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Continued from After the War: Elise

As I huddled beside mother’s hospital bed with the laptop’s cursor blinking expectantly, mother’s voice grew momentarily animated as she described the day she learned to ride Elise’s beautiful bicycle.

I was dying to ride that bike. Finally, one beautiful sunny afternoon Elise took me out with the bike and coached me. She was patient and calm with me and soon I got the hang of it. I was on top of the world, sailing up and down the street with Elise clapping and cheering. We were having so much fun that we completely lost track of time. When Elise noticed the late afternoon shadows, she was mortified because she hadn’t yet done the marketing for supper. How on earth could she explain to her husband that she’d been so busy playing with a child that she had neglected to prepare his meal?”


Photo: AdobeStock_77331891_WM

To fully appreciate Elise’s dilemma, consider what it took to run a household and provide three meals a day in the early 1920’s. An upper class housewife like Elise might have an ice cellar to keep a few perishables cool. But even so, with food scarce, marketing was a near-daily chore. Women queued up at the Marktplatz with ever larger fists full of cash and high hopes of purchasing fresh eggs, milk and meat, if any were to be had. Some women with access to a bit of dirt tended vegetable gardens; others relied on vegetable stalls. Limited amounts of these items could be found, and each, only at the appropriate merchant’s shop or stall in the Marktplatz. Farmers’ market days were held once or twice a week. Business hours were strictly limited. Transportation was by foot, bicycle, or street car. Bread was made at home. Elise may well have made a loaf that morning and left it to rise on the banked oven while she frolicked with Yry. Even the stoves were time-consuming and cantankerous, and required careful stoking with wood or coal to achieve the proper temperature. Those of us raised with Birdseye, toaster ovens, microwaves, and McDonald’s, would starve in the face of this never-ending circle of meal preparation. With no dinner waiting on the stove, Elise had legitimate concerns.

Normally Elise accompanied Yry on the trolley all the way back to Ritterstrasse. But that day Elise was so distressed by the late hour that she gratefully accepted Yry’s assurances that she could ride the trolley home by herself.

After all, I was feeling confident and grown up after mastering that big bike. I knew the way home by heart. What on earth could go wrong? But time declared war on me that day. As I arrived at the station, the trolley was just pulling out. The next trolley wouldn’t arrive for another 20 minute. It was growing dark and I could hear my father’s predictable tongue-lashing in my head. Well, for Pete’s sake, I knew the way home! I had two good legs! I would walk!

So off she went, with a bounce in her step, born of her success on the bike and Elise’s abundant encouragement and confidence in her. What followed were the vivid details of an incident that I’d heard alluded to in the past, but had blown off as the rantings of an overly sensitive feminist.