to my dad, for his birthday

Dear Dad,

Your birthday was yesterday, and I didn’t get you a card. I haven’t in a long time, so this year wasn’t different, but you were on my mind the whole day, just on the periphery of my mental to-do list that’s always churning.

You would freak over the amount of work we still have to do here. I spackled the dining room walls today.  Part of me thinks it would be quicker to just tear all the plaster down, but I think it came out pretty good. You could probably point out some spots I missed, but as good as I am, I’m still not at the level of attention to detail that you have. And you’d probably tell me that not all the prints in the house are level; every time I straighten one I chuckle in my head and think of you.  The moldings in the living room and dining room are in good shape, but I’d love to add some upstairs.  I wish you could help me with them. I really wish you could come see this place.

For your birthday, I just wanted to tell you that I hope you know that you were never one of those dads I was embarrassed by.  In fact, I was always proud of you and mom, and loved bringing my friends home. Whenever I missed the bus home after middle school, I was happy that I could call and knew you would come pick me up.  You would always ask about my day, and would always let me play whatever music I wanted.  Yeah, you made fun of The Cranberries (and called them the Raspberries) but I knew you were just teasing.

Paul and I had a friend over for lunch a few weeks ago and we started talking about what TV we watched as kids. I remember how you sat through more than half of the My So-Called Life marathon on MTV with me, not to make sure that it was appropriate, but because you liked watching TV with me. I hope you know how rare and special that was.  I would love to see your reaction to American Pickers. I think we would enjoy watching that together.

It’s hard to believe that it’s been 16 years. But then I try to remember your voice, and it all comes crashing back that you’ve been gone for over half my life. I talk to you in my head, sometimes, when I’m trying to figure out a problem in the house. There are so many things that we missed. I find fragments of you in the house from time to time. Things that I thought were back on Long Island or tucked away in a box. A card that you gave me when I won an academic medal in German class, a picture of you as a toddler that Oma framed, your old work glasses spattered with paint.

Mom gave me your watch recently. It’s huge on me, but I can see the hole where you used to tighten the leather band to, slightly worn, and I can almost remember your hands. I get so upset sometimes when Mom gives me something of yours. Not angry, mind you, but terribly sad because they’re the only things I have left of you. All I have are those things, and my few memories, and the wonderful stories that mom shares with me. I treasure those things because, in my mind, they keep part of you alive.

You would have turned 71 yesterday. Retired, I would think, and driving mom nuts with house projects or your model trains. I still would have stolen your red L.L. Bean flannel shirt from you, and you probably would have blamed your balding on me at some point. I would have made you sit down and translate your letters from Tante Lötte, written in her neat German script, so I could find out about that side of my family that I never knew. German was supposed to be our secret language together, but I never mastered it without you. We would have done so many things.

Happy birthday, Dad.

Ich liebe dich.



a snippet

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEvery time I go to see my mom I end up bringing back things from her house.  Sometimes it is just an interesting newspaper article or a magazine, sometimes clothing or trinkets from my childhood. This time when I went home, I received a tischtuch – a table cloth.

Margrete, c. 1940

Margrete, c. 1940

Born in Vegasack, Germany in 1908, my father’s mother, Margrete Oltmann, was a simple woman. I only ever knew her as Oma. When her mother died, Oma was only a young girl, but inevitably took on the duties of keeping house and tending to the other children until her father remarried in the late 1920s.  As the story goes, she was devastated. Having been replaced by another woman and no longer the sole object of her father’s affection, Oma was bitter and decided to travel to America for a job as a live-in housekeeper for a middle-class family.

In 1938, she married a butcher from Bauthen who had come to America in his twenties. They spoke the same language, and shared the same culture, and so instead of love, the marriage of convenience occurred and they moved to a house on Stanley Avenue around 86th Street in Brooklyn.  Soon after my father was born, and then his sister.

My father and Inga, 1946

They never expected to live in America long; they were going to move back to Germany. There are pictures of my father in lederhosen and handmade clothing.  Their life in Brooklyn was simple, even meager.  You could call Oma cheap. She darned socks, after all, well into my father’s adulthood. But with the expectation of going back to the “old country”, my father was raised speaking exclusively German, and when he began school at around six years hold, he returned the first day crying. When Oma asked him why he said that the teacher told him he had to bring a tischtuch to school. Oma went to the school, upset, and tried to tell the teacher they didn’t have enough money for him to bring one.  The teacher then explained she didn’t want a tischtuch – a tablecloth – but wanted them to bring tissues.

I only have snippets of memory of Oma. Her silver hair pinned up with bobby pins, her dark rimmed glasses. The smell of her house. Her love of candles. I never knew the woman who embroidered handkerchiefs, napkins, and tablecloths.  She had begun embroidering a tablecloth and napkin set for her daughter as a dowry.  But her daughter, Inga, died when she was three of Leukemia.  Oma never finished the set.

In 1950 my uncle Dieter was born. And when Oma died in the 1989, Dieter was left everything. The snippets that I have went with him, and not until I was in my mid twenties did I really begin developing a relationship with Dieter. Now, my house is full of her furniture that Dieter gave me.  The only piece that holds a memory attached to it is my dresser, which was hers. I remember nap time at Oma’s as a child.  The center part of the dresser has a door with a latch that I would lay in my sleeping bag on the floor in front of and flick until Oma would get annoyed and tell me nap time was over.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd now I have one of her tablecloths in my own house.  Oma was a hard woman. German and stubborn, bigoted and bitter, and old fashioned.  Perhaps as a young woman, back in Vegasack, she had been kind, but there are few happy memories of her to pass on. Oma never finished the set that she began for Inga. My mother encouraged Oma to finish it at one point but she always had an excuse not to. Her eyesight, her aging hands. I don’t remember her voice or any real specific events. But now I have one piece of her from before she was so bitter. One tischtuch.


behind my shoulder

* a reflection from the first weeks in the new house *


As I rub back and forth, back and forth, the particles that I’m sanding flying into the air, I see them settle on my arm, noticing how much my arms look like my father’s.

He is watching me, telling me to go slowly and carefully. I need to make sure I erase the mistakes of the past – the drips of paint that were allowed to settle and roll down the molding carelessly.  This is not something to rush, it is something to do with reverence.  Patience.

As a child I watched him laying on the floor, head almost on the ground, painstakingly sanding and puttying the baseboards.  You would never guess the amount of time that went into perfecting the woodwork.  Paint, let dry, then walk around with a three inch by two inch piece of wood with the tiniest bit of sandpaper wrapped around it, correcting every little nick and drip.  Mom and I called him the stubborn German, always wanting it to be perfect.

I’ve never been good at waiting to get something done.  My husband and I have only been in this house for 18 days and I want the dining room finished.  The ugly, salmon colored tile floor will have to wait, but the dentil  molding around the chair rail and the ceiling are perfect, hardly worn considering how ill cared for the rest of the house was.

I try making quick work of the molding, but my father clears his throat disapprovingly and I switch to a smaller brush, the handle as thin as a Bic pen, and slowly, methodically, begin dipping the brush in the smallest amount of paint, working it into every groove.

This is going to take me forever.

After forty-five minutes, hunched over and hand cramping, I stand up straight and admire my work.  I’ve only done about 3 feet of the chair rail. I sigh, put my paintbrush down on a brown paper towel, and walk outside.

He does not follow me.

dad circa 1950s