Winter Wonderland


For my brother-in-law, @MikeBarre who, upon reading my essay, “Autumn Alchemy” looked forward in his enviable New England sense of irony to my next piece, “30 below knee deep in the driveway shoveling” snow. I hope that I haven’t let him down here and apologize for not only subordinating his crafty title to subtitle but for the tardy production. It took a second polar vortex to stimulate.

Winter Wonderland

I’ve been a sleep ten hours. Ten long hours maybe more yet, it feels like twenty-four in winter.

Exhaustion will do that. Winter will do that. It fools you like a Saharan summer – stark, dry, endless.

During another long dark night a new storm brewed. In my sleep I heard the wind as the storm strengthened. It’s no sixth sense. I hear the toll of my Maine wind bells and chimes; their noise sharp in the dead winter silence.

Suddenly, a crash; a clamor that in another season would’ve opened my eyes, raised my head, stirred me to investigate but not tonight because I know my perimeter. It’s securely hazardous, void of life.

The three foot long, half foot thick icicles that formed from the melting snow of my roof yesterday have snapped from the broken wooden gutters; crashing off the walls to the icy snow covered ground.

It’s a sharp racket. It stings the ears, stirs hibernation but I can’t move. In my trance I feel the next sharp audible snap is closer. It’s the framework of this old house resisting the blow from a tremendous wind gust that tries to tear it from its fieldstone foundation. Sharp racket squared but, my eyes will not open.

It’s not my eyes, it’s my body. It’s a fatigue and unless the roof caves in on my upstairs coffin of a bed, there’s no impetus to move. Yet, stirred, I try to squeeze my hands, raise my arms, and bend my knees upward, toward the ceiling. As I fail, I attempt to bend my knees – meeting my heels and toes. With every motion my rigid muscles radiate anguish, my brain sends a message to retreat and seek another option. I roll to one side.

There on my left shoulder, I feel close to the edge of the bed. I don’t need to see it. It’s a sense; a feel like a parched mouth that salivates at a whiff of water when one is at the edge of an oasis. Pain is distracted by goals, even a goal as simple as falling out of this bed.

Pain also has a memory and I now recall yesterday in the pulsating ache of my palms. There was a goal that needed achieved. Coming from my coma, I recall that I had to remove that translucent, thick glaze of ice from the concrete steps that lead into my wooden oasis, my house.

The heat of the attic; that, expensive gas heat that keeps my oasis from freezing, it escapes to the attic, warming mice and melting inches of snow from the roof. The melt runs down the shingles momentarily escaping the inevitable death freeze as it rolls off the roof. And, in dry, frozen air, the water loses the race, congealing into an elongated spike; that, suspends in time, agonizingly suspended in what seems dead time.

However a few fortunate atoms make it to earth, dripping along the backs of those less fortunate, they explode into a microcosmic molecular splash of freedom. Momentarily atoms split, joining the spare oxygen. They all gasp in the bad company of each other in a violent dripping explosion on concrete. It resembles a translucent blood splatter. Then, it reforms into deadly ice upon my door steps.

Science is treacherous. I’m confident that it must minimize most of life’s enjoyment to a scintilla.

But for now, it has created a cruel invisible prank at my door – a bilateral trick that lies in wait no matter ones direction. A bobby trap as one escapes the dead chill outside or the toasty, parched atmosphere inside.

I indict winter for maliciousness. I hold more than icy doorsteps as evidence. I present my plant life as well. They die inside or out. The difference simply lies in the process; that is, death is quicker outside than inside. Nature asks, “Which would you prefer?”

Naturally humans are sturdier, reasoned and nature knows it. I’m reminded by the reflection of my ghostly image in the window as I look out upon the science brewing at my doorstep. But for the drip, drip, drip falling before my eyes, the steps are stealthily glaciated, encased for the season’s annual dance sensation – the quick slip. The slip that breaks a wrist or ankle, strains a back, cracks a skull or worse, a lawsuit.

Thus I reasoned with nature, claw hammer in hand, I beat the shit out of that ice. I took the whole frustrating pent up polar vortex out on that goddamn ice. With every swing I felt the ice fight back in stinging shards that rocketed off my face, legs, and hands. It was no match though for my fury.

