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Author Interview: Heidi Laird

Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Diane Lunsford is talking with Heidi Laird, author of The Frankfurt Kitchen: Forty-One Stories of Growing Up in Post-World War II West Germany.

FQ: I want to thank you for the pleasure of reading such a beautifully written and heartfelt account of your experiences post-World War II West Germany. There is much to unpack in your prolific body of work. Let’s start with your closing statement in Chapter One: "As I write this seventy years later, in the year 2019, I recognize how distant this idealized vision of America has become, and I wonder if it will be possible to say seventy years from now that the principles and values of America’s founders have survived." This is such a riveting statement and I have to ask how your childhood experiences resonate in comparison from then to now to inspire such a profound statement?

LAIRD: Let’s start with the figure of the jeep driver at the beginning of the book. He is a central figure in my childhood vision of America. His action of stopping his military vehicle in a downpour for a woman and her child hitchhiking by the side of the Autobahn exemplified for me at that moment the essence of kindness and compassion, combined with mechanical skills and the resolve to trust his own judgment, set aside official regulations, and help two human beings in need.

After my arrival in the United States, I found many “jeep drivers.” One person generously helped me find an affordable apartment, and another taught me how to look for a job. One neighbor was a truck driver who made nightly deliveries of baked goods from an industrial bakery to the area’s grocery stores and left loaves of bread and trays of pastries outside my front door every Saturday before dawn. The jeep drivers applauded my English grammar skills and then taught me how to talk like an American.

They enjoyed telling stories about their own immigrant backgrounds, and spoke with pride about how their parents or grandparents had arrived in this country with nothing, and now everybody lived in a home of their own and never missed an election.

I started to notice prejudice and racism at a distance, but my comments seemed unwelcome, since politics was not discussed among my new friends and neighbors. I read the daily newspaper and watched the 15 minute nightly evening news on CBS, and I observed the bewildering spectacle of President Johnson alternately browbeating, charming, coaxing, pressuring and strong arming Congress to pass voting rights and civil rights legislation. After Johnson’s stunning departure, I voted for the first time and cast my ballot for Lyndon Johnson’s vice president, Hubert Humphrey, who lost the election to Richard Nixon, the president who said that he was not a crook, and then turned out to be just that.

Fast forward to the chaotic end of the Vietnam War, the often embittered adjustment in parts of the country to the new civil rights laws, the Reagan years with their trickle-down economics, the ingenious and sloppy Clinton years, 9/11, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Obama era and the subsequent backlash. Through all this history, I have seen a growing division in the population of this country, with the launching of ever more bald-faced and bizarre lies, distortions, outrageous attacks and insults, and the systematic proliferation of deadly hatred. The population has fractured into groups who speak of each other as the enemy, and many carry weapons.

The jeep drivers of my early years in America revered the Constitution and had a biography of George Washington in their bookcase next to a dictionary and an encyclopedia. They took their children to visit Washington D.C. and they wanted them to see the Capitol and the White House, regardless of who worked and lived there at the moment. Today certain people who call themselves patriots storm the Capitol and call the assaults on Capitol Police officers heroic acts. If the country continues on this corrosive trajectory for another seventy years, I fear that free and fair elections and the peaceful transfer of power from one president to the next will become a distant memory. The word ‘democracy’ will be used as an ornamental phrase for festive state occasions, and people will have forgotten what the word once meant.

FQ: I absolutely adored how you described Stefan’s position as the middle child. In my opinion, there is no such thing as the ‘deprived middle child.’ They are not the ‘overlooked victim.’ Rather, I believe they hold the ultimate position amongst their siblings in that they are not blazing the trail toward new horizons and therefore can rise above the mistakes of the oldest in order to perfect. Nor are they held accountable for something one of the younger siblings has done. What is your opinion on this?

LAIRD: Sibling birth order continues to be a very much overlooked factor in the analysis of family dynamics. There is some recognition of the inevitable special status of the first born, probably due to - at least in part - the fact that all the landmarks in the life of a first born are also landmarks for the parents. With the birth of the first child, the man and woman who produced the newborn become parents for the first time, after which they continue becoming parents for the first time of a toddler, a preschooler, and then a first grader, and so on. Subsequent arrivals are greeted by increasingly experienced parents, and even if the parents cherish each of their children equally, the special status of the first born remains fixed. A special status of sorts can also be claimed by the sibling who ends up being the last born, whose development will always be viewed by the parents with a bit of wistful melancholy, because if all goes as planned and Benjamin succeeds in leaving home and becoming independent, the nest will be empty. Because of the special status of the first and last born, the sibling (or siblings) in the middle tend to have less status as a trailblazers and tend to be perceived as less vulnerable than the baby in the family. This freedom from expectations of superior performance placed on the first born, and freedom from the unnecessary extra protection or indulgence often lavished on the baby of the family allows the siblings in the middle more room to explore and experiment with different behaviors, and observe how the world reacts to their behaviors, and how they can meet the world’s demands and responses on their own terms. There are lists of iconic independent thinkers of historic significance who were all middle siblings, but of course caution is advised in generalizing too much. My brother Stefan certainly grew up to become an independent thinker who carved out his life’s path with complete indifference to the choices made by his older sister and younger brother.

