Between the Vines, Part II
Before our departure, Rainer bought me a bottle of wine as a memento. Although not the same as what we shared in the café, it was a piece of living landscape delicately captured in glass. The bottle would accompany me home a few months later where it remains sealed to this day. I wondered if Otto also took a piece of landscape with him when he left Osthofen.
In the years following, I learned the graves of Barbara and Maximilian were no longer marked and probably had been reused as is common practice in Germany. The grave stones themselves still existed - stored in a church basement - and the question of my ancestor’s connection to the vines unanswered. In its bottle on the shelf, the wine remained quiet and still for two decades.
One spring morning, the bottle finally called to me. Picking it up, I noticed the cork was bad and aided by sunlight from the window, saw a brown hue rested prominently in the neck where red once had been. The lifeless liquid was now vinegar; and all I could think of was Osthofen, standing in the cemetery gazing up at the vineyards. I realized it was time to seek an answer to my question.
There are always differences found at the intersection of lore and fact. From what was shared by my relatives, the marriage of Barbara and Maximilian was disapproved of; family lore claiming due to religious differences. After their deaths, an ugly story even arose that Barbara was exhumed and moved to another cemetery. These unsubstantiated stories reflect real human sorrow of love lost but I know somewhere in the town of Ostofen both were once happy.
I did not know anyone in Osthofen and was unsure what to say in the letter I wrote to the registrar’s office after finding her name on the town’s website. Compounding this was my lack of German proficiency which had dwindled in the twenty years since visiting. Even then it was woeful and I was quite grateful that many people I encountered spoke English beautifully and were patient with me; complimentary when I attempted my ancestral tongue.
My letter, an e-mail sent through a general inquiries form, was brief, consisting mostly of an apology for my poor German. Having little idea whether a response would follow, I hoped for the best. I returned to the bottle and brown sour contents; toying with the idea of opening it and using the vinegar for cooking, but never followed through. It was still precious regardless of the chemical changes and remained on the shelf.
That night I lay awake staring at shadows on the ceiling wondering what my ancestors looked like, how they dressed, the tone of their voices. In my mind, I tried saying a few words to them when an e-mail alert chime broke the silence. Looking at my phone, I saw a familiar German name. The registrar in Osthofen had responded, her message yielding a collection of photographs!
The photographs she took of the old register’s pages are clear, haunting, and true. In one of them, her hand is visible as she holds open the book; touching records that probably hadn’t seen light since the ink dried well over a century earlier. I now sat captivated by the mysterious beauty of each document’s handwriting which recorded Barbara and Maximilian’s lives. Even though I never doubted, the only words I could say out loud at that moment were, “They did exist!”
Attached to the photographs was a quick note, written in German, “The death record of Barbara Amalie Goetz from 1883 states that she is the wife of the merchant Maximilian Eugen Goetz. Maximilian Goetz is described in his own death record of 1885 as a vinegar producer and merchant.”
Essigproduzent und Kaufmann. Maximilian was a vinegar producer and merchant. This was his connection to the vines! And in that excitement, it made me wonder, what else was written in these records?