On my final morning in Amberg I was alone in Ella’s old apartment for a while. It was a nice day–the birds were chirping and there was a hint of sunlight peeking through the clouds. I walked out onto the porch to reflect on the journey I had taken thus far. I thought about my own grandparents, Jack and Barb on my dad’s side, who each died at 90 years old. Suddenly, I was missing them immensely and I started crying. What if they had lived to be 103? What more could I have learned from them?
I inherited my independent streak from my grandpa. He forged his own path from an early age, making his way to Columbia University, the college that I, too, attended. I learned to love nature from my grandmother. She was from the state of Washington and was always more at home in the outdoors. We used to take walks in the woods behind their home in Harbor Springs, Michigan. I can still hear the crunch that the leaves made under our feet as we walked among the birch trees. My grandmother on my mother’s side, Shirley, was wickedly funny; I know that my sense of humor has roots with her. She was always quick with witty comments that would surprise everyone and reduce people to hunched-over belly laughter. She died at 70. I can only imagine how her humor would have grown with an extra 33 years. Standing on the porch, I thanked all of them for what they brought to my life as I wiped away my tears.
Jo, Andreas, and Ella arrived soon after my porch reflection. Ella was so happy to tour her former home again. “I have so many happy memories here,” she said. We looked at the tribute to her late husband, Hans, that hangs on one of the walls. It is surrounded by pfennigs, or German pennies. I told her that my grandmother Barbara’s parents came from Germany and that their last name was Pfennig.
However, when they came to America the immigration official changed the name to Pfenning. My great-great grandfather’s German-American friends nicknamed him penny and Pfenning is my middle name. Ella then called me her “little penny.”
I also had my final Bavarian breakfast in Amberg–white sausage, a pretzel, and a weisse beer. (I have reached my sausage quota, though.) We ate at the home of Ella’s niece Ushe. Her home is open and airy and welcoming with a beautiful garden and even a swimming pool. Ushe’s garden reminds me of my aunt Laurie’s backyard in Solvang, California. Again I was touched by finding such familiarity so far, far away. Jo had bought a few copies of the local newspaper with the article about Ella and me and the mayor. After breakfast we headed to Lindner’s butcher shop where I was recognized from the paper. I was given a hearty gift of various kinds of wurst and, of course, beer.
We then visited the graves of several family members. Jo bought a few bouquets of flowers to put on the graves. Ella misses her late family members so much. She cried at each grave, asking why her loved ones had left her so soon.
When she lived in Amberg she used to visit these graves every day, ensuring that they were well maintained. Family and the history of her loved ones is very important to Ella. A few years ago on a trip to the Principality of Seborga, a micronation within Italy, the family had baby dolls made of Ella and her sisters Charlotte and Auguste. These dolls look exactly like the girls’ baby pictures. Ella cried again as she held her sister’s baby doll.
On the way to Munich we stopped in Ingolstadt to visit Ella’s only living son Werner and his wife Hedwig. They, too, have a bucolic garden and a nice house. Ella and Werner played chess against Jo. She is really a gamer, easily beating her grandson and loving every minute of it. Werner and Ella only see each other once a year as Berlin and Ingolstadt are at least five hours away by car. Ella was so happy to see her son, smiling as she showered him with hugs. I couldn’t help but wonder how many more times that Ella and Werner would be able to play chess together, but then I remembered to live in the moment, as Ella does every day.