Heart On Ice
by Ute Carson
34thParallel Magazine, Issue 87

We called the waterhole the duck pond even though there were no ducks, only abundant algae clinging to the porous wooden pilings at water's edge. The pond's sandy entrance sloped down until the ground was no longer visible. After a downpour, an overflow would gush across the logs at the far rim like a waterfall. Horses came to drink at this trough after a busy day. A farmhand would drive the animals into the murky water until their stomachs were soaked. The horses swished their tails when emerging from their daily baths. We children too would splash at the pebbly waterfront but were not allowed to venture in or swim. It was rumored that an undertow swirled just below a horse's belly. Much had happened to my mother before this pond in the heartland of West Germany became an emotional watershed for us both.

Gerda-Maria was born under a brilliant African sun in the German colony of Southwest Africa, today's Namibia. It was July, a warm winter when in Keetmanshoop the flag in front of the hospital was raised halfway. It would have been flying full mast if it had been a boy. Her parents, Maria and Peter gazed with watery eyes at their beautiful newborn daughter. She was the eldest and remained the only female child, followed by two brothers and two more boys in one of Peter's later relationships. She would become Peter's favorite and she, in turn, adored her father all her life.

There had been much family drama even before Gerda-Maria's birth. Her mother Maria, youngest daughter of wealthy aristocrats had celebrated her 21 st birthday on the maiden voyage of the ship, Bremen. During a stopover, World War I broke out. The ship was requisitioned and a stranded Maria became a penniless houseguest. She met Peter who had been sent to Africa by his father to oversee a farm. Maria and Peter married. When Gerda-Maria was two years-old, World War I ended and German settlers were deported to Germany by their English conquerors. In the baroque castle Bielwiese in Silesia they settled back in with a grandfather who was beloved by his family and his workers for his generosity. He was also generous with himself and soon accumulated sizable debts. For 12 years Gerda-Maria had a happy, safe childhood. Her two younger brothers, Hubertus and Heio, were born on the estate.

As an adult Gerda-Maria would describe her childhood this way: "Carefree, time to myself to roam through fields, meadows and forests, my younger brothers most days in tow. We picked blue cornflowers and red poppies and I braided them into wreaths for our heads. We stripped naked and splashed on the muddy banks of a stream. We climbed apple trees and heaved ourselves over rusty fences. We cornered an old mare and rode her bareback. We nestled into the crowns of trees with our books, out of reach of our English nanny and hidden from our French tutor. We returned obediently to the music parlor for piano lessons but during violin lessons our teacher usually snored at the open window or in an easy chair near the fireplace. In spite of our tutors, our formal education was meager. But the manor hummed like a beehive with guests and soirées and horses saddled for trail rides in the mornings. Because we had little supervision we crouched on the stairs after dark and listened to the clacking and clattering of the adult world. Or we would spy on our nanny who had sneaked into the servants' quarters after our bedtime hour. Our mother (when she was not a hostess) was the storyteller in the evenings, and our grandfather took us on rides through the countryside. He instructed us about planting different crops and bragged about magnificent harvest times when crowns woven from wheat stalks and decorated with red ribbons where triumphantly driven into the main barn on a horse drawn wagon, followed by feasting and dancing. On strolls through the woods we learned from him to distinguish edible from poisonous mushrooms, and we collected buckets of scrumptious blueberries and wild raspberries. The servants teased me that I mothered my brothers. A maid commented that I loved my baby dolls above all other toys. And my mother lamented my tender-heartedness on several occasions, fearing I might be unprepared for the hardships of life. It was my father who spoiled me. He led me one breezy June morning to a bale of hay in the barn. As he was over six feet tall I always held on to his pinky finger. My surprise was a litter of kittens. My father told me to pick one and I grabbed the darkest, fluffiest one from the bunch. I was allowed to keep the kitten in my room, even its litter box. Soon the little Black Panther got used to snuggling next to me in my bed. My father quieted the disapproving servants. Years later my brother Heio would write from his doomed outpost during the siege of Stalingrad that the memory of our idyllic childhood in Bielwiese kept him sane."

