“And the LORD shall guide thee continually, and satisfy thy soul in drought, and make fat thy bones.” —Isaiah 58:11
Back in 1983 a door in then West Germany forever opened for me, exclaiming, “Schön! Schön! Schön das Du da bist!” (“Wonderful! Wonderful! How wonderful you’re here!”) I began to think it had a beautiful recording on its hinges. But, no, behind that door was a woman with a beautiful bun of neat white hair and a greeting as tall as she was physically short, and her welcome was always sincere. It was, in fact, indefatigible. No matter how many times I turned up, a lost waif, on her doorstep, she took me in. She must have literally translated that verse about being hospitable to strangers because you might be entertaining angels unawares. I could have told her I was no angel, and saved her much trouble.
Meet my German grandmother. The woman who gave my soul a transfusion of Christ’s love when I most needed it. When I applied for a Rotary Club International Graduate Scholarship, the wife of the Dean at Shorter College, Mrs. Margaret Whitworth, told me should I make it to Heidelberg, I should look up their friend, Frau Sophie Buschbeck, whom they knew because in the 1940’s the Whitworth’s church had sent shoes and rations to German refugees, and Dean Charles Whitworth and his wife had “adopted” Sophie and her eight children. Frau Buschbeck had written them back often, thanking them. Over the years the families had also visited, traveling great distances to see each other.
I listened to this spiel the way you do when you’re twenty-two and know everything. Yeah, yeah, whatever. When I was accidentally assigned to Ruprecht-Karls Universität Heidelberg by what I would later consider an act of God (and was, literally, the need to more equally distribute the Rotary stipend students)—I didn’t care that this famed Sophie Buschbeck was there in Heidelberg, too. I would soon graduate from college, and I was going to take Germany by storm.
Except I didn’t. I arrived—ja wohl!—and promptly lost control over everything. Or more precisely, I continued losing control. It was a downward-spiraling sort of thing. I didn’t even pass Heidelberg University’s (very stringent) entrance exam the first time I took it. I had actually failed a test. It was a sobering experience. Also, I seemed to be totally unable to cope with life in general.
To make matters worse, my application papers had been lost, so the local Rotary Club in Heidelberg didn’t know I was coming; and I had no place to stay. More homesick than I ever thought possible, I found myself standing (a rather forlorn-looking twenty-something in jeans) in a public phone booth in Boppard, Germany, along the Rhein River. I realized then with a pang of irony that I’d gotten what I wanted—total independence—and quickly wished instead for a friend.
So I poured handfuls of strange round coins called Deutsche Mark into a pay phone. I pulled out an unremarkable-looking piece of crumpled paper, read the ten digits, and pressed the buttons for null-sechs-zwei-zwei-eins-vier-fünf-sieben-fünf-neun or (06221) 45759. This was Frau Buschbeck’s number. Twenty-seven years later, I have it memorized. But when that number was given to me by Mrs. Whitworth at a lunch at her house some months before I left for Germany, I’d scrawled it down, stuffed it in my wallet, and given it no further thought whatsoever. It was unimportant.
A crisp old voice answered, “Halo?” as if it weren’t expecting a phone call. The voice was loud, the way white-haired people speak when their hearing is not at full strength. Halfway through my explanation of who I was (in hesitant German), Frau Sophie Buschbeck realized who I must be and, sight unseen, broke my stuttering with a grand welcome. That’s when I first heard her sing out in German, “When you arrive in Heidelberg, if you’re not too weary, would you come to the Schlossfest concert with my family and me?” That was for September 23, 1983, and I instantly said, “Ja-ja.” I knew enough German to realize I had just been invited to go to a concert at the famous Heidelberg castle (Schloss); it turned out to be a classical music concert that was as magical in its beauty as was the castle, and Frau Buschbeck’s family welcomed me into their fold.
And that’s how a wonderful friendship began between a seventy-nine-year-young World-War-II-survivor and a twenty-two-year-old neurotic American student. It was as if there weren’t six decades between our ages. And, although Frau Sophie Buschbeck died in 1992, the absence of her life, as Sylvia Plath says, grows beside me like a tree (“For a Fatherless Son”). I have decided hers is a fruit tree, and I’ll tell you why.
Frau Buschbeck always kept her fruit bowl conspicuous and ate oranges and apples and pears daily, like candy (well, it seemed to me). To her they must have been like edible gold, a celebration of plenty. And she loved the smell of apples. She enjoyed reminding me that the poet Schiller kept apples in a bowl beside him when he wrote because he found the sweet aroma inspirational. Later I would learn why she valued fruit so much. To me, an apple was an apple, something easily found at Kroger.
