My grandmother,
who isn't there


the moment she entered the room, I froze.

I had seen her just about two years ago, we had conversations, went out for dinner and talked to random strangers she had thought to recognise. But it was still her. The athletic body, though weakened, the full light brown hair, though coloured, the same smile, voice, tan, she looked just like back in my childhood, the grandma who would push me outside on a sunny day, kick my ass on a bike through the forest, enjoy the nature, be active. It was still the woman who would beat me mercilessly at ping pong and chess, without breaking a sweat, so full of energy and life.

When my mother brought her in the room, she sat in a wheelchair, too weak to walk, her eyes anxiously searching. She saw me, she looked at me, with big eyes, with what I would mistake for recognition and what actually was confusion.
There was my grandmother, the woman who would give - not take, GIVE yoga lessons at the age of 70, who had traveled the world more than my whole family combined, who would kick everyone's ass and cook the best lasagna of my life. I knew it was her, I recognised her eyes, her hair, her hands, her smell even, and yet, this person in front of me was not my grandmother. Not anymore.
It was like she had been taken away, stolen, and nothing was left behind but her skin and bones and a stuttering voice that was full of words but empty in meaning.

Her skin was so pale, every vein shining through, every mark of the sun long faded away. I could see her bones, every one of them, through the papery thin wrinkles that had dried up and shrunken down, all her energy, her strength, her muscles had vanished. Her skin was nothing but wrinkles, her body sunken together, minimised to what's left, crumbling ruins of a once great empire.
Her eyes were that of a child, still, the same blue eyes, but pale, lost, looking around with both infantile amusement and childish fear, not understanding what was happening, who we were and where she was.


My grandmother was born in 1930 in Germany.

She did not talk much about that time. Like most of her generation she never really talked about what happened, only about the consequences. Her family had been rich, but my great grandfather lost everything when he sold his houses just before the great inflation. She often told us how she had to bring her two younger brothers down into the cellar when the bombs fell, she talked about loss but not about what happens to a child who was only 9 years old when the Nazis started the war. What happens when everything around you goes to flame and you are right in the center of it all and all by yourself.

A few years ago, when it all started, she would call my mother on the phone and tell her how “they” had just loaded the people on transporters and that her block was next. She did not seem to remember any of that when she still was sane.
But neither did anyone else of that generation.



After the war, she worked as a secretary.

She had to work to support her family, but she didn't want that life, the constrictions, the dull. She didn't just want to be a secretary. That's when she met my grandfather.

My grandfather had survived the war because he was transferred to the front lines after pissing off his commanding officer. His whole class died in the war, while he sat amongst the grown ups who had long understood that the war was lost.
While Hitler burnt younger and younger children in the fight for his insanity, the grown ups at the front beat up my grandfather for trying and told him to sit tight till the war was over. After the allies had freed Europe, he returned to a broken home.

Ultimately he lived the American Dream, starting from scratch with nothing and ending as a manager. When he met my grandmother, he bought her a whole bar of chocolate, just for herself. She never had that before. They got married.


My grandmother lived the perfect life of the 60s,
but not a happy one.

She had her own idea of life, and breaking out was not easy.
My grandfather didn't want children, but my grandmother found her ways to trick him. Thrice.
My grandmother wanted a driving license, so she got one, my grandfather, who back then would have had to give her permission, she told him about it the day she had passed the test.

From what my mother tells me - and there isn't really much talk about past events in my family - they had not really gotten married for love. It likely was pragmatism. It was a different time back then and priorities were not so much filled by ideals and Hollywood movies as they are today.

To my grandmother, my grandfather was a way to escape. She got out of her life. Left her past behind. They raised three children, had the life that people from the Mad Men age would dream of. But my grandmother still didn't feel in the right place.
She didn't want to be just a housewife.

Breaking free

Ever since her first love, who later should become a professor, my grandmother had that ideal, that picture in her head, the idea of a life of sophistication, art, culture. She would yearn for the big and intellectual, while my grandfather, though successful in his vocation, would settle for simplicity and crime novels. Though he had saved her from the dull life of her past, she now was caught in a life of routine and boredom. She despised her life as a housewife and the idea of spending a lifetime solely on cooking, cleaning and taking care of the children. There was more, and she knew it, and she wanted it.
So she went off to study at the university.

It was the time of the 1968 protests, of emancipation, socialist movements, revolutions. It was everything my grandfather despised and everything my grandmother longed for. A whole generation broke free from the norms and restrains imposed by the old, remnants of a world that had just recently burnt Europe to the ground. Students protested oppression and the Vietnam war, socialists fought imperialists, Kommune 1 the middle class and the government the press. The Red Army Faction was about to be founded, Rudi Dutschke about to be shot and the whole world about to change.

