Fatherhood: The Outline of a Man

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A framed photo of a man hung in my grandmother’s bedroom until the day she died. He had a receding hairline over a long forehead over a strong, sweet face. His name was Hans Rudolf Weiss and he was Charlotte’s husband and the father of her three children. His picture went with her through six moves, two countries and three zip codes–and that was only while I was alive, a small sliver of her 93 years. During the last 10 years its location was purely symbolic because she could no longer actually see it, owing to the macular degeneration that had taken her vision.

We don’t know when he died, but we’re pretty sure we know where: Lubyanka prison in Moscow. It may have been sometime in the 1950s or 60s. The last person to see him alive contacted Charlotte when she finally had him declared legally dead; he was a member of an association for victims of the Stalin regime. He told her he had seen Hans there, weak and sick, just before he was supposed to be sent to Siberia.

The Russians took him in Lower Saxony as they were advancing toward the Elbe in 1945 to meet the Americans in victory. He was riding a motorcycle that had been given to him by the Americans, who had just come into the small town in Harz where he had been sent to do economic analyses of the cost of the German war machine. He was an economist, a dry academic who had spent years in the States for his studies, and he was as happy to see the Americans as they were to find a fluent English speaker in the boonies. This was before the Americans found the camps. After that, no German would have been treated as a friend, however they felt about the Nazis. But this was before all that, and when Hans told the Americans that his wife and three young children were waiting for him in Meissen, they let him borrow the motorcycle to get home faster.

When the Russians intercepted him, they probably didn’t much care who he was or where he was going; the Russians had a habit of shooting first and asking questions later. The only reason Charlotte knew about any of this is that Hans managed to beg a farmer to send a note to her.

When he was taken, my mother, Monika, was four, my uncle Frank was five and my aunt Helga was nine. His death removed any illusions Charlotte might have had about returning to a life of safety or normalcy after the war’s end. She was left to fend for herself in Berlin, raising three children on rations. “I don’t know when I ate,” she told me once.

The only reason the family didn’t starve is because of the small apartment building Hans had owned in Berlin, a building that was somehow spared during the bombings. Granted, income wasn’t guaranteed in the lawless aftermath of the war — one of the neighbours stopped paying his rent altogether and simply squatted. What were a small woman and her three young children going to do about it? Charlotte did manage to squeeze some rent out of the deadbeat, and she fed her kids and made sure they got out into the world in one piece. But Hans’ absence registered like a negative space for the three children for the rest of their lives.

The effects of his loss were pronounced and specific. My mother grew up knowing first and foremost that you couldn’t rely on anyone but yourself. The main thing women needed from men, she decided, was financial security. So she built a shipping company and tried to stand in for the man my grandmother spent the rest of her life missing: Charlotte always lived with us and as soon as my mother had made enough money, she made sure her mother never again had to ask what anything cost.

Hans’ disappearance had a different effect on her brother Frank. He made it his life’s project to understand how the world works. It was and continues to be a lifelong, unquenchable obsession. He always tells me that this obsession started because he never had a father to craft a weltanschauung for him–”small and tedious” as such narratives tend to be, according to Frank, fathers provide their sons with partial truths about the cartography and outlines of the world. Sons are free to accept their these stories as fact, or to rebel against their false vision of reality.

But when you only have the echo of a father, you’re forced to find everything out for yourself, start from scratch with no raw materials. My uncle became a photographer because it’s a career that lets you peer in on the lives of people who supposedly matter. The journey took him to some interesting places. He befriended ultra-rich men from Sweden and France, Talented Mr. Ripley style (minus the killing), surrounded himself with models and learned about the world from the likes of Bruno Bernard. Along the way he gained a deep and granular understanding of what exactly makes a good car, the power of an impeccable white button-down shirt, and how to spot the signs of rarefied upbringing in Hamburg types who insist on masking all signs of their fabulous wealth. However, he never found a place to stand still. He just had to keep gathering data. Now he’s 72 and lives in a house that is so full of newspaper and magazine clippings that you can only access the individual rooms by rabbit trails. Floor to ceiling boxes of meticulously stapled paper are the stars in the constellation my uncle is collecting: it’s his theory of everything.

Mainly, he’s angry, and that means he’s not always entirely pleasant to be around. He lives alone and reads obsessively and by the time he sees live humans, he needs to vent all that information. So he’ll trap you in a corner for multiple hours, jabbing his finger into your sternum as he explains to you about the way the world works. It’s his way of metabolising the information. We let him jab us in the sternum and exhaust our empathy because while everyone suffered after my grandfather was taken away by the Russians, it’s possible that no one suffered more than Frank. And he’s a sweet guy deep down, and once in a while you learn something cool. I knew how to be a little snot about Aston Martins by the time I was 10, and I know a lady looks sharpest in a white button-down with jeans.

Now if there’s any science in this, it’s the fact that there can be no controls for these kinds of experiments. There is no parallel Frank or parallel Monika to consult whose lives were identical but for the presence of their father. But even if there are no controls, they believe it, so doesn’t that make it automatically valid? Don’t we all have these absences to which we ascribe the shortcomings in our lives? If only we weren’t bald, or fat, or red-haired, or mathematically inept, life would have turned out so different. At some point, the lines blur between “real” effects and belief.

I don’t think there can be any doubt about the effects of Hans’ disappearance, and the circumstances that surrounded it. My family spent decades looking for him both figuratively and literally, sending inquiries to everyone from the Red Cross to an association for victims of Stalin. The absence of a man telescopes through the future lives of his children and his children’s children. Entire imagined realities and expectations cause him to cut a far greater figure than he could ever have been if his children were disillusioned by the daily realities of his choices, obvious mistakes and annoying habits. Helga, Frank and Monika never got a chance to find their father annoying or rebel against his tyranny.

Charlotte never remarried. My mother says it’s because she never seemed vulnerable enough to attract one of the scarce men in postwar Berlin. But then, my mother would say that. I think Frank is right about one thing. For better or worse, fathers provide a roadmap of the world, of what you can expect from your life. In my family at least, his absence made it clear just how valuable such a roadmap would have been.

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