Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The Swan (Part 1)

And who will remember the rememberers?—Yehuda Amichai

I. Doppelganger

The family in my basement is German, and so quiet they hardly ever disturb me. But still, I'm not sure I'll be able to take all of them with me once I sell the house. I may not have a basement where I move. I don't even speak German, so it's probably pointless. Still, I feel guilty and troubled; I must try somehow at least to acquaint myself with them before I leave and perhaps—I don't know—try to explain the situation.

          Spanning three generations, each member of the German family has his very own cardboard box, neatly labeled: Wilhelm, Ina, Karl, Hulda, Siegfried, and Lottie. Wilhelm, the eldest of the group, was born in 1832, while his granddaughter Lottie, the youngest, was born at the turn of the next century. In these boxes are their memories.

          So, the washer and dryer are at the bottom of a steep set of stairs, and usually I am quick to put the clothes in one machine or the other, or bring the clothes basket quickly up the stairs: the basement is not a place to dawdle. Its walls and floor are unpainted and dark, damp and cavelike. To either side of the machines is a labyrinth of rusting metal bookshelves jammed with bottles, lamps, books, boxes, typewriters from various eras, violins and even a mandolin. In between, each little alleyway is lined with broken furniture and stacks of drawings, aging boilers and pumps that thrum and squeak, trunks, magazines, newspapers—and all of it under a heavy, choking layer of dust and mildew. Even after I pull the string to turn on the light bulb (it hangs from a rusty ceiling pipe over the washer) the area remains dim.

          The German family presides over two shelves in the center of the labyrinth to the right of the stairs. I know that Lottie left Hamburg for England in her early 20s so I decide to approach her first, since I'm optimistic that I can understand something of her. But when I look closely, I see that her box is marked Lottie Nachlass. Before I can even begin, I'll need a dictionary.

           Nachlass, it turns out, is a German word that describes the assortment of papers a scholar has left behind after his death. Unlike, say, our English word 'remains,' nachlass stresses the aspect of loss; nach means 'after' and lassen 'to leave'. Or maybe it sounds like leftovers. Because I don't know German, I must rely on spontaneous associations with a foreign word rather than drawing from intimate familiarity with a whole culture. So there, simply by opening the box in my basement labeled Lottie Nachlass, I've engaged in a struggle for meaning.

          My Aunt Lottie is my doppelganger—which is yet another inscrutable German word. I'd met her once or twice and we had corresponded across an ocean, but were never particularly close. Because she is Charlotte Heckscher and I am Charlotte Heckscher, opening her box is partly a struggle with identity—a comparison of Box A against the contents of Box B. Since I'm still alive (as of the time of this writing), I am currently 'Box B.' And so I also compare the living with the dead and search for a way to safely breach their border.

          Although not a scholar, Lottie was extremely literate. What emerges from Box A, in no particular order, includes watercolors and drawings, correspondence, essays, translations and stories, in German and in English, photos, and diaries—but only her last two. All her other diaries, scores of them, were destroyed to respect her privacy.

          When I reach inside, I hold my breath.

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