I was eleven years old, not quite old enough to accept the situation my father’s military service had suddenly whisked us into. At eleven, I ought to have had that sense of predictability, a comfortable routine of sorts like a normal girl my age. My father’s job, however, moved us from all that was familiar to a place where guttural-sounding, hard-edged words like “Wie geht’s,” “brochen,” “kinder” and “Fasching” would grind into our everyday lingo. My parents had presumably worked hard behind the scenes, trying to get housing for us on the military base where my father worked. In actuality, however, my mother’s utter disdain for military housing and Stepford-like officer’s wives clubs would keep us permanently on the economy — well off the base, in other words — until my father retired. Several months after my sisters and I had grown somewhat acclimated to our cramped conditions while living in a Gasthaus, my father packed us all into the VW, drove us twenty miles away from anything remotely “Amerikanisch,” and moved us into the townhouse we’d be living in for the next two and a half years.
Upon first glance, the townhouse looked just like the grandiose relic of a three-story hotel we’d only just left. Even its narrow entryway seemed to proclaim its own historic ostentatiousness, complete with cobblestone driveway, tiny private courtyard, and solid, wide, wooden gates. A high, stone wall shrouded in a shiny green coat of ivy flanked the right side of the courtyard from the front. As my sister Amanda and I discovered, the wall was simply built into the hill that had long been converted into stone stairs leading up to the old Protestant church that loomed over the house. Our baby sister, Lucy, still a naughty toddler, would later find those stringy curtains of ivy a good hiding place to escape underneath whenever she was in trouble. Her bubblegum pink, fudgesicle-stained romper would be a dead giveaway to her whereabouts though, no matter how clever she thought she’d been.
The foyer of the house was like something out of a gothic thriller, all sconces and low lighting. Leading off to the right of the foyer, there was a rounded, chandeliered dining room looking directly out into the drive and courtyard. To the left, there was a modest bedroom with heavy, dusty, velvet drapes. In the back, a large kitchen with pebbled flooring and an airy breakfast room. What caught my attention from the start though was the staircase straight ahead, leading to the second floor of the house. A curved, metal bannister wound its way up a series of marble stairs. When the stairs disappeared from view from the ground floor, they became carpeted, but no one below would know this until they went upstairs. I loved those stairs. Every time I’d walk down them, I’d pretend to make a grand entrance. My posture would automatically straighten. My hand would languidly glide down the bannister as I moved gracefully to greet my (usually imaginary) visitors.
My mother took us up the grand stairs to the second floor where we were to be assigned our bedrooms. Well, my sisters were at any rate. The main hall of the second floor had one long, seemingly never-ending, centralized room with polished wooden floors, sliding doors on the far ends creating small side rooms, and a line of windows overlooking the town’s central street. According to the house’s most recent history, that particular room, what was to be our living room, was a converted dance studio. All it was missing were the practice bars and mirrored walls. Directly to the left of the staircase was a wide, open room with what looked to be a kitchen sink and cabinets in a far corner. It had once been a studio apartment, apparently, but my mother waved both my sisters in, insisting they share the room as their own. I think they were both more excited about the prospect of using an actual sink in their bedroom than they were about sharing such a huge amount of space, especially Amanda, who would later have the sink filled with rocks and minerals for cleaning, remnants of an ongoing quest for geodes and other sparkly treasure.
As for where I’d be staying, it would be the first bedroom I ever had that I could claim as my own, and it would be, unforgettably, the worst. Not far from my parents’ en suite bedroom was a door that opened to another staircase. Gone was the solidity of the grey-veined marble of the first floor stairs, the plush comfort of the carpeting of the second floor. Instead, a steep, rickety, wooden series of stairs leading up into impenetrable, musty darkness lay ahead of me. I flicked on a light switch to the side of me and slowly made my way up into the area that my mother and father thought would grant me much needed teenaged privacy. Half of the attic had been converted to a makeshift, drafty hole of a bedroom. Wooden beams created stationary Atlases, bracing the worn roof from potential collapse. The tiny window in the center of the attic offered a sliver of a peek into the slate nothingness of the sky. I decided then I wouldn’t be spending much time up there at all due to the creaks and groans of the house shifting and the low whistling, rustling of the wind.
My bedroom, however, was a far better place to escape to when I needed the privacy every so often. It was much better than the possible alternative besides the downstairs guest room: namely, the cellar. As much as my mother would’ve liked for it to have been a finished basement at some point, the truth of the matter is that the space underground was fit for little more than wine barrels and vampire coffins. The stone-enclosed, shadowy space had been divided into three moldy rooms: the main room of the cellar where we’d hold Halloween parties, a wine storage room for my father’s future hobby, and a locked room we girls weren’t permitted to ever enter. Of course, the mysterious room in the cellar would become the topic of excited, curious inquiry for years to come. We imagined all sorts of morbid scenarios from Nazi torture chambers to forgotten family crypts. We never found out what was behind that door, but I now suspect it was little more than a storage area for my parents’ junk they didn’t have the heart to throw away.
In the end, Germany would grant me the most bitter of my preteen experiences, from bullying to heartbreak to betrayal. However, the house in Waldmohr, in all of its oddities, would be the second most significant place I could have ever called “home,” a tough feat for a military brat. Had we remained for just a bit longer, I suppose I might’ve learned to actually fall in love with the place as my parents so evidently had done.