying me back for the meal. He had suddenly remembered the numbers, so we walked arm in arm, moving toward a nearby ATM at his usual glacial pace. This is when I tried to approach the elephant in the room: his past. Before New York. Before Sheffield. Before a train took him away to a foreign country. What had it been like to leave his parents behind; to be given a new name, like some cast-off puppy; to watch from afar while the world he had known was destroyed? And how could I even ask?
“Wally, you know insomnia is usually tied to psychological difficulties, unresolved issues. You’ve led quite a life. Have you ever talked to someone, like a counselor or a therapist?”
“Oh, well I’ve read Freud, and Jung. I don’t think anyone reads Jung anymore,” he said, annoyed. “Everyone read Freud in the fifties. Now everyone has issues.”
Of course, if anyone was entitled to have issues, it was Wally. Sometimes he dropped bits of information like breadcrumbs: there had been a sister, the parents died in Theresienstadt. Or was is Buchenwald? What had happened to his sister? I vaguely remembered he’d been born in Poland, but now I wasn’t sure. And how had his son ended up living in Berlin, of all places? Why hadn’t I paid more attention?
After the coffin is lowered into the grave, we take turns tossing in handfuls of soil. Throughout the ritual, a cemetery employee stands to the side, holding the framed photo of 1970s Wally. In case we forget who’s in the box.
There are a few sobs from Wally’s women. As one of them turns from the grave, she whispers loud enough for everyone to hear: “Goodbye, Wally!” I glance around ghoulishly, wondering if anyone else finds this comical. Just me. After the last handful of dirt has been scattered, the cemetery employee returns the framed photo to a plastic shopping bag and hands it over to Wally’s son, whose face is blank. People mill around, dabbing their eyes with tissues, waiting for a cue. The son’s wife murmurs something in his ear.
“Thank you for coming to my father’s funeral,” he announces stiffly, clutching the crumpled bag containing the image of Wally. “There will be cake and coffee at Café Einstein.”
A few of Wally’s women pile into my car and we head for Café Einstein, joining the flow of traffic on Frankfurter Allee. It was East Germany’s Soviet-style parade street, but the influx of prosaic modern businesses with their jumble of neon signs and logo studded awnings has tempered the monolithic scale, robbed the uniform buildings on either side of the wide boulevard of the imposing character they must once have had. These blocks were built and served out their purpose in the years Wally was away from Berlin; while tanks were rolling down Frankfurter Allee, Wally was living the prime of his life in New York. Now he’s dead and we’re whizzing along in a minivan, passing franchises like Jaloucity and McTrek.
“He always followed up our dates with emails. As ever, Wally.”
“Me too, me too!”
“What an old school charmer.”
“Liked his women a little sloshed, didn’t he?”
In Wally’s Brooklyn accent I slur, “Let’s get drunk!”
“And the calls,” says Maggie, the woman in the passenger seat, the grave-whisperer. “Oh, god—remember how it was just that creepy breathing after he announced himself?”
“Liz-zie?” I creak, panting for a few beats. Maggie cracks up.
Someone in the back seat chimes in, “You should read Judith Butler! Stop making your kids eat broccoli! Don’t be so bourgeois!”
“I was bourgeois because I said cleaning lady.”
“Me too, me too!” Maggie shouts. “I can hear his whiney voice now: you should say cleaner, not cleaning lady! And the gossip. He loved it, right? The closer people were to him the worse he was.”
“I hardly saw him toward the end,” I confide to Maggie. “I feel awful. I just couldn’t go out to dinner every week.” This need to explain, to exonerate myself—I told Wally about it once. “There’s no point to guilt,” he said, daring me to believe it was that easy.
“Yeah, Wally didn’t like to take into account that people had families, jobs; you know—lives.”
“He was so insulted if I said I didn’t have time. And I had reached a point where I was sick of feeling obligated. I started to dread his calls.”
“I know. He could be such a nag. A lot of people couldn’t handle it anymore. But don’t worry,” Maggie says with a sweet smile. “He never complained about you.”
Politically, Wally was certainly on the left, but he had expensive and specific tastes—a predicament we shared. He insisted on buying things like oranges and meat at KaDeWe, West Berlin’s six-story luxury emporium, twenty minutes on the train from Gendarmentmarkt where he lived in a huge rent-controlled apartment. The swanky address put him within walking distance of the upscale French department store Galeries Lafayette, where he went for raw milk cheese and gnarled baguettes. Sometimes we wandered around Lafayette after we met for coffee at a nearby café. I would try on hats and he would eye me with amusement, telling me which shapes suited my face, which colors didn’t. We never bought anything on our strolls together, though, each of us pretending—for different reasons—that we had all we needed.
After I had stopped accepting Wally’s dinner invitations so often, I bumped into him at LPG, the organic grocery store around the corner from my apartment. We had made a date a few weeks prior, but I had canceled at the last minute. Wally was pushing a cart loaded with four or five bags of cranberry pecan muesli, an abject sight among the upwardly mobile shoppers: an old hoarder in a stained coat. And once he noticed me, he looked angry and hurt, a volatile combination that reminded me of my father.
“Wally, what are you doing here?” At first, I was simply surprised to see him in my neighborhood. Then I felt guilty for not having called since dodging our date.
“Buying muesli,” he said, gesturing toward the cart with his usual deadpan humor. He fluttered his droopy eyelids just enough to show me he was willing to forgive, if I made an acceptable effort.
“I like you ‘cause you don’t look like all the other girls.” Wally had said this once at Lafayette, after I had donned a beret that made me look like Patty Hearst. From an early age, I always had a sense that my father didn’t like me for the very same reason. I was not docile or conventionally pretty, the way he thought girls should be, and intelligence or creativity could never make up for this essential deficiency. Their understanding of aesthetics, along with politics, seemed like an important distinction between Wally and my father. But it had begun to dawn on me that it wasn’t. Perhaps I had simply given them both too much power.
