On the next to last night of our trip, on a Berlin hotel balcony, Dad tells me about the German hitchhiker.
The early 1970s, Arkansas: Dad is on his way home from Memphis to the family dairy farm in rural Missouri. Dad can’t recall the German’s name, but he was a student, probably about my father’s age, taking, Dad thinks, some time between his undergraduate studies and medical school to see the States.
They “got to talking,” Dad says. “And, eventually I said, ‘Well, you wanna come to the farm?’ ”
Dad’s roadside German was both a curiosity and a provocation. With long hair and a shaggy ’70s beard, Dad — who now lives on that farm in the house he grew up in — figured he was once again the talk of the neighbors: “They were probably like, ‘Oh, that crazy Stockman boy, you never know what he’s going to turn up with.’ ”
But the hitchhiker proved willing to lend a hand toting hay bales and amenable to being trotted out for anticlimactic parlor tricks.
“You know Walt Kramer’s mother, Amelia,” Dad says now.
I did not. I haven’t lived in Missouri for almost 20 years, and even when I did I wasn’t great at paying attention to who was who in my grandparents’ generation. In any case, Walt Kramer’s mother Amelia spoke German and “folks were excited to get them together.”
“What they discovered,” Dad says, “was that the German she spoke was some sort of archaic form that hadn’t changed since the 1870s.”
After the trip we’d had, this didn’t seem surprising.
In Alma, the 400-person farming community where I grew up, everyone shared the same vague German heritage. The town has two churches, one large brick Lutheran, and a small white clapboard “Federated” chapel for any stray Protestant denominations. The whole county, even though it’s called Lafayette, seemed mainly German. Concordia, a town of 2,000 eight miles down the road from Alma, hosts the “Heidelberg Gardens” every year at its fall street fair, a kind of Bavarian cartoon: sausages and sauerkraut mugs of watery Anheuser-Busch products in an open-air beer garden. Perhaps it was this rather ostentatious embrace of “culture” that led us as teenagers to refer to Concordians as “Krauts,” but it’s more likely a case study in the narcissism of small differences.
Grandma Stockman, Dad’s mother, was born in 1918 to parents who had come from Germany when they were children themselves. Grandma knew a few words of German, her baptismal certificate — in an ornate, faux-Gutenberg font — is in German, and she said “Ach!” a lot (so does my Dad; so do I). For her, the old country was the house where I grew up. She’d moved into town when her husband died. That house shared the same massive country block (about five square miles or so) with the farm she’d grown up on and the site of the one-room schoolhouse she’d attended. Just up the hill from that schoolhouse was a cemetery where there once had been a church, long since consolidated with the one in town. Her old country was a landscape of used-to-be’s.
Gnarrenburg, Basdahl, Rotenburg. Osterholz, Oese, Winkelmoor, Worpswede: These were the names that kept popping up on both sides of Dad’s family tree four or even five generations back. Some of these were counties, some towns. Some appeared to be villages or streets within counties or towns. But they were all clustered within a roughly 18-mile swath of countryside in Lower Saxony, just outside the North German port city of Bremen. Dad and I planned to go there and sniff around.
The smell was right, but that was all.
All along our drive to Worpswede, we encountered familiar, even gratifying sights: flat fields, wheat, hay, some corn, livestock, tractors that hugged the shoulder and cars that passed them by darting quickly into the oncoming lane. After a couple of days in Düsseldorf and Cologne, Dad and I were tickled to find so much familiar in the foreign. It was a kind of confirmation that comported with our family identity: one big risk — crossing the Atlantic in the late 19th Century — was plenty. Our cautious Lutheran ancestors weren’t about to settle in a flat in Greenwich Village. They went looking for comforting countryside.
And that smell: rich and loamy. Like manure, just a little more sour.. Sweeter than the Schumachers’ hog farm back home. It smelled like agriculture, and it persisted even as the houses got nicer and nicer.
“These don’t look like working farms,” Dad said.
It persisted as we turned onto Worpswede’s brick-paved main drag. The smell followed us, but it was no longer in sync with our surroundings — cute little cafes to our left, multiple art galleries or museums on our right.
In Worpswede, the home of our line of humble of German farmers, we found the church where, in 1848, my great-great-great-great grandparents were married. Surrounding that church, we found a well-kept graveyard full of familiar surnames. But we also found a well-known German artists colony. In the late 1800s, a group of young and ambitious German landscape painters and their students settled around Worpswede and turned what the town’s placards describe as “an inconspicuous peat bog” into a sort of Provincetown-on-the-Wümme. As we learned that Rainer Maria Rilke wrote about the Worpswede painters — he’d married a sculptor who was a member of the colony — our disbelief increased. It seemed so unlikely that our practical progenitors might have rubbed elbows with the author of “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” and it was almost a relief to realize that they hadn’t: the newlyweds died in 1859 and 1892, in Missouri.
Beyond the two World Wars, there are plenty of reasons why any real connection to our German heritage is hard to come by, starting with the fact that our people came over mostly before the Franco-Prussian war. Before, that is, there was any Germany to speak of. “Germany” then was as it had been for centuries: a collection of independent principalities that shared a common language and amicable trading ties.
Then there’s the difficulty of a 19th-century crossing. Take Henry Roehrs. (Röhrs: the “e” was added and the umlaut dropped, maybe by an overworked immigration agent?) My grandmother’s father came over as a young boy in 1870 or ’71. On Aug. 17, 1872, his mother died. Three days later, his father died. Henry, 9 years old and alone in what must have still felt like a foreign country, was taken in by an uncle who, according to family legend, was a tyrant. Henry left that house at 14, eventually set up a farm of his own, and married (in 1889) 19-year-old Christina Fuchs. Henry and Christina had 10 children, the last of whom was my grandmother, Elsie. The Protestant practicality and Lutheran resistance to sentiment documented by everyone from Max Weber to Garrison Keillor was, by all accounts, strong in my great-grandfather. And, upon the birth of his 10th child, it would have been unlikely for him to focus on foggy recollections of his long-gone, pre-orphan days. We were Missourians now.
“You’re going to keep going?” Dad asks, grabbing the passenger handle on the rented Volkswagen.
I was. The road had turned from pavement to gravel to an entirely grass path. But we’d finally found Im Winkelmoor. It was the only place name left on our list that we hadn’t found — in part because it refused to show up on the Volkswagen’s GPS. Only when I consulted Google Maps did we identify a thin line just outside of Worpswede. A great-times-five-grandmother had been born here in 1787, and we were going to see it. It was not some recent field road, that was clear. Mature trees lined both sides of the one-lane path. But it was also apparent that whatever had been here, had sustained some ancestors through the late 18th and early 19th centuries, had been returned to the land. It made me think of Grandma Stockman’s used-to-be’s, flat spots in the land where she’d gone to school, been confirmed, spent the bulk of her life.
Sebaastian Stockman can be reached at sebastian.stockman