The night before Christmas Eve, my grandmother Nona came to string the Zuckerkringel with us, stars made of chocolate and icing. We pulled a thread through the opening in the middle so the Kringel could be hung from the Christmas tree along with little glass trumpets and angels and bells. To keep the fine strings from tangling, we hung the threaded sweets onto a wooden broomstick which Nona had balanced on two chairs. They dangled there, their sweet scent wafting up, until the adults hung them from the tree in the daylight hours of Christmas Eve. My sister Corinna and I would drop a couple of the fragile sweets on purpose, because we were allowed eat broken bits.
In 1962, World War II had been over for seventeen years, but it was very much alive in the minds of the adults who had lived through it. And it was still palpable in Berlin, where the remains of bombed-out buildings and the presence of thousands of Allied troops reminded us daily that Berlin was an occupied city. In the story-lore that shaped my childhood, Christmas figured as a time of earthly miracles: a pork roast procured for the holiday meal in the hungriest of winters, fathers who unexpectedly returned home from POW camp just in time for the family celebration. Such tales inspired me to wish fervently, irrationally, for things that were impossible: a dog, a divining rod, a father who spent time with me, a mother who did not have to work so much.
Like all Germans, we celebrated on Christmas Eve and always, the daylight hours seemed endless. My mother dispatched Corinna and me outside, so she could finish the preparations for the evening celebration. She blindfolded us before she led us through our living room, which smelled of fir and spices, to the front door. On the street, Corinna and I watched adults doing last-minute errands before the shops closed for the holidays, scurrying with colorful packages, pulling Christmas trees on sleds. At dusk we returned home. We put on our finest dresses and pulled our hand-made gifts—crocheted potholders and necklaces strung from apple seeds—from their hiding places. The tiny chime of a bell was our signal to enter the living room. For the first time I saw the Christmas tree with its shiny ornaments and red wax candles. My giddy excitement was tinged with reverence as I sat down to open my gifts—a set of watercolors, a book, a game and, of course, the plate filled with Lebkuchen, chocolates, nuts, and two oranges - which were so precious that each one came wrapped in colorful tissue paper.
When my sister and I had finished unwrapping, the adults had their turn. My mother announced that she had decided to give herself a present. “It’s not Christmas music,” she explained as she held up an LP, “it’s Dave Brubeck.”
For some reason that was the moment when everyone noticed that Uncle Ludwig was missing. Uncle Ludwig was the wild card, the charmer who commanded everyone’s attention with his tales of exploits and adventures. He was a nine-year old’s dream: an actor who could talk like Donald Duck, recite Goethe ballads and make coins disappear only to retrieve them from my ear. To my delight, he had come to live with us for a few months. The women he brought to the apartment were hopelessly in love with him and he always handed my sister and me a couple of coins so we would go and play outside “for at least two hours.”
When Ludwig didn’t show up for family events, there was a blank space. We did fine without him when we weren’t expecting him. But when he promised to come and did not, the adults seemed to be in “pause” mode. Waiting for Ludwig.
My mother set out plates for the traditional meal of herring salad with potatoes and bread, but the cheerfulness seemed half-hearted. Just as we sat down to eat, the doorbell rang. It was Ludwig, with his usual impeccable timing: he always arrived right when everyone missed him the most, just before they became angry with him.
He entered the room with a gust of cold air and a uniformed stranger by his side. “Meet my new friend, Troy,” he said grandly. “I saw him standing alone at the subway station so I invited him. No one should be alleine on Christmas Eve.”
“Merry Christmas everybody,” Troy said, taking off his army cap and smiling all around. How could three words be so melodious and teeth be so brilliantly white? Ludwig introduced us all by name and I looked down shyly when it was my turn to shake Troy’s hand. “Ein Neger,” I whispered to my sister.
While my grandmother set out another plate and my mother unfolded the ironing board for my sister and me to sit on, Ludwig waved me into our tiny kitchen “Don’t say Neger,” he instructed me in what was my first introduction into the complexity of race, “because it sounds a lot like a bad American word.”
The dinner table conversation was an animated mix of English and German, with occasional translations tossed my way like delicious morsels: Los Angeles, Cadillac, turkey, sweet potato pie, homesickness. “We say Heimweh my uncle told him, clutching his heart dramatically. “Heymway,” Troy repeated. He looked at his watch. “At home it’s ten in the morning and my little brother is probably riding his bike with his friends. He’s your age,” Troy said and patted my arm.
After dinner we always sang Christmas carols a cappella, but this year, Troy played along on his harmonica. When he didn’t know a song, he improvised boldly, sometimes hitting a note so high that it made my spine tingle. Our singing had never been so upbeat. Always, we saved “Stille Nacht” for last. Troy joined in, harmonizing his English lyrics with our German words. His voice was deep and daring. As if on cue, we all stopped singing and listened to him. He sang the third verse solo, embellishing it with unfamiliar side notes and quivers. He’s decorating the song, I thought to myself. Goose bumps rose up on my arms. Behind Troy, the candles flickered on the tree, their small flames reflected in the blue and silver glass balls.
In the past, “Silent Night” had always given way to a somber mood as the adults drifted off into their individual reveries and memories. Not this year, though—Troy went on to lively music, gospel songs that I had never heard before. Drumming the table with his fingers and working his voice like an instrument, his singing made me feel like I was going to burst. Laughing or crying—it was a toss up and then he made a face at me and I laughed and laughed and had no idea that this was the sound of my heart overflowing.
Later, when my sister and I were sent to bed with our new books, Dave Brubeck was playing Take Five in the living room. I am not sure, but I think our mother was dancing with Troy and Ludwig. I imagined her tossing her head back and laughing.
I never opened my book that night.
A version of this story was published in the Monthly in 2008.