The Plateau by Martha von der Gathen

It is dinner time. As I so often do, instead of sitting in the cafeteria, I am eating my dinner in the garden adjacent to the Catholic hospital where I work the evening shift. The nuns of the hospital had established this little refuge with a pretty rock garden, adorned with religious statues, for patients, visitors and employees as long time ago. There is even an old cemetery were still born babies were buried. It is a mild late-summer evening, and as I look through the gently rustling leaves up into the sky, my mind wanders—

White, puffy clouds floated above. The sky was always cloudy in this part of the country. The clouds and the deep blue sky peeking out here and there were my dream world every summer. I would lie in the soft grass on a blanket and gaze up into the unknown, wondering what lay beyond. I loved the solitude of my leafy summer home, my companions being the birds and those beautiful red-coated, bushy-tailed squirrels. As I watched them jump playfully from branch to branch, I hardly dared to breathe, for I did not want to disturb them.  I felt like an intruder here; after all, this was their home.

   The plateau, called “Halde”, sat above our large vegetable garden, measuring about one hundred by seventy feet. It sloped down on all four sides; one side facing our garden, one our neighbor’s house, and one a street leading to an adjacent cemetery. However, one side dropped abruptly into a huge crater. This crater, now overgrown by grass, weed and trees, was created by a bomb that fell here accidentally during WW II; accidentally, because it was not meant for our house at all. Miraculously it had missed us, bouncing like a rubber ball and hitting another house two hundred feet away, which then burned, but luckily not killing anyone. My mother was only twenty-two years old when she huddled in the cellar with my aunt, my older brother, and me. I remember how the house had shaken in its foundation when the bomb hit near our garden, and how we all had prayed. Grandpa had remained upstairs; he did not want to be buried alive, he said. It seemed that the Allies had tried to destroy two nearby small factories, which they thought produced weapons for Hitler, but we all knew that it had been producing mattresses and milk cans ever since we could remember. During summer, the factories would open their windows, and the smell of horsehairs would waft through the air. It was such a familiar smell, not offensive at all, just a part of our neighborhood. One of the owner’s daughters was a friend of mine, and I often spend time at their house, which was the only one at that time that had a swimming pool.

   My father lost his young life in that war, and my mother had been distraught. She told me later, that, after the news of his death,  she had wanted to walk into a nearby  lake. After eight lonely years, she remarried, and I now had a baby brother. She was preoccupied with the new baby, and I was often left to entertain myself. I did not mind; the entire outdoors were my playground, and all the animals were my friends. 

   I spent time in our garden, tending to my own little flowerbed, or sitting in the “Laube”, which was a wooden gazebo-type building; it had just one small room, with a hand hewn table in the middle and benches all around it. It was probably meant to serve as a refuge from the sun, because it was built in a corner against one of the slopes of the plateau. It was covered with ivy, and it was always cool in there. I often read or had my lunch in this hideaway, and I decorated it with sheets and fancy table linens for my birthday parties.

   In our neighborhood there were mostly boys to play with. I climbed trees and played soccer with them, or we rode bikes and roller-skated in neighborhood streets. It was quite safe to play in the streets then, for not many people owned cars right after WW II. The girl next door was my best friend. The big house that was her home had three apartments in it. On the ground floor lived the Nickels family. Herr Nickel, a kindly man who was the groundskeeper for the cemetery, and his wife had two children, who were older than my playmates, but every Christmas they never failed to invite us for “little Christmas”.We always looked forward to that day because it meant more presents for us. Their tree seemed to be decorated especially festive, glistening with silver bells and long droops of tinsel. Real candles were used on Christmas trees then, yet there was never a fire in any of the homes as far as I can remember; however, a bucket of water stood nearby, just in case. Children were usually well behaved and were not allowed to jump and play around the tree. We were served cookies and hot chocolate, but we weren’t allowed to open our presents until we had stood in front of the tree and recited a little poem, or sang a song. Of course, we wore our Sunday best, and we even had to curtsy. Herr Nickel was a revered person as the care taker of the cemetery, which often served as our playground. Mr. N. did not seem to mind. We were respectful of the graves and the well-kept paths and fields. The fields were numbered, and there were twenty-five of them then. Beautiful, towering pine trees, whose branches seemed to touch the sky, inviting a myriad of birds, encircled each field. It was the most beautiful cemetery in this big, industrial city of about 750.000 inhabitants. It was like a park, and people would willingly spend a small fortune on a plot here. Every Sunday, well-dressed folk in their furs and suits drove up to the big iron gate in their expensive cars, flowers in hand for their dearly departed. The gravesites were so lovingly tended to that not a weed could be found on them.  Not one grave was in disarray, and even people who lived far away arranged for local keepers to take care of them.  