Right in between, my grandmother didn't want to be a secretary. And neither a housewife. She wanted independence, to take her life in her own hands, to seize it. She wanted self-actualisation in a time that didn't even know the meaning of that word. In her pursuit for freedom, happiness and fulfilment, she finished another chapter, closed the book, and moved on.
She left my 18-year-old mother behind to take care of my grandfather till he died.




Breaking apart

My aunt went abroad, to America. She returned with an invitation for my grandmother, to visit my aunt's host family. At the welcoming party, she met Albert, the ex-husband of my aunt's host. She was meant to stay with the host family for two weeks, but the next morning they ran off together.

Albert had a store on the 5th Avenue, he worked in a gallery, built picture frames for Sotheby's and Christie's and lived in the Hamptons. He lived for art and the life of a crazy artist, burning through money like a forest fire on crack. My grandmother and Albert would write their love with pens and send it in letters, both stuck thousands of miles apart.

Ultimately, Albert left everything behind and moved to Germany. They bought an art nouveau villa, the biggest house I've ever seen, restored it from the ground up, planed their future, a life. But the more their house took shape, the more their love fell apart.
At its completion, their relationship lay in ruins. In the end, they broke due to sheer ego. Albert had threatened to leave. My grandmother responded that she wouldn't stop him. Neither of them wanted to fall apart, but neither of them could back down. It was the simplest and yet most difficult thing in the world. Albert left, without wanting to, and my grandmother let him, without wanting to.

Albert moved out, but he had no place to go. As he was meant to leave America for good, he had stopped paying taxes there. He couldn't go back. The fabulous eccentric from the 5th Ave was stuck in a tiny German village, drowning between trees and loneliness. He ran out of hope, then out of money. Ultimately, he hanged himself.


My grandmother was far from perfect. She always lived in her own world, her own thinking and her own point of view. She would pursue her goals and ideas with little regard for others.

And yet, ironically, many of those goals were driven by her regard for others.
She would work with drug addicts and women from the women's shelter, always watching out, always fighting. When I was a struggling teenager, she took care of me, she put me in my place and she got me back on my feet. She took care of her neighbours and her friends, and when she met strangers, she would make them friends. She taught me right and wrong with an uncompromising determination. And there was not a single day, not a second, in which she would sit down, lie back and relax.
There were always things to do.

She did not really do all these things out of sheer altruism. It was more like a necessity for her to help others, almost as saving others would save herself.
Maybe the girl who had to protect her two little brothers from the falling bombs and raise them when nobody else was around, maybe that girl never really grew out of her duty. 

She was so full of energy, so tense for action, restless from dawn to dusk. Maybe her inner restlessness, her need to act and break free was finally calmed by the needs of others.

I would have big and many fights with her over what she thought was best for me, and for years we would barely talk. 

She could be strict, merciless, judging. But I believe her, I always did, that she always thought it was for my best. 

The great escape

Years after escaping the straits of a good middle-class life, my grandmother would be left with a giant house that she could not fill. Albert was gone and so was their dream of a life together. So she traveled the world.

Her passport would be filled with the immigration stamps of her travels to Africa, south east Asia, Iran, Tibet. Her house was filled with both the evidence of a stereotypical, traditional German mother of three from the 70s, and the memories of a more adventurous, more versatile, more badass female Indiana Jones who would travel the world with Klaus-Dieter, and later Karl, the artist, and their camping van.

Many of her destinations, as so many of her destinations in life, she would reach far before any other westerner. There were no all-inclusive clubs and hotel resorts where she would go. And there wouldn't be anyone else with stories as mesmerising and unique as hers.

The woman who decided that the contemplative life was not enough, she would fill me with awe, with excitement, envy and, ultimately, the inspiration and yearning to travel the world by myself.



My grandmother was a great person. Not a good one, and neither bad, but certainly, without a doubt, great. 
It is a cruel thing, and honestly, it is simply not okay, to watch all that fade away. Like an old photograph that becomes pale and wrinkly. And ultimately, it is lost. There will always be memories, but they shine only so strong. And slowly, they are lost as well. 

She sat in her wheelchair as I saw her for the last time. My mother cried. She could see that she was gone. My grandmother didn't even notice her tears. She was sitting there, right in front of us, smiling, holding my mother’s hand. But she wasn't there.
And she was holding the hand of a stranger. 

My grandmother always wanted to escape. Maybe she finally did.

Ilse Steinert

5.3.1930 - 8.7.2016