Little Traffic Light Men
by Joan Frank
You can’t wish away a lifetime’s conditioning—movies, print, Saturday morning cartoons—as if it were some dismal weather system. At least this time, after twenty-two years away from Germany, the language sounded more comic than not. Something-fährt was printed on a huge airfield building as we taxied in on a sunny May morning, and Something-else-fährt on another. That cheered me.
So this time (clenched into a wad of aching muscles on the nonstop from San Francisco, tramping the sprawling, halogen-lit maze of Frankfurt Airport) I meant to push aside reflexive dread. Time is ripe, I thought, to flip that trope. I already sensed that confronting the language, and everything it once evoked, might no longer knife me.
Surely it would feel easier this round. Enough years had passed. A new generation had grown up—now itself busy making babies. Things would have changed. Germany, I reasoned, would step forward to meet me more than halfway.
I also longed to be taken out of my own head, made to look outward. Read on.
The last time my husband and I walked on German soil was in 1994. The wall had tumbled only five years before. Five years, in the staggering-to-its-feet of a war-raked city, is not a lot. Sun filtered through pale and weak on our first day there: early spring, exceedingly cold, and Berlin looked and felt like a plane crash. Air held a dazed, floating-motes aftermath. People’s faces appeared locked as they hurried past, scrubbed of any readable inflection as they swayed from hand-held straps with the tram’s roll. Cold spaces. Hard surfaces. Conventional niceties nowhere visible. Bulletholes peppered many walls. Alexanderplatz yawped wide and barren then, an abandoned military concourse, windswept and freezing, the infamous radio tower stabbing from it like a spear, its concrete emptiness a space we could too easily fill, in imagination, with platoons of goose-stepping, helmeted troops—or worse.
We wandered that day, confused: no sense of a there there. Only hodgepodge. Bricks and rubble. Canvas half-draped a gaggle of life-sized statuary huddled at the rear of a vacant lot behind chain-link fencing, like a crowd of refugees trying to shelter itself. West Berlin, on its surface, felt no more appealing or friendly, no easier to navigate or make sense of, than East. It was only more expensive.
* * *
Some disclosure’s in order. Because of my last name and vague sense of family background (my late folks had no more truck with Jewish orthodoxy than an occasional sip of sweet kosher wine), and because of the 50s and 60s I grew up in—that era’s haste to push off from the past, get on with things—I’d guarded all my life a secret terror that fascism, in the form of a resurrected Nazi machine, could spring back at any time, fast and stealthful as a cancer. Never mind I had no clear idea why an evil cabal wanted to kill people bearing my last name. It had done so once; it could again, wasting no time taking over my country and the world. A child could only build upon what she’d grasped in the first ten years of life, from a range of half-buried allusions and images. Thus, all people of Jewish background (however dimly I understood that) would, in my secret nightmare, be hunted down, rounded up and destroyed in ways I had read about or seen enacted in films—starting with The Diary of Anne Frank.
* * *
I remember, in those growing-up years, feeling dizzy with it, the blank non-comprehension: How could the kind, loving grownups of this world allow what I’d read about, and what I’d seen that film suggest, subtly but terrifyingly, to happen? How could it have been real—how even conceivable?
My little sister and I attended Unitarian Sunday school. We trick-or-treated for UNICEF on Halloween.
Yet before that selfsame world, findable in any library, was The Diary of a Young Girl—breathing quietly beneath its shroud of reverence and fear and yes, titillation. All references to the diary, to the history inseparable from it, made the book itself seem transgressive, hot with controversy, unspeakable implications. Even as a kid you couldn’t not be shot through with queasiness for the reverence, as much as for the implied unspeakable. Somewhere I’d seen photographs; been unable to look away. Living skeletons, hollowed-out animals dying behind cage bars. Tall piles of bony corpses, great mounds of bodies shoveled onto one another by steam-shovel. Arms and legs and feet and ravaged faces sticking out of these piles, mouths frozen open. Tattooed numbers. Piles of gold teeth, wedding rings. Six-pointed yellow stars. Crushed humans by the millions. Families. Children.
