The Valley of the Frogs


Maybe in a few years I'll be glad, I think as I pack, to be living at ground level and in a smaller, less expensive apartment ‐ climbing stairs is getting harder every year. Behind this catchy claim, I hide my real fears of poverty, old age and illness. The last check‐up had ended on a depressing note; the mammogram had to be repeated to be sure. I tried not to think about what it would be like after the surgery.

I sat on the floor of the nearly empty apartment, massaging my aching knees and taking an occasional sip of cold tea in the slanting, cool light of the October sun as I looked at my boxes. Conscientiously and thoughtfully I have packed everything; the desk, the bookshelves, the boxes are almost all empty. My God, what all has accumulated over the years! With every memento, with every piece of paper, with every letter or postcard, scraps of thoughts fly through my head, reminding me of this or that excursion, of many a beautiful trip, or of friends and lovers from a distant past.

Unconsciously I have worked my way from the present layer by layer into the past. At the very, very bottom ‐ the blond braids I had cut off when I was 16, and my old diary notebooks. With a certain inexplicable shyness, I pick up the old, worn notebooks, flip through them briefly before putting them away. Slowly, inexorably and insistently, the resurrection of the past takes place, slowly images form from a time that already lies over half a century in the past. The war, towards the end of which I was born. The youth I spent in the small town in the foothills of the Alps. The friends and playmates, our adventures and secret games. My father, my beloved father, and my mother. The bravest mother in this world.

And ‐ the disaster.

I am strangely confused, am unfocused at my work in the library, avoid the old diary notebooks for weeks, and keep pushing the urgent thoughts aside. I have already written enough, everything has already been written once; nevertheless: my story, my very own story, has not yet been written. Not this story.

A walk with my father on the shore of the Chiemsee. At that time, after the end of the terrible war, the long bus ride to Chiemsee was certainly a great luxury, but my father wanted to spend Sunday with me ‐ so I thought at the time, not suspecting that these beautiful Sundays were in fact visiting days after the end of their relationship. In any case, I ran, hopped and dallied along in the sunshine on the lakeside path next to my father and asked him (presumably) holes in the ears, as children just do.

My father grins and scratches the back of his head. That's about it, he says, that's about it, but actually the aunt is only joking. The children get dad and mom, they weren't brought by the stork. But, I insist stubbornly, she said it! He laughs and says that it's just an old children's tale, but when you're older you'll understand everything. Today they tell you that the stork pokes in the frog pond with his long beak until he finds a little baby among all the frogs, then he rises majestically and brings the child in his beak to the mother ‐ and when he puts the child in her lap, it can happen that he pinches her a little with his long, pointed beak. Father laughs and strokes my blond head with his wonderful, warm hand. We are all fished out of the pond in the valley of the frogs by the stork, as children, and only when we have left this valley are we adults.

Suddenly a warm wave full of fond memories of him washes over me, clenching around my heart and making my tears well up, sticking in my throat as an ugly scratchy lump. During the long time we spent together waiting for Mother's return, it took a long time before I began to sense how her love was dying. What did I understand about what he must feel as a war returnee when people in the village called my mother a soldier's sweetheart and a French whore behind closed doors? What did I understand about how desperate she must have been after my birth, when father did not return home after the end of the war and she thought he was dead. What did I understand even then about the ambiguous morality and the people who liked to pretend to be chaste bourgeois, but in truth they acted out their share of horniness and sex at every opportunity....

No, don't say anything now! I write, write with a heavy heart about the time when I was still swimming in the frog pond and the stork fished me out to let me fall rather ungently into the lap of this world. It is a strange mixture of longing, sadness, anger and desire with which I write about my beginnings in the valley of the frogs.