79: Polterabend

79: Polterabend

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Here Comes the Bride


Men are made stronger on realization that the helping hand they need is at the end of their own arm.

~Sidney J. Phillips

When we taxied down the runway and took off with a roar, my stomach fluttered, and John reached over, giving my hand a warm squeeze. We were heading toward Dangast, Germany, a small fishing village on the North Sea. “I don’t want to die!” a child screamed in the seat behind us. After a half-hour of this, and the mother sitting stock-still beside her terrified youngster, a woman walked up the aisle from the back of the plane and did her best to comfort the child. She spoke the thick, rich German language I heard off and on while I was growing up. The little boy didn’t know what she was saying, but his wide eyes focused on her, and he found something comforting in her voice.

One reason we were going to Germany was to have a German wedding. American weddings seemed so foreign to me. I was raised with a German mother and American father, and heard tales of their own wedding, so different from the serious events I was used to in the United States.

I would sit at the kitchen table with a blue-and-white-checkered cloth smoothed over it and laugh as Mom told the story of the Polterabend — the German tradition where friends and neighbors bring boxes of china to a party for the couple a night (or two) before the wedding. My parents had a Polterabend, but my beleaguered father-to-be didn’t know about the tradition until there were bits of broken glass and pottery flying everywhere as he stood in the middle of it, looking at the smiling, round German faces surrounding him, his future father-in-law handing him a broom. I don’t know who finally explained to him that he had to sweep up the bits to show he would be a good husband, but he finally began the task. No sooner would he have some of it neatly piled then the mischievous friends and neighbors would rush the complete pile and scatter it again while others continued to smash more Bavarian pottery.

“I want a Polterabend someday,” I’d say while sipping tea from one of Mom’s German china cups.

“It isn’t quite how it used to be,” Mom had cautioned me. “The bride-to-be has to help the groom-to-be now.”

My father had rolled his eyes. “Too bad it wasn’t that way before!”

I had my heart set on a German wedding. John was also eager to visit Germany again. He had been stationed in Germany when in the Army years before I met him. He loved the dark beer and tangy sauerkraut and apples next to jagerschnitzel with potatoes. He loved the old towns with cobbled streets and buildings that still bore the scars of world wars.

I was lucky to find someone willing to strike out on an adventure instead of demanding the norm. I was especially lucky on that plane beside John because he knew it wasn’t just the desire for a Polterabend that drew me away from home. There was a vacancy I was trying to escape. I couldn’t bear to get married with my family around me. My father, sister, and perhaps aunts, uncles and some cousins would have been there — but my mother was gone. She had died from leukemia just four years earlier. She would never see me in my wedding gown. A wedding at home would have made her absence scream out.

John knew I needed to avoid that pain on our wedding day, and he was willing to travel across an ocean and stay with my German relatives he had only met once or twice during their brief trips to the U.S.

My German aunt and uncle arranged the wedding and Polterabend before our arrival. They also left no day of our two-week stay unplanned. We stepped off the plane and immediately began a whirlwind of activity and eating. Pig knuckles, bratwurst, dark breads and beers, gravies and other good food and drink were set before us until John and I thought we would happily explode. We walked old town streets, shopped in open-air food markets, and rode bikes through Dangast to meet the “good neighbors” who would attend our Polterabend. We spent a half-hour at each home becoming introduced and having a small toast. We met “Mummy Mouse” and peeked into her small gift shop. We met “Lothar the Hunter” and his wife, Gitte, and then “Wolfgang the Woodcarver,” among others. Every person was identified with a profession or hobby attached to his name — it made it easier to remember. John sat among them and laughed heartily.

The days flew by. “The wedding has not happened yet. There is still time to change your mind,” Aunt Karin teased over a German breakfast of boiled eggs, liverwurst on dark breads and rolls, and coffee creamed with evaporated milk. We sat on the terrace in the garden, the sun shining warmly on my still-wet hair. I looked across the table at John, who was gamely riding the waves of each day with me. “No, I think I’ll keep him,” I said.

“Are you ready for your Polterabend, John?” my aunt asked.

John groaned and grinned sheepishly. “Can’t we skip that part?”

My aunt’s laugh burst out like a cannonball. “No, John! That is the test to see if you two will help each other through hard times!”

“THE NEIGHBORS ARE COMING!” my aunt hollered later that day. I saw a twinkle in her eyes. A sound came from a distance — at first it was faint, but then it grew. We heard an accordion and singing — raucous Dangast villagers came marching down the street with Wolfgang the Woodcarver leading the way, playing an accordion and followed by other villagers singing and carrying boxes and garlands.

A parade? An accordion? John and I laughed until our sides hurt. We looked at the warm, happy faces of the villagers and felt blanketed with love from people we had just met. They placed garlands on the doorways and a large wooden stork by the hedges. They strung a line of baby clothes over the driveway and began setting up to smash the china.

They offered us gifts as well, which neither John nor I expected. I was stunned at how personal they were. These villagers had observed us well. Soon, the first bit of pottery crashed. John and I grabbed our brooms and hurried out to the friendly laughter and taunts of the villagers. John took a deep breath and then plowed into the center of it. We would sweep, and there would be a CRASH behind us. No matter how we tried to keep on top of it, the merry villagers had more mischief to make.

“When are they going to run out of things to break?” John gasped, but there were tears of laughter in his eyes. My heart was full. I had a piece of my mother with me, and I had the Polterabend I had always wanted. I realized, though, that while it was wonderful to have, I didn’t need it. I had all the proof I needed that the man I would marry would help me through hard times.

~Tanya Sousa

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