This really happened?
All of it juxtaposed by turns against black and white snapshots of the young diarist’s face: sweet, sunny, framed by dark curls above her Peter Pan collar.
My ten-year-old eyes stared at that photo again and again. She’d have loved, I guessed, all the stuff my sister and I loved. She’d have had favorite songs, favorite books, games, a bracelet or necklace, a sweater; maybe a cigar box for keepsakes, an acorn, a marble, a piece of ribbon. I remember trying as a child to imagine how she’d have looked after she and her sister were devoured by the camps: heads shaved, lice-ridden, starved and freezing, death by typhus.
That part, of course, doesn’t appear in the film. All you see at the film’s end are the characters looking quickly at each other after the fatal alert has reached them. Their hopeful, pitiful gambit, hiding silently in an office attic for two years, is up. Their glances at one another in final moments, like the squeeze of a hand, telegraph their nod to the incomprehensible: This is it. Someone in Amsterdam has tipped off the authorities; the SS knows the group’s whereabouts and is that moment bearing down upon them. Awareness is sharpened by the approaching sound, louder, louder, of the two-note German police siren: eee-aww eee-aww, a hellish, hysterical braying.
My child’s mind would always shut down at this point. (How my poor little sister’s mind ingested what we’d seen, I can’t imagine. We wouldn’t have known how to speak of it.)
My adult mind wants to shut down, too—but it’s packed with images, the kind that pop up to terrorize at 3 a.m. for the rest of your life, scored by the sound track of that siren.
To this day the crazed screaming of European police-car sirens—that two-note wail, that high-pitched, frantic eee-aww, unchanged it seems since the war—still has the power to stop the heart, shatter thought, atomize reason like a lightning bolt. It’s an aural marker and fanfare of death’s jaws gaping, a sound I can never completely dissociate from they are coming for me. Can never flush the closed throat, the adrenaline prickle, the bunched fists and stuttering heartbeat. Can never pretend I am co-existing calmly, indifferently, maturely, with that sound.
* * *
We flew into Frankfurt first to visit my stepson, a wonderful young man stationed nearby as part of his military duty. It seemed the right moment for revising the dread that surely now no longer fit. I had rolled up mental sleeves, determined to sweep out biases, see things new. We had all lived—Germany and the world—into new news. Twenty-seven years had passed since the end of the Wall. Other horrors now darkened our planet’s once-clean heavens: climate change, ISIS and Al Qaeda, belligerent viruses, internecine tribal atrocities, refugee crises, insane assassins armed to the teeth, maniacs and despots seizing power. Meantime, in Germany, a full generation had come of age: one that appeared well-educated, matter-of-fact about even the worst aspects of the realities they face, willing to invent something better.
Now comes the “what I supposed versus what I learned” recital. The German contingent of this new (my stepson’s millennial) generation, from what I thought I could discern without language, seems to respect the old nightmare—granting that the nightmare’s after-images still grip aging survivors in bloody talons. But the young adults also seem determined to consider it ancient history, the kind discussed in textbooks. They publicly consecrate the memory of the murdered (now the official word), pledging and repledging themselves, in monuments and speeches, to exemplify vigilance, to safeguard human rights. Markers and museums of every aesthetic, insisting we never forget, crop up everywhere. In Mannheim our son led us to a glass booth on a busy thoroughfare, whose walls bore a kind of foggy transluscence. At closer glance this fog turned out to be inscription, in tiniest letters, of thousands of lightly-printed names covering every inch of the glass. A brief scan confirmed that most of those names were, like mine, recognizably Jewish.
We stood there a moment, running our eyes over column after column.
Each name, someone’s beloved darling: now a cloudy mark on glass, in a bustling city.
We walked the tidy districts and neighborhoods, seeing the young (like their counterparts elsewhere) absorbed by the daily, the necessary pleasures and tasks: showing up to jobs, rearing kids, building communities, savoring arts, sports, landscapes, food, friendship. These people looked smart, humane, preoccupied with survival, hoping (like any species in progress) to make things better.
