My Mother’s Legacy

My Mother’s Legacy

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Thanks Mom

My Mother’s Legacy

If you break your neck, if you have nothing to eat, if your house is on fire, then you got a problem. Everything else is inconvenience.
~Robert Fulghum

My ninety-four-year-old mother squinted at me across the breakfast table.

“I don’t understand,” she muttered, a shadow darkening the cornflower blue of her eyes. “My daughter in America always calls—usually every second day. And now it’s been quite a while since I’ve heard from her.”

Stunned, I leaned forward. “Mutti, look at me. I’m right here. I have come all the way across the ocean to be with you. That’s why I haven’t called.”

“Oh.” A distrustful little smile danced across my mother’s lips. “I see.”

Then, just as I hoped that she had recognized me, she proceeded to tell me about my personal history in the third person.

Listening to her rendition of my past, I was reminded once again of the incredible odds this strong, loving, and very funny woman had to overcome to turn my childhood into the happy adventure it was.

I was only four when WWII came to an end and my mother fled with thousands of other refugees from the Polish Corridor into Austria, before finally being settled in a small village at the foothills of the Bavarian mountains.

Although the government provided us with a small room in the back of an old farmhouse, finding something to eat was a daily challenge since food was scarce even in the remote countryside.

Whenever she got the chance, my mother helped in the fields, always hoping for small handouts from the harvests. When that wasn’t enough to feed us, she had to resort to begging—and I helped.

In contrast to my mother, whose Eastern German speech pattern marked her as an outsider, I picked up the local dialect within a very short time.

Feeling like “one of them,” I went cheerfully from door to door in the village to present a schmaltzy hymn my mother taught me to up my chances of finding a way into the farmers’ hearts and food supplies. I still wonder what really got to them: The heart-wrenching theme of the song or my whimsical delivery.

It worked. I often left a farmhouse clutching a loaf of bread and other goodies.

My mother also taught me how to “semi-legitimately” harvest apples that belonged to others.

In the village, common law and social mores dictated that the yields from the fruit trees falling on the owners’ side of the fence were theirs, but the apples falling onto the village street were common property.

Always one for putting her immense repertoire of proverbs into action, my mother concluded, “Well, it doesn’t hurt to lean a little.” It was a very effective way to get hold of some delicious vitamins.

Taking into account her own advice of, “Even a blind chicken will find a kernel eventually,” my mother was relentless in finding ways to make things better for us.

She tried her hand at growing her own vegetables and experimented with cooking, sewing and knitting. But since she had to work with whatever was available, she gave up on following standard instructions.

I almost never saw her consult a cookbook or study a recipe. She measured any given ingredients by eyeing them or guessing their weight. Then, in order to season the dishes, she used her taste buds until it was “just right.”

Her creations often came up a bit flawed, but instead of being rattled, she seemed to delight in the challenge of fixing the things that were less than perfect.

In that way, she was a pioneer in “thinking outside the box.”

After lifting a lopsided birthday cake from the oven, she would apply enough icing and decorations to even out the shape. Then, with the cake being cut, everyone at the table received an individually shaped piece with either a lot of cake and little icing or the reverse.

Then there was my high school graduation dilemma. Mom insisted on sewing my dress from a nylon fabric with large red roses on a cream-colored background. The garment had a tight waistline and a widely ruffled skirt, perfect for dancing to the rock-and-roll type rhythms of that era.

Unfortunately, just before I got dressed, my mother decided to press the dress. When the iron touched the nylon, one of the large red blooms disappeared and my wonderful dress had a big hole in it. Unperturbed, my mother cut another rose from an unused piece of fabric and—using her hot-iron method in reverse—she melted the patch across the opening and tugged the seams of the fix-up under a large ruffle. Needless to say, I had a great time at the party.

My mother was also very generous and little concerned with material things. Having seen so many people lose so much during the war made her quite indifferent to worldly possessions. She would often say, “You can’t take it with you,” or, “Even a rich man can only eat until he’s full,” and, “Your health is much more important than stuff.”

She always put me first, no matter what. So, when it was time for me to get a better education than was available in that tiny village, she decided to send me to another school in a town about ten miles away. To pay the tuition, she took a job in a nearby sausage factory.

I still remember how tired she was in the evening after putting in a long day of work on an assembly line, in addition to commuting on a lightweight moped that exposed her to all kinds of weather conditions.

Swinging it, laughing at life and joking about its idiosyncrasies, she was always there for me, doing whatever she could, and taking great pride in her efforts.

I will never be able to repay my mother for her love, her devotion and sacrifices. I can only hope that the way I live my life—swinging it, embracing it, taking imperfections in stride, worrying little about stuff, and trying not to take everything too seriously—shows my gratitude and honors her.

~H.M. Gruendler-Schierloh

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