Frau Buschbeck also took it on herself to feed me once a week, on Fridays, always roast chicken (something she would not have ordinarily cooked in her German kitchen) because, she said, it was good for my health and was also something I would like for its being very “American.” I can’t say I was thrilled at first with what I saw as “enforced lunches” weekly. I perversely preferred to be left alone with my solitary books and a feast of crackers and peanut butter (the latter not a local German supermarket item and only secured through a friend who had connections with a nearby Army base store). But when Frau Buschbeck invited, you didn’t dream of answering, “I’m not coming.” You went, you were thankful, you ate, and you washed dishes afterwards.
I also became fond of Frau Buschbeck’s crunchy Bratkartoffeln, those thinly sliced, golden brown pan-fried potatoes that I eventually fell in love with. Also, in Frau Buschbeck’s small apartment I ate gallons of the best sauerkraut, nothing like that put-your-teeth-on-edge sharply vinegary stuff you buy in stores in America. Sophie Buschbeck made sauerkraut with whatever she had at hand, and it was sometimes sour, sometimes sweet, and sometimes both at the same time; it was always delicious, and it was never the same way twice.
Frau Buschbeck even arranged for homeless me to sleep in the attic of her apartment house (and what a view it had of Heidelberg sparkling at night, as seen through the tiny dormer window!), until a kind university administrator, Frau Treue Pfundt, helped me get a dorm room in Neuenheimerfeld 684, Stock 1, Zimmer 20-I. So what it was roach-infested. I had a home, and a sweet German roommate, Gundi nee Schuster Hiller (whom I write and send gifts to to this day and who every Christmas sends me a card and a calendar with Bible verses in German on it).
My dorm room was only a few minutes’ bike ride from Frau Buschbeck’s home at 28/30 Mozartstrasse, and that address is all you really need to know. Her life was all about music. She played the piano, and often enjoyed four-handed compositions with her eldest daughter, while a teenaged granddaughter played the recorder and an eight-year-old grandson the violin.
I saw Frau Buschbeck almost every day, and we always went for a walk; and we always read from the little blue Losungen (literally Solutions, also Devotionals book). On cold winter nights, she wrapped a wool shawl around her shoulders and had me sit next to her and read the Bible to her, in German, of course, in that old, hard-to-read Gothic type that at first I found almost impossible to decipher and therefore most annoying.
I was at a low point in my life spiritually. Problems in my family meant that I was sick of soul. The Bible and its very familiar verses were having a hard time touching my weary, bitter heart. I didn’t know that this darkness was despair. But God through Frau Sophie Buschbeck found his way back into my heart because the conscientious student I always have been was determined to learn to speak German well, to understand spoken German, and to read it with ease, too; therefore, I didn’t mind reading the Bible aloud to her because it was an opportunity for me to better my German.
How ironic that the thing I most ran from was given back to me when I least wanted it and when I could least receive it. That was a true gift from God. All the old, battered religious concepts that my soul was burnt out on became utterly new in a different language with a new, wise, kind, Christ-focused friend. Watching Frau Buschbeck daily and praying with her regularly, I learned that true prayer is ordinary, that it can be as common as breathing.
Praise of God was at the core of our friendship. We always sang. We sang during devotional times, we sang grace before the ubiquitous hot lunches, we sang grace before the cold suppers of sliced dark bread and thinly sliced ham and cheeses and pickles, and, yes, we sang good Lutheran hymns in church. Singing was obviously not the exclusive activity of church services in the world of Sophie Buschbeck. Singing was for daily use.
Sophie Buschbeck and I always spoke in German. She was sympathetic to my desire to learn her difficult native language, and so she patiently put her own desire to learn English on the backburner. Later, at the end of my stay, I found in an English book she loved to read a list of English vocabulary words that she had been working on while I was there. There on the back of a recycled envelope she had written a list of English vocabulary words and their definitions, all in English, in an old-person’s shaky, light-fountain-pen-blue-ink handwriting. That shamed me, for I realized as my heart constricted, how much she had shown me God’s love, helping me learn German, instead of insisting that I teach her English.
We did everything together, and anything I did with her was exciting. Even the simple act of mailing a letter in the public mailbox at the corner was, with Frau Sophie Buschbeck, an amazing experience. She always put her hand through my bent elbow, the better to dash across the street in an admirable (by then, after a birthday) octogenarian jaywalk. We must have made an unusual sight, a wrinkled, white-haired German woman with a slightly bent 5’1” frame, her arm threaded through that of a young, brown Cuban a good six inches taller.