And then came the day after my mother had already spent a year in the one-room village school when Peter positioned her in front of him and said, "Men will adore you for your beauty and praise your sweet personality as I have done over the years. But it is time for me to return to Africa. I miss the vastness, the ever-present sun. Germany is too confining." When Gerda-Maria timidly asked when he would leave he replied, "Tomorrow." Peter and Maria had long been estranged, she played the violin and organized poetry readings, he was a skilled rider with a deft touch with animals. A spiritual aristocracy hovered around Maria while Peter was firmly grounded in the earth. In the foggy dawn Gerda-Maria watched from her upstairs window as a servant lugged a steamer trunk to the waiting carriage. Then her father jumped on in his drab olive-colored hunting attire, a duffle bag with a large monogrammed green P across the gray canvas, slung over his shoulder. No one waved as the coach drove off. Maria did not appear for breakfast. Peter and Maria never officially divorced but Peter had two more sons in Namibia. Gerda-Maria never saw her father again and only in old age was she able to visit his grave in his sun- bleached second home, far away from the swaying golden cornfields of Bielwiese.

When Gerda-Maria was 12 her grandfather Baron Nicholas von Lüttwitz died. The estate was in such deep debt that the government took it over. Maria moved with Heio and Hubertus to the nearby town Hirschberg (Jelenia Gora) and Gerda-Maria entered a prestigious girls' school in Eberswalde. There she formed a lifelong friendship with her roommate Otta. In Otta's recollections Gerda-Maria was shy but with a propensity for laughter and fooleries, probably a leftover from the bond with her brothers. After graduation Gerda-Maria enrolled in nursing school in Potsdam, a suburb of Berlin. She majored in pediatrics, and like the dolls of her childhood, babies became the treasures of her heart.

My mother called the stiff high collar of her nursing uniform her "Kuss Abwehr Geschütz" (Kiss Defense Gear). But after she met my father Gert at a ball for new recruits, they seemed destined to fall in love. Gert teased that his first kiss had landed on Gerda-Maria's cheek! During the war in 1939 they married in a civil service in Brünn, (Brno) Czech Republic where my father was stationed. Steep stone steps ascend to the town hall dating from the 13 th century. My parents had their wedding picture taken on those ancient steps, she in blue organza, fragile looking like an elf with a wide-brimmed black hat, clutching a profusion of her favorite flowers, roses and irises. My father stood in his newly acquired pressed uniform, an arm protectively wrapped around my mother's shoulder. A handsome couple who vowed that the turmoil around them would not disturb their happiness.

That happiness did not last. Gert was deployed to France and my pregnant mother moved in with her in-laws in Köslin, (Kosalin) Pomerania on the Baltic Coast. My father wanted me to be born in his hometown where he had spent his childhood and youth and where his father was a judge. My father predicted that I would be a girl. During a brief furlough in Paris he mailed my mother an emerald ring studded with tiny diamonds with a note, "This is for our daughter, Ute. Should it be a boy...which I doubt...I will build him a sailboat." My parents had picked my name after seeing the statue of the beautiful empress Uta at the Naumburg cathedral and modified the name to Ute.

Leaning on the wooden balustrade of the porch that wound around the house of Gerda-Maria's parents-in-law Aenne and Karl, she awaited the daily mail. Her due date was only few weeks away. Gert had requested a leave of absence from his company to be present at my birth. As she opened the telegram, her knees buckled and she sank to the hard stone floor. My father had been killed in an ambush after France had capitulated. I had to be pulled by forceps into this world. My mother's grief had robbed her of her will to live. I was also reluctant to take the dive. Did I already sense pain and sorrow in utero? But once I was born, my mother rekindled her love for babies and clung to me as a treasured remnant of what was lost when her beloved husband died.

The death of my father, and my belated birth, weakened Gerda-Maria's health. She was sent to take the waters and recuperate. I stayed more often and for longer intervals with my maternal grandmother, Maria. Our bond grew stronger with every season. Guided by her stories and songs, I ambled along on walks. At first her bed provided comfort but soon it also became a refuge. My mother timidly began to date again. Increasingly, my grandmother took her place in my life. She nursed me through colds and scrapes, and her tender hands rested on my forehead when a nightmare intruded. We became inseparable. But although I became deeply attached to my grandmother, my anxieties about my mother never left me. Each time she went away to recover from an illness or to meet another suitor, I feared she might not return. In her absence I drew her pictures and painted welcome-home posters smothered in kisses. I filled cups with blueberries and placed them on her nightstand. Once I picked a bouquet of forget-me-nots and plucked the petals to arrange them in the shape of a heart on her pillow.

