My father loved to regale us with stories. Often at dinner time when everyone was present. He would tell stories from his childhood in Germany, his family, meeting my mother in Alsace, her family, or early memories from the 60s when he and my mother were in Mwanza, Tanganyika, where brother#1 was born, or when we had moved back to Oberwürzbach where brother#2 and I were born. More often than not these were lighthearted stories, ones that gently chided and taught us our family history. The less lighthearted ones were kept for more private times – always unexpected, the sudden release of a story, as if from an overflowing aquifer of stored memories. Two such stories bubbled to the surface of my memory today. Stories from my infant days in Oberwürzbach, from the days before, before the incessant travel carried me away, as if on a great wave, from the shores of my birth, never to return. Stories from a time of understated belonging, from before I had a sense of how important to me that feeling was, and how different from one of exile I came to know the feeling of my later life to be. A life of privilege that would become one of pilgrimage.
The first remembered story of today was one my father told often, and falls into the category of lighthearted, funny tales, even as it speaks of uncertainty and anxiety – the story of brother#1 visiting the village doctor to be initiated into that necessary rite of childhood – vaccination day. And asking the doctor at the visit, moments before the needle would go into his arm – ‘Doctor, doctor, does this hurt?’ My father would always chuckle when telling this tale. I was never quite sure why it remained so vivid a memory for him.
The second story I heard only once. A story my father told me after my mother died. Of him coming home late at night after a long day on the road, to find me standing up in my cot. Not because I was waiting up for him – I was far too young for such purposeful behaviour – but because it was easier for me to breath that way. And how he would walk about with me on his arm until my struggle to breath settled and I could go back to sleep. I have often wondered how long I had stood there, waiting, struggling to breath, and where my mother was? Probably asleep, tired out after long days on her own with three young children. Often alone as my father traveled far and wide throughout Germany selling engineering supplies – one time even inadvertently getting to see the Beatles play in a basement bar in Berlin before they were famous. She also spent hours with me at the hospital, sitting in an oxygen tent, hoping my breathing would improve. When in 1967, my family moved to Johannesburg, my father was hoping to get off the road, spend more time at home with his family, but also the doctor advised my parents that the dryer Southern African air would be better for my lungs. And that it was. I don’t remember struggling to breath as a child. I didn’t remember it at all until my asthma came barreling back down on me 20 years ago, like the great wave that had carried me out to sea, far away from the shore of my birth, returning and threatening to drown me, while I struggled to float and learn to breath anew. A story for another day.
Today, a year into this pandemic, these two memories erupted, colliding with one another, as I received my first shot of the Pfizer COVID-19 Vaccine. A moment of lighthearted bantering with the nurse who gave it to me, mixed in with deeper reflection as I sat out my fifteen minutes before I could go home. Be sure to get yours. In this way we protect each other from drowning in this great wave.