I beat the shit out of it right then and there. Groceries tossed in the front yard snow, the orange juice, creamer, milk and bacon watched my fury. The window flower boxes of frozen over Christmas pine cones and branches stared quietly at my joy in each angry swing. That’s right I had a goal and now my hands paid for achieving it.

They say misery loves company. Well my back and legs join in that woeful celebration. They vibrate with ache from achieving freedom for my wife’s car from a driveway of snow. The pulsating twinge reminds me of each and every shovel stroke, as I stooped an hour clearing the driveway. It all resonates now through my brain as I lay here on my side.

I might have slept longer sure. But it was neither the snapping icicles nor the crack of the house’s framework at fault. No, it was the fear and anger of dreams tearing me from sleep and back to reality.

The imaginary request of some invisible boss to work on a door entry to a commercial building filled with the working poor, who fill floor after floor of office space and anonymous cubicles. They needed to get through that doorway and up to their daytime dungeons.

Did I ask myself in this contrived dream why I was laboring like a maintenance man when I have little skill in such endeavor? No, it was a fucking dream. It was an anxiety driven fucking dream of an often inept and bullied childhood smashing into the present of my life’s winter maturation which is stamped with some expiration date.

As I often do, I felt a different pain in my slumber. As I gazed up curious to see why I felt annoyance, I saw office workers tossing ice cubes down at me as I knelt at the doorway fiddling with some stripping, some monotonous repairs.

They’re the working poor bullies picking on the working poor slob, me. I’ve lived this scene in a sense. However instead of a lit string of firecrackers laid across my sleeping body in the work truck of my youth, these are imaginary hellions hurling ice from their three story heights of momentary supremacy.

Ice cubes are then followed by bucket after bucket of ice tumbling from the windows; torturous, gleeful faces peek from behind the buckets, as they plummet toward my face.

I snap to my feet to recognize and remember those faces which I will obliterate when I … wake up in the confused anger of my dark bedroom, gray steel snow sky glaring that excruciating glare through the drapes.

My eyes are slits but I recognize the faint white dancing dust, its snow. Within the time my eyes can open, the playful, teasing dance of snow has accelerated to a freefall.

What a cruel alarm clock. My knees painfully catch my roll from the heights of my bed to the red pine floor below. My brain had a goal and my legs, my arms; my body complied in the nick of time.

On my feet, my senses carry me downstairs to that drink of water, smell of coffee and taste of fig preserves. I’m living on coffee, fig preserves, and the fury that this season brings as I pursue survival or die trying each and every day. Now who dare say that I’m not goal oriented?

Bastards of Young

Meeting Jutta in NYC

I wrote this in June 2007. It has become the basis of a work in progress to be titled later… many friends know the story. They have provided such support and kindness after reading previous versions. It’s perhaps the foreword for subsequent chapters – some posted here on the WordPress such as “My Father’s Bible”. As I edit “Bastards of Young” again, I realize how quickly seven years have passed. Seven years of further discovery, I fought off however the urge to update or spoil this extraordinary life event with the knowledge that has since come over these years.

My wife had an Oracle Conference to attend in Orlando last month. Since her flight and the hotel tab was on her employer, she suggested the kids and I grab some tickets, tag along. We could enjoy some Disney World magic.  Since we had never been, I thought it a great idea.

I’m old school. I watched the magician himself, Walt Disney as he’d previewed his weekly show. As a nation, we all watched every Sunday night.

I even remember his big buy – some Florida swamp on the cheap. Before some shows, through the smoke of his filterless cigarettes, he’d display drawings, detailed plans for the bigger, better magic kingdom; that is, before the Big C caught up with him. It seems so long ago now.

Since I was raised in Southern California in the 1960s, I’m a part of a generation who “knew” the O.G. of the O.C. I’d been to Disneyland on a few occasions – once as a kid with my parents for the trip of our lifetime and once on Microdot and “mersh” for the anti-trip of a teenage life.  It was called “Grad Night” as in high school graduation night in which only graduating seniors can attend.

