DANIEL CRISTINI

Mr. Tree (Part Three)

One question gnaws at me as my Opapa recalls his happy childhood in Germany: How much did you know? The final instalment of a three-part feature.

By Jeremy Klaszus

March 1945. The sea rose and fell as a bitterly cold wind swept over the ship. Restless refugees, chilled and miserable, stood on the deck nervously scanning the brackish Baltic waters for Soviet submarines.

Ernst’s sister Anna went into one of the cabins below and opened a small compartment where she’d hidden her dead baby. He was still there, wrapped tightly in an off-white sheet. Friedrich had stopped breathing shortly after boarding and Anna feared he’d be thrown into the churning sea below if his death were discovered. She resolved to get Friedrich to Rostock, the ship’s destination, where he could be properly buried. 

Once the ship arrived, Anna hid her first-born in her coat and succeeded in bringing him to land. She seldom spoke of the experience afterward, trying always to forget the horror of hiding her lifeless child aboard the ship that, in a cruel irony, may have saved her life.

Almost three weeks have passed since Opapa first went into the hospital. I’ve come up from Calgary to give Omi a break for a few days—she’s worn out. We immediately get back into Opapa’s story, jumping all over the place. When I focus too much on his childhood, he turns to the later years of his life, after he immigrated to America in 1952. “I want you to get a full picture of who I am,” he says.

Soon he’s spilling regrets about his disciplinarian parenting. Besides having experienced some of his severity first-hand, I’d also heard my dad’s stories, like the one about the broken typewriter, when Opapa came home and found one of the keys broken. He lined up his four children and asked who broke the key. No one confessed, so he gave them all spankings. He asked again. No one confessed. More spankings. My dad, getting wise to the pattern, stepped forward and admitted to breaking the key—only it hadn’t been him. 

“Which key did you break?” asked Opapa. Dad guessed incorrectly. Spankings again.

Omi later revealed she had broken the key. 

When I ask Opapa about the incident, he can’t remember it. “Maybe that’s one of those incidents I wanted to forget.”

“When you look back on your life as a parent, are there many things you would change?”

“Oh yeah. But my understanding of child-rearing came much too late.” Strictness and severity, he explains, are parts of his Prussian heritage. “Don’t spare the rod. You want the child to grow up straight, then you have to enforce it manually. Well, that’s not the way to do it.” 

Later that night, while watching CNN with Omi at the acreage, I relay my earlier conversation with Opapa. She asks me to e-mail her that section of my interview notes so she can forward it to my dad and his sisters. She CC’s me. “I think you might find some comfort in what is contained therein. I know that I wish that I had stood up to Papa more on your behalf. Some individual scenes are etched permanently on my memory—how I wish I could forget them.”

I never heard anyone talk about that e-mail afterward. Maybe they are hoping to forget, too.

May 1945. Victory in Europe. Liberation for many Europeans, but not Germans. The Allies decided all Germans, including children, were guilty for the crimes of the Nazis. Stars and Stripes, the American military newspaper, proclaimed that “in heart, body and spirit every German is a Hitler!” In the following months, the Allies imposed punishing rations on an already hungry population, waving aside requests by the Red Cross and other relief groups to send aid.

June 1945 is a gaping hole in Opapa’s memory. He remembers only that he stayed at a refugee camp in the medieval city of Erfurt. It could have been hunger, he says, that blanked out the details. All he remembers is staying in wooden barracks with his mother and sisters.

His memory picks up again at the end of June, walking south on a dusty road, along with his sisters Anna and Gustel. All three carried rucksacks and blankets on their backs. Their mother had sent them to find a new home in Büsingen, a German village just over the Swiss border more than 400 kilometres away, where the family had relatives. They had left the camp just in time. The Americans pulled out of Erfurt and the Red Army occupied the city in July. There was no going back.

After a long day of walking, the travellers came to a Bavarian village where they found all the doors—even barn doors—shut to them. No one would give them lodging. The young refugees were strangers in a strange land and knew it. They decided to ask at one more house, their last hope for the night, on the edge of town. An elderly couple sat on the porch watching the sun set beyond a potato field. Upon seeing the tired travellers, the couple waved them over.

“Of course, stay with us tonight.” The man and his wife were old, probably in their 70s. “Have you eaten? We’ll make a meal.”

Inside, the three refugees sat in the kitchen and drank tall glasses of water as the woman prepared soup and sliced bread. The refugees stared wide-eyed at the Catholic imagery decorating the walls: rosaries, images of Mary, a cross with Jesus still on it. The Lutherans couldn’t remember ever being in a Catholic home before.

Then the wispy-haired old man entered the room with a wooden bowl filled with warm water. “May I wash your feet?” he asked softly.

The three guests exchanged bewildered looks. “If you wish, yes. Thank you so much.”

