Even as a writer, there are times when I just don’t have the words. There was one person in my life who always had the words. At least I assume she did. I don’t speak German, so I can’t be certain.
I spent extended time with my friend’s family in Germany. And every day began the same.
“Guten morgen! Haben sie gut geschlafen?” his mom, Trauti, would ask.
I always slept well at their house, “Yes, very gut, danke.” I would stutter back in reply.
Trauti was not deterred by my linguistic incompetence. Although I know she secretly spoke English, she never once threw me a bone. She was a perfectionist, and if she couldn’t do something well, she wasn’t going to do it at all. Most of the time, I relied on the boys in the family to translate.
The more time I spent with them, the more inevitably Trauti and I would end up alone, struggling through conversation. At least I struggled. Trauti never seemed all that concerned. She would chat away at me, pointing things out and asking me to help with chores that I never quite understood.
Trauti expected perfection from herself and everyone around her. Doing something correctly was the bare minimum. Not only were the beds in their family guest house clean and crisp and turned down properly every time, but there were always fresh flowers in every room, often picked early in the morning by Trauti herself. She was the consummate hostess.
When I walked into the kitchen of their restaurant, she would yell out, “Hallo, Liz! Möchten Sie einen Bier?”
Then we would laugh because the answer was always yes, of course I wanted a beer, “ja.”
“Grosse oder klein?”
Then we would laugh again, because the answer was always large, “grosse, bitte.”
Trauti’s method to improving my language skills was that if she just spoke enough German to me, eventually I would understand it. And it worked.
Eventually I understood enough German to be able to keep up with the conversation, although I still couldn’t answer. I understood well enough to know which chores she wanted my help with, although I could never quite do them to her satisfaction. And I so desperately wanted to please her.
After one of my particularly creative attempts at making up a guest room, she came to inspect it, sighed deeply and began to fix it. She shook her head and muttered, “Oh Liz, no no no.” It was like having Martha Stewart criticize you in German. It was brutal and simultaneously awe-inspiring.
My favorite moments were when she was truly pleased with my progress. On a ski trip to Switzerland, she asked me to check what heat level her fancy ski boots were set at. “Sieben,” I said to her. She asked me to change the setting to eight, and I did. She actually applauded me.
On Christmas Eve after Mass, we sat around the kitchen table and sang Christmas songs. Even though the boys all rolled their eyes, they happily played along. Trauti loved holidays and musicals, and she especially loved when her family indulged her.
During an enthusiastic, wine-infused rendition of “O Tannenbaum,” I remembered the German chorus from the Nat King Cole album. I waited for the right moment and then burst out singing along with them, “Du grunst nicht nur zur Sommerzeit, Nein, auch im Winter, wenn es schneit.” Trauti was so surprised, I thought she would fall out of her chair. She was clapping and laughing and wiping tears from her eyes.
Trauti didn’t make things easy on me. She expected more of me, and in turn, I began to expect that of myself. I don’t know if I ever won her approval, but I am grateful to have had the chance to try for it.
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