From: my grandfather, Richard Ebel, age 34
To: his mother, my great-grandmother, Berta Ebel
What: a postcard welcoming her to the United States
When (i.e. postmark date): February 16, 1940, 9:30 PM
Where: from 37 Whitehall Street to the Hoboken Pier, where her ship, the S.S. Volendam, has just arrived from Rotterdam
The stamp: one red cent
The ink: fountain pen
First off, greetings from the free country of America! We’ll be waiting for you at the pier. It takes a few hours, then you’ll be able to greet us. Were you sea sick? Best wishes from all of us,
It is now 1940. Europe is in flames. My 34-year old grandfather left Berlin more than two years prior with his wife and child. What did my great-grandmother do all that time? My God, everybody must have been beside themselves. But here she is. Berta Ebel travels across the ocean in the middle of a world war to find herself in a new city. Waiting at the railing. Scanning the crowds. She is looking for Henry, her 5-month old grandson, but he’s a toddler now.
This postcard sits in one safe-deposit box or another for 70 years.
When my brother and I put together our presentation for the Federal Republic of Germany, we don’t include it.
What bureaucrat in Cologne considering our application for restored German citizenship needs to see a postcard from a hopeful, relieved son to his mother? What does such a document prove?
This morning, when my alarm goes off at 4:55 AM, I check my various technologies.
My brother David has texted me. “Give me a call,” his text says. “I want to talk to you about a few things.”
Lying in bed in the dark, my stomach drops. “Shit,” I think. “He’s read my blog and I’m in trouble.”
I call him around noon.
We talk for the better part of an hour.
We are kind to one another.
I’m not ready to turn our conversation into witty banter with the quotes in the right places, even though David says I can. But here’s what I’ve got for now:
1) None of us will ever know what really happened. We’re all making up the story as we go along, as best we can.
2) Unless you’re an only child, your father is somebody else’s father. Now you’ve got two stories and they might not match.
3) Let’s say the father leaves and starts over. There’s the kid that was left, and there’s the kid he stuck around for. Both scenarios are a mixed bag.
4) Sometimes when you make art, it confuses (at best) and hurts (at worst) other people.
This is why an old postcard is helpful.
You can hold it in your hand, you can stare at the postmark.
It proves something.
It is February 1940, and a ship docks at the Hoboken Pier.
On the ship, there is a mother. She has become an old woman.
On the shore, there is a son. He has become a father.
It will take a few hours, but he is eager to greet her after her journey.
He will wait there as long as necessary. He has the idea that she is safe, but he won’t know for sure until she steps into his arms.
As my brother and I wind down our conversation, he walks down the front stairs of his San Francisco apartment.
There is a letter waiting for him, from the Federal Republic of Germany, postmarked Cologne.
“Open it,” I say.