They were parents, harrassed and proud and tired, pushing strollers or calling toddlers to their sides in parks, cafes, fast food outlets, sidewalks. They were self-styled bohos, smoking and chattering amid the litter of beers and coffees. They were musicians, painters, boutique owners, bookstore and retail clothing clerks, grocery checkers, museum guides, landscape and building maintenance and construction workers, teachers, researchers, drivers, waiters and waitresses, nurses, cops and firefighters, nannies and caregivers, highway repair workers. (“There are two seasons,” our son told us: “Winter and Road Work.”) They were students, rumpled and sleepy, flirting in parks, playing horns or guitars or cellos, sketching in museums; they were old guys perched patiently on stoops or in cafe chairs or on benches. They were tourists exploring palace grounds, forests, scenic lookouts, truck stop restaurants, patiently escorting aging parents, explaining, cajoling. They coached and scolded and laughed at their own kids.
I felt no darkness from them. No perfidy. No scorn. Of course I stood outside the culture, outside the language, but say what you will: humans emit force-fields that can often be felt and heard and to some degree, read. I looked and listened. Young bohos in the Germany I glimpsed appeared identical with young bohos in comparable settings; kids and babies and parents as you’d expect to find them. I cannot claim to have felt great warmth from these individuals, but courtesy and mildness ruled. Sometimes strangers offered to explain a sign or menu, or clarify directions. Our son drove us through Mannheim, Karlsruhe, Nuremberg. I swallowed hard at the sound of that latter name, but the Nuremberg we saw presented as cheerful and handsome, oblivious to the day-of-reckoning thunder its name once evoked. The city has proudly rebuilt itself almost completely—even its cathedrals, which manage to look centuries old.
We found wellsprings of charm and beauty in Bamberg: its genial mix of locals and visitors, cafe culture, vine- and flower-covered, saggy-gingerbread homes along the river, fairy-tale style. An aged man with thick white hair and patrician features leaned out a high window to prune his roses; the blooms were fat, round and velvety, peach-red. Squinting up as we walked past, on impulse I called out to him that his flowers were beautiful. (This was something my sister would have done, along with stopping to pet and croon at every dog and baby.) The aging man nodded wearily as if enduring a stale gesture, as if he heard those words every day. At once my impulse felt smartly checked. Who might he have been, in a prior century? Who might I have been, as part of the population surrounding him? Might he have as wearily targeted me, or the family or compound that harbored me? Might I have been but one of a steady stream of undesirables, as steadily and casually singled out for exile—or extinguishment?
During the hours I strolled past the gingerbread homes and hand-built fences along the river, all of it covered with thick-twining roses—afterward sitting down to trocken, crisp white wine in an outdoor cafe packed with families, couples, students, shouting, exuberant—those questions pulsed below the more mundane concerns: where we might next walk, what were we presently seeing, which photos to snap. I pushed the dark questions down before they could unfurl in pretty daylight.
What, I wondered then and wonder now, has second-guessing ever truly served?
It can be argued two ways.
One: Assign no meaning more sinister until there’s evidence for it.
Assume the worst. No point second-guessing is what lots of people told each other in the years and months leading up to 1939, to Krystallnacht. Thoughtful people, good, smart people counseled family and friends, Calm down. Be reasonable. Wait and see. No need to panic; just wait a while. It will come right. It will sort itself out.
* * *
Despite those prickling reverberations—inflamed now by the election, in the year of this writing, of perhaps the most frightening proto-fascist ever to assume office in American history, with terrifying implications for the nation and the planet—despite those, I confess that in the halcyon days of touring with our son (and later by ourselves in Berlin) we took refuge in a mental condition we’ve nicknamed a spazz-out of happiness: meaning the arbitrary eruption of a heightened state; antic, glassy, willed jubilation. People are good at heart. History rights itself. Life and objects may be trundling along having logical, discrete identities and trajectories unconnected with other matters. But the perceiver’s spazz-out corrals, connects, and infuses all it spies in that moment with the meaning necessary to serve the need. The Happy Story we tell ourselves can be a bully and a brute—something Americans do especially well. We do it best, in fact, while we are tourists. We’ve invested a lot in our story. Self-image. Money. Fear.
