1: My Roots
The limousine is purring along the highway. I am sitting in the back of the car, watching the dense green of the trees fly past. It is a spring day to make the heart leap for joy—bright sunlight, a deep-blue sky contrasting with the egg-yolk yellow of fields of buttercups. Lost in thought, I contemplate the beauty of nature. I'm on my way to meet a self-help group from the German Stroke Aid Foundation. This part of the country is very familiar to me. Down below flows the Ems, the river that has been a part of my life since my earliest childhood. There's a place here that I am particularly fond of, where willow branches hang low down to the water. "Would you stop for a moment, please?" I ask my driver, Thomas Barnhsfer. He nods understandingly—he knows how much I like this spot. We've stopped here for a few moments so many times before.
I go down to the river and see my face reflected in the water. The memory of days long past comes into my mind. I see a small blonde girl who takes a running start here before grabbing hold of a willow branch to swing herself across to the opposite bank. She's having great fun. She swings back and forth again and again. Sometimes she's in luck and reaches the other bank; often she isn't, and falls in the water. When that happens the little girl just splutters, shakes herself, and tries again.
I was that little girl. I couldn't swim yet, but that was how I learned. I taught myself to swim at the age of four. Later, my mother told me that this was when she first guessed what a strong will I had and how fearless I was.
This place is my link with my roots. I need the memory of it from time to time, and it does me good. It gives me new strength to go on with my work. The path that's taken me from that determined child to the woman I now am has been a long one. Thoughtfully, I go back to the car. The patients in the self-help group are expecting me.
"Everything all right, Frau Mohn?" asks Thomas, opening the car door. I nod. He's been my driver for many years, and we know each other well. We don't need to say much to understand each other. As we drive on, I think of the lost world of my childhood.
When I was born death and devastation reigned. Millions were dying on the battlefields of Europe—but my life was beginning. As human beings we are part of the eternal cycle of birth and death. I was a wartime child, and like many others born at that time my chances of a happy, successful life were slim. All that mattered was survival. The women who had babies then, who cared for them, protected them, and made sacrifices to bring them up, are still my heroines. My mother told me that I was born during an air-raid warning. That was the day before the war with Russia began, and it was as if a pall of fear lay over Germany. Fear was my mother's strongest emotion at my birth—fear for her life, for her child's start in life, in the face of an unknown future. That fear was obviously transferred to me. Later I heard and read a great deal about the way that unborn babies can sense their mothers' emotions, moods, and fears during pregnancy. It must have been like that with us: I was a very fretful baby who cried a great deal at night, and I had bad dreams. My mother had to pick me up every night, comfort me, and change my diaper or my clothes. Perhaps this was the deeper reason for the special link that always existed between us.
Like many children of my generation, I have only fragmentary memories of the war. But its terrors are still present in my mind. There were frequent air-raid warnings in the town of Wiedenbruck, where we lived, because it was close to Bielefleld and the Ruhr, areas that were being heavily bombarded. Bombs fell on the outskirts of our own town, too, and we children were often hurriedly roused from our beds at night to go down to the air-raid shelter. The fear I felt when the sirens howled and I ran down the road, often still in my nightdress and holding my mother's hand, is something I will never forget. Nor will I forget the musty smell of the crowded, dimly lit cellar where people anxiously huddled together in the stale air.
One morning after we came up from the shelter, I found that my bed was all frosted over, and that there were frost flowers on the window, for our house had no central heating. My mother would heat stones in the oven and put them in our beds to keep us children from freezing. Their warmth was very comfortable, and I can still conjure up the feeling today.
When I look back at my childhood and youth, their outstanding features were the love and tender care I received. The world around us was foundering in rubble and ashes, and hunger, misery, and want reigned supreme. It is difficult, however, for a child to grasp the full import of such events. We lived unpretentiously at home, and ours was a community that gave us a sense of security and stability. I remember that to this day, and it tells me what really makes children happy: not pretty clothes, expensive toys, or vacations in faraway places, but love and security. And we had plenty of that at home, particularly from my mother!
I know now that material possessions can't be expected to mean much. A car, a fine house, and professional success are no substitutes for a loving embrace. We can't achieve love, affection, or trust through material property and expensive presents, only through intimate relationships with those who are close to us.