   Devilish as we were sometimes, we played a favorite trick on people: we placed a wallet on the walkway, tie a very thin, almost invisible string to it, hide in the dense underbrush and roar with laughter when someone tried to pick it up, only to see it “walk” away. Once, an angry man almost caught us. Living so close to a cemetery, we accepted death as a part of life. My father lay buried there too, in one of the first rows especially reserved for the war dead, just as one entered the grounds. There were only a handful of graves, for most young men had never returned from the vast, icy steppes of Russia. Simple stone crosses adorned the graves, inscribed with the names of the men who had fallen. One belonged to my handsome young uncle. Their birth dates and the dates of the men’s death revealed how young they all had been. Carl von der Gathen, read my father’s name on one of the stones. It seemed strange that I bore the same name. I often wondered what he was like. Would I have loved him, would he have loved me?  Would he have held me on his knees and read me stories; would he have taken me on walks, and occasionally have taken me to a beer garden with him, as my beloved uncle did now? He would have his beer, of course, I would drink the fresh apple cider, and then we would walk home to mom, who had prepared the Sunday meal. Would I have looked at him admiringly, and would I have wanted to marry him? Little did I know then that I would look for him forever…

   Hardly a day went by that I, alone, or with my friends, did not spend time on the Halde. My uncle had fashioned gymnastic rings that hang from a sturdy branch of a big birch tree, and from which we dangled like monkeys. How limber I was then; I could bend my body in a way that could rival the Olympic gymnasts. There was also a secret “cave” up here, but fear of the unknown kept us from fully exploring it. It had a wooden gate with a simple lock on it, which had long been pried open by someone. Not by us, of course! Upon opening that creaky, moss-covered door we could see only darkness. Damp air emanated from that “dungeon”, smelling of decaying leaves and moss. We were told that this door lead to the entrance of an old mine shaft, but we knew better: this was where dragons and God only knows what other mysterious creatures lived! Who would want to meander into this unknown and scary world? Not even the bravest of the boys, and certainly not I.

   Where the Halde met our garden and our house, there was an area for animals, where my uncle kept chickens and bunnies. He loved to have fresh eggs every morning, and an occasional meal of rabbit and chicken. However, I had made those animals into my pets; I loved them, and I spend many hours with them, tending to their stalls and cuddling their offspring. When my uncle realized how much those animals meant to me, there would be no more slaughter. At one time we even had a pink little pig. I remember how fat it was, and how it grunted. It had such a soft, always wet snout, and his bristles were still soft too. One day a neighbor of ours, a kind of raffish man, came and slaughtered it. I had even seen him shoot some birds, and I hated him for it. Those creatures were my ersatz for the cat that I really wanted, but was not allowed to have.  “Animals are dirty”, my mother would say, “and they belong outdoors”. Someday I would a house full of cats, I vowed!

   Married, and raising a lovely young daughter, I now have a house full of animals and cats, of course, as I had promised myself. There is Fluffy, the large, golden-haired Main Coon, a handsome and sweet boy, who shares his bowl of food with the Guinea Pig, and there is Patches, a skinny black and white cat, who is my husband’s favorite. There is a tankful of fish and a beautiful, large, black Loop with a silky coat, who likes to lay upside down in my lap and have his belly rubbed. Isn’t that how it is supposed to be: a happy home with children and pets?    However, that time was so fleeting; too soon my daughter turned eighteen and left for college.

