Death of a Housewife

My mother, Mary, died in her sleep in the early hours of 17 September, just two months short of her 94th birthday. Her mind was slipping away (though she still knew me in August), and her life had shrunk down to a soporific existence in the narrow confines of the “memory” ward at her retirement home. She really had no desire to go on living once her husband of 70 years died three years ago, but in this society suicide is illegal (thank you, Christianity) and there was no way we could help. Unlike many poor souls she had the money for an incredibly expensive nursing home, but she seemed to just shut herself down.

What a honey!

What a honey!

Mary was born in 1921 in San Francisco, the youngest of some eight or nine children (I no longer know how many) born to Martin and Ana Kolačević, who had emigrated from Croatia before the First World War. (At least I think it is Kolačević; it is Klotovich on Mary’s birth certificate, but this does not seem to be an actual Croatian surname.) It always amazed me, once I had grown up, that this old lady living in San Francisco in the 1980s was once a subject of Franz Joseph, Emperor of Austria-Hungary. Mary and her siblings attended Mission High School in the late 1930s, where she and her sisters were very popular, partly because their brothers were all star athletes.

Ana and Martin Kolačević

Ana and Martin Kolačević

 

There she met my father, Earl Berthold (see earlier post Death of a Salesman), who was certainly an unlikely candidate for this attractive young woman. He was a skinny, model-building nerd, but he could dance and he could make her laugh. They were both A students, but of course they had no opportunity for college in the later years of the Great Depression. You can imagine my father dining with the Kolačević family (My grandfather was already dead of Black Lung.), dealing with a mother who only spoke Serbo-Croatian and burly brothers who apparently wondered about this non-athletic wimp their sister was dating.

Mission High

Mission High

Grandma Kolačević seemingly recognized good material in Earl, but she did have one demand: her daughter was certainly not going to marry a non-Catholic. Fortunately, Earl, who was some sort of Protestant, hardly cared and was happy to take instruction. (My parents were minimalist Catholics and ceased any involvement with the Church once their boys opted out.) They married in 1942, while my father was in the Army Air Corps, and stayed that way until Earl died 70 years later, producing two sons, one of whom is writing this.

The happy couple

The happy couple

Mary was a quintessential housewife, and the only real full time job in her lifetime was working in a cigarette factory during the war, which, needless to say, enhanced her popularity. She cooked and cleaned and raised the kids while my father went off to bring home the bacon, though I do not recall her doing housework wearing dresses and heels like June Cleaver. When Earl returned home from selling truck bodies, they always had a couple of drinks before dinner, old fashions, I think, though in later years this turned to wine.

The four Kolačević sisters in middle age

The four Kolačević sisters in middle age

Children of the Depression, they were both very responsible people, particularly financially, and began saving for college the day I was born. After the war (I think) they bought a small house in San Francisco, and in 1956 they got upwardly socially mobile and moved about eight miles south of San Francisco to Millbrae and bought a new ranch style house. Millbrae, like all the San Francisco Peninsula, would become a bedroom community for the City, and the house they paid $17,000 for is now worth over a million. There they stayed for the rest of their lives. And the habits of a lifetime never died: my mother was still clipping store coupons in her eighties.

New house

New house

Old house

Old house

Party on, mom!

Party on, mom!

They discovered golf in their forties and became addicts, playing through their seventies; Mary was by far the better golfer. Like her husband, Mary was a voracious reader, especially in her later years, and they certainly entertained, at least until all their friends were dead or dying.

Above all Mary was my mother. When I visited, I talked mostly with my father, who was interested in history and world events, but it was my mother to whom I responded on a visceral level. When I was with her, I automatically watched my language, and when I returned for a visit after a year and a half at Cornell and they met me at the airport, she said nothing and only cried because I had grown my hair long. I had it cut the next day. No matter what my age, when I was around Mary, I was fifteen years old.

Earl and Mary and a son in old age

Earl and Mary and a son in old age

My only real regret concerning this woman is that for a variety of reasons my brother and I never provided her with grandchildren – this branch of the Berthold family ends with us.

Next summer my brother and I, following my father’s wishes, will bury their ashes at the Russian River, north of San Francisco. There Mary and Earl had danced during their younger days, and until the sons were too old we went there every summer for two weeks and stayed in cabins built during the Lincoln administration. But it was affordable for the young family, and it was wonderful.

They are both gone now, and a large measure of joy has left my life.

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The Land of Lost Content: a Fifty Year Reunion

Long, long ago Stanford University maintained branch campuses in several European countries, including West Germany. From June to December 1964 I was a member of Group XIII, along with about 80 other students. The campus was at Landgut Burg, an old estate on a hill above the village of Beutelsbach, just east of Stuttgart. We took regular Stanford classes and one hell of a lot of German and were adopted by local families, accustomed to the gaggle of young Americans that arrived at the Burg every six months.

