Few people sit down to holiday dinners across from a man with a lobotomy, but Uncle Jürgen Ramlau and his wife Marie were regular guests at our family table after World War II.
Uncle Jürgen had been a traffic policeman in Germany. Marie had cooked for the Kaiser. Jürgen enlisted in World War One, and under the gas attacks and brutal memories, had returned from the front with shell shock. How they made their way together to Cleveland in the Twenties or Thirties, I cannot imagine. But with her peasant intuition, hard work and frugality, she finally bought a rooming house in Cleveland. That is where they met my father, fresh from Toronto to find a career as a movie booker and pave the way for my mother and me.
I called her Mrs. Ramlau, though she asked me many times to call her Aunt Marie. By the time we were trading Sunday dinners, she had bought a former mansion on Magnolia Drive, an area going bargain-basement as the wealthy moved to Shaker Heights or Gates Mills, surrendering the core to "dp's" (displaced persons from Europe) and blacks. On the near East Side renting our duplex, we were considered foreigners, too, in a neighbourhood where we spoke the only unaccented English.
Mrs. Ramlau entertained six or seven roomers in that vast place, more suited for the game of Clue. It had a drawing room, a library, a conservatory and other quaint nooks, in addition to capacious bedrooms up a sweeping stairway, topped by a huge ceramic camel at the landing (I used to “ride” it), an elevator and bell system, a mammoth kitchen, warrens of cellars below where she plied her mangle, and even a four-door carriage house. On the large lawn were several munificent magnolia trees, their pungently perfumed blooms quickly rotting underfoot. The roomers, whom I’d pass in the halls from time to time, were a quiet, mixed sort. The one in the former conservatory drank wood alcohol and died. This was told to me in a matter-of-fact and undramatic way.
Uncle Jürgen, Jill her pet name, towered a foot and a half over his wife and retained his officer’s physique and posture. My father passed along suits to him, and Marie did the tailoring. The man looked like Konrad Adenauer. Somewhere In Cleveland, in benighted decades before chemical help, doctors had given him a prefrontal lobotomy, leaving small dents on both sides. He’d never been violent to people, but had gone on binges of activity, cutting down all the bushes in the yard. My mother explained this to me in neutral fashion.
He spoke only low German, Marie said. And on what level they communicated I do not know. Was he five cognitively? Ten? A very slow adult? That operation had certainly relieved him of the tensions and demons that had led her to take that step. He smiled sweetly, bowed, and thanked my mother when prompted for her meals. With (I swear) a raised eyebrow on his normally passive face, Jürgen paged through the Playboys on our coffee table and danced with my mother sedately. I had been told that he showed some agitation about my safety when I had been very young and jumped off the front steps.
Mrs. Ramlau answered her door every other Sunday from the time I was five until I left for college, wooden spoon in hand, shrouded by an enormous print apron, one tendril of pot-steamed steel hair over her jolly, optimistic eyes. Her short stout body, nearly as wide as tall, wore black, beaded dresses over sturdy laced black orthopaedic shoes. When asked what we were having, she would say, "Weiners and beans," though of course the meal would arrive as succulent rouladen, red cabbage, and plenty of potatoes or spaetzles. All you could eat. And how we did. There was always cake and ice cream for dessert.
I'd amuse myself in the attic of the huge carriage house, all dust and motes. Her car, an odd grey armour-like Dodge with a new-fangled semi-automatic transmission and wooden blocks on the pedals for her sat alone on the oil-stained concrete. I was especially entranced with a pile of 1938 newspapers, checked the names of all my local theaters, the Lyric, Variety, Homestead, Grenada, and the long vanished Stork. A film fanatic, for twenty years I kept the yellowing clip out of Mutiny on the Bounty.
I suppose that by twelve, I was showing off, and although I never said “Sieg heil,” I did say “Ja wohl” once, which brought a hushed remonstrance: “We do not say that now.”
Later all of us would gather in the living room later and watch Ed Sullivan (Solomon, she pronounced it), and The Whistler. At ten o'clock, we drove back to the asylum with Uncle Jürgen. I’d be dozing in the back of the ’55 Plymouth on those cold dark winter nights, mysterious underpasses with glimpses of shops, and then through the gates. At the front door, en route to the men’s wing, Uncle Jürgen disappeared until the next week.
Sometime in the early Sixties the government closed these places, tossing the confused back to their families. Mrs. Ramlau took him back like a good citizen, and with her profits and savings, moved nearly next door to us in the fashionable suburb of Lakewood. She no longer needed to rent. Her house had four or five bedrooms, and she had a museum of furniture. She gave me a cool red maple end table with three hinged tops that folded to make a triangle, a little beauty perhaps from the Thirties which disappeared twenty years later in my travels.
Every Saturday after that, my father took her shopping, and it was a family joke that she would leave him all her money. "Lard ass," he called her behind her back, but jovially let himself be ordered around. By now she had sponsored her nephew Werner Larson, who was now married to Ursula. Werner had been sent to the Russian front in summer uniform, he told us at dinner. He had the same familial wart on his nose, a mild a tool-and-die maker with politeness and gratitude for his new country.
I was now living at Ohio State in Columbus and home only for holidays. The Ramlaus must have been well into their seventies, hearty country people, when she called my parents one night. "Jürgen, he don't breathe no more." My parents saw that all the details were handled. The last time I saw her, she came to my MA graduation in 1968, bringing me a bottle of expensive Dior perfume.
Without Jürgen, rattling in that large house, she had been in touch with an old roomer from Magnolia Drive. “Mr. Connolly” asked her to join him in Palo Alto. Once more, this fearless woman moved across the country to the ice plants and bougainvillea. Her rest in the sun had arrived.
Now into 2013, I got curious and searched the Social Security Death Index. She was born in 1890, which would have made her a young woman when she cooked for the Kaiser. How far she had come, a formally uneducated but talented woman with a dream. Magnolia Drive has now been absorbed into the University Circle area, a million-dollar real estate investment. I am privileged to have known you, Aunt Marie, and I’m sorry to have been such a stubborn little snot about your name.