It was Buch. It was home—my home for seven years. The name means, “book.” Some farmer probably named it because the picturesque scenery lent itself to reminders of Robin Hood’s Sherwood Forest and Shakespeare’s A Mid-Summer’s Night’s Dream. Outlining the red-roofed houses were golden meadows, emerald forests, and shimmering ponds. Well, maybe the shimmering isn’t a good word. The ponds shimmered in the sun until one stepped closer. Then the remains of pussy willows poked up in the murky brown waters. Lucky viewers caught glimpse of friendly carp. (The carp were harvested and fried in the local restaurant. Our next-door neighbor, Gretl, preferred her carp, “blau”, or boiled. Somehow my churning stomach never downed boiled carp.) The highlight of camera snapshots one summer was the two swans that grace our carp ponds. Their pristine white added a splotch of life to the dull waters.
Buch boasted of a bakery with a small convenience store, two restaurants, a volunteer firehouse, a World War II monument, recycling center, and a kindergarten. The restaurants weren’t really in competition with each other. Where one ate depended on which menu one enjoyed the most. The bakery maintained a reputation for years as the greatest bakery in the area. That was when “Oma” was the chief baker. When she died, the goods turned doughy. Some of the locals even went to the next town for baked pastries and bread. “It’s sad, but the new generation can’t bake,” our neighbors would say with a slow shake of their head.
The World War II monument never caught my eye as a kid, but I never biked all the way down the street. Mom let us bike halfway and then turn around to come back. It wasn’t until I met Friedl that I noticed the monument. Her brother was killed in action in the German army. His name is etched on the monument. Every time we drove past the memorial kitty-cornered from the bakery, I was reminded of the cost of war….no matter what side you’re on. I think I’d never realized that Germans lost sons and brothers and fathers in World War II just like Americans did. Something else struck me too: not all the Germans were Nazis. This fact hit me when Gretl, Friedl’s sister, showed me and David an old photo album of her family. I saw her husband, Hans, in an army uniform. She quickly flipped the page past that photo. Looking at her chubby husband, I couldn’t fathom him in the Nazi army. “Some of them were forced in,” my dad told me later. I nodded soberly. It’s easy to be on the winning side and forget everyone else.
Perhaps the village was christened “book” because of the people. Even as a gangly, misfit teenager, I perceived the funny, wise, and wizened characters as true hearted, real, and warm. Strangers were observed with a wary eye until they had proved themselves. I don’t know how my family made it into the inner circle, but somehow we passed the unwritten test. Everyone seemed to know the “Pfaffer Familie”, or “the preacher’s family”. Our acquaintance time took longer.
There was Frau Hagan. It was rumored her husband lost more than pocket change at the card table in the corner of the village restaurant. She was always sweeping, usually early in the morning. As I came downstairs for breakfast, on clear, cool mornings, I’d hear Frau Hagen chatting with Frau Hable. They’d yell across the streets to each other. I never really listened to what the said. I only ever caught the mutual “Ja, ja” of acquiescence to whatever bit of wisdom that had been shared.
Speaking of Frau Hable, there’s a lady who crowned the town. She was noted for her exceptional gardens, which she labored in furiously. More than one summer day, I saw her printed flower capris blending in gracefully with the black-eyed Susans, marigolds, and mums. I never went into her house, but I imagined immaculate floors. How many times did I see her wipe off the outside window ledges? Or walk around the outside of her house with a rag, cleaning as she went? More times than I can count. She knew we spoke German, but I guess she only half believed it. Every time she conversed with us, she used slow, methodical sentences like a teacher to a kindergarten class. Who could blame her? After all, David did tell her on the day we moved in that we had everything in the house, except the big “cake.” He meant to say “kitchen” but it came out “cake.” Frau Hable proved herself a friendly neighbor more than once though. She offered her giant clothesline for Mom’s sheets to hang on. “Anytime,” she said. Not to mention from her spotless kitchen (again my imagination is in override), we enjoyed “WindBeutel”….the luscious butter pastries with a mysterious pocket of air in the middle.
Our house was in the middle of a circle of houses. Well, it was sort of a circle. Anne of Green Gables had the “Avonlea Circle”, we had the “Buch Octagon”. Frau Hable lived directly in front of our circle. Basically she was out our front door. Going to the right of our front door, the circle continued to include Friedl and Johann’s house, Hebert and Walli’s house, Gretl and Hans’ house, and finally Herr and Frau Lorenz. I never saw Frau Lorenz. Perhaps she was an invalid or deformed and afraid to come out of the house. Herr Lorenz took walks with his greasy haired Yorkie. Sometimes he stopped to chat with me. Most of the conversation ended with “mit dem Hund, na?” or “with the dog, right?” I usually nodded my head in a friendly way. He was an older man. Mom always said to respect your elder. I did, even though I wanted to laugh.
