Between the Vines, Part I
I arrived on a late October afternoon just over a century after my great grandfather, Otto, had emigrated from the same German town of Osthofen not far from the Rhine. Osthofen, like many other small towns in the southern Rheinhessen, excels in viniculture and has for hundreds of years. It was through the vineyards that I heard Otto’s family made their living but was unclear how. This question and a desire to connect is what led me to my ancestral home.
The opportunity came while I was living in Denmark and my German relatives invited me to visit. Although they did not live in Osthofen their village was not far away, and my eldest cousin, Rainer, had already identified the cemetery in which our ancestors rested. He, too, sought connection and was as enthusiastic as I. Despite the pouring rain and the fact that we were meeting one another for the first time, when my train arrived, we left immediately.
Walking through the town’s center was a homecoming long overdue. Occasionally, we would glance up the smaller winding streets, hoping to hear our ancestor’s footsteps and voices as the sound of our own were muffled by the rain. We knew this is where they had walked a thousand times. Otto would have likely walked the same route on his way to the new world; and done so in grief at age nine following behind the funeral processions of his parents, Barbara and Maximilian, who had both died too young. It was their graves that Rainer and I were seeking to find: the mutual ancestors that linked us as family.
The open gate between two aged stone walls beckoned us into a maze of overgrown hedges and misshapen trees whose branches wrapped themselves around some of the more desperate monuments. A few of the afflicted were iron crosses from the Great War, rusted, sharp, and protruding through the blanket of grey fall afternoon. Knowing our task, Rainer and I split up, my hands soon becoming numb from having to rub many of the graves in order to read them clearly. It did not take long for the rain to succeed in soaking my old brown field jacket completely through.
There were times when I became distracted, my attention drawn beyond the cemetery to the surrounding vineyard. The bare vines devoid of fruit taken at harvest slumbered, and sat in orderly, austere rows high on a terraced hillside. I wondered how Barbara and Maximilian met, if they strolled between the vines on the same hill upon which I gazed. How were their lives captured in the grapes harvested so long ago? I could not help but think of their passing and how those circumstances set the course for my great-grandfather’s and his two brothers’ emigration.
I lost count somewhere after one hundred. Three hours had passed when Rainer joined me again; both of us making peace that the graves would not be revealing themselves that day. It was enough for us simply to be nearby. The sun was setting and we were saturated and hungry. I was certain the bartender at the café across the road had seen our work for when we arrived, he said nothing, quickly opening a bottle of local wine and handing us full glasses before we sat down.
Looking at one another we said prosit and were satisfied with our effort. The red wine with its grapes cultivated from the earth in the village in which Barbara and Maximilian lived - and now rested - was light, fruity, and a welcomed respite. Although the vines were different than those that grew during their lifetimes, the roots touched and drew from Osthofen’s unchanged geology; expressing the same terroir into the modern glass of which we drank. Indeed, the simple table wine was the more meaningful point of connection, well beyond that of two graves – even if we had found them during our time in the cemetery.
The stories we shared that evening could fill their own book, and I hope someday they will. We did not solve the mystery of how our ancestors were connected to the vines. That would take another two decades and reveal itself in ways we would never have expected. In the meantime, the land would wait for us patiently as it always had.