My mother sprinkled the French she spoke to me with Dutch, Hebrew and, most of all, German. It was the language of the German-Jewish high culture in which she was raised and the language of her unfulfilled dreams of romance and dashed hopes of an effortless, elegant life. She loved music, and her favourite melodies moved me deeply. When I was a child she sang me lullabies about fishermen lost at sea and fledgling birds who mourned the nest they’d lost in a storm, the way my mother had lost hers to Hitler’s Europe. When I got to be good at the piano, I accompanied her as she sang Schubert’s Winterreise, his song cycle about heartache. Even our family Friday night Sabbath dinners were full of longing, as my mother sang s’mirot, Hebrew psalms, to the melancholy German melodies which her family in Mainz, Vienna, Antwerp, and Amsterdam had sung for generations. And after a delightful experience—an afternoon in the park, say, or a wonderful concert at Levisohn Stadium—she’d recite a line from Goethe’s Faust: “If only I could tell the moment, linger just a bit, you are so beautiful.” There was no holding time. It slipped right through one’s fingers, like sand, like water, like tears.
One piece in particular evokes memories of my mother and our life together: Mozart’s Flute and Harp Concerto. I first heard it at the end of my junior year in college, with a young man named Mark as flautist. I heard him play it once in Macmillan Hall at Columbia University, and a second time, without the harp, in the apartment my mother and I shared. After that, I listened to it countless times on CD, played by Rampal and by Galway, but the effect was never the same as that of the first, even that second and last time, that I heard Mark play.
We were very young then – and that was a big part of the magic – when we met half way between Barnard and Butler Library, in April 1958. I was a scholarship student walking across campus when a chubby guy with a bad haircut stopped me. “Hey, you’re cute and I’m Mark,” he said, chewing on a spearmint Lifesaver. “Come to Macmillan tomorrow at six and hear me play the flute.” “Sure,” I said. Never mind that Mark was as homely as a woodchuck, his spontaneity thrilled me. I had no boyfriend at the time, although I longed to have one.
“I’m going out on Saturday night,” I told my mother. “Really?” she said. “To a concert,” I said. “With whom?” a hint of disapproval in her voice. She wanted me to get married, to pick one of the two older men—wealthy friends of the family—who were interested in me, and settle down, the way she had, at the age of 20. She was twice-widowed, and without our having a man to take care of us she worried about my future. We shared a one-bedroom sublet in Greenwich Village which only had a short lease; we’d have to move soon.
But I wanted to go to grad school, to have an academic career. And I was hungry for sex. Not that I’d ever had any. Those two suitors were stodgy and dull in their suits and polished shoes, and I couldn’t imagine getting anywhere closer to them than a chair away. I wanted someone my own age, full of song and colour, someone to sweep me off my feet with a serenade accompanied on the guitar, or the recitation of a mysterious poem like Robert Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening”, which Lionel Trilling—an eminent professor at the time—had called the scariest poem he knew.
The concert was wonderful. I felt myself swell with yearning. “How was it?” my mother asked when I got home. “I want you to hear him,” I said. I had failed to provide her with a son-in-law, but I could at least bring home some lovely music. Mark came over and played for us. His performance, full of tremolos, pleased my mother and filled me with desire. But then I noticed that the buttons on his grungy shirt were popping off where the fabric pulled across his belly, and the disconnect between Mark the way he was and the music he played went through me like an ice storm.
“Is he Jewish?” my mother asked after Mark left. He’d told me he had been bar mitzvah, but I said, “I don’t know.” My mother favoured those stodgy suitors of mine, so clean and tidy in their well-pressed trousers and conservative ties; I didn’t want her to think Mark and I had spent enough time together for me to find out; I didn’t want her to think I’d settle for such a slovenly chap. “Well, even if he is,” she said, “he’s not for you, he’s just a baby.” I told my mother she needn’t worry.