Their feet were dirty and cracked after the day’s journey. But the old man kneeled down and gently washed each foot with care until all were completely clean.

When I visit Opapa next, he’s back at home. Omi is away at a church conference and I take her place in driving Opapa around Edmonton in his Volkswagen Jetta on errands. As we go to pick up brötchen rolls and Tilsit cheese, he gives constant orders from the passenger seat: get into the left lane, slow down, get into your right lane, let off the gas a bit, turn here, no, sorry, it was back there, and SLOW DOWN, there are rules. His directions are often wrong and he incessantly asks me to slow down, even when I’m going below the speed limit. “Your driving is bad for my blood pressure.”

I try to see how fast I can go without getting him too upset. It’s a mildly cruel game that makes his endless instructions somewhat tolerable. 

“There’s an emergency vehicle ahead. Slow down to 40.”

The “emergency vehicle” is actually a concrete truck parked 20 feet off the street. I gently step on the gas, barely topping the speed limit of 60.

“You’re not slowing down.”

“Yeah.”

These days, there’s not much Opapa can do when someone breaks one of his beloved rules. I zip past the street parking spots in front of the bakery, irritating him even further.

“Ach, slow down!”

Later, back at home, I ask Opapa more about his relationship with authority. I think I’ve figured it out, shrunk it down to a sentence. “Let me know if this sounds right to you. It sounds like you discovered the freedom to question authority throughout your life, and yet you struggled to extend that freedom to others, particularly those in your own family.” I brace myself.

“That’s correct, yes.” I relax. “That’s where the influence of my childhood comes in. My mother was strict with us, overly so. She would punish us for little things like not being tidy. She pointed out that that’s the way she was brought up.” Opapa pauses. “You live the life of your parents all over again, to some extent. The problem then is that one learns too late.” 

His voice breaks. “You have to be 78 before it sinks in.”

September 1945. Ernst ran up the gentle green slope, two cartons of cigarettes stuffed in his underpants. The paunchy customs officer followed close behind but the gap widened with each step. 

“Get back here!”

Ernst kept sprinting. He usually smuggled cigarettes calmly through the Swiss/German checkpoint but this time he’d decided to make a run for it. Ernst knew that if the officer caught him, he’d keep the contraband for himself and trade it on the black market. Ernst had similar plans. He didn’t smoke, and in any case cigarettes were too valuable. They could be traded for food. Ernst’s main meal each day was a watery, saltless soup—not enough to live, but too much to die. 

The pursuing officer tripped on a root and fell, unleashing a string of curses and empty threats before returning to his post.

Weeks earlier Ernst had arrived in the French occupation zone with his two sisters. Only Anna could actually live in Büsingen, however, since it was her husband’s hometown. Ernst and Gustel found separate rooms in Gottmadingen, a town on the German side of the border, and regularly went back and forth to visit Anna.

The three talked worriedly about their mother and other sisters. Did they get out of Erfurt in time, or were they stuck in the Soviet zone? Were they even alive? No one knew anything. After talking about their worries and reassuring each other as best they could, Ernst and Gustel would cross the border and return to Gottmadingen. 

Ernst’s last border crossing was by far his best. He’d approached the border like he always did: nervously.

“Anything to declare?” asked the customs officer.

“No. I have nothing. Absolutely nothing.” Ernst’s bright blue eyes darted away.

“Let’s see about that.” The officer called him in, confident he’d busted a wily young smuggler. He patted Ernst down but found nothing. He asked the boy to strip completely naked. While Ernst undressed, he emphasized his innocence. 

“I had no money when I went into Switzerland. I tell you, I have nothing.”

Finally, Ernst stood in only his skin. The officer checked the pockets of his shorts and rubbed his finger along all the seams, desperately looking for something of value. His face was drawn in disappointment.

“I told you I have nothing.” Ernst tried his hardest not to grin. It was the only time he’d crossed the border without cigarettes.

Countless oblong boxes of tree seedlings soak in the June rain beside Omi and Opapa’s grey tarpaulin garage: pines, spruces, birches and Siberian larches, their root balls tightly wrapped into bundles of twelve. Every spring, Opapa collects thousands of seedlings from greenhouses that would otherwise throw them out. This year is no different, despite his sickness. He gives the young trees away to friends, relatives, colleagues, strangers—anyone willing to pick them up from the acreage.

Opapa’s planted hundreds of thousands of rejected seedlings all over Alberta since he arrived here from the United States in 1965, sent to St. Albert to start a new Lutheran church. One day he lets me in on a secret: he’s actually a guerilla tree planter. “My seedlings are planted everywhere,” boasts my authoritarian grandfather. “Even in places where they’re not supposed to be.” 

