German Lessons by Sue Mell

slippered feet on stone floor

Steh Nicht Auf, Bitte

In 2018, after a catastrophic fall down the stairs, my then 89-year-old mom had a surprisingly good, if arduous, recovery, but remained unstable on her feet, even with a walker. I’d known her memory was failing, but hadn’t understood the extent of her diminished capacity until I moved back home to help take care of her. Whenever I had to leave her alone for a few minutes—to prepare a meal, to deposit her dirty diapers in the outside trash—it was hard to impress upon her that she shouldn’t get up by herself. I wondered if appealing to another part of her brain might have a better effect, so I Googled the German translation of the phrase Please don’t get up. My mom was so tickled that I downloaded the Duolingo app and started learning other words and phrases. But a few weeks later she told me that she found it upsetting to hear me speaking German.

Ach, Ja

I was 30 when my mom told me she’d still been living in Germany during Kristallnacht. How someone had pointed out her and her mother to the Gestapo, how they fled through the streets and up a hidden ladder over a hedge, how a stranger finally took them in and hid them. She was 10.

I’d always been told that her family left before things got bad. But then my mom saw a play about the daughter of Polish immigrants who suffered psychological damage from being kept in the dark about her family’s persecution.

As a kid, I’d had bad dreams of being chased by Nazis. When my mom revealed the truth, I reacted badly. A better person would not have yelled at her; a better person would’ve told her how sorry they were for what she’d been through.


Auf Italienisch

When I was 10, my mom began teaching me and my older brother German. Then my dad decided to take a sabbatical, my family moved to Florence for a year, and we ended up learning Italian instead. The only German that stuck with me was how to count up to five, and how to say the apple is red. But if I try to remember the Italian word for apple, all that comes to mind is pomme, from my high school French.

Ein Schöner Rücken Kann Auch Entzücken; Ein Schöner Bauch Auch

One evening, when I was changing my mom before bed, she quoted me a German rhyme. I shook my head and she translated. A beautiful back can also delight, a beautiful belly too. A little disconcerting, since I was cleaning her private parts, but I didn’t want to discourage any memory, so I had her teach me the words. “We’ll have you learning German in no time,” she said. I reinstated my Duolingo account and paid for the premium version this time. Every day, I do my 5-minute lesson, and my mom, who’s forgotten her earlier objection, relishes my growing vocabulary. Once or twice, seemingly stumped herself, she’s asked me how to say something in German. With age, such are the intricate failings of the human brain.

Einszweidrei, Im Sauseschritt  Läuft Die Zeit; Wir Laufen Mit

Music-based memories and poetry, it’s said in dementia-care circles, are the last things to go. In my years of education, the only poem I ever memorized was “Paul Revere’s Ride.” But my mom learned tons of poetry by heart, in both German and English, and snippets often arise.

I’ve been living with her the last three years. Twice a day, every day, I make her walk a few laps around the downstairs, and she whines and protests nearly every time. To encourage her—and bolster my patience—I sing, real or made-up songs, or have her join me in that marching drill cadence about a guy who left, left, left his wife, and 48 kids, and an old grey mare, and a peanut shell. Then one day, she pulled out an unfamiliar line of German poetry like a rabbit from a hat. It began with counting up to three. “What’s the rest mean?” I asked, and she loosely translated. One-two-three, in quick steps Time runs; we run with it.

Too fast, meine liebe Mutter. Much too fast.

Meet the Contributor

sue mellSue Mell is a writer from Queens, New York. She earned her MFA from Warren Wilson College, and was a 2020 BookEnds fellow at SUNY Stony Brook Southampton. Her debut novel, Provenance, won Madville Publishing’s 2021 Blue Moon Novel Contest, and is slated for publication in July of 2022. Her collection of micro essays, Giving Care, was a semi-finalist for the Digging Press 2020 Chapbook Prize. Other work has appeared in Brilliant Flash Fiction, Cleaver Magazine, Digging Through The Fat, Jellyfish Review, Narrative Magazine, Newtown Literary, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and Whale Road Review. Find her at suemellwrites.com.

Story Image Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Rachel

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