I may have gone twice more as a young adult when we’d conceal vodka in baby bottles, tuck the colored dreads up in a hat, bring a change of clothes, remove visible piercings, since in the 1980s Disney Park Management didn’t appreciate counter-cultures even if paying admission. It wasn’t wholesome; as if Grad Nights were Pat Boone and Debbie Reynolds running hand-in-hand, mouths open, eyes wide looking for the soda fountain.

Yep. This would be different; a different time. a different century. a different Disney; a different life in all respects. While my wife, Kim worked, I’d brave the parks with my two little girls. We’d rendezvous later.

Under a hot March sun we were in “Dinoland”.  My eldest daughter, Violette was complaining that “there are no bones, Dad” since she’d looked forward to dig for dinosaur bones. You see, she hopes to study science. Her seriousness is very familiar, not lost upon me. She was right. There were only slides, small water slides, a roped jungle gym and sand. But, with a nonverbal shrug, palms to the air, I intimated what are you gonna do?

On the other hand, my youngest, Lily had enough. She was hot, her clothes wet. She was in full throat, two-year old tantrum mode and she didn’t appreciate my obtuse indifference to her suffering. She flopped on the ground like a fish out of water. It’s moments like this that I question my idealistic image of fatherhood; if not the participation, my execution of the lofty ideal (boy, wish I had that vodka from 1986 now). Well, it’s not the first tantrum and won’t be the last, I thought.

At that moment my mobile phone rings. I glance at caller ID – 714 area code. Hmm, Orange County? Second ring. I dunno anyone behind “the Orange Curtain but”… third ring; a call from my Disneyland? A fourth ring. Oh I hate sales calls. (But anything will beat this scene so), I answered it with a smiley, helpful voice. Hell (it might mean money) O!

Nope. It’s a quivering, crying woman on the line. All right, you just had to answer it. She asks if I am who I am? So, I repeat “this is Max; how can I help you?”  Through sobs, she asks a question that halts all time and space. “Does Menges mean anything to you?”

Yeeeesss “that’s my German birth family name”, I told her. Quickly, turning on a dime, she transitions to, “Where were you born?” Okay, I’ll play this game. Upping the ante, in German I reply, “34 Gartner Strasse, Pirmasens, Deutschland”. Now she cries heavier as it becomes clear to me that after 30 some years of searching, a lifetime of wondering, it’s finally happening.

I felt a smile growing across my face. For no particular reason I looked into the sky as I listened to the sobs.  Could my life’s mystery ultimately be coming to a conclusion?

The crying voice awkwardly offers the cliché punch line – “I hate to tell you like this but”… time momentarily freezes as I reassure myself…  your parents are dead. my children are at my feet. my wife’s in a conference room. There’s nothing that bad but isn’t this how people tell yay about the death of a relative?”… “I think, I’m your sister”, she concludes.

I heaved a heavy breath (although she recalls I did after she asked the first question but it won’t be our last point of contention). I ask her name? Stuttering, “iiiit’s Juuudy, but I was born Jutta”. “Jutta,” I said.  She repeats it and so did I – several times. “Hello Jutta, I’ve been looking for you all my life.”

At this point in my life, I was resigned to the fact that my maternal mother would take our secret to her grave; that, it was impossible for her to tell those who came thereafter that she gave birth to a baby and had given him up. She had just turned 19 years old, had a lifetime ahead. A new man might not want to know more than what was evident – twin daughters whom she had at 16 years old.  Yes, it’s complicated but not that bad. They’re girls. But another – a third child… a boy?

Then, once you’re in it, you’re in it.  It’d be a tough act to say later one day, you know I’ve been meaning to tell you… before I met you…  What a terrible feeling it must be always wondering when a knock at the door might be that secret coming home to roost.

I wouldn’t ruin it, not me. Who would? I was given to salt of the earth people, an American Army Sergeant and his wife. You kidding? Coming out, I rolled 7/11. CRAPS! WINNER!! Better than any lotto. I won the Life Lotto.

As soon as I could understand (probably sooner) my mother shared the entire trauma of that evening… repeatedly. No fear of dysfunction, emotional scars, she loved reciting it. It was “the easiest childbirth” she’d had.