Fear of what, you ask?
Why, fear of the jolly story being otherwise.
Were it otherwise—they might be coming for me.
Was any of this grim internal tabulating fair to modern Germany? Did Germany know or care? Of course not. What is Germany or any nation-state but an aggregate of individuals, each toting her and his aggregate of needs, touched inadvertently by pieces of common history and current culture? Germany as a collective consciousness cares most at any given moment—like any other generalized group—about survival; as a close second, about a quality of survival. Each person in its fold, infant to elder, wants to feel well, do well, thrive and prosper.
All the rest? My imposition.
But isn’t this the way any traveler moves through the world?
* * *
As noted earlier, weather still calls the shots. Never doubt this. Whatever weather happens to be doing wherever we happen to be traveling, that place becomes that weather, in memory. If we’re stuck in Blackburn, England in January, and the dirty snow outside and bitter-freezing temperatures make my husband’s father take one look out the window and climb back upstairs to tunnel back into his bed, that will forever be Blackburn in my brain’s illustrated dictionary. If I am a twenty-year-old living in a Peace Corps trainee dorm in Dakar, Senegal when sudden rains hammer the corrugated roofs like poured nails—and when five minutes later the soaked earth roils steam into a sky white again with boiling sun, while the smell of pummeled leaves and dirt and feces and rotting mangoes and baked bricks and grease and gristly-meat-smoke fills my skull—that’s the permanent imprint, no matter how many years ago it happened. In my mind’s album of emblematic scenes that will be the diorama floating forward, replete with grit and humid stink.
But recent scenes can, and do, eclipse their predecessors.
So when in Berlin, twenty-two years after our freezing first visit, with its plane crash tableau, we step into a Georgia O’Keeffe painting—a bright blue sky filled with marching bands of cotton-puff clouds—suddenly that becomes the new template, the forever-picture of Berlin (maybe of all of Germany) in the brain’s archive.
Come with me into the present tense now. My husband and I have traveled here after visiting our son, to have a swath of time together in this city we scarcely remember.
Our venture seems blessed by weather. As if weather were the Pope in an extremely good mood, it has palmed the crowns of both our heads and declared, Guys, this is gonna be a bell-ringer. I guarantee it.
We know it the moment we step out of the train into the towering interior of the Berlin Hauptbanhof, a megalopolis of a station serving (from the looks of it) the whole universe. Google it: the Hauptbanhof is a symbol, a machine, kinetic art, a multi-level hive; its entire front wall—three sky-piercing facades—a flashing quilt of blue glass. Not least, the station serves as a multiplex shopping mall, whatever you may think of that—several levels of store upon store offering home decor, clothing, jewelry, pharmacy sundries, sports equipment, chocolate, crystal, groceries, booze. This is how we do it, the German sensibility seems to be declaring. Monolith of glass and steel: seen through half-shut eyes, the structure resembles some hokey science fiction conjuring. Hordes push through in all directions around the clock; people wend their bicycles through swarms of walkers. Frenzied, roaring futuropolis—and once we manage to thread through the exit doors and step outside, the beauty of heavenly weather falls over us like silk.
Shining City! Hope of men!
Because we have allowed ourselves certain occasional luxuries at this stage of our traveling lives, we take a cab to the hotel. Through its windows we gawk at clustered skyscrapers, thronged streets, motorbikes, babies, cafes, businesses, tourists—and everywhere against that sky for three-hundred-sixty degrees, gargantuan building cranes, moving with slow determination like some giant, benevolent aliens tending the expansion of their earthbound nest. Everything’s bathed in sparkling sun. It is June. It is warm. People zoom around on bicycles.
Spazz-out goes into overdrive.
