Electric Eel

Mother Tongue

Issue 056
March 17, 2021

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After a great deal of loss, grief, frustration and loneliness dealt to these characters, their joys arrive as they would in real life: like gifts we can scarcely believe are happening . . . Where our present era of decimated attention demands contraction and diminishment, *The Recent East* offers expansion. It artfully holds open a needed space—to wander, to contemplate, to notice. Even just to breathe. Like the house in the novel, life is so much larger than we remember.

Patrick Nathan, The New York TImes Book Review

There’s something in the air this spring –– more than usual! And many of us could use a timely reminder that life may be larger than we remember. The Recent East, Thomas Grattan’s debut novel about a family finding a new life in East Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall, is a story of and for times of historic change. Below, an essay from Thomas Grattan, on sons, mothers, language, and clothes.

When I was young, I didn’t realize my mother spoke English with an accent. I knew she was fluent in two languages, that those languages lived in different places in her mouth. I understood, too, that there was something other about this tall German woman living in a tiny upstate New York town, with the trick she employed of switching into her mother tongue to complain about prices at the grocery store or to have a private conversation in public. Sometimes she began speaking that language without realizing, people baffled when she said to them, “Entschuldigung,” or “Tür zu.” But one day at our town’s municipal pool, an older girl swam up to me, all chlorine-smelling and freckled, and commented on the accent my mother had. I don’t remember how I answered or if the girl’s comment was meant as a compliment or a jibe. To the best of my recollection, I denied it. But I remember feeling angry, shocked, too, that there was something about my mother that I didn’t know. That this person I paid my closest attention to was still a mystery to me.

I was a shy, effeminate kid, obsessed with my older sister’s Barbies, also the fact that she got to wear nightgowns to bed rather than pajamas. I started sleeping in her hand-me-down nightgowns. I changed for bed early so that I could wear them while I was still awake. Most boys I knew played games that mimicked war, with victors and losers, where winning meant pain and conquest. I was interested in none of that. During bath time, my sister and I splashed the walls around the tub until there was water everywhere, sighing and saying to one another, “Look what the boys did!” Then, we’d clean up the mess these imagined boys made. Boys were terrifying to me then, something I existed outside of. And in all of this there was my mother. She watched me clean and fuss and spend whole Saturday mornings in a hand-me-down nightgown. And she didn’t care. She often seemed preoccupied, worried and sad in a way that frightened me, a state I wanted to vanquish, but didn’t know how to. Part of this sadness seemed to be about the country she’d left, though when we went there each summer, I don’t remember her turning happy, but instead disappearing as my grandmother and aunt took over. But I understood her relief in someone else taking charge, felt it in my own life when I had a teacher or friend who bossed me around, gave me a path to follow.

Still, in the months we’d spend in Germany each summer, I wondered, worried that what was different about her somehow also made her less likely to stick around.

I managed that discomfort by keeping close. If she and her brothers and sisters-in-law went out for the evening, I’d lie awake until she got back. When she and my Tante Luzzi whispered urgently to one another, I eavesdropped, annoyed when they used German words I didn’t know. I also listened intently to stories she and my family told. Stories of their defection from East to West Germany. Of the war they’d lived through and the store my grandparents ran. Even more, stories about my mother. She was, according to family lore, the organizer of neighborhood games, the spokesperson for her reticent twin brother, and the only girl on her block who’d been allowed to play soccer with the boys. That fearless version of her was one I thought about a lot, hoping that, in picturing it enough, it would appear.

There was another story that stuck with me. In her teenaged years, she and her twin brother took dance classes, learning the waltz and foxtrot and quickstep. Along with those classes came formal dance parties they were expected to attend. Each time a new party came along, my mom and her family’s housekeeper would go to a store and choose a few dresses. Then, that night, her parents would return from running their store that sold high-end housewares and place a crate in the middle of the living room. My mom put on each dress. She stood on that crate while my grandparents circled her, observing, critiquing, deciding which one she would wear. The disappearing act I saw her perform each time we returned to Germany made more sense after I heard that story, along the way it left her feeling both safe with someone being in charge, but also at a loss as to how to be in charge herself. It made even more sense when she once confided in me that, while growing up, knowing what she wanted felt like the most impossible question to answer. She’d go to a restaurant and stare dumbfounded at the menu, visit a store and feel stumped as to which sweater she would buy, or if she even wanted a sweater in the first place. Of course these stories brought me back to her on that crate, the decisions she wasn’t given to weigh in on. Also how, once she became an adult herself, she still found decision making daunting. Whenever she makes one now, regret inevitably follows.

This is something I’ve inherited from her, or learned, or both. It makes me think of the famous Jung quote about how “the greatest burden a child must bear is the unlived life of its parent.” Though for me it’s less about the life she didn’t live, more about the decisions she never saw as hers to make. She hemmed and hawed about a paint color for a wall. What to make when company came over a minefield for her to traverse. At the same time, she made big decisions as if they were nothing, the most obvious example being when she agreed to marry my father, an American doctor two decades her senior, after knowing him for five days. (When I asked once how she’d responded to his proposal, she answered, “I think I said, ‘Why not?’”) In him, she saw someone whose wants were clear, as were his means for getting them. And though the reality of that proved far more complicated, I think, too, of relationships I’ve gone headlong into, in part because the other person’s certainty for a time gave me a sense of certainty, too. But beyond that hope always came the let down when certainty softened into something without clearly defined edges, when what took its place was a reminder than things would be sadder and meaner and more muddled than what we’d hoped for.

