My first novel was originally titled The Pear Tree House. I’m playing with the title and have changed it to Polishing the Bones to match or emphasize the main theme of the novel: hiding secrets and then dealing with the destruction they cause.
In the novel, my main character, Beth, is sent to spend a summer with her aunt when she (Beth) is twelve years-old. Her parents are trying to reconcile and repair their imploding marriage and wanted to spare Beth the pain of watching her parents fight and negotiate and compromise and hopefully renew their marriage.
However, Beth’s time at her aunt’s house is immediately destroyed because of her cousin and various plot lines that I am not going to explore here. In the end, the important thing is that Beth ends up “working” at a local bed-and-breakfast for the summer. What was initially an additional form of distraction became Beth’s sanctuary and hideaway from her cousin’s disintegration.
The bed-and-breakfast is completely lifted from my memories of Ramsau and Haus Neuhausen from my childhood years. When I first lived in Germany in the late 70’s/early 80’s, my parents quickly decided that the idea of staying on base wasn’t acceptable. Almost every weekend, my family piled into the car and we set off, exploring and seeing the world.
Ramsau is a tiny cow town tucked away from the world, hidden in a valley not far from Berchtesgaden. And just off the main road (if a two lane road can be considered a main road) was a German version of a bed-and-breakfast, Haus Neuhausen.
The Machata family owned the house, and from the first time we met them, they quickly became a second-family for my own. In addition to a wing on the side, the house had at least three stories on the main structure (a typical Bavarian house with dark wood panelling on the top and white stucco on the bottom. I remember at least one long balcony on the front of the house. Likely, there were others).
What I remember most was the family’s warmth. I couldn’t speak German. Maybe one family member only could speak English. We crossed those boundaries, though, with lots of stuttering, laughter, embarrassing mistakes that became jokes, and compassion and love.
And the Machata family became the entities of the three sisters in my novel (and Thomas, one of the sister’s husband). Because the sisters take in Beth and slowly and assuredly show her love. They introduce her to different facets of life and help her move through a painful summer.
For myself, my memories of the Machatas are colored by warmth, by the smell of hot chocolate and warm breakfast rolls, by the smell of smoky dining rooms while the television plays the World Cup finals and Germany beats Argentina.
My memories of Haus Neuhausen are gardens, a small cage with a chipmunk within it, an aviary filled with little songbirds.
The chipmunk cage was at least two feet high and eighteen inches wide. And the chipmunk wasn’t skittish around me which gave me the impression that maybe I was a chipmunk whisperer. For years, my imaginary friends were chipmunks, partially inspired by the chipmunk at the Machata’s house.
In the morning, Martina (the daughter of Frau Machata, Haus Neuhausen’s matriarch) would feed the chipmunk. And she would allow me to help with squeezing the fruit onto the wire mesh of the cage, or give it sunflower seeds or something. I remember that I would bring out little bits of my breakfast rolls and the chipmunk would come out of its nest and accept the morsels from my fingertips. I was never in danger of being bitten….remember, I was the chipmunk whisperer.
The chipmunk would do back flips in the cage. It would run along the branch and onto the wire. Running up along the wire, it would vault over to the branch, completing the back flip. In circles, it ran and ran and I was entranced, hoping it would tire so that I could gently rub its belly if it paused on the wire long enough.
The aviary wasn’t huge by any real standard, but in my memory it was huge. I remember the tiny birds with the bright orange, triangular shaped beaks. They were a light, neutral brown color and were the size of small chickadees. I remember the quiet warble they made, how they would flit from branch to branch and sing. And I would sit on the bench just outside the aviary and watch them as they spritely flew throughout the cage.
Martina once took me through the gardens…I remember the circular flower plots. I remember the brilliance of colors settled against the gray cloudy horizon typical of Germany, or, at least, southern Bavaria. I remember that, in my mind, the gardens stretched out forever and bordered nothing short of a fairy land.
I have stumbled my way through this post, as I keep on trying to evoke memories that are thirty years old (or older). I keep on remembering sensation as opposed to incidents or experiences.
I remember sitting in the Machata’s family kitchen, a place reserved only for family members. They were eating dinner or watching TV. I can’t remember. I just know that I was wedged in between the family members and felt accepted, even if I couldn’t understand a word they were saying.
I remember slipping through halls and going up and down stairs and feeling like I almost owned everything. I remember running my hand along an oaken bannister, its grain slick with the fingerprints of a century of hands being run along its edge.
I remember down comforters that fell around the topography of my body and warmed me into sleep.
I remember the crisp, bubbly taste of Spezi, the sound of playing cards being slapped on a table, the sounds of the different guests wishing one another a pleasant evening.
Haus Neuhausen was a place where I could live in my childhood dream world, a house in which I could be a bit of a princess who wore blue jeans and muddy shoes. Haus Neuhausen was where I went from being a girl to becoming a young woman.
About five years ago, I researched Haus Neuhausen. It is closed in terms of being a bed-and-breakfast. One of Martina’s sons became a member of a local bobsledding team. I doubt the aviary is there anymore, much less the old chipmunk cage.
And in my novel, neither of those elements are there. However, Beth spends hours in the gardens, finding her solace amongst the plants and in the fur of a golden retriever who is an amalgam of two dogs who lived at the house.