I own a small collection of Gluhwein (mulled wine) mugs, which, like the glasses in German beer gardens, one may keep in exchange for relinquishing the small deposit one pays when ordering. I keep only those that I find especially beautiful or that evoke a treasured memory. I use them ceremonially and only from the First of Advent to Epiphany (I must make some restrictions, otherwise I’d probably keep the tree up until it was a spindly, needleless shadow of its former self). The mugs are always marked with the year, and the image imprinted on them traditionally represents a cityscape or vision of the market, an event held throughout Advent in many places but nowhere as prevalently as in Germany. Most towns, large and small, hold them. They draw vendors and visitors from the region and farther afield. The one in Dresden is world famous, although not as nice as the ones in Vienna, Munich, or at Gendarmenmarkt in Berlin.
2013 was the only time that my daughter, Hanna, and I visited one together since she became an adult and moved to Europe. We met in Berlin-Potsdam and together took the two-hour train ride to Dresden, where we met my German ‘parents’ (to find out what that’s about, see Chapter 3 of An American in Pandemic Paris). It was a dreary, drizzly day, but we rejoiced in each other’s company as we strolled past stalls of sausage and sauerkraut, local cheeses, handblown glass ornaments, beautifully crafted Christmas pyramids, handknit sweaters and scarves, and, naturally, nutcrackers in many sizes and sporting many different costumes, including the crown-wearing, red-jacketed military figure familiar from the Tchaikovsky ballet first choreographed by Marius Petipa in 1892.
In the late afternoon, we took shelter in a heated timber stand with ‘indoor’ seating and spruce branches on the floor, where we warmed up with rum-spiked Gluhwein, while catching up, discussing Christmas plans (us in Cleveland, them in Hainewalde with son Robert and his family). Like ideal parents and grandparents, they inquired about our future plans, both near and distant, sharing their thoughts and reminiscing about their decision, made shortly after receiving their Ph.D.s in physics circa 1960, to remain in Soviet-controlled East Germany, where their aging parents lived, rather than attempting escape to the West, where good jobs awaited. Hearing this story set in a moment of world-historical uncertainty with unpredictable consequences made our own decisions seem less fraught, since it’d be much easier for us to shift directions should we regret our choices that it would have been for Inge and Jürgen. Once we had thawed out and our mugs were empty, we wiped them clean with a napkin and tucked them carefully into our pocketbooks.
I brought my Dresden 2013 mug back to ‘Purgatory’ and think of that emotionally warm and wonderful afternoon (in contrast to the meteorlogical conditions in which it unfolded) each time I use it and guard it so carefully that only I or Hanna are permitted to drink from it. But you know how easy it is to become careless when one is distracted or multi-tasking? Well, that’s what happened this year. I inadvertently knocked it, half full with matcha green tea and ginger, onto my tile kitchen floor. It shattered. I briefly thought about sweeping up the pieces and trying to glue them back together but then thought this event was meant to be. While I no longer have a madeleine de Proust that takes me directly back to that wonderful afternoon, Inge and Jürgen left me an enormous and rich legacy of family—two siblings who have made more of an effort to spend time with me than my own sister, despite their residence on distant continents—and a ‘niece’ and ‘nephew’ whom I love like my own kin. I spend time with the same family and in the same treasured places as my adopted parents, and that is so much more meaningful than a beloved and evocative tchotchke.
As I swept up the pieces and consigned them to the trash, I reflected on similar mini-tragedies from the past: the loss in a parking lot of my grandmother’s diamond-and-platinum watch as I stumbled drunkenly from the black tie dinner where I met Ingvar Kamprad; my mother’s car, in which I always felt her spirit lingering, totaled on black ice (while sober!); the gold-and-garnet locket with tiny photos of my maternal grandparents stolen long ago by the sister of my mother’s cleaning lady. I reflected on how I will never forget these objects: how they looked and felt and the chain of memories that thoughts of them unleash. While this photo will soon reside in a place whose location I’ll have difficulty remembering, the memory of the object and the experience it conjured will remain.