She would recall, “they brought you out from the bedroom holding you upside down by the ankles, naked, like a chunk of ham”. After reassurances from my prospective father, my mother confirmed through the interpreter, “if we’re to have a son, he’s the one…” In the din of crying (how’d Jutta sleep through that?), she remembered our mother saying one thing in English – “give him a chance in Amerika“. They walked out the door with me.

Since the only German my mother knew was “wieviel” – how much, I’m happy she didn’t ask because days after the handoff, a neighborhood “good German” reported to the authorities that there was a baby boy born in that house but he’s no longer there (implying I was sold).

From then on, except for silent bedtime hopes that she thought about me, I wished especially on her and my birthdays, she was happy. I accepted that my birth mother had moved on. Yet, perhaps in a German sense of duty, I always wanted to let her know how well it turned out, even if I was the forgotten boy.

I passively began to seek her out in the 1980s, became more aggressive in the 1990s – posting classified ads in local hometown newspapers. Finally a last shot in early 2000 with a day license on an Internet people search engine. This last try got me close but now, here in the Magic Kingdom, it was all finally coming to conclusion.

My sister, Jutta had discovered that Internet posting that I wrote on our hometown’s new website in 2000. She had recently got an Apple notebook and was new to the ether of the ‘Net. She found our mother’s brother, Helmut and a cousin, Petr.  When she found our hometown’s website… OH MY GOD! She “prayed on it for six days.” Her husband offered to hire a private investigator.

I asked Jutta of her twin, my other sister. “What’s her name? Where is she?” Jutta explained how Evi, our sister had tragically died in 2002 of a viral heart infection at 46 years old. “And our mother?” I asked. She had died in November 2005. I was batting .333 – a nice batting average but rotten when it comes to living blood relatives. But I had Jutta.

I asked “where are you with a 714 area code?” She says “Huntington Beach.” I spat, “HUNTINGTON BEACH! How long?” She replied, “for nearly 20 years on PCH.” I’ve walked past your house.  Oh my god, I’ve stayed at the Marriott next door. They were less than 45 minutes from my front door! I was that close!

In 2000, I’d confirmed from our hometown’s city hall that our mother left Pirmasens in 1965 with a “Sgt George”. She’d finally landed a G.I. free to marry, since whoever the G.Is were that fathered Jutta and I ditched our pregnant teenage mother for their wives and kids stateside. They were lucky they weren’t brought up on statutory rape. However, she finally got out of her mother’s house and had taken my sisters to America when they were almost 10 years old.

Apologetic for our mother, Jutta exclaimed “Max, there was no food”. She explained that they lived in a one bedroom house with “Oma” (German: grandmother) and her drunken second husband, Regal. Our mother worked two jobs with Oma,  at the shoe factories – our hometown’s famed for shoes. Her stepfather, Regal, stole their wages and went out drinking all night. He’d toss a loaf of bread and cheese on the table as he left.

The blessing of being given away 47 years ago were now confirmed in my left ear.

As Jutta described her stepfather – this third G.I in our mother’s life – as an abusive, torturing, neglectful, ugly man. Once they came to America, he demanded no German spoken in his house, even if it was the only language they knew. He changed their names – Jutta became Judy and Evi became Edith. He made them shovel coal into the basement boiler and even abandoned them for an entire year tour in Vietnam never sending money or a note.

The stature of my soldier dad grew greater. He quit his Army because he could not bring his dependents to Vietnam. At so many levels, how could these two American Army sergeants be so entirely different?

Upon his return, Jutta recalled his stares, molestation of our sister, they alternated sleep to guard against his entry to their bedroom. He threatened them with his revolver to their faces if they ever told our mother.  I apologized and swore never to call her by her “slave name.” You’re Jutta.

With the single ring of a phone, my life’s blessings, the answers to many questions, they all crashed down with such immediacy that the weight caused me to sit on a park bench. In fact these answers created more questions for my poor sister. The universe turned upside down.

As my wife approached, my face betrayed the hour-long vortex whirling through my mind. My face was unlike she’d ever seen. “What was wrong?” she lipped silently to me.

My heart raced. My head spun. My anger swelled as memories of my simple life flashed and an unconditional love grew for my sister. This was my sister. I am her little brother. It felt right even though it was barely 60 minutes new.