In the icy winter of 1943 I found my mother and grandmother sitting on our brown leather couch, arms around each other, heads bowed. When they saw me they jumped to their feet, noses and eyes dripping and embraced me so intensely I could barely breathe. Uncle Heio had been killed. The scene repeated itself a few weeks later when the second dispatch from the Russian front near Stalingrad reported Uncle Hubertus's death. He was 21. Heio was 19. My grandmother Maria gulped while holding me, "If at least one of them had survived."

There was a redeeming interlude for my mother when in May 1944 she married Count Fritz von Hardenberg, the only son of wealthy Silesian landowners. He adopted me shortly after their wedding and if it had not been for the war I would have inherited land and fortune. In February 1945 we trekked westward, having abandoned everything that was dear to us. We escaped the advancing Russian troops by sheer luck. On a blustery winter day while waiting for trains carrying wounded soldiers lumbered through the Hirschberg train station we were hoisted into a train compartment. It was my mother's nursing credentials that saved our lives. We would have frozen on the icy platform along with hundreds of others who were desperately waiting for transport. Inside a cramped wagon a horrific sight confronted me like a thunderclap. Death exposed its ugly brutality to me for the first time, not disguised as in picture books but for real. A sea of ghostly soldiers, bandaged and moaning, lay in bunkbeds in the dim light. My mother was busy employing her nursing skills, cleaning and dressing wounds, giving injections and comforting the dying with soothing murmurs. In spite of my grandmother's best efforts to console me, her reassuring words could never erase that shocking experience.

We were refugees, taken in by acquaintances near the bombed-out city of Kassel in the western part of Germany. Soon we were helping on the estate, washing dishes or assisting in the fields. Our job once a week was picking yellow bugs from potato plants. I followed in my mother's footsteps, my grandmother right behind us. My mother fainted and a puddle of blood started to pool at her feet. She was carried away on empty potato sacks which were tied together with twine. Once again my grandmother was there to console me. "What baby?" I asked her when it was explained that my mother had lost a baby. I had never seen a baby and wondered how she could have lost it? And why all that blood? How did my mother get hurt? None of the vague explanations made sense to me. When my mother returned from the hospital she wanted me near her. I would crouch next to her in her darkened bedroom as she slowly recovered. She seemed fond of my stories, and I was pleased to be asked to tell them.

When she was up and about again, a strange spectacle occurred. Nearly every adult who was being sheltered in the country mansion walked wordlessly past us children, handkerchiefs balled in their fists. They entered through a door which rapidly closed behind them. We children ran outside and climbed a brick ramp which allowed us to peer through a window. My mother sat, surrounded by several women and a man in uniform who stood next to them at attention. Mother placed a hand over her mouth. Later my grandmother told me that the soldier was Fritz's brother Reinhardt, and that he had brought the sad news that Fritz had gone down in a plane crash. "How many more deaths can we bear?" my grandmother sighed. I thought so too and asked if life was like this, "Always sadness and tears?" My grandmother had no immediate answer but held me tight. After a long pause she finally said, "No child, what we have between us is not only sadness but love and joy." From then on whenever my mother clutched me to her, I wanted to escape back into my grandmother's safe embrace.

My mother needed more comfort than a little girl could provide. Reinhardt, who was staying on with us refugees was often seen with her. When, some weeks later she started to vomit in the mornings my grandmother angrily snorted, "We don't need this." And when it became clear that there would be yet another stepfather in my life, my parents moved southward where Reinhardt had found work on a larger farm. After a wrenching farewell from my grandmother we moved and were given a one-room shack with outside plumbing, a leaking roof, and rats running across my bed at night. At least there was a potbellied stove. My new stepfather had been in the war too long. He had roaming eyes and itchy fingers. He would disappear at night, making up for lost pleasures with several country women. To his credit he often returned with some vegetables, fruits, a small basket of eggs or desperately needed firewood. On his way out after a couple of stolen hours with his amours, he also snatched a few salable items like a silver trinket or a bracelet left on a nightstand.

