I’ve been in Germany for a week, and I can’t help noticing the owls. Owls everywhere; owls on postcards and t-shirts and pocketbooks; owl statues made of glass and marble and wood and metal. I arrived here in the motherland on Mother’s Day. My great-grandmother left Germany 100 years ago, on a boat, to find her new life in America. I’m on a boat. My mother collects — wait, collected — owls. You see where these things go.
Sometimes it seems I’m so focused on the women in the story, I forget to consider the men.
Last night our riverboat set sail after dark, up the Rhine. When we turned in, it was freezing out but I opened our window anyway and wrapped myself in a blanket and watched the cities go by. I grew up along the Mississippi River, but I don’t remember ever being out on the river at night. The river was dark and scary, even in the light, and my grandfather who piloted riverboats for decades warned me off the water. “The river is dangerous,” he would say. “You don’t know what can happen out there.” But last night I was all grown up and on the river in the dark, watching the lights of the cities and power plants and country houses along the bank, listening to the quiet swirls of the dark, brown water … and I wondered about my grandfather. I knew him hard and sharp-tongued and cruel and angry, and then, in the end, silenced. I picture him 50 years ago, out along the rails of a tug, the place where he was captain and king, leaning with false, quiet bravado out over the water, cigarette in hand, listening to the same swirling water, and I wondered, for maybe the first time in my 48 years, who he was, and who he’d wanted to be.
This morning, the owls were back. But my grandfather was there, too.