* * *
We loved everything we saw. I can itemize highlights or you can read about them in Rick Steves. Art: dazzling, brilliantly showcased. Architecture: handsome, stately. Streets and parks and buildings, historic and modern, almost always immaculate. Energy: crisp, strong, exhilarating. Ambience: a festive air of good will toward men, fortified by abundant, delicious beer and wine. (Excellent coffee, bakeries, fish.) Best of all, the rollicking momentum of this feckless bien-être felt punctuated and buttressed at every turn by the regular, larger-than-life appearances, inside the cylindrical cones of traffic lights―of a remarkable figure.
Actually, there are two of them: quite different.
The stocky, bright-red little man faces you, both arms stretched wide to indicate, unmistakably, no no, go no further! Whereas the walking little green man is silhouetted, mid-step, from the side, so you can appreciate his long, confident stride. Both men appear to wear a pork-pie hat. Except on Red Guy, who faces us, it looks more like a helmet. But if it were a helmet, it would not (I must insist) be a soldier’s. It would be the helmet of civic duty: that of a crosswalk guard or civil defense volunteer.
Allow me (assisted by Wikipedia) to introduce Ampelmänchen, Little Traffic Light Men, created in 1961 in then-East Germany “by traffic psychologist Karl Peglau (1927–2009), as part of a proposal for a new traffic lights layout...”
Ampelmann! My new best friend. Symbol, especially in his Green version, of a friendly friend who cares for my safety―and much more. Ampelmann signals not just when it is time to go forward but—pay attention please—how. Do as he does, he seems to be urging. Set forth with resolve, with full-hearted expectation.
All that’s often given to us to control, we’re often reminded, is our own response. Response to the unspeakable, the ineffable, the unknown. Ampelmann enacts a best-of-all-possible responses, one that recalls the late E. B. White’s analogy for commencing to write an essay: namely, going out for a walk. (One envisions White’s cheerful ur-essayist venturing forth in exactly the posture of Green Ampelmann, alert, friendly, spirited.) Call this state of mind, say, forwardism, a pre-emptive Yes: heading out to meet whatever may be coming with an already-extended arm―as if ready to shake hands with a promising, heartening, equally glad future.
Ampelmann’s history, easily found online, likewise moves and inspires. How on God’s earth these stout-hearted emblems made their debut in the starved, brutally guarded, beaten-down wasteland of a German Democratic Republic, is tough to imagine. Perhaps the little traffic light men served in some tiny way as encouragement. (Unthinkable hardship and cruelty were givens. Read Joel Agee’s immortal memoir, Twelve Years, a record of his childhood as his then-family struggled to survive in that Dante-esque netherworld.)
A shameless industry of tokens and goods has burst from these now-beloved images, from key-chains to earrings, T-shirts to beach totes. It’s an exploitation I can’t begrudge. Even thinking about Green Ampelmann, his sprightly, roving manner—easy to imagine him to be whistling—never fails to lift me, a sturdy cocktail of relief and hope. I’ve pasted a circular bumper sticker bearing his greenly-stepping-out form on my car’s back fender. And every time I lay eyes upon that sane, chipper, striding-toward-excellent-adventure fellow—something in me recalibrates. On the spot I resolve, willy-nilly, to do better, be better.
* * *
Only once—in the area near the river called Museum Island, where the city’s most splendid museums align like a set of Parthenons—did a shadow fall over our spazz-out. A busker implored us in winsome sign language for contributions to an apparent charity for the deaf, putting his cheek to mine as a warrant of tender affection. I gave him a couple of Euros. The busker had counted on receiving more than that. In an instant his Peter Pan charm vanished; contempt deadened his face as he turned away. He stalked off to count the afternoon’s take with a female busker. I stared after them, embarrassed and angry with myself as much as with him—I’d been an idiot to fall, even a little, for his false bonhomie, and what was probably a total con anyway to fetch themselves cigarette and beer money. But what right had I to ordain some candy-shell of unilateral cheer as the personality profile for an entire population—a population doubtless as needy and diverse and complicatedly fucked up as any other?
