When I was replanted to Germany, it did not come without a price, just as when a bush is replanted, it does not come without some risk to the plant’s health. The master gardener will mark with his shovel an expanse around the plant’s bottom, hoping to encompass all of the plant’s roots as he carefully digs and eventually lifts the plant with all of its parts still intact. It is not an uprooting: a violent pulling or ripping without care. Rather it is done almost lovingly, as the gardener hopes to still enjoy all this bush has to offer, just at another location.
But still, there is a chance the bush will not survive. Maybe the new soil doesn’t agree with it; maybe here a different type of insect is a danger. And the bush needs lots of water to help those roots take hold, for it one day to grow.
Although I’ve always felt a connection to Germany (which you can read about here), it doesn’t automatically mean life here is easy. I am sometimes that bush which has unforeseen obstacles to overcome in its new setting; sometimes I am that gardener (not always a master one) who nudges his fledgling plant into something bigger and stronger.
On my 22nd birthday, not quite a year in Germany, but already crafting a new plan that would allow me to stay, I received a card from my parents with pictures inside. The pictures revealed from different angles my birthday present, a hand-crafted hope chest. My father, a talented wood-worker, made it for me from a tree he chose; he had cut the tree down, sanded and worked it until the gift he hoped to give emerged from that wood. To say I was overwhelmed is an understatement. I don’t know how many months and hours he had spent working on it – all of that time in a way thinking of me, his youngest daughter so far away. Was this his way of saying there is more for me if I come back home?
Once upon a time a hope chest was where a young woman gathered her linens, clothing and other articles in anticipation of her marriage. I don’t think that was my father’s intention when he chose one as my birthday gift. For me, and I like to think for him too, the name alone speaks volumes: hope chest. A chest that brings hope with it? A chest that holds hope within it? I still consider that beautiful hope chest mine, although it is just another piece of furniture in the room I once filled with pictures, smells and music. But it symbolizes my place in that house among that family. When I’m there I rub my fingers over its smooth surface knowing it has remained, even when I can’t. And when I one day claim it, as I hope to, and bring that heavy piece of “home” home to Germany, it will still remind me of that place where I belong.
One Christmas as Patrick and I decorated our tree, an Amy Grant Christmas Album was playing in the background. As we hung decorations we had gathered in our few years of marriage, I floated in my memories to another time of listening to Amy Grant. It was a different album, but the season was the same. Baking Christmas goodies had made the kitchen warm and cozy. As I decorated sugar cookies with my mom, I sang along loudly with Amy, just as I still do. I got lost in the warm feelings of being surrounded by my family, by our traditions of egg nog and Christmas tree coffee cakes on Christmas morning, of the easy knowledge of belonging.
Coming back to that moment with my husband by my side in the country of my choosing, I felt so misplaced. Here the traditions did not yet feel like my own, I was only doing what people do during that season; I was playing a role. And yet I knew what I yearned for no longer existed – I couldn’t return to where I had come from because everything there had changed too. I cried and cried; maybe it was my way of watering those still fragile roots trying to take hold.
That Christmas and often over the years I grew familiar with a feeling of not really belonging here nor there, of being misplaced. Instead of having two “homes”, like I tend to call both Indiana and Germany, I often feel like I have none, a truth that continues to echo within me, making me mourn that loss. In the German language there is a perfect word to describe what I’m mourning: Heimat. Translated it means “home” or “homeland” or “native country”, but the word carries with it a feeling of belonging, of having roots, of certainty. All the emotional words I use to describe Heimat accurately portray my affinity to Germany. But the best words in English to translate the word all tell of where I come from. I wonder if a heart can find Heimat in two places. Mine still struggles.
But no matter how my heart may feel or where I believe to have roots, I remain a “foreigner”. It does not matter how integrated I am or how well I speak the language – I know I will never completely belong. Not to be misunderstood: I feel very welcomed and accepted among my German family, community and friends. We enrich each other’s lives through our varied backgrounds. But I’m still not German. I wasn’t here during the Neue Deutsche Welle, I can’t share interesting stories about visiting East Germany or the Reunification. It’s like being among members of a club who all share secrets of the past, and although I’ve been filled in or figured out a great many of them, there are still secrets that keep me out. But I know from experience that it is no different when a group of Americans are together. It’s just one of those cultural things.
And yet I am convinced those experiences, especially of feeling foreign or misplaced, make me more empathetic towards the Turkish mother who speaks little German, making her move shyly through town. It is different for me because I do speak the language and am integrated for the most part, but still we are bound by our foreigner-status. It is in those situations where I feel this replanted bush growing stronger and learning to give shade to others.
Of course the worse part about being in Germany is the physical distance between grandparents and grandchildren, parents and their daughter, siblings, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and cousins. The most heart-wrenching are the good-byes, especially when I watch my children say good-bye to their grandparents. A tiny bit of my heart is broken every time because I know the time between reunions means inches of growth for each child and leaps in development. They are almost different kids each time we meet. And I am sad knowing that all those family members who love my children miss out on each of their special moments. As way of consolation I often ask myself would it be different if we lived in the States? Would we physically be together more? Quite possibly not that much more, but still there are the special occasions when everyone (meaning my parents, siblings and their families) is together, and we are missing out on those memory making moments. That hurts.
Despite the many tears I’ve shed and the times I wished our situation was different, I am thankful. I am thankful for frequent telephone calls with my sister and Skype-dates with my parents. It makes the distance seem a tiny bit smaller. And when we are together (like this past summer, read about that here), memories made seem so much sweeter. Distance allows relationships to be easier and more honest, and I am thankful for that too.
I guess you could say that I was replanted in such a non-careful way that some of my roots remain in my original place. Even when it is painful, I am reminded of where I come from and am held there. Only so can the new roots that have by now taken hold continue to grow stronger.