I’ve always been a visitor in my father’s home. Many times I’ve climbed the five flights of stone stairs and opened the door of his apartment to the familiar smell of books and tobacco, My father has lived in this Belle Epoche apartment building in Cologne’s Südstadt for a long time, close to the Rhein river that he loves. On warm days, we sit on the rooftop terrace and in between sentences, he pulls small weeds and dead leaves from the potted flowers. When it’s cold, we sit in the large room that is his study and living room. Even though he is a man who advocates radical changes in politics and society, nothing really changes in my father’s room.
The skull I remember from childhood visits still sits atop the heirloom clock whose gleaming pendulum tick-tocks my heartbeat. My father’s mother’s death mask hangs on one wall, below an oil painting she did. The white mask suggests a soft face with generous lips. I imagine that they weren’t kissed enough - she was in her thirties when she died of blood poisoning, leaving behind a fatherless ten year old son who would become my father. He was only nineteen when he had his first child and I was born just a year after my sister.
Newspapers and magazines sit on a long narrow table; letters collect on his desk. There used to be a steady stream of letters, at least five every day, with hand-written or typed addresses. Letters that needed to be answered. Correspondence was an afternoon matter for my father. He reserved the mornings for his real writing: stories, essays, articles, radio plays and novels.
My father was fourteen when Germany capitulated to the Allies. The hunger of his early years instilled in him a deep appreciation of food. No matter how simple the meal, he eats it slowly and savors the flavors. He rarely throws things away. And he doesn’t buy many things, either. He listens to newscasts, two or three times a day, on a stereo he had before he moved into this apartment. The sound is rich and deep. He tells me that the blue vest I gave him ten or fifteen years ago has frayed and thinned. Perhaps it’s time to get a new one? This is not an appeal but an explanation.
My father handwrites first drafts on the back of printed pages. He never uses tape when he wraps a gift, but tightly knots the colored string.
He has more vases than plates, sitting on top of a cabinet in his small kitchen. In the warm season, he picks blooming braches, grasses or wildflowers on his walks along the Rhein and selects the perfect container for his bouquet.
At least two thousand books are gathered on his shelves and much dust must be gathered behind them. He knows he does not have the time to read all the volumes in his vast collection that includes Brecht and Goethe; Marx and Kant, Hemingway and Sartre, Woolf and Wolf. And still, he adds new books, arranging them in alphabetical order. My father has enormous respect for the written word. He sees books as a source of knowledge and a journey into places and lives unknown. A great pleasure, too. And a weapon against illegitimate authority, against lies and ignorance.
My father believes in language. He believes that truth can be written or spoken and that people who hear it will be transformed by it. If the facts are lined up right, people will see and understand. Hence his life project of writing – several thousand pages at least. Most have been published or performed or received as letters. There’s also an archive filled with journals and folders no one else has seen. He laments the fact that people no longer read the way they used to: for hours at a time, with a thirst for knowledge and great respect for the author.
My father’s second biggest disappointment must be that even the soundest arguments and the most beautifully constructed sentences will not get people to change their minds. His biggest disappointment is seeing capitalism sweep the planet, spinning ecological devastation, injustice and war in ever-intensifying spirals. Or maybe his biggest disappointment is that he isn’t more famous.
No. I’m sure he would trade fame for peace.
Five flights of stairs. He doesn’t like to leave the house more than once a day now because the steps are a great effort. He’s put a chair on the third and fourth floor landings so he can rest. When he was sixty, he sprinted up those hundred plus steps, my suitcase in hand, and he challenged me to race him down when we went out.
Now that my father is older, the things that hurt and bothered me are receding into the background. I’m older, too and I no longer focus on my father’s abandonment, his affairs, his narcissism. I value his knowledge and his discipline, his commitment to social justice and peace, his appreciation of beauty and his sense of adventure. I love his quiet voice and hidden smile. I recognize his way of showing love. I respect that he lives his life so deeply and uncompromised.
Happy Birthday, Vater.