We walked everywhere briskly, and along the way to the mailbox, Frau Buschbeck would point out with great excitement the ordinary bright red berries sparkling in the bushes lining the sidewalk. She christened these “Schmucke” (“jewels”). Her arm through mine as ever, she pointed at them through my elbow, looking out from under her blue velveteen hat, and then she’d exclaim, “Look at those jewels!” I’d never have noticed them otherwise. Once at the public mailbox, she’d sail the letters into it with a sunny, “I hope this Post makes them happy.” Sophie Buschbeck did everything con brio.
We also went to art exhibits and plays and concerts. She would hide away in her purse without my knowing it a little bar of delicious, rich German chocolate for us to split at intermission. We went shopping for groceries. We traveled together. We even visited a nursing home and shut-ins, always taking them fresh flowers or fruit.
Years after Frau Sophie Buschbeck’s death, I read Rilke’s “Requiem for a Friend” and felt I had found her serendipitously in his poem. Rilke is remembering his much-missed, special friend, Paula, and he believes he can commune with her spirit if he goes on a pilgrimage of sorts because her essence seems to inhabit every common thing, as Sophie Buschbeck’s did:
I will stand / for hours, talking with women in their doorways / and watching, while they call their children home. / I will see the way they wrap the land around them / in their ancient work in field and meadow. . . . / I will go to watch the animals, and let / something of their composure slowly glide / into my limbs; will see my own existence / deep in their eyes, which hold me for a while / and let me go, serenely, without judgment. / I will have the gardeners come to me and recite / many flowers, and in the small clay pots / of their melodious names I will bring back / some remnant of the hundred fragrances. / And fruits: I will buy fruits, and in their sweetness / . . . will live again.
I read this and felt he was describing my Sophie Buschbeck. The requiem ends with this line about his soul-friend, Paula: “Denn Das verstandest du: die vollen Früchte” (“For that is what you understood: ripe fruits”) (Stephen Mitchell, The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, 74-75).
It was true, in every way that line can be. When Frau Sophie Buschbeck ate an orange, I was always reminded of the way a happy child eats one. Nothing but that orange exists in this whole wide world. All of a sudden, an orange seems to be a magical thing, a thing of mystic beauty. It becomes the epitomy of good. It becomes a link to God. When peeled, its rind gives off an oily perfume in slight, damp clouds. Then it drips sweet drops of juice. And its pulp on the tongue has a rough-smooth texture when suddenly noticed.
It is the song of the orange that Frau Sophie Buschbeck sang. This joy is how she approached me, how she loved me back to God, how she was a big part of my healing. It is how she saved my life. In her spiritually mature, God-attuned attention, my very immature, very damaging ways began to heal, and my soul itself began to ripen. She loved me with God’s agape love, and I began to be healed in the warm rays of what she kept on singing about daily—the true Son.
Therefore, I always thought Sophie Buschbeck was aptly named. She was wise, and of course her first name means just that. I don’t, however, mean she was pompous, the way I picture, say, the philosopher Bertrand Russell might have been. I mean she was not bitter, and she had every right to be, just like my first landlady in Boppard, who had made it through World War II with great hardship and told you about it every day, spitting vituperation in your food as she passed your steaming plate of boiled spinach. Bitterness is not a good condiment, I discovered in a tiny room on a dark lane I knew as Beyerhofgasse 15.
Sophie Buschbeck once told me that she had no pet because she had no time for one. Besides, she said with a short laugh, “The people I look after are my pets.” She meant that she cared for others with a daily regularity that was somewhat astonishing for me to see. Sophie Buschbeck was always having lonely people over or was visiting those who had no one else. There was a woman she and her daughters knew who had once been a concert pianist but who had had a total nervous breakdown for some unmentioned reason and could no longer perform in public. But she performed for Sophie Buschbeck and even for me the time I was invited along. This was something like a minor miracle, for before we left, Sophie Buschbeck said, “If she doesn’t want to perform with you there, it is not a big deal. She is a fragile, hurting person, and she must be loved in that. She is lonely, and we visit her in her loneliness, to comfort her in some small way.”
The week before Christmas, Sophie Buschbeck always cooked and gave a dinner for about six elderly friends of hers. That year, I was also invited. As I helped her prepare the food, I thanked her for inviting me and admitted, “It’s just me and your other lonely people tonight.” She chuckled. But it was true. We both knew it was.
