My mother was an optimist. No, I mean really an optimist. This was a woman who, in 1969, planned a family summer vacation...to Ethiopia!
Granted, Ethiopia was not her first choice. Given her druthers, she would have hopped on a luxury ocean liner to Hawaii while young men in tight pants served her peach schnapps on a silver tray. "Peach schnapps—it's the most elegant drink!" she'd tell us.
My mother stood 5 feet 11 inches, a fast-talking German brunette given to wearing bright red lipstick, big amber beads, polka-dot dresses. My sister Kaitlin and I thought she was the most elegant person we'd ever seen. Then again, we were ages 9 and 6, respectively.
"Peach schnapps—we used to drink it all the time in Danzig, before the war, when your Tante Thea und I used to waltz to Strauss' 'Blue Danube,' sankyouverymach, at the glittering ballroom in Sopot built right over the sea. Mit ro-o-osen Gardinen! And you know your mother's dance card was never empty in those days. There was Hans Heinlich, Karl Obst, Dieter Fischer-Kucher. Oh! Swarming like bees to honey!"
My mother was a nonstop talker. She would not stop talking. That's why she was so sure her Hawaii pitch would work—"Palm trees, pineapples, Bali Hai!!! Bali Hai, Bali Hai, Bali Hai!"
My father was not impressed. "It is not that I do not like to spend money. Spend, spend, spend—that is all I do! It is just that I do not like to spend it on nothing."
Hawaii, of course, was nothing—a horror of sunny beaches, fruity drinks, laughing, happy people. Why would we want to go there? "Where is the education?" he asked.
My father was fascinated with places like Uzbekistan—where he'd wanted to go the previous summer. Why? Because he had a friend there we could stay with for free. But it was more than that.
"The people of Uzbekistan are very, very sensible and hardworking! They have had a tough life, boy! The agrarian farmworkers face a fascinating challenge with the tractors and combines that we will see at the science and technology museum blah blah blah blah..."
At this point, you might be wondering how two such opposite people as my parents got together in the first place.
I blame it on Buick. When my mother first saw my father, on that magical day in the late '50s, he was sitting behind the wheel of a brand-new 1956 Buick. I guess a man looks better than he ought, in a Buick. Especially when it's surrounded by Southern California in the '50s, a palm-fringed, swimming-pool-dotted utopia lit by a sun so bright you actually start to hallucinate. You believe you are in fact quite similar to a person.
No. 1: Both of you are new immigrants, recently escaped from bad circumstances in your home countries. My father was orphaned by age 12 in Shanghai, lived in poverty. My mother went through World War II, ran from soldiers, heard bombs drop around her.
Of course, my mother hated stories of grim Zolaesque realism. Her favorite after-dinner stories were either goofy or schmaltzy, ending hopefully with a glass of peach schnapps and a sing-along of some kind. When American friends at dinner parties would ask her about the hardship of Danzig, World War II, the Polish occupation, she'd cut them off.
"But enough of me. We are all of us travelers, nicht wahr? Foreign people in a foreign land. Und we all miss home, nicht wahr? Ja, ja. Prost! Let us sing...'Edelweiss! Edelweiss! Every morning you greet me!'"
Similarity No. 2 between my parents?
Except, I guess, that both had come to America—the place where miserable yesterdays could be traded in for joyous visions of tomorrow. And why not? It was the '60s. America was a great place to live! Jackie was in the White House, Apollo rockets were in the sky, the future was made flesh at eye-popping world's fairs featuring whizzing monorails above; below, pavilions of happy, dancing Third World people joining hands and singing: "It's a small world after all! It's a small world after all!"
So what if my parents had absolutely nothing in common? My mother would make this work. She'd smush polar opposites together and invent something wonderful and new like a raspberry linzertorte with sweet-and-sour hoisin frosting.
The first confident product of my parents' Sino-Germanic experiment was Kaitlin and I. Looking vaguely Hispanic, we were given Chinese middle names and hustled off to kindergarten in Heidi-of-the-Alps-type dirndls and clogs. We had more strange appendages grafted onto us than the jackalope.
Fashion victims of my mother's vision of a brave new (wildly cross-cultural) world, we were understandably suspicious of the idea of a family vacation in...Ethiopia.
"Ethiopia?" My father, of course, was immediately interested. And why not? Ethiopia was notoriously backward, wretched, poor. At that time, too, they were recovering from some sort of bloody civil war, leaving the countryside bleak, the people desperate. No one in the world would want to vacation there...which our father saw could be turned to our advantage.
"After all, if no one else is going, think how far the American dollar will go!"
"He thinks a vacation should cost one dollar! He's cheap—and mean!" we twin jackalopes, wary antlers trembling, pleaded to my mom. "He just doesn't want us to have fun. We don't want to go to Ethiopia!"
"Ethiopia? Where is that? Oh! You mean...Ethi-i-i-opia!" My mother sang it as though it were a musical, like Oklahoma! "Ethi-i-i-opia! Home of the magical town of Mesewa—called the 'Pearl of the Red Sea'—with its byoooootiful beaches? Und its luxooorious resort hotel with its glittering ballroom built right over the sea, mit ro-o-osen Gardinen, just like in Sopot?"
"Natürlich! It's right here in my kleine deutsche Reisebuch. Of course, your father doesn't know yet. He'll probably be quite angry. But once we get there, we will run away from your father, and swim on the beach!"
Air Ethiopia was not a good airline. A plunging, four-hour ride on a shuddering gray plane brought us to a town with the suspiciously gay name of Lalibella. "Lalibella!" my mother exclaimed in mock dismay as its airport—a manure field—rose up to meet us.
The Hotel Lalibella seemed made entirely of peat—and peat which had taken its kicks and beatings from the desert wind for a long time. Thick, woven carpets with ominous symbols hung everywhere, exuding a faint hay smell. Kaitlin and I were given sour glasses of lemonade to drink as we perched on the family suitcases, watching sheep graze outside a big picture window. All at once, the sheep scattered: A man in a galabia was running after them with an ax.
I opened my mouth to let out a scream when suddenly I heard my mother...laugh. What?
But indeed, there stood my mother with four German tourists, large and blond and gleaming in their sweat-streaked khakis, expensive cameras and voluptuous leather travel bags draped around them like fresh kill. Apparently there was no place in Africa so miserable some German tourist did not want to take a photo of it.
"So, Putzelinchens!" my mother said. "You see: Everyone's going to Mesewa! Ilsa, Franz-Joseph, Friedl-Beums...Hier sind meine Töchter—Kaitlin und Zandra. Zandra! Und das ist mein Mann, Herr Professor Doktor Loh, der kleine Chinezische."
With a wave of my mother's hand, soon the whole group was sitting down to a surprisingly festive Ethiopian dinner of bread and peas and potatoes. And, of course, fresh mutton that Kaitlin and I had watched nibble its last blades of grass a few hours earlier.