Slats of plastic block all but pinholes of yellow spring glow from the sole window. I perch in a Forest Service-green plastic upholstered chair pulled up to the left side of the hospital bed that sprouts a daunting array of wires, cords, tubes, buttons, and geegaws. My Tandy laptop, a primitive version of those devices that would soon become ubiquitous, balances on the table of my knees.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to crack the blinds just a bit?”
“No. Hurts my eyes.” The voice is almost unrecognizable—flat and grumpy.
Grasping at something to break the emptiness, my mind rumbles for a question to prime the pump. “So Mom, tell me about the trip to America. What was that like? Was it frightening or exciting?”
After a too-long pause, the diminished form answers with little enthusiasm.
April 1991 was an awkward time for my mother and me. No—it was an awkward time for me; it was an agonizing time for mother. All her life mom had relied on self-diagnosis and the talismans of vitamins, minerals, enzymes, and determination to hold doctors and hospitals at bay. Ten days earlier she’d called me in Boise to ask for my help—a first. Now, sitting beside her hospital bed in Fort Collins, I felt responsible for the heaviness of time. The following day she was scheduled for a surgical procedure that would enable long-term kidney dialysis. She’d been putting this off for over a year. As a means of filling long, empty hours of doing nothing, I mined mother’s memories. Through the years, I’d overheard many intriguing family tales, but I’d only listened to the exciting parts and retained none of the important details nor the threads that connected the stories. Perhaps now, with nothing to sidetrack me, I could record them. Balancing the laptop on my knees, I coaxed her. She was tired and lethargic, but grateful to have a distraction. Her voice was hollow and lifeless, devoid of her characteristic flamboyance. At times, some vision would breathe a half-hearted grin into her voice:
“Yah. I wasn’t quite eleven yet. It was Oct 25, 1924. . . .”
Then silence, again. Such a simple answer seemed to suck all the energy out of her. Had she gone to sleep? Was she breathing? Journalists make interviewing look so easy, I thought as I stared at the indistinct lump under the white bedclothes. Desperate to get the memories flowing I blurted out another question. “What was the voyage like?” God, what a lame question. Without bothering to open her eyes, Mom sucked in stale, medicinal air and began to describe the events that brought her to America. Little by little the story of mother’s childhood emerged as I sat beside her bed.
It took ten days for the S.S.”Resolute” to cross the Atlantic from Hamburg to New York City. For a child of eleven, the trip was a grand adventure. It was also an opportunity to distance herself from the hubbub and turmoil of a large extended family of aunts and uncles and cousins. For her mother, Nora, the journey was less adventure and a lot more uncertainty and discomfort. Nora had already paid a dear price for falling in love with a German. . . .