Looking Oppositely

 

In the days and weeks after my mother died, my grandmother and I would wake early and go out looking for her. Neither of us could quite believe that she was really gone. She was my grandmother’s only daughter and she was my only mother.

Every night as we slept or pretended to, each in our own bed with our own uncomfortable restlessness, we prepared for the next morning’s task. I slept in a high bed that had been passed down to me from unrecorded places. It had a dark wooden frame that loomed above its high mattress and was probably once a part of a man’s bedroom set. When I was very young, the moonlight against the bedposts would cast odd shadows, which sometimes terrified me. As I got older I learned to love its high mattress, which felt like a stage. Before my mother died, as I fell asleep I would compose plays in which I was always the star.

My grandmother slept in a bed intended for two. Her room was off of mine, and there was no way to get to it except through my door. Sleeping was always a problem for my grandmother and, because our rooms were so close, I was always aware of her restlessness. But after my mother’s death, I knew my grandmother’s anxiety in a new way. I could feel it myself in my own bed, and it bound us together.

Unable to stay in bed past the signs of first light, we shook ourselves early into our mission. My grandmother’s old bones ached and grumbled and tried to hold her back. My young body pushed us both forward in search of my mother’s missing warmth and vitality.

We walked the garden first, then round the neighborhood, past the familiar houses, through the back alleys with their hidden gardens, alongside the stores, and down the busy streets. After awhile we would retrace our steps, hoping that a different perspective on ground we had already traveled might turn up a new clue. We held hands and hardly talked.

What a pair we must have made, two sad little faces, one quite young and one quite old, and not so very different from each other.

*****

This is the grandmother I always wanted to have, the one I’m trying to imagine now as I retrace her life and find the parts of her she never shared with me. As I knew her at my mother’s death, present but inaccessible, our relationship was a comfort to neither of us. We got through our awful pain with no help from each other.

Forty years later, with the birth of my first granddaughter, I can vividly imagine how things might have been different with my grandmother.

It is this difference, this warmth and comfort that I want to share with my own granddaughter. With this in mind, I steadfastly reconfirm and continue the search for my real grandmother, the one who never gave me a chance to listen to her stories.

I’ve read somewhere that listening to a person talk is the best way to honor them. Listening to a person’s story confirms them and helps them feel whole. I never had the chance to compliment my grandmother with my listening. Listening intently now years after her death to what she didn’t tell me, I’ve come to understand her silence.

Reading through newspapers from my grandmother’s hometown of Joplin, Missouri, I’ve come across some facts about her life which for some incomprehensible reason she never told me herself. I would love to have heard these stories as a child sitting by her side, perhaps even holding her hand. But instead, in my late fifties, I rush off to the library on an almost weekly basis to sit in front of a microfilm reader and carefully page through reels of hard, slick celluloid. It is as close to sitting at my grandmother’s knee as I have ever gotten, so it will have to do.

*****

My grandmother was born in El Paso, Texas, in 1886. Her family came from Germany to Wichita, Kansas, in the early 1870s and moved through several
cities before finally settling in Joplin in 1900. From what I’ve read in local papers, no matter where this young Dieter family lived, they were always surrounded by a large German community. They fit easily into the “Germania Society” in the booming town of Joplin.

“Germania”: its very syllables conjure up images of power reaching back through the centuries to the era when Latin was the written language which described the European continent. Yet in the 1870s, when the nascent Germania societies were uniting German-speaking immigrants in America, the nation of Germany itself was quite young. Only recently had twenty-two royal countries and three city-states bonded together to form the new Deutsche Reich.

The ancient image of Germania was used to unite this brand-new nation. Germania was always young and strong, but her appearance had changed over the centuries. She was sometimes docile, holding a book or guiding a child, and sometimes fierce, brandishing a sword and a flag. Relying on the wide acceptance of this versatile image and strengthening her attributes of might, the Reichpost chose her likeness for its postage stamps. Sixty-one different stamps were fashioned with the same image: a Walkure woman wearing a king’s crown and breast plates and carrying a sword and an olive branch in her right hand. Their worth ranged from 2 pfennings to 10 Marks. From 1899 until 1922, ties between Germans and German Americans were strengthened by letters stamped and posted with Germania’s image.