What pull did the water in the duck pond exert on my mother's fragile psyche? Or was it the moon, glaring metallic white that night? It was rumored that my mother sleepwalked as a child and that one evening when her parents returned from a dinner party she was balancing on the iron balustrade of the main steps to the castle. She never remembered her escapades the next day. All I recall on that chilly night in February 1946 was her bulging belly. I was already in bed, huddled in a floor-length nightgown my mother had sewn from salvaged velveteen curtains. My mother wore a similar nightgown, a dark green. The creaking of the front door and a gust of wind made me leap up. In the frame of the door my mother swayed, clutching her pulled-up nightgown. She walked into the darkness slowly, step by step as if carrying a heavy burden. Barefoot, I rushed out behind her. She never glanced back but advanced as if following an urgent call. The pond was not far. As she approached the water I pleaded, first softly so as not to scare her, then more urgently, my voice rising to a screech. She paid me no heed. Just then the moonbeams dimmed their glare and began to dance like ghostly flickering imps across the surface of the water. My mother saw nothing of the frightening display but walked steadily into the pond as I had seen the horses do. When I reached her the frigid air gushed through her lungs making her gasp. My feet sank into the slimy muck and I felt a forceful suction. Suddenly I remembered the warnings about deadly undertows. "Stop, Mutti," I yelled as loud as I could, grabbing the train of her gown. "We are sinking." She did not notice me until I climbed up her arched back and slung my arms around her neck. "Please Mutti, turn around." And as if under a hypnotic spell, she did. I clung to her as she coughed and gulped for air. Back inside our shack the embers in the stove were still aglow. Our nightgowns were waterlogged and my braids two stiff icicles which soon melted. A puddle of slush gathered around us as we crouched near the stove. At some point I was able to throw some kindling into the glimmering ashes and then we both must have fallen asleep. At first light my stepfather returned and spread our bed blankets over us. We were still curled up on the floor in front of the rare warmth. When my mother woke, she struggled to her wobbly feet and then pulled me to her. "You are the only thing I have left from your father," she wept. I too was crying but I also felt icy clamps beginning to squeeze my heart.

As a child I had been given a teddy bear that was featured in a children's book titled "Buschi." The bear sucked its paws and the lines read, "What would Buschi do without its paws?" The bear had survived the trek westward tucked under my arm. Now it seldom left my side. I had been a thumb sucker but recently had started to wean myself. When, following the pond incident I returned to my thumb and my bear for comfort, my mother nicknamed me "Buschi."

I fell ill with diphtheria and was hospitalized with children suffering with infectious diseases. My longing for my loved ones was constricting the rings around my aching heart day by day, lonely night after lonely night. My stepfather found us a roomier place to live. My grandmother Maria arrived, so did my sister. After my release from the hospital my grandmother provided what I craved, the freedom to roam and closeness when I desired it. Snuggling with her one morning I asked, "Are there any happy people in the world?" "Yes, there are," she assured me. "But do you know any?" "Yes," she responded, "The Tondanes!" I started to giggle. "Who are the Tondanes?" My grandmother told about the parents of a boarding school friend in Sweden where my grandmother had spent several summers. "They always seemed in a good mood, friendly and there for us children. Years later I heard that they had died in ripe old age, one rapidly following the other." I wondered from then on if I would ever meet someone like the Tondanes?

My mother and stepfather divorced. My stepfather was not only a roaming womanizer, he could also be cruel. Once he made my mother search on her knees on our shaggy carpet for a pair of heirloom earrings which he accused her of losing. Later we discovered that he had pawned the earrings. My sister was never fully claimed by my mother as I was, probably because of her kinship with my stepfather. None of the relationships with my sister's four children lasted in spite of efforts by my mother, especially when the children were small. As my mother's loneliness increased, she wanted me near her at all times and became very demanding. She remained an attractive woman and never lacked suitors. But she kept them at a distance, refusing all marriage proposals. That doubled her need for me. All my friends were received with open arms. My mother took in an orphaned classmate who had attempted suicide on a student trip to Paris. Another friend ran away from his abusive foster parents and found a home with us for several months. But my friends had to be my mother's friends as well. I had no privacy. She secretly read my diary, opened my letters and the snooping extended to waiting for me on our balcony when I returned home from a date. The more she tried to bind me to her, the more I pulled away. Once I gave my boyfriend a ring only to find out that my mother had asked it back from him, claiming it as a "premature gift." Whenever my mother and I shared hours alone she glowed with contentment. If I had a request she would try to fulfill it. My girlfriend and I had begun to assemble clothing for a group of guest workers' children. She jumped right in. Soon all of her acquaintances were sewing and knitting so that, by Christmas, we could wrap dozens of packages filled with handmade mittens and scarves and sweaters.

I became more desperate to escape. I loved telling stories and listening to others' stories. But my mother often reverted to the heartrending stories, especially the one in which she sank to the stone floor after reading the telegram announcing my father's death. She would start crying uncontrollably mid-sentence, her entire body shaking with sobs. This recounting of woes became too much for me. I paid less attention, let my mind wander or snapped back, "You already told me that one." I distanced myself by fleeing into my own fantasy world. There were other attempts at freeing myself from her neediness. Once at university I tried to divide my vacation between my mother and my roommate. I decided to spend Christmas at home and New Year's Eve with my friend. My mother collapsed as I packed my suitcase to leave. Cold-heartedly, I tucked her into bed and left. In the train to my university town shame sank deep into my bones. When I later met my husband and decided to marry and leave for America I presented my mother with a foregone conclusion, never considering her feelings of abandonment. She in turn retreated into one illness after another. Her longtime friend Otta consoled her, "Ute cares much more about you than she lets on" which was true but my aloofness did not mitigate her loneliness.

The births of our three daughters prompted the first fissures in my ice rings. My mother transferred her love from me to our children and doted on them without clinging. The affection and devotion between the generations was mutual. I never saw my mother happier than when a child held on to her hand. I recall her saying, "Cradling a baby in my arms is like a cloud raining coins of gold." With my mother's concentration on our children, her grandchildren, I began to feel some relief. I also started to appreciate her talents, her generosity and her skills. She was not only a caring nurse, she also prepared meals, read stories, sang and kept many German traditions alive in this foreign country to which I had moved and to which she made frequent visits. Even my stepfather, who was usually distracted by mundane events, commented that my mother could transform a drab celebration into one of beauty and delight. She could decorate a bare wooden table with fresh flowers, braid my hair and crown it with a bow, and sprinkle greenery over a casserole to make it festive. She was a magician at knitting little sweaters, large pullovers, jackets and even skirts. She had a secret list where she recorded the wishes of her three granddaughters. And then at a birthday or Christmas, to everyone's surprise, a gift appeared that had nearly been forgotten.

My mother's long stays with us were not without conflicts but the day of her arrival was always a much anticipated highlight. The girls and I could hardly wait until we had lifted her suitcase onto the valise rack in the guestroom. And then, on tiptoes we held our breath, eager to see what would appear when my mother lifted the lid of her suitcase. The girls jumped with joy and we all hugged my mother. Wrapped in many layers of tissue paper there were German chocolates, trinkets the girls had wished for, an embroidered tablecloth for me. Clutching what was ours, we retired to bed that night with grateful hearts.

My mother lived comfortably in Germany on a government pension she received following her second husband's death. So she could treat her grandchildren to marvelous trips ... an outing to Fairy Land with little ones, and later, to the Swiss Alps, or a farm for horseback riding.

The more breathing space my mother granted me, the more her devotion to me paid off. My husband and I began to repay her kindness by surprising her. For her 75 th birthday we rented a guesthouse in Germany to which friends and family flocked for the occasion. We flew her from Germany to the States for her 80 th birthday, which we celebrated with much fanfare. She felt loved. Prior to her arrival for that special birthday our first grandchild was born. My mother sat very still with glowing cheeks as she softly hummed to the first-born of the next generation.

My mother never shed the influences of her upbringing at Castle Bielwiese, distinguished by formality and elegance. She remained a countess all her life, even to the extent of wearing her pearls in the air raid shelter. I never saw her slovenly or unkempt even during times of mourning and hardship.

Appearances, marks of a family tradition and its rituals, hid life's dramas and tragedies. My mother had a strong tendency to want to shape others according to these standards. If ever there was the slightest conflict with her granddaughters it was over manners, and behavior in public. As much as she cried in my presence, tears disappeared as soon as an outsider approached. "Noblesse oblige" was her guiding principle.

