I have a compass.
It sits on its red felt pad, always open to a different direction. Years ago, I watched as my mom cleaned out the drawers of the large steel desk in our farmhouse basement. That desk covered us from many, many midwest tornadoes -- my mother, sister and I squeezing to fit in the empty chair space. There were always also 2 dogs and at least 3 cats also trying to squeeze in. It was tight, but we never had to try to save a place for my dad. He was always out on our westward facing deck with a videocamera rolling. "That is not a good example for the girls," mom would yell up at him from our hiding place through blared static weather warnings out of a battery-powered radio, regarding his stormchaser behavior.
That desk...I remember watching her cleaning out its drawers, and seeing a brass button glint, gilt by a single light-bulb hanging by a thread. And I asked, "What's that?" -- believing...no, knowing...that it must have a story. It just looked like it should have a story. "It was my papa's," she replied as she put the red bag in my hand...a compass...
...and I've felt its -- his -- direction ever since.
My Uncle Mark, the cool-single-California-artist-uncle, always wanted my grandma to make hutspot. Whenever he came home for a visit, pumpkin pie and hutspot were always on the menu. He would take the potatoes and carrots that my grandma had diligently kept segregated -- with Noah's Ark, kind-to-kind integrity -- and he would make a devilish tower of the two, smashing them into a mash of marbled roots. "Hutspot," he'd say, "my papa used to make it."
My Grandpa Niemeyer used to make it...
And while I've never met him, my grandfather died long before I was born, I've always missed him; yet at the same time, have felt a comforting commiserative connection -- my guts are his. So are my uncle's. So are my mom's.
Intestines intertwine and shorten years. Stories suture spaces and fissured history. Some of the stories even start to explain the puzzle of my internal mysteries.
Recently, I went back through some old emails, searching for these stories written to me by my Uncle John and my Great Uncle Bronno, whose lines hold the most information I know about my Grandpa Niemeyer. Archived away I found them, and re-read the stories I had remembered...
...and also a few newly discovered, read through the glasses of a prescripted diagnosis.
Even though I never met him, I have always felt very strongly connected. Perhaps the genealogical gut?
As a teenager, he was part of the Dutch Underground, and at age 18, taking food to Jews who were hiding in a local zoo, he was captured and spent the next few years of his life in German concentration camps; both Bergen Belsen and Buchenwald.
My uncle wrote how he remembered how my grandfather would always lick his plate clean after a meal, tongued thankfulness tasting the bitter memories of not having enough. My uncle wrote how he imitated his papa's after-meal tradition, until someone reprimanded him for "bad manners."
Unaware of this rather improper family trait, I have been licking my plate clean for well over a year now. This grace said only in private. I too was thankful for food again, even if bitterly digested. My eyes began to sting as they filled, reading on...
...into the last story of my grandfather, as he and a friend escaped from the concentration camp and fled west, walking through the night over fields and hills and farmland, sleeping through the day in barns -- and finally reaching Emmen, the Netherlands, just as the war ended. My Uncle Bronno wrote that he did not recognize his brother -- he was all "skin and bones, till he gave me a hug. I knew then that he was my Big Brother Jans."
My frantic fingers stop. I feel queasy after throwing up history. I look over my shoulder, once again seeing a familiar gold glint, gilt by a single light-bulb hanging by a familial thread...and am reminded of that first time I saw and followed its direction in that farmhouse basement so many years ago. A red harbinger of journeying. Sometimes, feeling directionless, but always calibrated at the core...deep down, I know which way to go.
Now --- I wonder if that compass guided my grandfather from Germany to Holland...I wonder if it guided him home. But what is more, now I know that it does have a story...
...and, it has stories yet to tell; directions, yet to give.
~ Hutspot ~
Boiled potatoes & carrots, mashed. Sautéed cabbage, turkey bacon, and caraway seeds in
butter. Topped with a generous dollop of sauerkraut....for digestion.