My grandfather’s grandmother

My grandfather was born in Ohio of a German mother and a father whose mother was Native American. He rarely spoke of her and from the tiny bits of story he let slip, I created this portrait:

My grandfather’s grandmother was Chippewa. She wore hides. She ground Iowa corn. Dark, sticky blood of deer flowed over her hands. Black hair streamed loose behind her as she ran. I imagine this, for no letters, name or photograph remains. When I stalked my grandfather for stray words of her to braid them in a thicker tale, he said, “I’ve already told you what I know.”

I know that her people had rich, watered land, but they stayed too long, watching it fill with strangers. At first pale men came alone to hunt, drink, die or wander west to the emptiness. The Germans were different. They came in flocks, waving papers, making signs, “See?” They said, “The land is ours now.” They chased the deer away, cut high grass to black earth, ripped open the land and planted wheat. Perhaps she watched from thickets one man solemnly scratching arrow rows in dirt, perplexed by his toil. Didn’t he know how simply abundant food could be plucked from bushes, scooped from streams, whistled down from trees? Why trade grain for cloth if soft hides could easily wrap the body? Yet still she must have been uneasily drawn to his straight-arrow world and he to her wildness. They met at the fringes of his fields, found a way to speak and began to fall in love.

“Why him?” her tribe demanded.

“Traitor!” said his. “Have we come so far and worked so hard, tearing out grass to grow our food in rows that you must bring in dark disorder, hair unbound and a savage tongue to call down beasts on us?”
So he took her north to Canada where they both were strangers. He became a carpenter, working in town. She learned German, copying his sounds as once in her warm summers she copied bird songs until only the owl discerned a human accent in the highest trill. Patiently, he molded her tongue with kisses, warmed her at night with new words, waiting until his ears discerned no difference in their speech. Then he bought her dresses, ribbons, corset stays, light powder for her cheeks and pins to loop her hair in curls. They hoarded coins as her people once hoarded corn over long winters. At last he brought her down to another Iowa town where he no one knew their story and all cautiously admired his elegant, black-haired woman. He built a house for her beyond the last roads, where the grass was still uncut.

But my grandfather’s grandfather and this woman had been too long alone together. Their ears no longer caught the feather-edge of strangeness in her words.

“She’s no German,” the women whispered. “Listen to her. Look at her skin. She’s one of them.” Then my grandfather’s grandmother feared that for this feather-edge she would lose her home again. But her lover did not flinch.

“She’s Polish,” he insisted. In the way of small towns and because they needed a carpenter, they left his lie alone and did not ask again. In time they made room for “the Polack” in the land of her people. They helped her cook their stews and bread and adjusted her clothes and speech to be more like theirs. She, for her part, was careful to never make her people’s food again, speak her own language to her babe or call down birds. Only at night, holding her, did my grandfather’s grandfather hear laments he did not understand, cherishing her strangeness, familiar as no other.

Their son grew into dark, hard man with a thin, hooked nose, for which sign he hated his mother and took care to import a pure German girl who soon betrayed him, learning the English he would not speak. So he became the foreigner, never tuning his heart to the wild strangeness, the new language of any love.

Pamela Schoenewaldt, historical novels of immigration and the search for self in new worlds: WHEN WE WERE STRANGERS, SWIMMING IN THE MOON, and UNDER THE SAME BLUE SKY (all HarperCollins).

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Workshop on Point of View for the Knoxville Writers Guild, Sat. Feb. 18, 2017, 10am to noon

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“Absorbing and layered with rich historical details, in Under the Same Blue Sky, Schoenewaldt weaves a tender and at times, heartbreaking story about German-Americans during World War I. With remarkable compassion, the author skillfully portrays conflicted loyalties, the search for belonging, the cruelty of war, and the resilience of the human spirit.”—Ann Weisgarber, author of The Promise and The Personal History of Rachel Dupree

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