The more my un-boy like behavior veered from the private to public spheres, the more my mother supported it. When, at the age of four, I wanted to be a queen for Halloween, she made me a gown and crown, stood behind me when I corrected women handing out candy who thought I was a prince or a king. And when the nightgowns from my sister grew tattered and small, she took me to a department store to buy a new one. I remember that store, crowded with round racks. The chemical smell of new clothes and carpeting.

An older saleswoman came up and asked if she could help.

“We need a nightgown,” my mother said.

“Who’s it for?” the woman asked.

My mother pointed to me.

The woman looked at my mother, then me, her disgust something she made no pains to subdue. My mother’s face reddened. She stared at the floor. I waited for her to say never mind, for her to take my hand and walk me out of the store, to tell me it was a stupid thing I asked her to do. But she stayed put, slipped her fingers into my hair so I felt their gentle tug. Finally, the saleswoman pointed toward the nightgowns, glaring as we walked over to them. I don’t remember which one we got, only the shame on my mother’s face when the saleswoman scowled at her. Also how, in spite of that shame, it was important for her that I get what we’d come for. Maybe she was pleased at the insistence this wanting brought out in me. That I lost my shyness when it mattered. Maybe she remembered the crate she’d once stood on and vowed, then, as a parent, to make different decisions.


When I moved to New York in my early twenties, it didn’t feel as I imagined it would. I didn’t experience the rush of freedom at being a young gay man in a city with so many others, didn’t dive headlong into the city the way friends did who, within weeks of moving there, slept with more men than they ever had before, calling me with stories of threesomes and sex in parks, blowjobs in taxis as they traversed a bridge over the East River. I found something strange and intimidating about that place, where men moved down the streets knowing they were being watched and watching back without pretense. I wonder if that’s what my mother felt in coming to the States, this sense that people around her moved through the world in a way that felt stranger to her than the English they spoke, how they knew what they were looking for and showed it off in how they stood and stared, the smiles or grimaces they made as people walked by.

A few years into my time in New York, though that unease still lived in me, a restless desire won out. Most weekends I’d visit gay bars, meet men, and go home with them. Even then, I felt flooded with uncertainty, especially when one night my roommate turned to me dumbfounded and said, “Why do you sometimes go home with people you aren’t even interested in?” and I realized that I conflated the interest of others with my own. I once went home with a man just because it felt easier than saying no. Another time I left with a man whose apartment seemed to indicate he was moving toward being a hoarder, with stacks of boxes and dirty clothes on every surface. But I stayed, in part because I let his interest in me pull me toward him. At times after a one-night stand that I quickly felt was in some way shameful, I remembered my mother on that crate, my mother not knowing what she wanted, my mother agreeing to marry a man from a different country and generation after knowing him for only a handful of days. When I went home with beautiful men, men who were great in bed and charming, who lived in artfully curated apartments and were urbane and adventurous and carried a certainty that their lives were moving in a direction that pleased them, I fell for them hard. Even though it was just sex, I’d start to imagine their beautiful lives with beautiful friends, and wanted to be a part of that.

I don’t know if what my mother felt growing up and what I did as a young man were the same, or if I imagined that sameness, just as I somehow didn’t notice the accent she had that turned her TH’s into something closer to Z’s. Or if what I construed as sadness in her was in fact an anger at ending up in a small, provincial town with a husband who was polite and distant and always working, with a firstborn daughter who spoke German for a year before engaging with English because, even in the midst of Upstate New York, English to that child was the foreign language.

But I do know that she and I are similar in the strangeness we carry that makes us, whenever we’re uncomfortable, seem mute or standoffish or like snobs. A feeling that at times we don’t know how to talk to people, that in the moments when we shed our quiet and turn loud or raunchy or snarky, regret, like a loyal pet, soon follows. I know, too, that there is a sense of wanting to know what we want, and also a sense of wanting for the other person, as had been the case in that department store when five-year-old me hoped for a nightgown of my own, and despite the shame and discomfort she felt in going there, my mother’s desire for me to have what I wanted was stronger. As was the case for me after my father died and I asked my mother what was next for her, hoping she might plan elaborate vacations to places she’d always wanted to visit, or trips to the city to spend afternoons museums and see operas. But instead, when I asked what she had planned, she shrugged and said, “I’m just an old woman,” and I wondered if that answer was easier than figuring out how to move through the world in a different way.

Recently, I asked her about the nightgowns. I was hoping she’d held onto the same details of the two of us at the department store with its awful saleswoman, her hand in my hair as she bought me something I wasn’t supposed to have. How on the drive home she muttered to the steering wheel in quiet German. And I was thrilled that she’d remembered me in a nightgown, as well as the Barbies of my sisters I played with until one of my uncles forbade me from doing so. But when I mentioned the department store and the nightgown we purchased, she looked confused, maybe embarrassed. We were on a socially distant walk, the closest to one another we’d been in almost a year, walking far apart, masks in hand like tiny purses. “A department store?” she’d answered, then shook her head. “Child, I’m sorry. I don’t remember that at all.”