"In Search of Mama" is the story of Dottie Stroebe, a 1st generation German-American girl, with an illegitimate son, who falls in love with a carny man. Clayton is a one-legged Indian half-breed, fifteen years Dottie's senior. They marry, have another child and travel the circus circuit another four years before settling into a non-descript, life in Chicago. When Dottie passes in 2010, a strange elderly southern gentlewoman with the same last maiden name appears at the funeral, gives Dottie's daughter, Marie, a letter that is an invitation to visit her in NC, and saying she's known Marie's mother since she was little. Fifty-years old, with nothing holding her anywhere, Marie packs up and leaves Chicago shortly after. She finds Louise in a tidy log-cabin behind a dilapidated plantation. Even though Louise has extended the invitation, she is not happy to see Marie. As Marie tries to learn what role this mysterious woman played in the life of her mother, a family story unfolds that carries us from 19th century Appalachia to the plains of Oklahoma in the year it became territory, to 20th century railroad yards of Pennsylvania to Chicago from the 1940s to current. It tells of passion, racism and family secrets hushed through generations.
There was a loud bang on the bedroom door. Dottie was startled awake and when she looked at the bedside clock, she jumped from the bed.
“Coming father. I overslept. Sorry father, I’m coming right now.”
It would’ve been better for Dottie if she’d overslept on Monday or Saturday—any day but Sunday. He’d be in a rage that his breakfast wasn’t on the table. She could hear the cabinets slamming. He wouldn’t even know where to find the coffee. She ran down the hall to the bathroom, throwing on her housecoat. Granny’s door was open and her bed empty. There would be hell to pay for sure now. Father had gotten Granny up, changed and downstairs by himself.
“Here I come, father.”
She splashed cold water on her face and patted it dry catching a quick glimpse in the mirror. Her eyes were swollen, her face puffy and her throat scratchy from all the cigarettes. Oh, this was not going to be a good morning. She padded down the wood paneled staircase in her bare feet, something else he frowned on, but there was no time for slippers now. Arthur Godfrey’s Sundial program played on the radio like every Sunday morning. The heavy smell of Weisswurst sausage frying with potatoes and onions assailed her nose as she slowed at the kitchen doorway. She absolutely hated Sunday breakfast and was secretly glad she had overslept so she wouldn’t have to stand over the stove with that greasy steam in her face, clinging to her hair. She peeked around the doorframe. Granny was at the table looking into a coffee cup she held with both hands, still in her nightdress. Her father was bending over the oven to remove the Brotchen. The table was already laid with the wooden cutting board filled with sliced cheese beside the jar of orange marmalade. She really had overslept—and he had let her.
“This will never happen again, young lady,” her father said as he sliced the hot bread. “Staying out ‘til all hours of the night, doing god knows what so everyone else has to do your work. You can thank your grandmother for the Brotchen. You could care less if everyone starved.”
Dottie slipped in quickly to hide her bare feet and kissed Granny on the cheek.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered in Granny’s ear.
“Why didn’t you wake me up earlier? Why’d you let me sleep so long?” she spoke out loud to her father.
“You can thank your grandmother for that as well,” he said, dishing out the Bauernfruhstuck. “If it’d been up to me, I would’ve dragged you out by that primped up hair of yours. Even though you don’t care enough to take care of her, she’s always thinking about you. ‘Let her sleep, William, she says, she needs her sleep, she says. She’s a young woman and she needs time to herself, William.’ Do you care about anybody else’s needs Dorothy Emma? Really, do you think about anybody else besides yourself?”
Dottie patted her granny’s thin hand in a feeble thank you. Granny was not clean after the long night, and there was nothing that could make up for that fact. She’d been wrong to think her father would have done that, that he would’ve spent enough time in the room to actually smell the urine, to see the gangrene still crawling up the small portion of thighs that were left, to see the amputation sores oozing beneath bandages changed three times daily. He wouldn’t have been able to see all that and cook his precious Sunday breakfast too. However, she did. She saw it all, did it all and still cooked breakfast and dinner. She did all the gardening that he took the credit for to the neighbors. She washed all the coal dirt and grime from his clothes, and ironed them stiff until they looked like a headless father hanging in the closet. She washed and blocked the engineer cap so it too was stiff like new.
“Who is it that you care about Father,” she asked.
He slammed his fists into the table and she knew she’d gone too far. There was a quick shadow over the yellow gingham-curtained window as a red-winged blackbird visited the birdhouse hung from the willow. In the distance, a long whistle blew from a steam engine leaving the yard. She watched her father begin to roll the sleeves on his red-checkered shirt, slowly, almost in agonizing slow motion, because Dottie knew what was coming.
“Exactly two hours ago, at 11:15am London time, Britain declared war on Germany.”
Her father’s hands dropped to his side and he turned slowly to stare at the radio as though it had just landed there from outer space. He reached out and turned the volume dial higher.
“Sir Neville Henderson, Britain's ambassador to Germany delivered an ultimatum to Reich Chancellor Hitler that unless all aggressive hostilities against Poland end by 11:15am, England will be at a state of war with Germany. There was no response from Reich Chancellor Hitler and at 11:15am, British Prime Minister Chamberlain declared war. France is expected to announce a similar state.”