But I was lying. That beautiful music was full of erotic possibilities. Mark was the frog in the folk tale. All he needed was my company and he’d turn into Prince Charming. To promote his transformation, I agreed to go rowing on the lake in Central Park, to stretching out under the chestnut trees in Riverside Park, to floating paper boats down 116th Street after a heavy rain fall. Every now and then Mark reached out for a breast, a thigh—I might as well have been a chicken—but I wasn’t having it. Without the music, I only felt my yearning, not any possibility of its fulfilment.
The school year wound down. We were both wrapped up in assignments and exams. I needed to find a summer job, and for a while I forgot all about Mark and Mozart. A few weeks went by before I started to miss Mark and the fun we’d had; the music. I called his dorm. But he was gone, no forwarding address, no messages left for me. I felt hurt and lonely. Slowly Mark turned into a fantasy. He was handsomer, more mannerly, we were in love; we’d have a future. I bought a vinyl recording of the Flute and Harp Concerto and played it when I was home alone in our sublet with the short lease. Rampal was performing, but I imagined it was Mark. The alternating sweeps of the music, the distinct pluck of the harp, the plangent voice of the flute, the transitions from major to minor and back again, felt like an allegory of life with its sorrows and delights. I heard in them, too, my mother’s Friday night melodies. Mozart inscribed a ring of faith, of hope I had never contemplated.
After a while I got tired of my imaginings. I met and began to date the man I’d eventually marry. The 50s turned into the 60s. My mother moved to Holland where she’d lived as a teenager during the first world war. I had the baby I’d dreamed of; my career as college teacher was going well; my marriage wasn’t. “What ever happened to Manneke?” my mother asked, the one or two times a year we saw each other either in New York or in the Hague. That’s what she called Mark, “little man,” in Dutch. She knew I wasn’t happy with my husband and I wondered if there was some subtext to her question. I pretended to myself that all she meant was to invoke the better times we’d had together in our sublet, the pizzas at Bruno’s on 4th Street on Monday nights, the shop-ups at Nicholas’ Market on 12th Street every Thursday. “I don’t know,” I said, “I lost track of him a few months after you met him.”
Some years went by. I divorced and remarried, had a second child, as eagerly wanted as the first, and lived in a shabby Cape Cod house in Tenafly, New Jersey. This time I thought I’d made a better choice, someone who was fun and not competitive in the way that my first husband had been. But things took a turn for the worse when that husband had a near-fatal skiing accident. Now I had four children to support—two of my own, two of his—and life was hard; I hardly ever listened to music at all.
One day late in the summer of 1977, there was a knock on the screen door. Without so much as a “how d’ya do?” Mark walked in, as dishevelled as ever, plopped down on one of my (shabby) living room chairs, and filled me in on his life since college. (Yale for classics, Harvard for law, the University of Vienna, Austria for musicology—and, oh yes, a divorce.) For the first time in years I heard that Mozart in my ears. I was back in Macmillan Hall, I was back with my mother in our sublet. Time had not yet turned my dreams to dust. Suddenly, my husband, who had grown quite abusive, burst in like a grenade and yelled at Mark: “Get the hell out of here before I crack your skull.” Divorce followed within a few years. I moved to Brooklyn and bought a family house, became a landlady, moved ahead professionally. I was listening to music again, but Bach more often than Mozart.
In pain one night—it must have been 2005, when I broke my foot—I was feeling sorry for myself, when the phone rang. At first I didn’t recognise the voice—a neutral American accent with a slightly musical lilt —but it was Mark. At once I slipped into my fantasy. He had finally turned into Prince Charming! He was going to rescue me! But no, the illusion lasted only a moment. He’d come to New York with his third wife to attend his son’s graduation from Columbia. “Summa-cum-laude,” he said, “just like his dad.” “Oh,” I said, about to hang up. I’d had it with married men. “I live in Hamburg now,” he said, “in Germany,” he added, a beat later.
