My daughter’s mother-in-law was seventy nine last December. She has been a widow for several years. “I am a Kraut;” she told me. “We’re tough.”
Before she was a Kraut, Ruth was Lithuanian. The country was invaded by Germany; she, with many other women and children, set out on a forced march to the German countryside, to work on farms. Many did not survive; her grandmother was left along the road to die. I believe that’s when she quit being Lithuanian; their guards on the march included young countrymen conscripted into the German army. Cousins, she said, selected her grandmother to fall out.
Ruth says her childhood on the farm was very hard work, but not unkind. Her father had been swept away by the war, but she remained with her mother until she was twelve. A cousin a bit older than she was in her life, too, and the two of them were involved in adventures of any farm children.
Her mother was very strict; Ruth very rebellious. She knew her cousin intended to go into the village one day and probably get a sweet treat from the little shop. She knew even if he brought something back for her it would be gone before he arrived, so she determined to go with him. If she kept him moving and on task, they would be home before lunch, before her mother knew she was gone.
She had them briskly returning home when he lagged. She turned; he was holding a grenade and had pulled the pin. Even a little seven year old girl knew a problem. “Throw it,” she yelled. He threw it straight at her. Her left leg shattered.
She recalled people coming, being lifted from the road. When she woke again she was in a hospital; her mother was there. It was a Russian field hospital; her mother spoke fluent Russian, and was not about to let her daughter die. Ruth was a long time recovering, her mother returned her several times to the Russian doctors. She rolled up her trouser leg to show me how fortunate she had been, and I wonder how such wounds were able to fill in. She still carries shrapnel.
Ruth’s mother died when Ruth was twelve. She was an orphan, passed among several German families until about the age of sixteen, when she was in the home of a German barrister who helped her with schooling, secretarial training and finding a job. She walked everywhere, arriving hot and dusty or cold and muddy. It was her life; she knew nothing else.
Eventually she moved with a friend to the big city, Berlin. They worked in the same legal office, shared a flat, and read the writing on the not yet erected Berlin wall. One summer they took holiday together, to West Berlin, and simply did not go back. She met a young American, married him and came here. That was many years ago; her son has been married to my daughter since 2000. We think we did an excellent job of selecting ourselves as mothers-in-law to each other.
A while back Ruth and I were visiting a little museum that included a small gift shop. I saw her attention fixed on something as we came in, and on the way out she paused and told me to select between two figures of roosters in the display. They were very realistic, especially the bona fide feathers. She purchased it for the cousin who threw the grenade.
He has been in this country for many years, and suffers now from very advanced dementia. He recognizes little of what is going on about him. When they were children on the farm, there was a rooster that followed him everywhere! Not her, just him. Ruth was very jealous of that rooster. She bought the shop rooster for an upcoming birthday. I asked later, and Ruth said he called her by name, and called the rooster by the name he called the one so long ago. He held and stroked it all evening.
Ruth says she is a tough Kraut. I say Ruth is the history we are repeating because we do not remember.
The big smile in the superman shirt is my youngest granddaugher, Caroline, and Ruth's oldest.If Ruth had a childhood picture of herself, it would be that little face.