Our mother cared for us children from morning till night. She had rented a small garden plot where she grew vegetables and potatoes so that we would have enough to eat. I still remember the rather sour flavor of the bread soup that we very often had for lunch—it was one of our main sources of nourishment in the postwar years. I suspect I felt the same about it as many other children of that time—soon I couldn't stand the smell of bread soup, and I didn't really want to eat it. But hunger made me force it down. All the same, we didn't know the kind of hunger that was suffered in the big cities. In our little country town, we all bartered and exchanged food whenever we came by something edible. If a pig was killed in the neighborhood, everyone had a piece of it. We took it for granted that neighbors would help one another. Often we children and our mother collected beechnuts to press the oil from them, or we went out into the woods to collect firewood. In the morning we children had to pick beetles off the potato plants growing in the garden. I still remember how nauseated I felt when they crawled up my arm.
The children of our generation knew nothing of boredom and surfeit. The members of every family—and that included the children—were fully occupied in surviving and staying alive.
My mother was a trained milliner and came from a family of nine children. My father was from a farming family and had become an independent craftsman. He had suffered a tragic blow of fate: One day he was struck by lightning. He lay unconscious in MYnster University Hospital for two weeks, and he was never able to work after that. He wasn't called up for war service, which was a disappointment to him. I think that in the spirit of those times, he felt there was something dishonorable about it. He died when he was only sixty.
So my mother was the central figure in the lives of her five children—she took responsibility for the whole family. Today she would be described as a strong woman who made her own decisions, but that was taken for granted at the time, and nobody thought much of it. These days, it would be said that someone like my mother had a strong personality, but back then women coped with life as it came, without a lot of fuss. Nonetheless, the mental and physical burdens they bore did not leave them unmarked.
Our mother was always there for us—cooking, washing, making clothes. Of course, we children realized that she didn't have an easy time. We knew our mother had to think about every pfennig she spent, and often didn't know how she would manage. Even as a small child I could tell at once when something was depressing her. I would take her hand and stroke it, and I think she understood me without words. In my childish way, I wanted to comfort her. I loved her very much.
Although those were hard times, she was a cheerful woman at heart. She was delicately built, with black hair and blue eyes that studied the world with curiosity and interest. "Don't let things get you down"—that was her motto, and it was the way she approached life. She always thought positively, and she knew and sang all the songs there were to know. She had many friends and acquaintances who dropped in to see her daily. She never spoke ill of anyone, her heart was open to all and sundry, and she was always ready to help.
There were many beggars in the postwar period, when people often had nothing to eat. My mother would always have something to give to people who came to our door—a piece of bread, some vegetables, a bowl of soup. And we often had children from the industrial Ruhr staying with us. My mother fed them well. How she managed it I don't know, but later on she made sure that her children had all kinds of things like bicycles, roller skates, and ice skates. The banks of the river Ems were our favorite playground. We swam in the river in summer and skated on the ice when it froze in winter. When we came home, frozen like icicles, she would give us homemade doughnuts. She had a talent for creating a comfortable atmosphere. It wasn't until I had children of my own that I truly appreciated what she did for us. She gave us loving security.
I know that she drew much strength from her faith at this time, although later, in her old age, she tended to distance herself from religion.
My mother loved other human beings, something that I learned from her. In that respect she left a more profound mark on me than I could possibly realize when I was an adolescent. Later, as an adult, the mother of three children, and a professional woman taking responsibility for others, I became more aware of it.
I must also inherit my fundamentally optimistic, positive outlook from her. She was ready to do all kinds of things into extreme old age. When she was eighty-eight she visited us in our house on Majorca, where she enjoyed the view of the sea from the terrace. But then she would say: "Just looking at the sea all the time gets boring." She wanted to do something—go into the little town, mix with people.
My mother lived to the age of ninety-four. When she died I felt not so much grief as gratitude for all she had given me. I had said my real good-byes earlier, during her long illness, and I deliberately and gradually let go. That helped me to deal with the pain better. It is the kind of good-bye I would wish my own children to say to me when my time comes. I had my mother's coffin covered with pink and white orchids—her favorite flowers.
Excerpted from The Heart of Business by Liz Mohn. Copyright © 2005 by Liz Mohn. Excerpted by permission of Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.