I did the emotional equivalent of a double take. Just the previous year, and after decades of fear and reflection, I’d finally visited the small town in the former GDR where my family—going back to the 18th century—came from, determined, at last, to get to know more about the arrogant, self-righteous German-Jewish culture that had shaped me. Much to my surprise I seemed to be at ease in the town, even feeling a kind of belonging I’d never felt anywhere else: there were people here who still recognised my name; people here who spoke my parents’ idiom; buildings I’d heard my parents mention. Goethe had lived only 64 miles away in Weimar. Heine had written about the Hartz, the local mountain range. This is where those melodies came from to which my mother sang s’mirot; this is where the music I loved—the three Bs, Telemann, and yes, Mozart—came from.
I took Mark’s phone number. Perhaps in Germany he had in fact become Prince Charming—but this time, single. For sure, I was still looking for the man of my dreams, erotic, handsome, brilliant, bubbling over with music and poetry. And I had a definite notion that he would be a dead-ringer for Sebastian Koch, the heart-throb of the contemporary German screen who would provide all the satisfactions I had never had.
Five years later, in 2011, while in Berlin, I dialled Mark’s number, my heart beating faster, excited about the possibilities. I suggested we meet in a Kreutzberg café I’d found in Trip Advisor. Mark—ever ready to puncture my delusions—showed up fat and bedraggled, his dingy shirt hanging out at the back of his sagging pants, his scuffed loafers torn at the top, his thin grey hair limp over his ears, his teeth worn away, still chewing spearmint Lifesavers. We sat down at a small round table. Mark wanted water; I wanted Wild Turkey straight from the bottle, forget about the glass. We compromised with tea. Without asking me about myself, Mark proceeded to tell me of his successes—his Emmys for his radio broadcasts about classical music, the summer course on concert management he taught in Riga, his son’s success as a theatrical manager, and oh, by the way, he was divorced again. As he spoke he moved his chair closer to mine, and after a while, before the tea came, I felt his fat fingers on my trousered thigh. I grabbed his boneless wrist under the table and whispered, “I can’t do this.”
There were tears in his voice as he answered, “I need you to touch me.”
As I lifted his hand off my thigh, I felt as if I had entered one of those nightmarish Hieronymus Bosch paintings where monsters spit out the limbs of babies, where men in clerical garb are munching on the breasts of maidens, where dogs with bloody fangs eat the guts out of nuns. The grotesquerie of the moment overwhelmed me. We were acting out our own opera buffa, a sick parody of reunited star-crossed lovers. I was responsible for this pathetic moment: Mark and I were united in a bizarre fantasy of connection which bespoke the loneliness and unfulfilment of our emotional lives.
Something had to be salvaged: I had to leave this café with something better than disgust.
“What does it feel like to be a Jew in Germany?” I asked, remembering that he had once told me of being bar mitzvah in Toms River, New Jersey, where he grew up.
“I don’t know,” Mark said. Something in me shattered with disbelief. I couldn’t imagine being a Jew in Germany unaware of all the historical and emotional freight that that carried. This man I was sitting with was the mere shell of a mensch, an unfit custodian of the music I loved, of the music my mother and I had shared.
“I remember your father,” I told him. “He came to your graduation.”
“He died. But I still remember how to say Kaddish.” I hadn’t expected that. Perhaps there was after all going to be some redemption in this awful reunion, some bond to a shared tradition.
A low hum, like a cat’s purr, stirred in Mark’s throat. Words and melody rose up and I joined him. It was getting to be happy hour. Young Germans streamed into the café. We got some stares as they moved past us. All they saw were two old people singing a duet. They didn’t know we were honouring the dead, a way of life, a tapestry of evocation and meaning.
I closed my eyes and felt my mother stroking the back of my head, the way she did when she knew I was upset.
When I opened my eyes again, I saw Mark a few tables away, talking to a pretty young woman.
I got up and left, knowing for sure that I never wanted to see him again.