I keep this photo on my laptop desktop. It captures a banal moment in my peripatetic life. Taken on the S-Bahn (commuter train) between Berlin and Potsdam, I love it because of the way its significance has metamorphosed over time. When I look at it today, I see both the children pictured and the wonderful young adults they have become.
Who became the thoughtful yet pragmatic transportation engineer? The creative and occasionally mischievous digital engineer? The empathetic singer-songwriter? Can you tell?
I can. I snapped the photo about twenty years ago and now see clearly the seeds, the mustard seeds, of their adult selves. Daughter Hanna and I were visiting her ‘cousins’, the children of my ‘brother’, Robert, and my ‘sister-in-law’, Marita. (To discover the ersatz nature of our relationship with this chosen family, check out Chapter 3 of my new book, An American in Pandemic Paris.) I feel a special kinship with the younger children because they, too, were close to their grandparents and to their bucolic village of Hainewalde, nestled in the verdant hills of the charming Oberlausitz region near the Czech-Polish border. I visited often during summers and the children spent much of their summer vacations there (usually after my July visit – school vacations in Germany often begin in July/August and continue until September/October) while growing up. We all love that place and the couple that made visiting so enticing.
There were two lovely experiences that all small summer visitors to Hainewalde shared. One was sitting evenings on chaises (with blankets over one’s knees if chilly) on the flagstone terrace beside the stone barn while a fire blazed in the fireplace and one conversed and laughter and gazed at the star filled sky. The other occurred on the day of departure. Even before the digital age, he’d leave before breakfast on a secret mission. Before leaving the property, you’d discover why when he presented his young visitors with a photo album documenting their stay. Johannah and Julius each have ones for every year of their childhood. And my daughter has one for each of her visits as well.
I’m guessing you, dear reader, has ferreted out who became what, but just to provide the reassuring confirmation of your suspicions, I’ll reveal the answers. The curious fellow containing abundant, latent energy is now the digital engineer. A sensitive soul whose impulses to improve and create often distract from career preparation, he’s switched engineering paths a few times since he began his studies. He’s also designed his parents’ beautiful, recently built sculpture studio/storage building, which is well-sited on a difficult lot and harmonizes aesthetically with its surroundings, in addition to being an immensely practical space. Since his grandfather died (a COVID victim before vaccinations were available) and his grandmother relocated to a retirement home, he’s devoted his creative energies into transforming what was a jerry-rigged home built after their centuries-old farmhouse blew down in a freak windstorm in the early 1980s.
Back then, on Fridays the then forty-something grandparents would see what building materials were available in Berlin (where they worked as optical physicists) during the difficult years of the Soviet-allied German Democratic Republic, and used them—whether tiles, electrical wire, concrete, cinder blocks, or pipes—to construct what they could over the weekend, a process that took several years, aided by neighboring childhood friends.
Julius, who lives, studies, and works in two-hour-distant Dresden, is bit-by-bit modernizing electricity, plumbing, and décor. Bedrooms that once resembled functional hostel accommodations, now possess the allure of stunning, enticing AirBnB offerings. The transformation underway is as impressive as any professional renovation one sees on social media; stay tuned! I can easily envision him changing his path to rehabbing old houses. He’s mastered so many new, practical skills and tools. I can’t wait to spend time in Hainewalde again this summer. The garden is my wheelhouse!
The thoughtful, perhaps a bit sleepy, girl is now a lacrosse-playing transportation and logistics engineer, currently complementing her German education with an American MBA. Serious and focused, quiet and competent, Johannah doesn’t purposefully draw attention to herself, but her drive, patience, and ability to understand how things connect in the world, does arouse notice. Several years ago, she served as a hyper competent and diplomatic Residence Assistant for a cohort of 20 teens from a dozen countries and four continents. Undaunted by her lack of experience (summer camp is a non-concept in Europe), Johannah masterfully managed this diverse group of youngsters with patience and good humor. When confronted with problems, she finds the simplest and most elegant solution.I was delighted that she spent Christmas with me this year, along with the older girl who lovingly holds her on her lap.
That’s Hanna, my daughter, the nurturer/caretaker. I feel a connection to her soul when I look at this picture. Her gentle smile and gaze communicates boundless love and centeredness. Always intent on creating harmony (between people and between them and nature), she studied international relations intending to pursue a career with NGOs or in government service, but a stint working at the Belgian Embassy in Stockholm demonstrated that wasn’t the right path for achieving her purpose. So now, she’s a singer-songwriter. But so much more than that. A coach, empath, songwriter-performer, her preferred form of social engagement is music: the satisfying connection one experiences when playing music with others and performing for audiences, and generating joy and healing through helping others to explore their own creative potential. Her recently released song, “Mustard Seed” is the one that, thus far, best encapsulates her essence. You should listen to it. It will make you happy.