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Portrait Of A Valiant Woman And Other Stories by Rosemary Kiss

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When I look at early photos of my mother, I see a cute little girl, blond hair pulled back in a knot, wearing a dirndl, looking very stern in the midst of an official family portrait, approximately 1910.

My mother is in the back row, second from the left

I look at other photos of Mom as a teenager, fashionably dressed with an incredibly narrow waist, holding a rose, smiling mysteriously like Mona Lisa. Then there was the wedding portrait: a very handsome couple, gazing lovingly at each other. She in a dark dress (navy blue, I was told), her hair is bobbed and he with a dark suit and bow tie. That seemed to be the last picture of her where she was wearing a happy face.

She wore her sadness like a well-worn garment. In the fifty-one years she was in my life, I often wondered why she seemed so sad. Only during my own mid years did I become aware that she had been suffering from a chronic depression that colored everything she did or experienced. Yet this woman, my mother, was a very valiant person.

She was born Elisabeth Urscher on January 31, 1900. She was the fifth child of a Bavarian farmer, Adam Urscher and his wife, Maria Wagner. He was the only child of elderly parents who had only a few cows to their name and lived in a small cottage. My grandmother was the proud daughter of a wealthy farmer with extended acreage. Adam’s assets however were his good nature, quick wit and an innate intelligence. Shortly after he and Maria were married in 1890, he was elected mayor of his small farm community, Rohrdorf. He was only 33 and served faithfully for 18 years. He was my mother’s hero. She spoke of him in glowing terms: how he brought the railroad to the village, how his house was the only one with electricity. He was bigger than life.

Other members of the family saw him in a slightly different light. They talked about his fondness for beer and how the family was left almost penniless after his untimely death of TB at the age of 51. They spoke about his generosity to others, many of whom were indigent. He had the largest funeral known in the history of the village and many who came were those he helped during his lifetime. Yet my grandmother had to struggle with raising three daughters and two minor sons. In addition to dealing with widowhood and poverty, her two older sons were drafted for World War I shortly after her husband’s death. Yet my mother forgave him everything.

After the war, her brothers returned, married and set up businesses and families of their own. There was no room for an unmarried young woman. My mother was another mouth to feed. Though her heart’s desire was to be a teacher, she needed to shelve that for practical reasons. She was apprenticed to a traveling seamstress. While she certainly acquired a knack for sewing, her heart was in books and learning. It was time to leave her small village and go out into the world.

A kind aunt helped her to find a job as bookkeeper in a Kurhotel in Bad Woerishofen, a famous spa. She was very good at it and worked in many companies. One job took her to a bakery in Munich in 1926 where she met my father, Max Fahr, a baker and pastry chef. Previously, there had been a young love, disappointing to the core, when the object of her affection was seen in another town, walking arm in arm with another girl. Much later, she told me that she consented to marry Dad because he was a “decent” man. I never did ask what that meant to her.

My father immigrated to the United States and my mother followed a year later. They were married in 1929. It was the day before the stock market crash! Fortunately Father had his savings in a bank that did not collapse.

They started their married life in rented, furnished apartments. Father was again working as a pastry chef in various hotels. Mother worked as a maid and nanny until my oldest brother, Karl was born in 1930. After a miscarriage, she became pregnant again and a second son, Friedrich was born in 1932.

Although she always spoke favorably of their years in Chicago, the economic situation of the great DEPRESSION had started to impact on them. After nine months of unemployment, living on their meager savings, they were frightened enough to follow my paternal grandmother’s invitation to visit Germany. The fact that they were expecting another child, me, probably had a lot to do with this decision. Grandmother would at least provide a roof of their heads. At the last minute before embarking, my father was offered a job at the Bismark Hotel. He decided to stay and accepted the offer. My mother decided to continue her travel plan. In April, 1936 she faced a transatlantic crossing with her two little boys and a pregnancy near term.

The kindness of her fellow cabin neighbor, a bachelor, was her saving grace. He entertained the boys while she was violently seasick for the duration of the trip. She spoke of 30 foot waves on the North Atlantic! Upon arrival, Father’s relatives took her in and took care of my brothers while my mother gave birth to me in a German hospital.

My mother returned with all of us to the United States in August of 1936. There is this sweet picture in one of my photo albums: Mom sitting in a cabin of the S.S.Columbus, near a porthole, holding me in her arms, with my brother Fritz at her side, looking very protective, like the man in the family.

My parents set up housekeeping on the north side of Chicago and many happy pictures showed us strolling in Lincoln Park or playing in the sand at Montrose Beach. Then in 1938 my grandmother urged us to return to Germany. She had been widowed for a number of years and yearned to see her son Max. It was an untimely decision that brought us all the most difficult years of our lives. I was two years old.

Mother would recount that on their arrival in Bremerhaven, Germany they were filled with foreboding at the sight of so many warships anchored there. It was only the beginning.

My father had long been a naturalized US citizen, and therefore, I had also automatically acquired US citizenship at birth. My mother was the only German citizen in our family and it turned out to be a lifesaver.

We settled in the small town of Miesbach in Bavaria with the help of an uncle. Our parents decided to rent a grocery and produce store. It had to run under my mother’s name since we were Amerikiner, and therefore foreigners.

The boys enrolled in the local school. They were harassed and teased about their US citizenship and I developed my own language skill, an unintelligible mixture of English, German and a Bavarian dialect.

Mother experienced severe culture shock. She went from a nice, centrally heated apartment with running hot and cold water, a modern bathroom, a washing machine and a car to a cold water flat, without indoor plumbing or heat. The only source of heat was the kitchen stove, and on Sundays the great big green tile stove in the living room. There were five of us in a one-bedroom apartment, with the boys sleeping behind a curtain in the hall. For the longest time, my crib was in my parent’s room.

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