A passion for problems

“The mark of a good scientist is enjoying problems,” my father maintained, “seeking them out.” This problem passion helped him build a distinguished career in chemical research, developing some of the drugs he used himself for cancer and Parkinsons.

Unfortunately the “on” switch for science didn’t have an “off” setting for parenting.

Cold War hysteria blazed when I was a kid. “Imagine living behind the Iron Curtain,” I mused, watching my father in his workshop solving cabinetry problems. Good thing we lived in New Jersey, but suppose we didn’t?

Ah, he’d had the same thought and helpfully shared a solution. Let’s say we lived in Romania and he was, again, a research chemist, valuable to the State. So he couldn’t leave. “But we’d find a way to get your mother and you kids out,” he assures me.


He was working on that. But moving right along, we’d escape to, say, West Germany.

“But I don’t speak German,” I remind him.

“You’d learn. Of course not as quickly as your little sister. She’d have no accent.”

Great. Already I’m behind a three year-old. “And you’d come later?” I ask anxiously.

“I hope so.”

I’m getting really upset, already missing him. “Suppose you can’t?”

“Well, then, after a reasonable time, your mother would remarry.”

This was horrible. There I am in West Germany, stumbling in German, missing my father, and there’s this Klaus that maybe I don’t even like pretending to be my father. Maybe he’s mean. And suppose my father does get out and find us, but mean Klaus doesn’t let us see him, keeps us locked up? Then what?

“Well, don’t worry, sweetheart,” my father says, driving a nail. “We’re in New Jersey.”

Right, as in don’t think about an elephant. Many sleepless nights ensue, flipping between my hypothetical horrible life with mean Klaus and the more likely troubles of my unknown opposite number in Romania, say Sofia. Poor, poor Sofia.

Moving on to adulthood, I sometimes find myself driving, inventing tragic or melodramatic scenes, even bringing myself to tears over these sad imaginings. I asked a therapist friend about this, suggesting that it’s the process of driving, the sort of trance you get in on a familiar route, that leads people to spinning hypothetical dramas.

“Not people, Pamela,” she said gently. “Just you.” Ah, well, I guess the fruit doesn’t fall too far from the tree.

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).

Tagged with: , , ,
Posted in Childhood fantasy, Cold War, imaginative child
5 comments on “A passion for problems
  1. Nancy T. McGlasson says:

    Lovely piece. Thanks for sharing, Pamela. It’s intersting that we are both thinking back to our childhoods. You to The Cold War, and me to the days of Jim Crow racism. Both terrible in their own way. Want you to know it’s not only you who worries or muses over problems. I’m there with you.


  2. Pamela Schoenewaldt says:

    Thanks, Nancy. Makes me feel better. I can imagine driving along and wondering what thought webs other drivers are spinning.


    • Nancy McGlasson says:

      A friend of mine in the Art Department once said that driving through Virginia on I-81 was like driving through a screen saver. Obviously the thing to do then, as one drove, was to think, worry, and plan!


  3. Betty Pagett says:

    First time I have been so glad for new jersey!


  4. Well, it wasn’t behind the Iron Curtain.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


Sunday, May 6, 2pm reading from latest work at Hexagon Brewing Company, Knoxville, TN.

Thursday, May 10, 6-8 pm presentation on research on the historical novel, Blount County Library, Maryville, TN.

When We Were Strangers, Italian translation, to be presented in Pescasseroli, Italy, August 2018.

Recent Review
“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

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts.

Join 2,017 other subscribers
%d bloggers like this: