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Lacquer’s grandmother was the youngest of six children, born in the waning of the Biedermeier era. She spoke French (this, apparently, she admitted without shame) and played the piano well. “She and my grandfather lived for music,” writes Lacquer, “which they played four hands. They had heard Brahms conduct, early in their lives together, as well as many of the other great German conductors of the nineteenth century… My grandmother could do all sorts of needlework. But she could not — or at least did not, in anyone’s memory — so much as boil an egg.”
He writes that she remained in Germany until December 1939 on the grounds that she did not want to leave her Bechstein grand piano. “In America, she dressed and acted like a lady of a distant century,” he writes, “seemingly unaware that the world around her had changed…. The first of my fantasy Germany’s is hers. The words I associate with her are Es geht rapide bergab — ‘things are going rapidly downhill’ — something she said about herself from when she was in her late seventies to when she went gaga in her late nineties.”
From his father the young Thomaslein, as his mother then called him, learned curses (in the most traditional sense of the term), such as: Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selvst vergebens (“With stupidity the gods themselves fight in vain”) and what Lacquer refers to as “the ridiculously quaint” Was glaubst du das ich bin, ein Dukatenscheisser?, with which he approached his wife every month when he paid the bills (translation: “What do you think I am? Someone who s—ts ducats?”).
Of the sayings his father hoped he would remember, Kant’s categorical imperative was foremost — recited, according to Lacquer, with a “special tone of reverence”: Handle nur nach derjenigen Maxime, durch die du zugleich wollen kannst, daß sie ein allgemeines Gesetz werde. (“Act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will a universal law of nature.”)
Lacquer also recalls that Donnerwetter (“thunder weather”) “was the prelude to an explosion of my father’s anger and was often followed by noch ein mal (‘once again’). This malediction was frequently associated with the threat that if we continued to misbehave my mother would call my father, who would then say ein machtwort — literally, a “word of power,” but really more like the definitive warning of the super-ego.”
Since another of the family sayings was Quod licet Jovi, non licet bovi (Latin having an authority at least equal to German), which meant “What is allowed to Jupiter is not allowed to the ox,” writes Lacquer, “the ‘thunder weather/words of power’ combo carried a certain mythological terror,” noting that the Latin expression was used mostly to explain “why my reading of the categorical imperative was mistake in holding that the maxim for some action of my father’s included him…. I thought this was fudging on the universality principle but got nowhere with this line of argument.”
One word Lacquer says belongs to both his parents is Unsinn (“nonsense”; “absurdity”), recalling that, “Mache keinen Unsinn (“Don’t do anything stupid”) was the standard caution before my going out on a date. It did not apply to my driving, which was impeccable, but to ‘parking’ on one of the hundreds of miles of strip mine roads around where we lived and necking the evening away. (There was nothing else to do in Beckley, West Va., but this nonsense had other things to recommend it.)”
He finally reminisces about how his mother kept a copy of Heinrich Heine’s complete poems on her night table, which she read most days of her life, “Die Lorelei” being her favorite:p> em>Ich weiß nicht, was soll es bedueten, br> Daß ich so traurig bin, br> Ein Märchen aus uralten Zeiten, br> Das kommt mir nicht aus dem Sinn. /em> /p>
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