Her grief continued to pour forth since our mother never mentioned my birth. “We were only 16 years apart, Max. We were more like friends than mother and daughter”, Jutta said. The time lost; that, these years could’ve been spent together. “I always wanted a little brother, she cried”. Her guilt to have not protected me as she had Avi and two other little sisters as they struggled for food, attention, love.

“I can’t believe this, Max”, she continued. Whoa, whoa, whoa, back up. What? There are “more sisters?” How naive. I never contemplated this possibility. Of course, our mother would’ve bore more children. What was I thinking; that, she’d stop at 19 with me? She had a husband. She made a family with him.

I asked about these other sisters. Nonchalantly Jutta says, “Charlene’s in Arkansas” and she didn’t know where “Diane” was: “she’s on drugs”. Oh! At least I have something to relate to one of them… other than a mother, of course. My god, I have two more half sisters. This is more than what I had ever assumed.

The vernacular was tricky enough, as I delineated between my mother from our mother. Now I have additional sisters in a three-dimensional, post-war dysfunctional life smorgasbord. There was however no term confusion with my father and “Chuck”, the stepfather from hell.

The conversation rambled until Jutta inquired “don’t you wanna know who our fathers are?”. “No!” I spat. Without conscious, I said “they were just dicks that got want they wanted and didn’t care to hang around”… Whoa.

I just speak frankly to my sister. I’d always held back with my mother’s two children, who were generations older than me, from another marriage. I felt oddly comfortable. I continued that “it doesn’t matter who they are.  They got what they wanted but wir sind blut” (German: we are blood), I said.  We are born of our mother, not our fathers, I concluded.

Surprisingly unoffended, she went on to explain that her husband had doubts about my authenticity, which is funny since that’s been an ongoing theme in my life.  However she knew that in a small city, there was “only one Erika Menges”. She spent days deliberating, no “prayed” on this news. How could he not only know her name but that she had twin daughters? “It must be true”, she told Kevin, her husband.

Thankfully I’ve carried my official papers and German passport throughout my life. I knew our mother’s name, her birthdate, the address of our house, where we were all born.

However, more important than paperwork, my mother’s intuition answered many questions that Jutta had wondered years.  Why our mother did not speak to Oma (grandmother) for nearly 30 years after immigrating to the States. Why our mother doted on her son, Eric’s best friend, Max when he visited. She asked, “Did she know you’re name was Max?” Why our mother wanted a computer after Jutta used one to find Unkel Helmut and Cousin Petr.

The epiphanies were many and hard for Jutta and for nearly a month after this first call, she called with new revelations, often repetitively and for hours. “It must’ve been Oma, Max! She made Mom give you up!”

I’d simply say, “I know, Jutta”.  “No! Max, it was her. Mom would’ve worked three jobs to keep you.” I assured her, “Jutta, I do not doubt it”.

My mother was keen to what was happening that first night. I’ve had my whole life to make peace with it. However, it’s all new, crashing upon schwester Jutti.  As hard as it is not to look back, we have to look forward (but “could you get a Verizon phone”, I asked “because you’re killing my minutes”).

Within three months we met in Manhattan. It was bittersweet. To meet in middle age certainly was regretful yet, it was really because of Evi’s absence. When I saw Jutta she was nervously posed on the lobby couch of The Lucerne Hotel. As she rose, I saw no visible resemblance except our broad shoulders, strong stature. We hugged for a considerable time. I whispered for her to feel Evi with us; feel her arms around us. I spoke Evi’s name out loud hoping to call her spirit into this overdue embrace.

With our spouses, we went to their room. As she gave my daughters gifts, I suddenly thought – bubbly. We must toast the moment. Under the guise of feeding a parking meter, I excused myself and ran across West 79th Street to a package store.

I returned with the champagne surprise to find that she and Kevin “don’t really drink”.  Oh? There’s gonna be a lot to get used to, I guess, uh? Kindly they shared a glass, a toast for this special moment.

A moment that I never thought would happen. Then again as I hung up from that emotional, awkward first call, I considered where I was. The Magic Kingdom. It was a natural setting because… when you wish upon a star, it makes no difference who you are…