* * *
In hindsight, I missed certain cues—a tightness on people’s faces and in their carriage; the ways they moved, spoke, stood. As noted earlier (against my own spazz-out’s sugarcoating), I seldom felt from German people what you’d call innate warmth. The vibe was trickier. You might call it a kind of girdedness: a controlled, systematic tension of readiness-against-whatever-might-drop; getting on with duties while taking generic care not to cause harm. The message I absorbed from individuals we watched or with whom we had any transaction, was I do what I must. In short, they were earning a living, taking care of life and business. Of course that’s how people everywhere talk to themselves about hauling themselves to a job every day and performing, hour by hour, what that work requires. Perhaps the tightness I read was my own projection.
But surfaces can mislead, or at least rarely tell the whole story. Some months after we returned home, two New Yorker articles appeared. One, by historian Thomas Meaney, focused upon the alarming ascent in Germany of a neo-rightwing movement which tended to scapegoat immigrants. This piece gave the lie—unnervingly—to my breezy supposition that the country had once-for-all morphed into a model of humanitarianism by dint of sheer group will. The other article, by New Yorker staff writer Burkhard Bilger, was called “Ghost Stories.” Bilger journeyed to Berlin to participate in a kind of progressive group therapy, designed to help middle-aged Germans (“unaccustomed to self-pity and allergic to national pride”) exorcize the abiding internal pain of connection with all the history I’d so blithely assumed them safely past. “Theirs was a country responsible for history’s bloodiest war and most efficient mass murder: sixty million killed, including two-thirds of all European Jews,” writes Bilger. “They were here [in the therapy session] to wrestle with that guilt.”
Grown children of German emigrés have not, it appears, escaped the same stigma. “Family history,” Bilger notes, “is an uneasy topic for a German-American…A sense of guilt by association hangs in the air, even for people of my generation.” Bilger was born in 1964. “To be German, it seems, is still to be one part Nazi.” As survivors with direct memories of the war are now dying off, “people began to realize how little they knew about their parents’ and grandparents’ lives. They needed to hear those terrible old stories after all…Kriegskinder, they called themselves: children of war.” You need to know the story, it seems, to excise the story: to free yourself. “Evidence that the effects of trauma can reverberate through generations has steadily mounted,” observes Bilger. He then recounts the anguish of each therapy group’s participants, as they tried to understand the behavior of a family member who’d been involved at any level with Nazi actions.
Things had never, apparently, been what they seemed.
* * *
In truth, one real trauma did occur in Berlin—the only one of our voyage. Some people might reject that it qualifies as trauma. We weren’t robbed or beaten; not blindsided by a car or motorbike. No one was injured—mortally. The ordeal was interior: a private bomb whose latent power I’d been striving to escape, or bury deeper, with the busyness of travel.
It had nothing to do with Germany. Yet Germany was its context; therefore, its midwife.
It, too, happened at Museum Island, when I suddenly discovered I’d lost my special museum pass, purchased and handed to me by my husband only moments before—a pass good in all the museums for three days. We had just two days left in the city. Each pass cost about forty dollars, not a fortune but not nothing, and we were trying, as always, to control expenses. In the swirl of people pushing through the receiving area of our first museum—as we were puzzling out how to stash our belongings in one of those little lockers requiring a Euro coin deposited in a sticky slot—my ticket disappeared. We later guessed I’d unwittingly dropped it, and that someone had scooped it. Next came a panicked fluster: furious checking of all pockets, dumping out of the handbag—followed by that frantic, sickened feeling when each object grasped and set aside is not the desired one nor is it sticking to, or hiding, the desired one. My husband—a good, sane, generous, consummately decent but mortal man—got angry with me, incredulous that within mere minutes of its purchase I could somehow have managed to let that pass evanesce into air.
In a stroke, I felt crushed.
Defeated. Emptied. Stupid—not fit to live; suddenly not much caring whether I lived.
Please now allow for a last, perhaps outrageously late disclosure, introducing the submerged monster in this odyssey—of personal grief.
