Meet my family

There is a box of old photographs in the attic of my grandfather's house, which in itself might not be enough to provide glimpses of my Stumpf ancestors, if it wasn't for my love-hate relationship with photography. Mother was crazy about photographs and filming and we had to rearrange our lives a good many times to allow her to take snaps of all sorts of events. Those snaps – so I felt – were phony, because they never really portrayed the bedlam-type of house she held. We stairstep children were to be shared around with those relatives that weren't fortunate enough to have them. It was a post-war thing, I suppose, because I recognised the same drive in other large families. After the sadness of WW2 slowly dropped off the German soul, children were a token of a new future, which had to be shared around to create hope and momentum. Mother's 'photogramania' made me suffer a bit, but it also developed my visual keenness. I was able to remember the situations and compare them to the expressions on people's faces. I can tell about people from looking at their photographs. It's a debatable skill, I admit. There is no hard evidence of how it came about. But these photographs of my ancestors tell me a story. There is a history of learnedness, of study and of application to science, philosophy and music. Incidently, there is also a history of large families. And in several generations, the women remained unmarried. The times were unkind to educated girls. In houses with libraries and tutors, daughters weren't withheld knowledge by enlightened, broadminded fathers. But the family heritage was passed on by the men in the family. The women typically went fruitless. Some of these men were brilliant and excelled and others became educated idiots who weren't fit for life. They were married off to some

practical woman who infused new blood into the line. One mustn't think that these wives detracted from the wealth in any way, because they must have had their own mind gifts or they wouldn't have settled for the Stumpf men. My own Stumpf grandparents were such a case. Grandfather Karl Stumpf was the fourth child of Aschaffenburg Forest Superintendent Alfred Stumpf. It was the time when Germany was saved from deforestation by some enlightened rulers and the position was a prestigious one. Karl must have been the youngest, until quite a few years later, a baby girl was born. He had one older sister, Aunt Lily and two older brothers. Aunt Lily was tall and slender. She had a stubborn streak in her eyebrows. Apparently she couldn't see well and was known for being one of the first women to wear a pince-nez, showing her love for reading. Even as a young woman eligible for marriage, she did not bother taking it off when sitting for a photograph. Aunt Lily spent her life in Munich, enjoying a quiet life of literature and arts. Father stayed with her for three years, when doing his pharmacy apprenticeship. Aunt Lily doted on her nephew as a matter of making up for her brother's inadequacies. Karl wasn't able to approach fatherhood in a reasonable way. There was hardly a word of personal conversation with his two sons. Karl seemed to be immensely awkward in social matters, depending entirely on his wife to keep the family and the pharmacy business going. Whatever my father knew about the Stumpf family he must have learned from her. And it seemed to be enough to make him worry about me. Clearly, I showed all the signs of the family heritage. Mother said that at the age of two I carried a tune when Father harmonised. In first grade, I was drawn towards books in a violent love affair. In primary school I would face reading, writing, 'rithmatic with an attitude of: What

took you so long? At the age of eight Father started laying out his philosophies to me, of which I had no idea that they were family heritage. By the age of ten I was admitted to the local gymnasium and made a prize. On the day of the award ceremony, Father went to the hairdresser, shaved meticulously, selected a pair of new shoes from the our shoeshop, took out his wedding suit, brushed it and trimmed his nose hair. Grandmother had to come and watch the younger ones. Mother had trouble finding an outfit, she was entirely unprepared to meet an educated crowd with her homesown dresses and practical flatheels. She was taller than Father. “Damn it, I shouldn't have worn white for the wedding, I could have used the dress over again,” she exclaimed. Why did she wear white? How impractical can you get? She probably tried to make a point to her folks who suspected her of having faltered in her virginity. It was a grand event. That first year in the gymnasium had drawn me into the school choir where I sang soprano like a bird. I was my music teacher's pet, because I managed keep a pitch and hold out in the tedious rehearsals among the grown Altos, Tenors and Basses without complaining. We sang Handel's Hallelujah and my voice climbed to the highest notes with ease. I knew that we were good, because the church choirmaster sat on the edge of his chair with his mouth ajar. I watched him all the way through as I stood right in front. He had trouble containing himself. I was a little pipsqueek in a big machinery and I loved my place there, based on my talent, equal to all the grown-up teenagers. My parents sat somewhere in the back. I couldn't see them, but was constantly aware of their presence, wondering what impression I would make on them. The distribution of prizes left me with my own copy of 'Uncle Tom's Hut'. Clutching the book to my chest, I joined my parents after the ceremony, when Father took

me quietly aside. He said: “I hope that you're quite aware that this might be the only and last prize you're winning. You're not ambitious enough for this kind of thing.” Suddenly I felt beside myself, as if I could watch my own face dropping and my heart sinking. My mouth had gone dry. I just silently nodded. I understood. If I wanted to go the learned way, I could not count on the support of my family. They were busy making a living. Father could not have expected Mother to face this sort of event once more. She clearly felt out of place and being who she was, she wouldn't stand for it. I instantly recognised that I really wasn't ambitious enough to fight for my heritage, if Father didn't back me. *** A few years later, Mother had won a boat trip down the Danube and she took me along. The trip ended in Regensburg where the crowd went for a sight-seeing tour. Suddenly, Mother pulled me aside and said: “Let's just visit this book store for a minute.” We took a few narrow lanes and to my surprise we ended up in front of a second-hand bookshop named “Stumpf Antiquariat”. “This is a relative of yours,” she said. “Why aren't you related to him, Mother?” “No,” she said, “He is your father's cousin and he is in your blood line, not mine.” She called inside the shop and a bald elderly man with old-fashioned glasses came to the door. He reminded me of Grandfather and Father at the same time. A pithy jaw, a chiseled nose, wide forehead, well-formed skull, posture slightly bent and a look that suggested bad sight. He didn't recognise Mother right away. “I'm Helen,” she said, “Helen from Gernsbach. This is Richard's daughter.” “Ahh, yah, I remember. Helen and Richard...

Stumpf?” The old man looked at me with recognition. He nodded his head and took a closer look. There was something significant about the moment. I asked Mother about this man. “He didn't have any children. In fact, none of his generation have. Your own uncle is childless. If it weren't for us, there wouldn't be another generation of Stumpfs in our part of the family. *** I loved the piano, but wasn't allowed to play. Father wouldn't have it. Mother often exclaimed how she had hated the piano lessons she was forced to take as a child and here I was, taking to the piano naturally but wasn't allowed to learn it. She wanted me to take singing lessons. She wanted me to go to boarding school. These were matters that were mentioned once and then dropped. I took to books and taught myself to play the guitar. *** Many, many, many years later, I knelt in front of my aged father sitting in his wheel chair and gently pulled his soft slippers over his swollen feet. He suddenly started sobbing. I was startled. He had managed his life with relentless self-control. “How could you muster such gentle care for an old wretch like me. I love the way you have taken,” he said, “it's made you a good person.” I understood. He had tried to save me from becoming a learned fruitless idiot.
Irma Walter 2010