We frequently read about families that have been divided by war. Less common are stories about those divided by politics and all the ramifications of same. Nina Willner, a former U.S. intelligence officer who served in Berlin during the Cold War, has written such a memoir, Forty Autumns, published last month by William Morrow. The writer will appear at Politics and Prose on Saturday, November 12 at 1pm. You can buy her book there or at other local booksellers or online.
I WAS FIVE YEARS OLD when I learned that my grandmother lived behind a curtain. The year was 1966. It was Grandparents Day in kindergarten. In a slow-moving stream of little children holding hands with the elderly, my classmates brought in their grandparents, sweet-looking old people with pates of silky white or graying hair, weathered faces etched in soft creases, twinkly eyes, and benevolent smiles.
I sat at my desk, watching them come in. They greeted the teacher cordially and one another as they shuffled in and made their way into seats set up next to each child’s desk. One at a time, my friends excitedly led their grandparents to the front of the classroom and proudly presented them to the rest of us, introducing them by names like Nana, Poppa, Mimi—which were as foreign to me as they were intoxicating—as their grandparents stood by beaming down at them lovingly. I was entranced by it all. Suddenly I felt alone and left out. I looked at them, then panned to the empty chair next to my desk, which got me wondering, where were my grandparents?
I came home from school that day wanting answers. I bounded through the front door, found my mother in the kitchen, and, without any greeting whatsoever, demanded, “Where are my grandparents?”
That evening, after dinner, my parents sat me down and told me why I had never met any of my relatives. Speaking in gentle but serious tones, my father, who was of German-Jewish background, explained that his family had all “died in the war.” In my naïveté, I was unaffected, and turned to my mother, expecting to be disappointed by her as well, but was delighted to learn that her parents and family were alive. She brought out a photograph of her mother and said, “This is your Oma.”
Oma. She was perfect. She looked exactly like the other grandmothers, but better. She radiated serenity and calm, a
winsome, knowing smile gracing her face. Though I couldn’t put it into words then, I was drawn to her pastoral elegance, her humility, her wise, confident disposition as she sat comfortably in an inviting, overstuffed polka-dotted armchair, her body positioned slightly askew, as she looked off to one side.
I stared at the picture for a long time, scanning her from head to toe, even cocked the picture just so, so it felt as if she were smiling directly at me. Despite the fact that I now know the photo was black-and-white, perhaps out of some subconscious desire to bring her instantly to life I saw Oma in color, pale blue eyes beneath those soft, heavy lids and what appeared to me to be blushing, pink cheeks. She had a simple upswept hairdo, the color the same brunette as mine, and wore two pieces of jewelry, a large brooch in the shape of a rose, probably made of gold, I thought, and a small pin that adorned a matronly black dress at the base of her V-neck collar. I imagined myself curling up on her plump, cushy lap and being swept up in an exquisite, warm embrace as she gazed down at me the very same way my classmates’ grandparents had gazed down at them.
“Oma,” I said aloud, charmed by the singsong ring of her name. Completely satisfied, I looked back up at my mother and asked, “When is she coming to visit?”
Unfortunately, my mother said, suddenly distracted as she got up to move about the kitchen, Oma could not visit us. Nor could we visit her. She was in a place called East Germany along with the rest of my mother’s family, her sisters, brothers, and everyone else. I didn’t understand, so my mother stopped, perched me on a kitchen stool, crouched down to meet me eye to eye, and explained.
When she was finished, I stared blankly back. Though I realize now that she must have used the term Iron Curtain, the only part of her explanation I understood at that moment was that they were in a place far away, trapped behind “a curtain.” But this made no sense to me. I tried to comprehend why my mother would allow a sheer cotton panel like the kind I had on my bedroom window, or even heavy draperies like those hanging in our living room, to stand between her and her family. Someone, I thought, simply needed to pull that sheet of fabric to the side and let those poor people out. Someday, she reassured me, we might be able to meet them. Someday indeed. For goodness sakes, I thought. It’s just a curtain.
I went back to school the next day and told my teacher and friends that I too had grandparents, that my Oma was beautiful and, moreover, that I even had people called aunts, uncles, and cousins. My teacher was delighted. When she asked where they lived, I said East Germany, “behind a curtain.” It was only when I saw her cheery face drop to a somber and sympathetic one that I realized the curtain might be bigger than I had imagined.
From Forty Autumns by Nina Willner. Copyright © 2016 by Nina Willner. Reprinted by permission of William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.