Friedl and Johann were my favorites in the octagon. Friedl loved her garden—but refrained from wearing the outrageous Capri’s that Frau Hable sported. When she saw we were sprucing up our garden plot, she handed over plants galore. Almost every day, she would lean over the fence with a sapling of some species. Some mornings, we’d just find the flowers or shrubs sitting on our side of the fence, waiting for us. How often we spoke of making a gate through that wire fence! But we never did.
Our back yard held a heating oil tank for the heaters in the house. It devoured most of the backyard, but the side area was open. David and I planted a garden there. The ground broke up unwillingly. Our edges were uneven and sloppy. But Johann didn’t care. He would stand and watch us work. Mostly David chatted with him during those sweaty afternoons. He directed us on the tomato plants, the lettuce, the onions, and the radishes. His garden like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon mocked our pauper’s patch. But he never disparaged us, just gladly gave his tools for us to use. “What’s mine is yours,” he said, his smile widening his whitened muttonchops. David accepted the handheld plow. Johann popped a cherry tomato in his mouth. “They’re better this way,” he said. “Fresh out of the garden.” He motioned to his radio that sat in front of his tool shed. “You should get some music for your garden. It helps the plants grow.” Then he went back to his own plot, whistling.
I guess we did need music. None of our produce was successful, except the sunflowers. The sunflowers grew taller than my 6-foot brother. The nearness of the dung pile probably helped in their flourishing. At any rate, David (myself excluded) became the talk of the town because of those plants. Somehow he was solely responsible. If our town had carried a newspaper, David would have made the front-page news.
“You have a rat.” My spine tingled at those words when Hans spoke them. Hans and Gretl lived on the backside of the octagon. Hans had been the mayor of Buch once upon a time, but those times were past. Now he was retired and spent his time straightening up the brick pile behind their house. He wasn’t crazy….just looking for a place to smoke. Gretl forbade it inside the house. Now he informed my dad and I that we had a rat in residence in our compost pile. He held up his hands. “Now, don’t worry. I’ve done this before. You stay out of it. I’ll get him.” Who could dispute with the mayor? He killed it with his pitchfork.
Have I mentioned Herr and Frau Stoof yet? They came from Romania, but were Germans. Frau Stoof had a knack for serving coffee and a snack, every time we dropped in for a visit. Her husband, Karl, would always chuckle about Mom’s first conversations in German. He would say as she improved, “Now we can talk about more than the weather.” He liked to shake hands and remind us with a wink, “Don’t forget to close your eyes when you sleep.” I could go on and on, but I don’t have enough pages.
So we lived out our days in happiness and attempts to “make difference” in this sleepy old town. I’ll never forget the conversations I had with Friedl about religion. She had known a Baptist before us.
“But he wasn’t like you,” she said. “We couldn’t give him anything. And his church name was odd. Are you sure you’re the same?” She placed her hands on the green wire fence.
“Yes, we’re the same group,” I said, shoving my hands in my pockets.
“But you’re different,” she said. She handed me some plants across the fence.
David held talks with Johann.
“When Friedl and I married, I was Lutheran. She was Catholic. Two religions in one family isn’t good,” he said, rubbing his muttonchops. “So we became Catholic. One religion is as good as another.”
David tried to open up the Gospel conversation. Johann waved his hand and smiled.
“I’m too old for change,” he said.
Our little church in Herzogenaurach, “the big town”, opened its doors and welcomed people from the city. People came by word of mouth, by flyers stuffed in mailboxes, and by ads in the paper. Gradually our core grew from just my family to around 20 or 30 other Christians. Each had a burden to bring the news of Jesus Christ to friends and family. So we held special days—having food and music—to attract people. Always near to our hearts were the Buch people. We invited and invited. They came–hesitantly at first, then willingly. “Your church is always so beautiful,” Frau Stoof said. I’ll never forget the thrill of seeing all our neighbors come to church. Friedl told me they would always visit “from time to time.” Who could ask for more? Friedl’s daughter, Anna, even asked Dad to baptize her new daughter, Lili. It was with great effort and gentleness that Dad told her Baptist didn’t baptize infants. Anna didn’t mind. She still came to church and remembered the “good news” that Dad preached. Every chance I got, I would sneak a tract in the bottom of a plate of cookies or some other way. Sometimes, Friedl would outright ask me about our faith. The conversation always ended with my faith versus her faith. My own grasp of spiritual things wasn’t strong enough to convince her about Jesus Christ, but I never gave up trying…….and I never stopped praying….because Buch is, and always will be, home.