As she grew older my mother took up painting, joined a group of artists and was honored with a small exhibition of her drawings. I was perplexed by her pictures, especially the bright pastels. There are flowers in vases and pots where everything is green and growing. There is a still-life of an assortment of garden tools, a spade, a watering can and rakes, all for digging in soft brown soil. In another painting a fountain gushes over its rims in sparkling crystals. A glorious sun is always present, never dark clouds. I wondered what my mother might have been like had she been granted a normal life?

Some normal interludes occurred in my mother's later years. Even though she kept the many suitors away, she met with a friend from her youth. He had once been a rival to my father but that relationship had languished. When he reappeared, an old bond was revived. He was married, and my mother would not agree to his divorce. Against convention, they enjoyed each other's company. He fulfilled her wish to visit my father's burial place in a French village.

In spite of all the tragedies in her life, my mother believed in love. She had found romance and acceptance during the few short months with my father and then, again, briefly with the friend from her youth. She clung to the power of redemptive love. Never mind that she gave up trying to change my stepfather. Her favorite German fairytale was "Die Schneekönigin" (the Snow Queen) in which a little girl undertakes an arduous journey to melt the ice in her childhood friend's heart!

There were other joyful respites. My mother admired my husband, and when she was able to shelve her prejudices about Americans, she began to love him. He in turn was a bridge and provided us with many shared opportunities. For my mother's 70 th birthday Ron arranged a trip for my mother and me to Namibia, her birthplace and the site of her father's grave. It was a dream come true. During a long bus ride across the Namib Desert my mother fell asleep and her head sank onto my shoulder. Droplets of sweat began to ooze from my chest and an unaccustomed warmth started to melt my resistance. As I let my mother doze, a new feeling begin to surge. I wanted to wrap my arms around her with overwhelming intensity.

Although I never apologized for my years of remoteness from her, I was able to be present and perform simple acts of kindness as she lay dying. I warmed her feet. I listened as she retold the old familiar stories, not even flinching at the saddest ones. And we shared more than one bottle of champagne during those late evenings. I even complied when she asked me to make a batch of her favorite pancakes, knowing that she would not be able to keep them down. Why had reconciliation come so late? But as a friend later counseled, what was wrong with Now?

My mother died with no emotional strings attached. She chose to be alone, a loneliness that had been her unbidden fate for so much of her life. She tricked me, sending me on a long errand. I knew that her doctor would visit her in her elegant apartment as he did every week. I wanted to respect their privacy. As I bundled up for the outing, my mother and I watched snow falling in downy white flakes past the glass panes, settling in silky layers on the broad windowsill. So beautiful, so soothing, I remember saying to myself as I set out for the village. I lingered at shops. It was the Advent Season and I carried the list of purchases the grandchildren had instructed me to buy for their beloved grandmother. When I returned, I was met by the doctor. He gently touched my shoulder and said, "Your mother and I have grown old together. We had an agreement which I fulfilled this afternoon. Your mother is now deeply asleep. I will check on her tomorrow." He left without a further word. When I went to my mother's bed she could not been roused, the morphine drip had been turned up. I now understood. I had missed the signs. Or was it fear that acknowledging her suffering would prompt my heart to ice over again? She had been in much more pain than she led me to believe during our scrumptious meals and cozy evenings. Even during the daily nurse's visits I had made myself scarce, blocking out reality. I retreated to her lovely living room and read. Now as I gazed at my mother at peace I noticed a folded piece of paper on her nightstand. It was addressed to me and the grandchildren, "Death is nothing mean or to be feared, just the end of a difficult life. You and my dear granddaughters meant everything to me that was worth living for."

Over the years I have done much soul-searching. The past is like driftwood floating into my old age. And I ask myself, "Who am I? The clinging little girl whose anxieties I can recall but no longer feel? The aloof daughter that I was who is a stranger to me now? Or the companion of my mother's last years who finally mended the rift? I like my present self best who thinks of her mother with gratitude. The ice rings around my heart melted long ago and now fresh water flows from it to others who are thirsty. That's how I try to this day to redeem myself.

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