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Sunday
Oct072012

Der Husten meines Vaters

An essay ("My father's cough") by this German writer.  You can read the original as part of this collection.

When my father became as old as I am now, he seemed to me (perhaps naturally) to be older than I feel.  Birthdays were not celebrated at our house – this was seen as a deplorable "Protestant habit" – so while I cannot remember a party, a few details come to mind about the mood that reigned in October of 1930.  (My father shared a birth year, 1870, with Lenin, but, I think, nothing more.)

It was a dreary year.  Total financial collapse, and not your run-of-the-mill 'going broke,' either.  Instead, a baffling transaction called an "insolvency proceeding" took place.  It did sound much more noble than "bankruptcy," and was linked to the collapse of a worker's bank whose director, if I recall correctly, ended up behind bars (credit abuses, expired securities, frivolous speculation).  Our house out in the country had to be sold, and not a penny was left over from the amount we received.  Very disturbed by this event, we all moved into a large apartment on the Ubierring in Cologne, at the time directly across from the vocational school.

Bailiff after bailiff, bailiff's seal after bailiff's seal.  We would rip them off provided they had been freshly applied, in defiance of this premature attempt to seize our belongings.  In time, however, we grew indifferent and let the stickers be stuck.  Soon we noticed that some of the furniture had truly become 'seal colonies' (the piano, for example).  We got along with the bailiffs; sardonic remarks were exchanged, of course, but neither party ever strayed into vulgarities.

I also remember the politically-charged design of the four-pfennig coin involving an emergency decree and a tobacco tax.  This four-pfennig piece was a large, beautifully sculpted copper coin, although it may be that the coin first came out in 1931-32.  The Nazis marched triumphantly into the Reichstag; Brüning was still in office then; and the paper we read then was the Kölnische Volkszeitung.  My older siblings, however, swore by the RMV (Rhein-Mainische-Volkszeitung).

No more playing games outside.  Very painful.  In the suburb of Raderberg we used to play street hockey with old umbrella crooks and empty milk boxes, rounders sometimes, football less often, in the park by the promontory.  The park's roses were also snipped with what we called a Flitsch, a crotch, but which in other German regions is referred to as a Zwille.  When tossing tires we would slip old bicycle rims down a mild meadow cliff; the person whose tire rolled the farthest was the winner.  Records were set; tire battles went around the entire extended block; but using purchased wooden tires was considered inappropriate.  Ping-pong on the terrace, scarecrows in the garden; target practice with air rifles on unused light bulbs which still had bayonet screws.  We saw nothing military in these shooting exercises, much less anything war-like.  Ten years of freedom and too many idle games for me to count.  (The blazing torches on St. Martin's Day, the paper kites we would build and launch, the marbles we would play.)

In the long hallway of the Ubierring apartment we continued our target practice, now with standard-issue targets and pins called Flümmchen (which, I find in old Wrede's dictionary, comes from Flaum, "down" or "fluff," which in turn comes from the Latin pluma; looks like our pins had swabs).  Whoever happened to be in or going into the bathroom, kitchen, or bedroom during these exercises had, of course, to be warned.  The general mood was insouciance and fear, so they cancelled each other out.  Of course not all of our income was reported to the bailiff.  We were paid under the table for certain jobs, while also earning money by renting out our appliances for joinery and carpentry work.  Recently, I came across this passage in Isaac Bashevis Singer's Enemies: A Love Story: "If you wanted to live, you had to break the law, because all laws condemned you to death."  We wanted to live.

Things proceeded modestly and yet modesty did not become our watchword.  We had enough worries and debts as it was: rent, food, clothes, books, heat, electricity.  Against all this only temporary insouciance was of any help, and only because it was temporary.  Somehow money had to be drummed up for the cinema, for cigarettes, for the coffee we could not do without, all of which was met with only occasional success.  It was during this time that we got to know all the pawnshops.

Yet all of this was not as much fun as it might sound.  The more modestly life rambled on, the less of a watchword modesty became.  I recall with gratitude the loyalty of my older siblings who spared me, the youngest, from so much, even now and then hiding certain things.  Yet what most distressed me during this time was my father's cough.  He was a svelte man: between the ages of nineteen and eighty-four his body weight fluctuated only by one or two kilos; only when he turned eighty-five did he begin to waste away.  He did things in moderation, but he also liked to smoke; yet he never inhaled and never let anyone take away his Lundis (at least not entirely!), thin, pungent cigarillos in small tins.  In this respect he was sad, as well as powerless against the circumstances, and I think sometimes that we children did not properly take part in his mourning.

His cough even outyelled the powerful roar of the number sixteen streetcar; we could hear the cough then from a good distance.  But his cough most distressed me on Sundays in the overcrowded Basilica of St. Severin.  We never went 'all together' to mass, always individually, and it was rare that two or three siblings shared the same pew.  And so we would wait, each in his seat, full of dreadful tension, to hear our father's cough, which would suddenly break out, rise almost to suffocation levels, then, as my father exited the church, peter out anew.  We also understood that he would then stand outside and smoke a Lundi to better his cough. 

Now that I am as old as my father was then, I see that I seem to have inherited his cough (and I am not alone).  There are a few of them in our household who, if I parked on a street choked with cars, would recognize me by my cough, even during the loudest traffic.  I rarely need to ring a doorbell or stick a key in a keyhole; the door is already open before I can do either one.

My cough must lie on wavelengths which penetrate not only traffic jams and screeching brakes, but also many a tap and tattoo, although I do not think one may call my cough "penetrating."  It is composed of variations of different forms of hoarseness, usually expresses some kind of embarrassment, and is only rarely a sign of a cold.  And there are those who know that it is more than a cough – as well as less.

My one-year-old granddaughter, for example, seems to understand it as a form of language or address.  She imitates it, and the two of us converse in coughs, which assume an amused and ironic character and in which we clearly have something to express.  Here I think of Beuys, who once addressed someone solely by clearing his throat and coughing slightly, a very clever way, as it were, of addressing someone.

Perhaps we should establish throat-clearing schools, at the very least experiment with throat-clearing as a school subject.  We should likewise free throat-clearing from its dumb index finger function – a sort of warning of impending tactlessness during a conversation.  The art pour l'art of coughing and throat-clearing.

We should also consider whether some very smart people might want to devise a throat-clearing letter to the editor.

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