There was a time when we asked my mother how she fell in love and how she knew that my father was the one she wanted to marry. We were young then, her three blond kids. When my father was late coming home, when he was still out there in the dark night, driving home alone in his car through the forest, we sat in our matching pajamas in the kitchen eating oatmeal or semolina pudding while she read fairy tales, the gruesome kind with wicked stepmothers and gnomes scheming for blood and gold. And my mother was the queen, we were her princesses and her prince, waiting for the king come home.
He was the only one who treated me with decency, she always replied. I remember my confusion and my disappointment. I wanted to hear her fairy tale. After all, we often watched them embrace and kiss, watched the way he brushed the hair from her forehead, noticed their secret smiles of amusement when one of us did something silly or remarkable.
Decency. She used the old fashioned word Anstand. Decorum. Chivalry. And so I imagined my father as a dashing and well behaved man who bowed and offered his arm, who opened doors for her to walk through. Maybe wearing a prince's uniform, like the one I had seen the nutcracker wear at the ballet (where I had fallen asleep to my parent's bemused smiles).
It wasn't until much later that I understood. Only a couple of years ago in fact. And not because I was ignorant but because I didn't really want to spend time thinking about her and my parents and the way he just walked out on her and how she finally fell apart, something that was a long time coming.
They were students. There was a chess club, of course there was a chess club. Also, a hill walking club. My mother disliked hill walking for as long as I can remember and I have never seen her play chess but that's the story, that's where they met. At the time and at that university, my mother was the only female student of agricultural science, the only woman not a lab assistant or a secretary or a cleaner. Most if not all of her fellow male students were members of an all male fraternity, who would invite 'girls' to their parties, or some other male network of handshakes and offers of positions and career moves. I still try not to think of what she had to cope, to compete with.
He adored her, I have been told over and over again. By relatives, friends of my parents, acquaintances and so on. He was totally smitten with her.
I did everything for him, she later told me, full of bitter anger. She trapped me, he would say. I gave up my career for him, she complained all the time. She was the worst mistake of my life, he exclaimed once and only once because I told him that I would not tolerate this talk in my house. I thought he was decent, I thought he was better than all these men, she wailed and I told her to shut up and get on with life.