The first weeks of our knowing each other began the old German way—I addressed Frau Sophie Buschbeck with the formal Sie for ‘you’ and not the friendly and informal Du. Sie is required when speaking to strangers and older people and is a form of high respect. Du is reserved for intimates or for someone your own age. But soon enough it seems I had passed some unspoken test, or perhaps she had also wearied of the decorum: “Please, you may use Du,” she offered in an almost apologetic tone. She added something that cracked my bitterly armored heart open, too: “And you should call me ‘Mutter Buschbeck,’ if you like.” Mutter Buschbeck, for “Mother Buschbeck”—she had made me family.
By then we had became constant walking partners and the best of friends. I felt I could tell her anything, but I was satisfied to tell her mostly of my life there in Germany, and the stories she told me as we crisscrossed the hills across from and above the famous Heidelberg castle along the Neckar River riveted me. Each week we walked the aptly named Philosopher’s Way, and she talked, as any widow might, of her husband, a Lutheran minister who had died only a few years before. Occasionally she told me how she missed him. Above all, they had been great friends, and this alone, with my family’s issues, was worlds of health to me. She told me many small stories about her day-to-day life with Friedrich ‘Fritz’ Buschbeck. These would later help me style my marriage.
Mother Buschbeck also spoke of fleeing from the Russian soldiers with her eight children. “I had heard the stories of what they do to girls.” She got each older child to hold the hand of a younger. “So many mothers lost children in the crush of boarding trains, never to see them again. Horrible. Just horrible.”
She described years of making jam from carrots. “You don’t know how terrible it is to have hungry children and you must tell them, ‘No, this bread can’t be eaten today. We must save it for tomorrow.’ Terrible.” She told me that her two oldest boys still became weary early at night, from not having enough to eat when young. Today her children are lawyers, doctors, pastors, a psychologist, and an engineer. They are all amazing, accomplished people. And they all have her generous spirit.
Only once did I hear the note of regret in her story: “For my twenty-fifth anniversary I wanted a piano, but instead I was overjoyed to get a letter from my husband.” This letter came during World War II, from Russia, and it was important because it told her that her husband, Fritz, was still alive. During the war, her pastor-husband, her Mann, spent five long years in a Russian prison camp. He was there for their twenty-fifth anniversary.
Their oldest daughter Elisabeth told me once that her father grew closer to God in his imprisonment:
During his time in prison, he came to love the Bible in a new way. Father said that that was because he had no commentaries, only the Bible. He came to rely on it and on God’s spirit more. He said he learned what the phrase ‘to wait on God’ means, what that verb harren in ‘harren auf Gott’ means. It means ‘to wait on God,’ and he said he learned that waiting then. He came to love the verses with the verb harren in them. He memorized them. He said them often to himself. He said they made him strong until he came home.
Later, when back in America, I looked these verses up:
Yet the LORD is waiting to show you his favor, yet he yearns to have pity on you; for the LORD is a God of justice. Happy are all who wait for him! (Isaiah 30.18)
Lead me in thy truth and teach me; thou art God my savior. For thee I have waited all the day long, for the coming of thy goodness, LORD. (Psalm 25.5)
The LORD is good to those who wait for Him, to the soul who seeks Him. It is good that one should hope and wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD. (Lamentations 3.25-26)
Sophie Buschbeck’s life made my soul sit up and pay attention. Here was someone who’d had it harder than I and who had come through enriched and unembittered. I watched to see how she did it. I wanted to know how she waited on God and where she found her undeniable joy.
Mother Buschbeck’s number one secret seemed to be that she had not turned away from heartbreak. She had accepted it. She had embraced the hard reality of pain. As Rilke says in “The Tenth Elegy”:
Someday, emerging at last from the violent insight, / let me sing out jubilation and praise to assenting angels. / Let not even one of the clearly-struck hammers of my heart / fail to sound because of a slack, a doubtful, / or a broken string. Let my joyfully streaming face / make me more radiant; let my hidden weeping arise / and blossom. How dear you will be to me then, you nights / of anguish. Why didn’t I kneel more deeply to accept you, / inconsolable sisters, and, surrendering, lose myself / in your loosened hair. How we squander our hours of pain. (Mitchell, The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, 205)
This, then, was the main lesson I had to learn. It had never occurred to me that pain was to be accepted. I thought that hurt was to be fought against, and even conquered. I thought anything less was failure. I had forgotten that the man on the cross tasted vinegar and cried out to God, asking why he had been forsaken. And this is God’s Son, turning to his Father in his utmost pain, as I had still to learn to do. As I have still to learn to keep on doing.
So, during the year 1983-84, one Rotary Club International Graduate Scholar at Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg studied much more than German Language and Literature and started learning not to “squander” her hours of pain.