Landgut Burg 2014

Landgut Burg 2014

We were all young, very young, ranging from 18 to 21, and we were not just Americans, the Masters of the Universe, but we were also Stanford students, the best and the brightest. To varying degrees we were naïve, relatively well-off and arrogant. We stood out simply because of the way we were dressed, and we knew the latest popular music and dances. We were proud to be Americans, and many of us, certainly myself were stupid, a facet of being 18 years old, I now know.
For most of us Stanford-in-Germany was an introduction to a wider world. Many of us were in a foreign country (at least other than Mexico) for the first time, and in 1964 Germany was still a foreign country, a taste of old Europe. Most Germans spoke German. Chasing German girls generally meant pursuing them in German, a strong motivation to learn the language. We were of course also in a place where we were adults and old enough to drink.

 
And drink we did. Reading my diary from that year, I was surprised by just how much beer and wine swilling there was, at least until the novelty of legal alcohol wore off. Then we continued to drink a lot anyway, because that is what college students do. I was amazed to discover just how many classes I, the normally oh so responsible student, cut in order to drink and court. It appears that I spent almost as many evenings at my favorite watering hole as at the campus, which naturally put a bit of a squeeze on my classwork.

 
There was a small informal gathering of Group XIII alumni at Stanford some several decades ago, but after graduating in 1967 I essentially did not see any of these people again. Until a few weeks ago. A fifty year reunion in Germany (no more West) was organized, and since Landgut Burg is now a hotel, we were able to actually stay on the old campus. The old buildings were we lived and attended class were renovated but still there, allowing us to seriously savor those experiences of fifty years ago. About half the people who made up Group XIII attended.

 
This was an exercise in nostalgia. Back to the land of one’s youth, the happy highways where one went and cannot come again. The downside, of course, which did not seem to bother the others, is that fifty years have passed. In 1964 we were all young, and the future stretched ahead, filled with hope. America was at its apogee, and a citizen could be proud. Now, we were old, retired, with grandchildren, and if one had not done it yet, it was not going to be done. Germany was no longer the poor relation; we were. Our country was now in decline, the recognized bully of the world. It was all a vivid reminder that things change in a half century.

 
Beutelsbach, the village at the foot of the hill, had not changed all that much. It and four other villages had coalesced into the city of Weinstadt, but it was still familiar to us. Stuttgart was extensively rebuilt, but it was still the city we remembered – or thought we remembered. It was we who changed. I could still see the young students under the wrinkles and grey hair, but most of us had grown up, probably I the least of all. We were no longer students but doctors, attorneys and professors, groups not traditionally known for drinking and raging. In 1964 most of us smoked; now only three of us did: I and another couple, my Rauchenkameraden.

Beutelsbach 2014

Beutelsbach 2014

Even in the still familiar confines of the Rems valley, where Weinstadt is located, it was clear that Germany was a different place. It was no longer old Europe. No more piles of manure outside houses in the villages, no more horse drawn vehicles and far fewer people speaking the incomprehensible Swabian dialect. Immensely wealthy, the country is no longer a bargain, and where we once got four marks for our dollar, now we got only three-quarters of a Euro. We now looked no different from Germans, and our pop culture edge had completely disappeared. And apparently everyone in Germany now speaks English. It does get a little annoying being around crowds of people who speak at least two languages.

 
That fifty years is a long time, however, was nowhere more obvious than in Berlin, where about half of us spent a second week. In November of 1964 we took a field trip to Berlin, then the front lines of the cold war. The Wall had gone up only three years earlier, and West Berlin was a neon island in the socialist sea of the German Democratic Republic. For us the center of town was the Kurfürstendamm in Charlottenburg, and Checkpoint Charlie and access to the western marches of the Soviet empire was way off to the east. The Ku’damm was alive, filled with shops and clubs and open 24 hours. By contrast East Berlin was a tomb, seemingly closed at night; there was still some rubble from the war two decades earlier. Berlin was almost literally a city in film, the West in vivid technicolor, the East in black and white.

 

 

Alexanderplatz

Alexanderplatz

The Ku'damm

The Ku’damm

A quarter century later the Wall, the DDR and the Soviet Union itself were gone, and Berlin then had another twenty-five years to rebuild itself before we visited again. It might have been a completely different city. With the fall of the Wall the city center moved east to where it was before the war, and our hotel was near the Alexanderplatz, now one of the major candidates for the “center of town.” The Ku’damm is now a relatively quiet neighborhood way off in the west, and all the action is in what was once the mean streets of East Berlin. Our major landmark and point of orientation, the Wall, is gone, along with the checkpoints and expanses of no-man’s land. The only obvious traces of the former capital of the DDR are the prefabricated apartment blocks and the streets named after German socialists.

 

 

Brandenburg Gate 2014

Brandenburg Gate 2014

Brandenburg Gate 1964

Brandenburg Gate 1964

This Berlin, the once and future capital of Germany, is fun and extremely engaging, especially for an historian, but it can hardly match the Berlin of five decades ago. The Berlin of 1964 was a large scale piece of cold war performance art, history encapsulated in single city. In old West Berlin, the showcase of the free market world, there was a vibrancy, an intensity, an edge that certainly no longer exists – that can no longer exist. And it was the Berlin of an eighteen year old student, which brought its own intensity and edge, and that too can never again be regained.

 
For me Berlin was emblematic, a vivid reminder of lost youth. And it was a full circle of sorts. I remember the young and undecided student standing in awe before the altar in the Pergamon Museum, and now the retired classical historian has done the same, with far more cynicism but with the same awe.