Her father dropped in his chair. He looked dejected, weak, and an expression Dottie had never seen on his face or his body before, fear.
“Are you okay Father,” she asked.
She went to him, placing her arms around his neck and leaning on his back. He patted her hands softly.
“Take your grandmother upstairs, Dottie.”
He rarely called her Dottie and he never patted her hands, not since before her mother had died. There was something drastically wrong. Nevertheless, she did as he said. She wheeled Granny to the staircase, then picked up her frail frame and carried her to her bedside chair. She went back down and brought up the folded wheelchair to lean against the wall. No one spoke. There was nothing to say.
Dottie went about the normal morning routine that she’d missed. She pulled the wet sheets, washed the plastic bed with Pine-Sol and remade the bed with clean sheets, tucking them in tightly as her mother had taught her—so that a quarter could bounce. She smoothed the eyelet bedspread over all and turned to gather clean clothes for Granny. She moved in clipped automation, robotic.
“Stop Dorothy, please,” said Granny. “Sit and talk. We need to talk.”
“Granny, I have to get you out of those wet nightclothes. Let me finish.”
She took the washbasin to the bathroom to fill with water. While the water warmed, she thought about talking. She didn’t want to talk. She didn’t know what to say, to anyone about anything. Last night had been wonderful and this morning brutal, but all that was eclipsed by something heavier and darker. The sun shone through the rose shade and dimly lit the mirror. Dottie stared at herself, looking for the complete difference that she felt. She looked the same but everything had changed.
She washed Granny slowly and tenderly as though it would be the last time. She cleaned the amputation cuts and re-bandaged neatly, wrapping all the soiled pieces in brown paper. Once she was done and everything ready for the incinerator, she sat on the floor and put her head in Granny’s baby-powder-scented lap.
“All that means nothing for us, right Granny?”
“I’m not sure anyone knows what it means for anyone except those who will march off. They know, and their families know, that it means death, killing and more death. I’m sure your father is worried about your Uncle Bruno. Last time he wrote he spoke about being conscripted into the German Heer. We’ve not heard from him since, and that was months ago. And my sister Karen in Poland, we’ve not heard from anyone there in a year. What does it mean for you? Only that you must be sensitive to your father and his concerns. We are his only family who is near and safe.”
“Would you like to lie down Granny? I’m going for a walk.”
“I’ll stay here if you’ll turn the radio on low for me. And Dottie, maybe you ought to clean the kitchen before you go out.”
Dottie turned the radio on low. The whistle of a Viennese waltz floated on the air. She didn’t answer; she just pulled her mother’s squared afghan over the old ladies’ knees and left the room. She was still in her housecoat and bare feet, so she went to dress. She knew it would only aggravate her father, but she pulled on a pair of brown trousers and a worn blue flannel with green wool socks. It was all warm and mixed up and comforting. She stopped on the stairs to look out of the porthole window between family portraits. People were gathered in bunches in the street, mouths moving or covered, and handkerchiefs patted at eyes. She heard dishes rattling in the kitchen and strains of the same Viennese waltz. Her father didn’t turn when she entered, so she poured a cup of coffee and sat at the table. He’d opened the window so crisp wind sucked and blew the yellow curtains in his face as he stood over the sink washing dishes. The stove was polished. The table cleared and wiped down. Only the bread board with cheese remained. Dottie spread a chunk of bread with orange marmalade, placed a few slices on top and took a large bite. She’d not eaten a thing. Had anyone?
“Father, I’ll finish. You haven’t had the paper yet today, have you?”
“I’ve got just about all the news I need, thank you. This is done, but you might pick the garden and check the clothes on the line. Will you be here to cook dinner or should I start that now as well?”
Well it hadn’t taken him long to get back to his old self, and Dottie had to bite her tongue to be “sensitive” as she’d promised Granny.
“I’ll be here Father. I’ve taken out a pot roast for dinner and I’ll start it as soon as I come back from my walk. I’ll check the garden and clothes on my way back in.”
“Don’t you think you had enough moving around last night?”
He never once turned to look at her even though he was finished with the dishes. He stood drying his hands on the yellow gingham towel and stared at the orioles and bluebirds vying for the grain. She could be on fire or naked and he’d never know the difference, never noticed anything unless it was something negative. He didn’t notice that the yellow gingham was old and fraying at the edges—the curtains, the dishtowels, the tablecloth—didn’t notice that they’d been the same since her mother died five years ago. He didn’t notice that nothing changed in this house except Dottie, and he certainly didn’t notice that. She noticed and it nauseated her. She was tired of the sickly yellow kitchen, the dirty yellow from years of heavy greasy cooking that sweated down the walls. She was sick of the same flannel shirts and striped engineer uniforms, sick of back-breaking gardening, sick of filling bird feeders and cleaning bird shit from the clapboard siding. She was sick of changing diapers and sheets and bloody bandages, sick of the smell of death. She was sick of Pittsburgh and steam engines and steel workers. She slid the chair back on the yellow and black linoleum and walked out the back door without saying a word. She walked down the marigold-lined walk, out the creaky whitewashed gate and down the alley toward the diner. At least it would be different walls with different voices.