Updated: Sep 18
The summer I was born was hot. At least that’s what I was told. I will be forgiven for not remembering this particular summer.
I can, however, remember the summer that followed four years later. That summer my mother was run over by a car. Of course, my memories of that summer are dim and it is more a feeling I remember than actual events. The feeling was discontinuity, incomprehension and also fear. I was not old enough to understand what happened. But I was old enough to understand that something had happened and that it was not good. My father was a shadow of his former self all summer and hardly dared to look me in the eye. I can only remember his absence during that time.
But there were also beautiful moments. My uncle moved in with us. He was a funny man, always a few words on the tip of his tongue and mischief in his eyes, he could tell stories you would never dream of, even if he sometimes talked about things I could not even follow. That summer he lived in our house and played with me, cooked and took me to the lake and taught me to ride a bike. Of course, my father was there too, but I don’t remember him being there.
In the summer when I turned five, my uncle moved out. I was very sad. The loss of him being there daily, his stories, and his laughter, hit me deeply. Isn’t it ironic that I remember him moving out with such strong feelings when I remember little to nothing of my mother’s death just a year before?
But the summer I turned five was also the summer my father found his old self again. He comforted me, he took me to the lake and he went on bike rides with me. Many years later, my uncle told me how much my father had suffered from the death of his wife and that he had hardly been recognizable in the time after her passing. He was very afraid for his brother and also for me. He said that for that one year, I had not only lost my mother, but both parents. My uncle explained to me that it was hard for him to leave our house, but he wanted to give my father the space to reconnect with me. And that's what my father did.
For the summer of my sixth year alive, my father, uncle and I went on a long trip. My father said that this would be my last summer before the seriousness of life began, and so we drove all over the country for a month, visiting mountains, lakes, castles, coasts and relatives, friends and strangers. It was an unforgettable summer and although I know it was great, I remember the feeling more than what happened. As the summer drew to a close and we returned home, I started school. After a glittering ceremony, presents and meeting lots of excited children, I came home tired but joyful. My father gave me a school bag and all sorts of stationery and kissed me on the forehead, “My child, these will be great years for you. Study hard, make friends for life, have experiences and enjoy being young.”
My uncle, on the other hand, explained to me, as he had often done, that life was to be viewed with suspicion. He gave me the words of Michel Foucault to take with me when I started school. Schools have the same social functions as prisons and asylums – they define, classify, manage and regulate people. He made me promise not to let myself be classified or managed by the school or by teachers. I gladly gave him the promise, as I had no idea what he expected of me. But years later I understood how my uncle taught me from a young age to think for myself.
The summers passed and I followed my father’s advice. I learned and discovered, I made friends and had experiences. Some were positive, some were not. I learned that people could be mean, even heartless. There were children full of resentment and envy who teased and bullied others. At first, I didn’t understand, but my uncle explained to me that people did things out of fear, out of guilt and out of self-doubt. He explained to me that the cause of action is to be found in every person’s self and only in them. In the decisions that they make and that are made for them and what that makes of them. He explained to me the powerlessness of some children, the helplessness. And I understood.
I missed my mother. However, it was more the idea of her than herself. I can hardly remember her and feel guilty about it. How am I supposed to love someone I barely remember? But then I see a child with her mother. I see the mother hugging her child, making a tender gesture, and smiling at her child. And it hurts. I feel like I should have that too, and I do. My father is there, my uncle. But there is the idea, the illusion of someone who should be there, too. When my father speaks of her, he does so with such reverence and love. He remembers. I wish I could too.
I grew out of the summers of my childhood. Life changed, and I changed. I learned to play the guitar and discovered new music. I took a growth leap and was accepted into the basketball team. I read a lot, not least because of my uncle’s recommendations. With the words of Voltaire, Reading Strengthens the Soul, he handed me The Picture of Dorian Gray at the age of eight.
My father just shook his head, but after my uncle left, my father sat me down and said, “Your uncle is a well-read person. That is a great quality, and he is a good role model for you. But I don’t want you to put pressure on yourself. Reading is a wonderful thing. It takes you into a world of wonder and amazement, it educates you and it brings educational experiences. But you should never forget this, it should give you pleasure. Start reading the books your uncle gives you, but don’t be discouraged if you don’t understand them yet. You can always ask me or him what something means and we will talk about it. However, if you feel that you are not ready for something. Then you don’t have to do it yet either. Take your time.”
The Picture of Dorian Gray is an instructive and exciting work. I read it several times by now, but not when I was eight. The first time I read through it completely was when I was 12. There was still a lot I didn’t understand, but my father sat me down as promised and explained it to me. My uncle gave me many more books. Some I liked, some I didn’t, but no matter what I thought of them, my uncle was always interested in my opinion. Once he quoted Hermann Hesse, A house without books is poor, even if beautiful carpets cover its floors and precious wallpapers and pictures cover its walls. I must agree with him.
The summer I turned 14 was the summer I first fell in love. It scared me, to be perfectly honest. I was excited and confused. We played on the same basketball team and saw each other every Wednesday for practice. All Tuesday I was vibrating with excitement. My father knew before I understood what was happening to me. He let me know that he would be there when I was ready to talk about it. I didn’t know then if I would ever be ready. But then it was all very simple. They came up to me and asked if we wanted to do something together, and we did. I think in the beginning we were just friends. Neither of us knew how to be or act in love, but then it became more and what can I say? It was my first love, and I will never forget it. Our time together lasted four years and it was a good time. Not always easy, as we were in the middle of puberty, but we taught each other a lot and for a while, we grew a bit together.
My uncle greeted my first love with the words of Albert Schweitzer: The only important things in life are the traces of love we leave behind when we leave. In retrospect, I see the truth in these words. I haven’t left yet, but my first love has left my life. However, they left a trace and the memory is something I value very much.
When I turned 18 and the summer was at its zenith, I was lost. I had finished school and would leave my father and my home to go to university. I had already found a room in a shared flat and everything was organized. The phase after graduating from high school with all the organization of the new life had been incredibly stressful, full of important things to think about and things to get done. But I didn’t really have time to think about the future during this phase. Now the planning for the future was in place. Everything was ready. But I wasn’t.
There was a particularly hot day that summer when I cycled to the lake. The lake was not far from our house. This was where I had learned to swim, where I had barbecued with my father and uncle, where I had drunk and danced with friends, and where I had sat for hours with my first love. I had been here so many times that I could no longer count. In our living room hung a picture of my mother standing waist-deep in the water of this lake, holding me in her arms so that my feet were in the water. We are both laughing in the picture. It’s not a memory, but it’s something I know about my mother and me. We were at this lake. I don’t want to give up this lake.
I know that the lake is just a metaphor. It stands for my life so far. For the time of my childhood, my youth. I am afraid to leave it behind. I am afraid to grow up, to take responsibility, to be hurt, to live. But I know that you can’t hold on. Time is a construct. It flows tenaciously and steadily, sometimes incredibly fast, sometimes in slow motion, but it cannot be stopped. My uncle once said to me that youth is the most beautiful and carefree time of life. Full of drama, full of discovery and joy. “But,” he said, “never forget Freud’s words: Most people don’t really want freedom, because freedom includes responsibility – and that’s what most people are afraid of. Growing up means reaching for freedom with everything you have and then when you reach it, it’s scary and some people shy away from it. But you shouldn't shy away. Freedom is a responsibility, that’s true, but it’s also the only way to live. And to live is worth it with all its pain, its joy. Be free, be joyful, be alive.”
And as scary as that is, I will.
Written by India Wittmershaus.
Cover photo by Wren Meinberg.