My beloved younger sister, Andrea, had died, suddenly and horribly, of apparent pancreatic failure, about a year earlier. The event could not have been more abrupt: a bolt flung by a Greek god. And though my husband and I had eventually resumed life and travel, moving over the surface of the world in customary ways, I secretly felt as though I had to work twice as hard to convince myself (let alone others) that a world without her—lifelong co-pilot, witness, simultaneous mother and daughter, co-survivor of multiple early losses—was still making sense as a world. Not least, I struggled to convince myself that whatever it was that I called “I” was still making sense as a part of that world. Until the moment of the vanished ticket, the world we looked upon had been making a reasonable show of worldness—if never quite fitting together as it once had.
To be sure, ghost reminders had whispered behind people, settings, objects. The names etched into the glass booth in Mannheim. The aloof, aging man whose roses she’d have praised. The babies and dogs, chotchkes and weather.
During the months after losing her, I would hold my head with both hands to keep it from breaking open. My little girl, my baby wren, soft brown feathers for hair, sitting opposite me on the cool smooth concrete of our Arizona front porch, repeating my language lessons with eager, smiling, trusting brown eyes. Hamburger. Hang-aber. Spaghetti. Ba-sketti. Yellow. Lellow.
It is a deeply strange experience to travel after the death of someone as close to you as your own skin. You regress in ways to a blank slate, almost needing to re-learn the most basic assumptions and practices of a modern society. You look around in bafflement at the colossal, intricate, bearing-down life of a world that has neither paused nor changed a jot; you gaze in wonder at the busy, rushed, full-tilt nonstopness of things. Until our hapless halt near the museum’s banks of lockers, the world’s surface—if gossamer, if whisper-plagued—had sort of “held.” When the little ticket disappeared and my husband grew angry, that thin construct shivered, suddenly cross-hatched with a million infinitesimal cracks. In the next moment, like a hurled glass globe, it fell to bits. And so did I.
I didn’t care anymore where we were, what we did, or whether we had money. I wanted my baby sister back—my second heart, known to me in every pore since they first brought her home in a blanket, she who best knew my own heart and the hearts of her children and husbands and friends, who did everything in her power (sometimes beyond her power) to put her arms around the world, make it happy—the kindest, gentlest, most loving soul I’ll ever know, the only one left who could corroborate everything that had happened to us (early deaths of parents and husbands; gypsy-rover lives eventually made good). In the words of a friend, “a million others should have gone before her.”
But you see, they had. They did.
So how do we measure loss? I stared in shock at her motionless form in the hospital room—we’d arrived too late, too late—that adored face still frowning, as if in dismay and perplexion at the terrible pain which had been her last awareness, her last consciousness.
This really happened.
I have begged my little sister silently, every day since, to give me any sign that she still somehow, somewhere, is. No sign has come, except for dreams. They give the brief comfort of her presence, which may be all I or anyone can realistically hope for. Staring from my emptied handbag to my exasperated husband in the midst of that museum lobby’s noisy mobs, I wanted only to slip back into one of those dreams, away from the brittle, thousand-arrows-deluge of living, to hold my sister tight, smell her clean, apricot-shampoo scent. Nothing mattered then. Not travel, not art, not food or drink, not even my dear husband. Not Germany, not planet Earth.
My husband, recognizing what had been loosed, scrambled to stanch and smooth it over—but I’d lost my bearings. Zombified, tear-streaked, I stumbled back to the ticket cage and bought another pass. We entered the museum. It was the Pergamon, I think. Gallantly, my husband (now in triage mode) tried to distract me, pointing out extraordinariness and sublimity in all directions. I could not respond—could not muster a straw of coherent thought, only sickened freefall as I cast my eyes toward magnificent pillars and priceless tapestries, jewelry, glassware, mosaics, weaponry, tools: marvelous things that people (now dust) had bravely made. I can still feel the bottomless cold abyss of it, the outer-space shriek in my ears. What good to me, the riches of ages? She was gone. What good was anything? What could, in fact, any longer be called good?
To whom, wailed one ancient Egyptian inscription, can I speak today?
My husband and I zigzagged, at careful distance from one another, through immense rooms. The Germans, to their unending credit, had arranged sarcophogi, statuary, bas-reliefs and sculptured busts so that there was plenty of light-filled space around each piece—each piece lit so artfully and subtly, the works themselves seemed to glow. I tried to hang back, give my husband a long lead, make room between us to allow for my ballooning horror, which I could not seem to control.