FQ: Your astute observations toward the premise of ‘opposites attract’ when referring to Harry and Vera was interesting. If you had to describe your persona, who would you identify with more? Harry or Vera and why?

LAIRD: I used to ask myself that question a lot in earlier times of my life, and usually came to the conclusion that I identified with neither. They were strong personalities, each in their own way, and they caused each other a great deal of pain, which I observed as a child. I think I said to myself as a young child that if I make sure not to resemble either one as I grew up, I would never have the kind of painful relationship that I saw them enmeshed in. Today, after all these years, and both Vera and Harry long gone, I would say that I inherited a pretty even number of character traits from each of them, and their legacy has amounted to a real treasure.

FQ: In describing the characteristics of Harry’s parents, it saddened me to interpret the most solid ‘parental’ connection he had was with his nanny Alla. As you wrote this book, were there times when you would ponder this and perhaps have ‘aha moment’s’ to provide answers to questions that were perhaps too painful to address as a child? If so, are you comfortable to share one of those moments?

LAIRD: The ‘aha moments’ you ask about came in the context of my work with children whose ability to form attachments to their parents, foster parents, or other care givers was impaired by traumatic experiences such as forced separations, abuse, domestic violence, and physical as well as emotional abandon- ment. It occurred to me that my father’s childhood in the home of his divorced mother, an abandoned child herself with probable attachment disorder, exposed him to an emotionally impoverished family environment. Sporadic short visits from his father, who was known to have had attachment issues of his own, were probably not very helpful. I was always grateful that Alla remained a strong presence in my father’s childhood and adolescence; he spoke of her with genuine fondness, as though he felt a bond with her, quite unlike the tone in which he spoke of his mother and father. As I observed the behavior patterns of children with disrupted attachments, it occurred to me fairly quickly that my father exhibited a life long behavior pattern of anxious/avoidant attachment disorder. It helped me understand his strange emotional absences, the inexplicable gaps in his relationships with his wives and children, despite what I often sensed as his best effort to be more engaged. His avoidance was so strong that even if he had lived long enough to have conversations with me about his attachment pattern, he would have found an excuse to avoid such conversations at all cost. It makes me sad, but I understand what caused the avoidance, and I accept it.

FQ: I was fascinated to learn the information behind what ‘Frankfurt Kitchens’ were. "...created in 1926 by the Austrian architect Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky for a massive progressive housing project in Frankfurt…inspired by the streamlined kitchens on board luxury railroad dining cars of the 1920s...the Frankfurt Kitchen design called for a compact room six feet wide by twelve feet long. One entered the kitchen at one end from a small hallway and saw at the other end a 4-foot-wide window, flanked on the right by a wall hung, glass sliding-door cabinets above a sink, a swiveling faucet mounted above the sink on the tiled backsplash, a drainboard to the left of the sink below the window, a hinged dropleaf work surface in front of the window that could be folded away for access to the window, and more cabinets and utensil drawers below the counter..." Describe your dream kitchen.

LAIRD: In contrast to, or perhaps I should say, in protest against the Frankfurt Kitchen of my childhood, I have always furnished my kitchens with a warm, whimsical, and often impractical assembly of antique and recent appliances and vintage furniture pieces discovered in thrift stores and estate sales. Whenever I bring home a new treasure, I feel that I am picking up where someone else has left off, serving dinner on plates that may have graced the dining tables of graduation parties, Christmas festivities, weddings, or 50th anniversaries. How many bread puddings may have been baked in a ceramic casserole that has the feel of the 1920s, in a gas oven that is also a hundred years old by now.

I don’t look for streamlined efficiency in a kitchen. For me, the kitchen is where lived family history takes place, where people pull up chairs to the table and start grating the cheese needed for the pizza, while they talk about their day, or ask about mine. I don’t feel at home in precision “food labs” where recipes are followed rigidly, instead of spontaneously evolving by mixing familiar ingredients in new combinations. I like to cook in a way that a person cooking hundreds and even thousands of years ago would have recognized as the fundamental act of transforming raw food materials into digestible, nutritious, and life-sustaining meals.

FQ: I captured an interesting statement you made on Page 80: "...Looking back over the crucial choices I have made in my life; I see a discernible pattern of feeling most at home where one environment ends and another one begins..." Are you able to elaborate further on this?

LAIRD: When I wrote that sentence, I remember thinking that some day I would have to explain what I meant by that. So that day has now arrived. To start at a very concrete level, I should say that I feel at home in places where several cultures mix and produce interesting hybrid forms in the art, architecture, language, religion, music, and food of that region. This cultural mix is very pronounced in Southern California, where I live. Here in the Los Angeles area, in the course of a single day, one can effortlessly cross half a dozen transition zones in which boundaries melt away; what was the predominant culture in the life observed on the street ten minutes ago has now merged with two or three others, all co-existing, and in their co-existence forming something new and unique.