Germania Societies in towns big and small all across America solidified these connections. Yet the place that these new American citizens imagined as the home they left behind was really only a dream. Like the Reich itself, the image of Germania was a fabrication. Yet, the figure of this powerful woman united and comforted the newcomers.

*****

In the spring of 1904, Joplin spent months preparing for the first annual carnival in honor of the sovereign majesties “Rex Plumbum and King Jack.” These fictionalized monarchs were the personifications of lead and zinc, which figured so prominently in Joplin’s meteoric growth at the turn of the last century.

The Germania Society of Joplin fashioned “one of the most appreciative efforts made by any of the organizations” which participated in the grand inaugural parade ushering in the carnival. “Their float was grand. It was twelve feet by thirty six feet and contained three allegorical figures … Uncle Sam, Columbia and Germania…. Miss Dieter impersonated Columbia.”

There, there was my grandmother. It must have been her and not her older, shyer sister Kate. Kate would never have been comfortable atop a float. But I could imagine the grandmother I never knew there. The younger and more outgoing sister, Hattie as she was called then, enjoyed moving slowly through the evening, waving and smiling at the crowd. That Monday night, the crowd of nearly 30 thousand was “the largest ever congregated on the streets of Joplin.” This must be the story I was never told behind the picture of my grandmother as a young woman wearing a dress made of stars and stripes. Along the side of this very faded image, written in the shaky hand of my grandmother’s sister Kate, is the inscription: “Hattie Helen Dieter – Miss America On Float in Parade, 1904.”

Kate, writing these words in the 1960s or 1970s, wanted to pass on a history she believed was completely forgotten: the carefree, fairytale life she and her sister shared in Joplin at the beginning of a new century. The family had changed drastically over the years. So much history had been lost. As the oldest daughter, the middle child, and now the last surviving sibling, Kate had always had a certain knowledge of her veiled power. In the long, reflective seconds it took to pick up her pen and inscribe this picture, Kate knew that she was leaving a well-aimed clue to the happiness the Dieter girls had enjoyed in their youth. She left this clue for someone who would come after her, although she did not know who. Someone, she imagined, who would take the time to contemplate the image, read it carefully and search out it circumstances and connections. She left this clue to me. Almost 100 years after the event, I find the young Dieter sisters still living in Joplin.

The image of “Miss America” ascribed by Kate’s aging hand is far different from the image of “Columbia” which my grandmother portrayed in 1904. When Aunt Kate assigned “Miss America” to the long-ago image of her sister, she knew that the image of “Columbia” was out of vogue. Aunt Kate was past seventy by then and living alone in Joplin. Without any family living nearby, she had only pictures from the past to keep her company. She knew that the Miss America she read about in contemporary papers, with its pageants and contests, bore little resemblance to the emblem of nationalism and liberty that the “Columbia” of her youth portrayed. Nevertheless, Kate wanted to connect the past to the present generation, to her sister’s grandchildren. So she chose an image they would understand to underline their grandmother’s long-ago majesty. She knew it didn’t fit precisely, but it would do the trick.

It is the same trick that the fabricators of “Germania” had used to unite the German people. And maybe it’s the same trick I’m employing now to fashion the grandmother I never knew; a woman victorious and loyal who can weather the tragedies of everyday life and still easily share with me all of its goodness-an image perhaps impossible for any woman to live up to, unless of course she is “Germania” or “Columbia” or “Miss America.”

My grandmother’s role in the festivities would have seemed to me like a fairy tale as my grandmother related it, had she related it. There were twenty-six maids of honor, each a daughter of a Germania society member, riding in attendance in horse-drawn carriages. They were escorted by thirty-six mounted gentlemen, all sporting splendid uniforms adorned with gilded buttons and bouncing epaulets. Horse-drawn coaches full of officers and aging Germania Club members, each dressed in full and ancient regalia, followed. The passing of the float ended with a young gymnasium class tumbling and dancing in formation with enthusiastic grace and energy.

To make the fairy tale complete there must be some struggle of good and evil. So, my grandmother would tell me about an incident that occurred just days before the festivities began. The newspaper detailed the assault on the queen by the deposed matron of honor, who had lost her place in the grand opening parade. This classic struggle, the essence of fairy tales, is all true in my own grandmother’s childhood.