   My days are lonely again, and, as in my youth, I enjoy being alone. My house is surrounded by stately pine trees that sway in the wind, and as I sit on the patio, enjoying the warm breeze of a summer evening, I can’t keep my mind from wandering again—

   On the Halde I enjoyed being myself most of the time. It was sheer heaven up there. I felt close to heaven too; after all, I could almost touch the sky, couldn’t I? Those tall trees were so lovely to look at and to listen to as their delicate greenery rustled in the wind. It was always windy in this part of the country, and it rained a lot, even in summer. Sometimes the rain fell so softly that I remained for quite a while in my green home, the canopy of the trees providing shelter. To the west I could see the slender steeple of a church. Her bells rang every hour, announcing the time. When the wind was blowing from the north, we could also hear the bells of several churches of the next suburb, which lay in a valley by the lovely Ruhr River. One of the churches, being designated by Pope Paul as a cathedral, dated back to the year 799. It was built of massive stone, and its tower held two bells, which measured ten feet across. In the evening, we heard those immense bells call to Vespers. We could even hear bells from another suburb across the “Baldeney See”, a very popular, manmade lake. My favorite aunt lived there, and I had visited her many times. She was called “The “First Lady of the family” because of her elegant way of dressing and the impeccable home that she kept. I would lie here toward evening and listen to the heavenly concert, not really being aware of what a treasure cove this spot really was. My father was born across that lake, and we were very remotely related to that illustrious “Krupp” family who made their fortune in steel. The founder of that industrial empire had married a woman who bore the same name as I. However, those huge Krupp-owned factories were heavily bombed during the war, and the Western part of the city was completely destroyed. Since our city was so big and since we lived in the most-southern part of it, we did not really witness all the destruction; however, once evening I saw a bomber going down in flames, and I ran into the house, terrified.

   As night fell, I would slowly walk back to our old stone house, but not before saying good night to the chickens and the bunnies. I’d even sing a lullaby to the chickens, watching them fall asleep. Soon I too would be asleep in my bedroom that faced the Halde. I always closed the big green shutters, which had two hearts as openings to let air inside the room. I liked to keep the window open a little because I wanted to hear the sounds of the night and smell the fresh air.

   When I grew to be a teenager, my girlfriend and I started taking interest in boys, and we often talked about them, wondering about our future. Whom would we marry? Movie stars, of course!  Sometimes, looking way up into the sky I tried to imagine who my love would be, and where he would be. Toward evening, the sky often turned into the most beautiful shades of pink or purple, making the sun set even more striking. Sometimes I could see a plane flying seemingly right into that sunset. Yet I knew that it would fly west across the ocean, to the land full of sky scrapers, big cars and movie stars. It was then that I had a strange yearning to be on that plane and fly toward that unknown land. Was something waiting there for me…?

 When I was eighteen years old, I attended college in the US on a student visa,  and I was supposed to return to Germany after I completed my studies. However, I stayed at the college as an adjunct instructor and became a citizen.

  Years later. I went back to visit the old homestead, now owned by someone else. Like a thief, I stole up to the Halde, and to my surprise, nothing had changed – as if time had stood still. The trees were a little taller, the brush a little denser, but the views were the same. The tall church steeples were still there, and there were still some bells ringing in the distance. The birds were singing just as sweetly, and as I looked over to that big, strong birch tree, didn’t I see a little girl swinging from a rope? Tears welled up in my eyes as I realized that I would never, ever be able to recapture the absolute happiness and innocence of that time – it was paradise then, now lost forever…

1 thought on “The Plateau by Martha von der Gathen”

  1. Excellently written by Martha von der Gathen.
    I grew up around the same time and can therefore relate to MVDG. We both played in postwar West Germany and what Martha describes as a good child hood, goes for me too. I can so relate, and actually, even as children, we used our imagination and brain so much more to make the best of our situations. I am comparing this to today’s children in the western world who, in my opinion, and of course only in general, are not able to make something out of almost nothing, and actually appreciate the results of “doing for themselves”. Everything, since a few generations, has been handed to western children, and has become more a comparison to which parent has the most money to get their children what they want. It is a complicated, complex issue and needs most likely hundreds of pages to be explained by me, as I see it. Again, to me this “story” was very emotional and true for me. My “hats and thanks off” to MVDG”.

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