He doesn’t want to go into detail “because it will upset people”—Alberta has strict regulations on tree planting in forests, rules Opapa says “must not be bent”—but he explains his gonzo forestry habits by telling a story about a rogue stand of Douglas fir trees in the Rockies near Alberta’s David Thompson Highway, trees that drifted east over the mountains long ago, carried as seeds from what is now British Columbia. This is the dominant theory among botanists, Opapa explains. “That theory satisfies them.” But Mr. Tree, ever the contrarian, has his own theory and the highway’s titular fur trader is the central character. “My theory is that when David Thompson came back from British Columbia, he had bags full of seeds that got too heavy for him. So he spread them in that area. That’s my theory, and I may be very wrong.”

Like the David Thompson of his imagination, Opapa planted trees where they don’t belong. Pine in spruce forest. Spruce among pines. Siberian larches in both. When he leads schoolchildren in a planting he follows the rules, but planting on his own he did whatever he liked. He tells me, smiling, that his trees are growing in many of the campgrounds where he’s stayed throughout his life. “They’re growing there without permission.” 

The larches, Opapa says, will add autumn colour to a green forest with their yellowing needles, and people will come up with their own theories on how those trees got there: they were planted by the government, or perhaps a logging company. 

Or maybe just the wind.

I asked Opapa if he ever found a place of belonging in life. Of course, the forest topped his list.

Sometime in 1946. Dates blurred by hunger. Ernst and Gustel moved from Gottmadingen to nearby Murbach, two kilometres away, into a house owned by a German farmer stuck in a Russian POW camp. That’s where Auguste, their mother, found them more than a year after they parted in Erfurt. But the details of the reunion have gone missing from Opapa’s mind. 

“I don’t have a clear picture… There are so many fuzzy times…”

Together they made one last move to Randegg, a village a kilometre or so northwest of Murbach. “And then from that time on, it got a little bit better each day, each week, each month.” Randegg was home for Opapa until 1952, when he transplanted westward yet again, first to Wisconsin and finally to western Canada. His mother lived in Randegg until she died in 1983.

When Opapa was in the hospital, I asked if he ever found a place of belonging in life. He said he did. Naturally, the forest topped his list. Lying beneath monitors and medical charts, he longingly described his favourite spot on the acreage. “I call it my cove. There’s a little bench in the trees and everything’s just sitting there, waiting for me.” 

At the time, we weren’t sure he’d see that or any other forest bench again. But less than three months later, Opapa and I are on a campground bench overlooking Alberta’s Kananaskis River. I have to give Dad credit. We’re here because of him. The last couple years he’s arranged weekend camping trips for our family, even borrowing a fifth-wheel camper so Omi and Opapa can come along. We never went camping much as kids—Dad was always away or busy—but now he’s the one working to bring us together.

Opapa looks better than he has in months. He easily pushes his blue walker around the campground’s paved black roads, no longer the frail skeleton we saw in the hospital gown. His white beard is long and full. His voice has regained the quality it had lost while he was sick. Opapa admits he’s still impatient, but Mr. Tree is looking treeish again, here in the forest he loves. 

I look up at the mountains across the river, crisp grey stone against the rich blue of summer sky. But Opapa is looking downward at the earth, at the fallen pinecones and budding wildflowers. Indian paintbrush bursting with red and green leaves. Fireweed with pink petal towers.

The summer sun pounds against the tattoo on my left arm, a work-in-progress sleeve of Alberta forest flowers. I chose it as a way to remember Opapa, to keep his memory alive when he’s gone. Of course, when Opapa sees it, he sets into lecture mode. “Do you know you can never get an MRI now because of the metal in your arm? That is very serious. Did your tattoo artist warn you of that? What? You think there is no metal in tattoo ink these days? Do you know anything at all about metal?…” The summer before, Opapa had given me his copy of Wildflowers of Alberta. I decide against telling him I lent it to my tattoo artist as a guide.

Opapa gives me a lot of his stuff lately. Last year, it was a couple wilderness books and his flint and steel. This trip, it’s Plants of Alberta and a knife he bought when he visited Randegg in the ’70s. He opens the knife’s saw blade. “This is used for amputating appendages or even limbs,” he deadpans. “But it can also be used on wood if need be.” He opens the main blade but doesn’t have the strength to close it. “Here, you close it. It’s yours now.”

He swats at a mosquito on his long-sleeved shirt. For a long time, we sit silently on the bench. Woodland birds dance in the rustling trees above until finally, Opapa is ready to leave and together we walk slowly back to the campsite. 

This is the final instalment of a three-part feature; the first and second instalments were published in the April 2009 and May 2009 editions of Alberta Views. “Mr. Tree” was later published in Cabin Fever: The Best New Canadian Non-Fiction (Thomas Allen, 2009). Jeremy Klaszus lives in Calgary. 

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