The Toy Box
I found the little box of toys upstairs, in a finished attic room called the mansarde that was crammed full of furniture and boxes. I slept here when Mama and Papa had guests. Mama put the geraniums here during the winter, long boxes with knotty, leafless plants, smelling of bleach and earth.
The box was in the bottom of a big closet, under linens and other boring and old things. It was cardboard, shaped like a cigar box. It was beige, with a peach and green marble design, and filled with a fascinating jumble of figurines, little princes, kings, queens, tin girls and a man on skis, butterflies and birds. They were wooden and metal, and some were medallions, made of a brittle plastic, and some were miniature little books that all showed the same tiny man and crowds.
The strangest part was that the pieces all had strings and pins attached. They were the size of Legos, but you couldn’t lay them flat, they tipped to one side, and they weren’t tree ornaments, either. The wood was different from that of my blocks, lighter. The colors were pale, and some of the little figures had splinters. Despite their appealing size they were not made for small hands. The entire box was prickly because of the pins. Some of the metal pieces were sharp, too: a little owl, and flags, and mysterious wheels and crosses.
I saw the box again when Mama had the idea to renovate my room downstairs. She decided to use two different kinds of wallpaper. It was very chic, the latest in home decorating. She came home from shopping and told me about it while I was in sick in bed. Being sick was always nice. Mama was a nurse. Nursing made her smile and whistle happily. She would go shopping and bring home comic books and everything was different. Mama talked excitedly about how nice it would look. It was from a magazine for women.
When I got better, Mama spent a week at a home improvement store, and I slept in the attic mansarde for a few nights again. She covered my furniture with sheets and put up two clashing wallpapers in my room. You didn’t know where to look first, watery translucent purple blooms the size of tires on one side, or black and white abstract curves going up and down the opposing sides of the room. It was a creative moment that made Mama happy.
This was rare. It was a time when Mama and Papa argued a lot. Where have you been. You promised. Sin. You’re the one. Trust. You said, at the very beginning. Mama cried a lot. She asked me questions about Papa.
“Then where did you go?”
“Why did you take the bus?”
“Did Papa call anyone?”
Papa and I went hiking. Mama did not like hiking. She did not like a lot of things that we liked: silly laughter, Laurel and Hardy, adventure stories, reading maps.
While Mama renovated my room, I didn’t see much of Papa, but he came to say goodnight, as usual. He would bound up the long, creaky stairway to the attic, make jokes as usual, make me laugh. Papa read me stories, played customer in my shop, he could follow the adventures that my lamb and dog got into. Mama was always Mama. So that’s why, a sorrowful crease, sshh! It was our secret. He had to go back downstairs, and downstairs was no fun.
After the wallpaper dried, Mama changed her mind. From now on I would sleep upstairs. Permanently.
She droned loudly, buzzing with new rules and danger.
“You say good night downstairs. Once upstairs, you don’t leave the bed.”
A loud pounding in my stomach and chest. The renovation, used against me like a conspiracy.
“Listen. Don’t contradict me. You stay in bed and you don’t walk around for any purpose.”
Not a new room, no room at all. Split between two rooms.
“You don’t get up until I come upstairs in the morning.”
“I don’t want to hear steps. I do not want to hear steps from you all night, at any point of the night.”
My bed upstairs was a sleek Danish fold-out couch with a long shelf down the side and a storage box at the head end that was slanted and did not let you place things on it. The floor had a thin carpet, the roof cut through half the space. The windows were small, without shutters or curtains, but a whole row of them. It could have been a paradise, if truly mine, but the geraniums stayed. The boxes, furniture, everything stayed, and at first I was not even allowed to bring anything to read.
That’s when I found the box again, and this time I read all the little books one by one, under my blanket, with a smuggled flashlight. There was nothing else to do upstairs, my bedtime was seven p.m., agonizingly early. I sorted them by difficulty. “The Leader and youth,” easy read with lots of pictures of children. “The Leader and his buildings” showed temples of some kind, and Roman-looking bridges. “The Leader makes history” and “The Leader’s Struggle in France” were full of harsh and unknown words. But the people were happy in all the pictures, and they always waved at him, all at the same time. And the leader smiled back so nicely, fatherly, but also mysteriously, kind of like the Mona Lisa, that’s a picture I’d seen.
The people in the booklets looked like Austrians. The reason I noticed is that Mama made me wear dresses like that but I wanted to play soccer and other kids started to tease me. The two dresses I hated most were my communion dress and an Austrian costume with an apron.
My toys, books, school things, and clothes stayed downstairs. During the week I had to get up early for school, but the weekend mornings were torture. I would wake at 5 or 6 and Mama did not come upstairs to check my feet until nine or ten. I wasn’t locked in, but you had to go down a long stair, and it took me several years to master the art of coming down it completely soundlessly. I had to drink even less at night, and Mama left a bedpan, but she was so angry the few times I had to use it that I took to peeing in the geranium pots.
Mama was angry more and more often. She took wild unplanned trips to consult about something with Oma, my grandma. Sometimes she would take me along, chain-smoking in the car, furious. Her hair changed from black to blond, and from straight to curls. She went into expensive shops and bought sets of things. Sometimes she drank like Papa, but it did not make her tipsy and giggly.
Despite all these warning signs, I let on that I had seen it. It was a Sunday, we were in the living room after church, and something came on TV and I recognized Hitler from school, and from the booklets.
“That’s him, just like those little postcards upstairs!”
Mama came alert instantly, her eyes little slits and her nose flaring.
“What did you say? Where?”
I ran upstairs and pulled it out, and Mama was right behind me and then she stood in front of me. I still had my communion dress on.
“Are you going through the closets up here?”
She tore the box away from me, and hit me across the face with the back of her hand.
“You leave that alone, don’t you touch that! “
My ears rang. I got minor cuffs all the time, and she used to hit my fingers at the table, with a spoon, but this was the hardest she had ever hit me. The knuckles on her right hand must have hurt, but she did not let on.
“Your tears don’t impress me. Go downstairs and put your house clothes on. You know you are not supposed to snoop around.”
Everything changed after that. Everything changed at that time.
I was difficult. I stole and I hoarded things. I was gloomy and read all the time. I ran away at night.
They sent me to a psychologist to figure out what was wrong. Mama took me the first time, but she did not like waiting, and after that I took the bus.
I played in a sandbox, and was glad to be out of the house. The doctor said that hoarding was typical for children raised in orphanages, and that they should tell me that I am adopted.
We had a terrible fight in 2006, and did not speak after that.
At the beginning of 2008 Mama moved from Wiesbaden to Limburg, without telling me. And then she died three months later.
That’s when I found Mama’s toy box again.
It was one of thousands of items in an apartment filled to the ceiling with boxes and trash and unprocessed, never-unpacked belongings, but I recognized it right away.
I almost passed out. My heart formed a painful giant knot in my throat. My ear started ringing.
I opened it. Everything was exactly as I remembered. The little clown was there, the stick horse, the plastic swastika, the Hitler booklets. Mama kept it all her life.
(to be continued)
Heartfelt thanks to our instructor, Charles Salzberg, and to my fellow writers at the JCC writing workshop.