*****

A year before the regal celebrations of Rex Plumbum and King Jack on the very same streets of Joplin, a more foreboding incident shaped the contours of my grandmother’s teenage years. It happened on Wednesday, April 15, 1903, just weeks before her seventeenth birthday. Hattie and her family heard the early morning reports of the police officer who was killed the night before at the Kansas City Southern freight yards by a “tramp negro.” They read in the papers about “the bands of determined man standing around the street and awaiting developments.” Hattie’s parents kept her and her sister home that day as the city buzzed with tales of posses, rewards, and revenge. The atmosphere was expectant, full of barely contained turmoil.

When a frightened Negro, Thomas Gilyard, hiding in an outlying barn was captured and brought to the police station, a crowd was quick to gather. “Never before in the history of Joplin has the passion of the people come to surface with such force,” the paper reports. At five minutes of five in the afternoon, the mob, which consisted of men, women, and children, stormed the police station. They dragged their victim from his cell to the southwest corner of 2nd and Wall streets. There, less than an hour later, after some debate and an effort to prevent the lynching, they beat the Negro unconscious and hung him with a rope draped over a telephone pole.

Almost one hundred years later, as I read the newspaper accounts of this day, my unfolding horror mirrors the fright my sixteen-year-old grandmother must have felt as she watched these events unfolding in the familiar street of her neighborhood. The lynching took place just two blocks from the home where her parents were trying to keep her safe. The violence, fear, and hatred could not be prevented from seeping through the walls and windows of their wood-framed house on North Pearl Street and into my grandmother’s developing consciousness.

As a teenage girl, Hattie had more insight into what this day meant than she would be given credit for. In the weeks and months that followed, many residents debated the role that justice played in the lynching. Hattie didn’t take part in any of these discussions; she left them to those more articulate than she. Deep inside, however, she had a new understanding of the world around her. This event led her to recognize racism and violence more acutely than any well-formed debate could do. Although she kept her thoughts to herself, after April 15th Hattie knew that the possibility of chaos was never far away.

The image of the lynching arose in her mind a year later as she sat atop the fairy-tale float, waving and smiling, traveling along the very same streets before a crowd which contained many of those who had stood and cheered a year earlier. My grandmother, my grandmother. What did she think, what did she not think? All I know for sure is that she never told me.

*****

On Tuesday, March 24, 1903, before any of this happened, a party was held in Joplin which was reported in the society column of the Joplin Daily Globe the following Sunday. The party was given in honor of Laura Bartman, a friend of my grandmother’s. Hattie, her sister Kate, and all of her brothers, Fred, Philip, and August, were there. Fred, the oldest, was 23; August, the youngest, was 13. They were all single then, but each of their future spouses were also at this party: my grandfather Max; Fred’s future wife Frieda, who was a good friend of Hattie and Kate; and Philip’s future wife, Emma. Kate and August never married. The guest list included other German names and attests to the closeness of the Dieter children not only as siblings but also as friends.

The young people talked that night about the Kermess to be held soon at the Germania Club. “Kermess” was a familiar and exciting word to these young people, although its meaning is lost to me today. By reading the Joplin papers, which are filled with every detail of its preparation, I find myself listening as the echoes of an old European tradition take root in America. Hattie and her friends and siblings are very much a part of these old-world traditions and very much a part of this new city.

At this Tuesday night get-together, games were played and prizes were given out. Hattie, the only girl to win a prize, stood out—as she would a year later at the carnival. At ten o’clock refreshments were served. Not long after that, I imagine, the Dieter siblings started their walk home together. Max, my future grandfather, walked with them. Fred and Philip left on different routes to walk their future wives home.

There was much for my grandmother to look forward to that night as she walked the six blocks to 213 North Pearl Street: boyfriends, parties, festivals, and prizes. I can see her clearly, walking the familiar streets surrounded by family and friends. At sixteen, Hattie is on the very threshold of adulthood. She senses the powerful changes at work in her body leading her out of childhood and wonders where these changes will take her.

At this moment, we stand together on that Joplin Street, both of us imagining her life. She is breathing in the fresh spring air and looking at the stars, and I am hunched over a microfilm reader in a well-lit library. She imagines her life forward and knows nothing of the future. I imagine it backwards and have documented facts and theories, but none of her stories. This street we stand on connects up in some inexorable way to the same fanciful street that we walk together after my mother’s death. As always she waits silently, unable to talk, and I, full of hope, listen carefully.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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