Here’s a fact I can offer with authority: It is very hard to find places in a museum’s rooms where you can cry in privacy. Corners seem to work best, if you face into them. Crave as I did to disappear, the thing that is me lurched on in its same, mute, faithful body: carrying case for a wailing soul.
We kept walking. (He walked. I trailed him.) At last we entered a room in which a massive screen had been mounted on a base of console-height. A long bench was fixed at perfect viewing distance across from the screen.
People were seating themselves there, to watch.
A sign above the installation promised simply, Time Travel.
Then all at once we were seeing a semi-animated, computer-graphics-aided film, panning over a landscape of primitive Earth: cave-dweller years, wintry and raw. Soon, swiftly, the camera homed in on a family going about its then-life: a hefty fire crackling, animal skins drying. Details were visible. Our eyes were guided over tools and implements, weapons and eating utensils, crude clothing. Yet the quality of animation softened the view, the panning camera almost smearing it so that the images came at us like a sequence of half-remembered dreams. Then, above the screen, a sort of chronometer (time-ometer?) fast-forwarded several thousand years. And before we knew it we were watching a small tribe building shelters, fishing, dancing, eating. Little kids scrambled; mothers called to them. Laughter. Hammering. Then the time-ometer pushed ahead again and we watched two villages, or townships, at war. We heard shouts and cries and horses screaming, clanks and clunks of metal and wood. A series of stills showed men struggling in combat; we heard them howl in anger and pain. Eerily, what separated this cinematic dream from other kinds were its sounds: no specific language was ever clear but voices carried, voices like ours—as did the warmly familiar sounds of wind and weather, of animals, human merriment, human anguish, human sorrow.
We watched an early wedding. A funeral.
No single word was intelligible: only universally-understood sounds.
This really happened.
Slowly my heart and body calmed and gentled.
Wordlessly, body and heart were absorbing some deep, cellular recognition: the continuum of human struggle, of atrocity, joy, agony and wonder, understood across incomprehensible spans of years.
Up floated a phrase I’ve never forgotten—the hand-lettered title of a folksy mineral display we’d browsed in the Arizona outback many years ago:
The vastness of geologic time.
And the whole of my tired, grieving body recalled slowly, as if by granules through an hourglass, that we had always been part of that. We were part of it—of all we were viewing. Nothing more nor less. We were them. We would fade as they had, this long line of forebears. The time-ometer showed generations blurring inexorably back into a ceaseless, mostly-forgotten past. Me, my sister, her children, their children. All of us sharing a fate stretched along an infinite continuum.
At last, in a trance, we rose and left the museum; emerged blinking into the dusk-lit city of Berlin, the country called Germany, continent known as Europe, planet named Earth, the year denoted, for reasons now nearly forgotten, by the number 2016. And in sepia light, overlooking wide streams of bellowing cars and buses, cop’s whistles, hordes from everywhere moving across squares and playing music and drinking beer and romping with kids in parks and along the river in tour boats, monstrous building cranes nosed slowly side to side in the background as if nodding along with the human roar, against early evening’s fading sun. People were moving, as they must. We moved with them, waking yet still entranced, striding out into it with intensifying resolve to do, to be. Among them, amidst it. Heading out—why not—like Ampelmänchen to meet whatever might next come, while we could. All that it is given to us to invent, to deploy, is response. Later I would think about the curious weightlessness of those moments, as we joined the surging cars and crowds—but also about how, at the same time, I felt the time-ometer pressing forward: infinitesimal, patient, relentless. And in truth it was not a bad feeling, not bad at all.
Joan Frank (www.joanfrank.org) is the author of six books of literary fiction and an essay collection about the writing life. Her last novel, ALL THE NEWS I NEED, won the Juniper Prize for Fiction. Joan’s work has received many honors and awards, including the Richard Sullivan Prize and two ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Awards. She lives in Northern California.