You were as secretive an adolescent as I was. We both had our reasons. You chose to escape from under the pall of indignity that was draped over your nation’s soul to the bright window in the attic of your parents’ farmhouse, where you sat and devoured forbidden novels. The adults around you knew that you were bookish and said it was unbecoming of a young girl to read so much. It would needlessly trouble the mind and detract from household chores.
I carved out my own corner in whatever country my family was living in, burying myself in letters to friends left behind, that were like a cry for stability. A flustered parent, indignant at the damning history you and her father had left to her, stood outside my door. One of her mechanisms for coping was to call me overly-sensitive, among other things, and to insist that I must toughen up.
When first you mentioned Fontane’s novel, Effi Briest, to me, you shook your head. “Dreadful story – a poor girl married off at the age of seventeen by her parents to her mother’s former lover, a baron old enough to be her father, and stashed away in a North Sea outpost where he served as District Counsellor to the Prussian administration. Now tell me, what could be expected of her?” you asked.
Effi’d had a risky affair with a dashing, womanizing major and was never again permitted to see her daughter, expelled from the same intransigent Wilhelmine German society as the one you had been born into. Eventually, she was accepted back into her parents’ home and there died young of heartbreak.
“I read it when I was a girl without my parents knowing,” you added, and blushed as you mischievously looked askance over the edge of your coffee cup.
Suddenly, you seemed very modern to me. While others of your generation said that Effi got what she deserved for her infidelity and, above all, for challenging the status quo of laws and social codes, you saw her as a victim. You believed in her natural rights to long and not to be abused. You were a deeply sexual being, even as an old woman. I saw you in your laced silk chemise and stockings attached to a garter belt as you dressed. Into your nineties, you were a picture of sensual beauty.
Your war had taken place in the bedroom, and as you scratched at the pressed cream damask on your dining table, without looking at me you said: “It wasn’t pleasant – our life together. He would come at me angry and drunk, and once he was done returned to his Polish girls.” You scratched faster, as though it could dull the hurt. “Five children – one after the other - it was expected in those times. The pains were appalling!” I hadn’t borne any children yet, but vicariously felt your pain in my abdomen.
“He found another side-fling in Brazil – a mulata – and then I left. In the mortuary, after he’d died, they put shoes on him that were too big for his small feet.” Your nostrils flared with resentment, and perhaps some mild satisfaction that in the end you had seen him emasculated.