When I grew up in Frankfurt, I found myself living in a mix of cultures as well. There was the native German population, which, of course, was the product of a blending of Germanic and Gallic tribes going all the way back to the centuries of Roman occupation, in the course of which hundreds of thousands of Roman troops occupied the Western European regions up to the Rhine River, settled in those lands, mingled with the local inhabitants, and were absorbed by the local culture even as they changed it.

The arrival of the massive American military occupation force in West-Germany after WWII brought a new level of cultural diversity to an already culturally diverse border region, with the Rhine as the natural border. What I find so attractive about living in such a border region is that my environment constantly tests my sense of who I am in this mix, where I belong, and where I am merely a visitor. And visitors perceive things differently from locals; I believe that in their necessary vigilance, visitors actually notice and observe more, because their outsider status makes them vulnerable in ways that locals are not. So, inhabiting a border region brings with it a mildly anxious feeling of being on your guard, but also an exhilarating challenge to your sense of who you are, and who you are not. I feel at home in such an environment. Actually, I feel that I thrive in it.

FQ: To expand further on my previous question, you go on to lament on the comparisons between past and present: "History was to be replaced by modernity...the new building aesthetic called for flat roofs, bleak stucco facades, hard edges, and brutishly uninviting windows..." I sense melancholy in this passage. Are you saying if the past is erased right down to the aesthetics, the future looks brighter and better? Please elaborate.

LAIRD: As I read this passage, I can see that it can sound melancholy. However, when I wrote it, I meant to speak in the sarcastic tone of my teenage self, afflicted as I was with an overabundance of opinions and the rash judgment of early adolescence, I thought the Bauhaus aesthetic was hideous, but I also felt no mercy for the pompous architectural styles of 19th and early 20th century commercial and residential construction projects, with their grand boulevards, ornate façades, and opulent townhouses.

Eventually I made peace with the tyrannical strictness of the Bauhaus aesthetic, and I actually applauded the intent of the Bauhaus founders to put an end to the overbearing, moribund colonial societies of the pre WWI era. However, I never could stop pointing out the irony in the spectacle of the survivors of the Nazi catastrophe scrambling to stuff their futuristic Bauhaus dwellings with the detritus of their ruined past.

FQ: There are sublime nuances in some of the stories you share. I sense your eloquent wisdom throughout this read. It’s never a good thing to talk politics, but if you were given free rein to correct something that is blatantly wrong in today’s world, what would be the issue you would tackle and how would you turn it into something with a positive outcome for humanity?

LAIRD: I appreciate your question, and I know the issue I would tackle, but I feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task. What is to be done about the breathtaking boldness with which lies are launched in our midst like missiles bearing slow-acting deadly but sweet-tasting poison? What is to be done about the eagerness with which the poison is swallowed by the followers of the prophet who sent them the missiles and told them he loves them. How do we convince them that the sweet tasting stuff is deadly poison when they refuse to believe it? Do we wait until the first few start dying? Do we bring in a supply of antidote for those who begin to feel symptoms of poisoning? Do we teach classes on how to distinguish poisonous from non-poisonous substances? Do we teach the message that everybody has the right to eat what they want, even if it is poisoned, or do we start discussions about the possibility that it may be a civic duty to examine a substance and sound an alarm if it shows some of the markings of poison? Maybe some followers might start to question the motives of the prophet, and get angry at the fact that they came awfully close to dying of the poison?

As you can see, I am very much preoccupied by what I see as the most dangerous challenge facing the world at this time. I am thinking about this, as Isaac Newton said, “without ceasing.”

FQ: It has been such a treat to talk with you today and I want to thank you for your time. I fear there are so many important moments to touch upon in the many stories you’ve shared in this wonderful book, yet it would take quite a few pages for me to ask every one of my questions. Let’s pause here, but not before I ask if you working on a new project and if so, are you able to share a bit?

LAIRD: I am at the moment taking a short break after the publication of my most recent book, Letters From Jenny, which describes how Jenny Schulman, matriarch of a locally prominent Jewish family in the German city of Mainz (and modeled after my great-grandmother) experienced World War I, the Spanish Flu Epidemic, the French occupation of her city, famine, civil unrest, and the spreading of a great lie which claimed that Germany had actually won the war, not lost it, and how that lie contributed to Hitler’s rise to power.

For my next project, my thoughts have turned to the immigrants’ experience seen as a long historical arc, with the subtext that history is essentially the story of immigration and emigration. Just as the tectonic plates migrate over the earth’s subsurface, human and animal populations are constantly engaged in the flow of migrating across the earth. In this project, I explore different forms of migration on the North American continent, and how my own migration has at some points intersected the path of earlier migrants.

Thank you for your questions, and for the opportunity to share my thoughts and concerns with you. - Heidi Laird

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