“We should have dinner again soon,” I blurted at Wally and his muesli. But I regretted the words as soon as they crossed my lips. I didn’t want to watch him slurp his soup and listen to him tell me what I should read. I didn’t want to go out with Wally anymore.
“Sure,” he said. “I’ll call you.”
His coat billowed over his bony shoulders and I winced at the slight odor of decay that wafted off of him when I hugged him goodbye.
Again, I thought of my father, wondering when he would begin to shrink in his clothes and smell like death. I would never know. The tension between us had recently led to a final falling out—one that was different from all the others because it was not fueled on my part by rage, but by clarity. I had been hurt too much to be able to forgive someone who would never ask to be forgiven. In an act of self-preservation, I had chosen to walk away from him for good. I felt no obligation to return, but I didn’t realize how much I would miss him.
Café Einstein is housed in an old Villa in West Berlin where a long table has been reserved in the small, wood-paneled dining room. Wally’s women sit at one end while the counterpart gathers at the other: a group of men—writers and artists, as well as the owner of the English bookshop. Wally’s son takes his place in the middle with his wife, their backs to the blue sky outside.
There were menus when we arrived but now a waiter comes and plucks them out of our hands. The wife announces that there will be coffee and water and two bottles of champagne. She orders everyone to go to the vitrine and pick out a piece of cake, reminding me of a joyless teacher on a school outing.
The woman next to me hisses, “This is ridiculous. I’m an adult. I’m hungry. I don’t want cake. I want lunch.” My stomach is rumbling again but I don’t want to join her mutiny. I feel sorry for Wally’s son. No one speaks with him, not even his miserable wife.
“But this is what they want,” the woman next to me says. “Cake and coffee. They have it all arranged.” I join her at the vitrine where we choose our pieces of cake.
A waiter is divvying up the champagne when we return. Sunlight spills through the high windows and the starched white tablecloth is blinding. Glasses are raised: “To Wally!” The son looks like he would prefer for it all to end right now. His wife asks for the bill.
“Are you kidding me? Two bottles of champagne for fifteen people? Wally would want us to get drunk,” Maggie says. “Does anyone have cigarettes?”
We follow the one real smoker amongst us outside. I tell Maggie about my run-in with Wally and his stockpile of muesli, which probably outlived him.
“He called me the next day,” I confess, the nicotine making me woozy. “I didn’t call him back. I just feel so guilty. It was the last time I saw him.”
“He called me all the time; a lot of times I didn’t call him back, either. He called me the night before he died, and I didn’t pick up. How do you think I feel?”
“Hmm. I guess I was afraid I’d turn into his nursemaid.”
“Well, he did really deteriorate in the last few months,” Maggie says. “But he was still pretty proud. I only wiped his butt once.”
When we go back inside the party is over. My half-eaten cheesecake has been cleared away. “I wish we had more champagne,” one of the women says, attempting to drain a last sip from an empty glass. “Hey, we should all meet again in a while, have our own celebration of Wally.”
“Good idea,” I say, knowing we won’t.
When I get home, I wipe up the sticky orange juice and soggy toast. Then I crack an egg in a pan and slice a piece of bread, brushing crumbs off the freshly cleaned wood. My father brought the mahogany cutting board over as a Christmas gift one year, proudly turning it over to show me his signature, branded into the bottom with a custom-made iron. I feigned delight at the inlay design and the ostentatiously branded signature, secretly planning to stow his heavy gift in the basement once he was gone. I never got around to it, though.
The toaster hums and the egg sizzles, and only now do I notice how the anger and hurt I used to feel when I looked at the cutting board have mellowed into something else.
In the seven years our lives intersected, I didn’t learn what kept Wally awake at night. Was it the absence of a connection to his son? The death of Rita? The life he had left behind in New York? Was it the hardship he endured—an orphan in England, a Jew in Nazi Germany? Was it the ghosts of his parents and sister? The Germany he saw after the war was over? The rift in his soul where he abandoned Wolf Morgenstern and became Wallace Morgan?
Perhaps it was a sense of guilt in having survived it all. Wally must have lied when he told me there’s no point to guilt. He must have known that the prison of guilt creates a solitary place, a place of retreat, which ultimately seemed to be what he wanted.
But what did I want? As a young girl, I followed my father around the garden, chased after his shots on the tennis court, tried to look like someone I wasn’t: all the other girls. Later I went to great effort to join him in places I hated—the country club, the Waspy cottage enclave—only to roll my eyes like a spoiled brat. I wanted to be seen. But I was seeking his approval in the most roundabout ways, failing to realize how much he needed mine. We were infinitely disparate and yet so alike: daddy’s girl and mama’s boy.
I moved away and finally learned to see myself, but he chose to stay close to home. He’s still trapped behind the bars of his enclosure, living out his golden years in a gated community in Florida, where he moved years ago in order to be close to his mother.
I met Wally at an in-between time—I had just had another child and was reevaluating my options and goals. Wally approved of the part of me my father couldn’t comprehend and I appreciated him in ways his son couldn’t. We filled certain gaps for one another. Did I use Wally? Did he use me? Perhaps all relationships are transactional. The problem is when you feel shortchanged.
I still have so many questions for Wally.
But how do you communicate with someone who is dead and gone?
And how do you grieve for someone who is alive and well?
I start with the mahogany cutting board. The surface has grown worn and faded from use, so I sand it down. Then I spend an hour working a special oil into the fine grain with a rag, turning the heavy block of wood over and using my fingertips to trace the loops and slanting lines of my father’s signature.
© Lizzie Roberts
[This piece was selected by Sommer Schafer. Read Lizzie’s interview]