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Behind the Wall & Under the Steeple II: Divorce

Mother kept me home for three years because she didn’t buy into communist indoctrinated professionals being better suited to care for young children than parents. In East Germany, mothers were strongly encouraged to return to work after a one year maternity leave. Their kids would surely thrive in state run facilities and especially benefit from early exposure to socialist values: compliance, conformity, discipline and most of all loyalty to the party. Creativity, individuality and critical thought held low value in communist education.

One small educational alternative existed though: the church. For decades, the (lutheran) church operated about a dozen nursery schools in the city. After World War II, Leipzig, my hometown was briefly occupied by Americans who negotiated on behalf of the church to keep legal authority and ownership of their little schools. (Thank you, friends!) When communist Russians took over our city, they were unable to change this arrangement.

Lucky for me, because when I turned three, I went to a church run kindergarten. (nursery school) My mother was raised lutheran and despite not attending church still trusted in the institution. At least the church seemed a million times more suited to care for young children than the state.

Lutheran kindergarten was a playful oasis, sheltering young minds from communist propaganda while gently exposing us to God, the rhythms of the church year, to liturgies and prayers. At first I wasn’t thrilled spending my days getting to know strangers but I adjusted, even naming my doll after my favorite teacher. There was a boy I liked, he played the violin and had curly hair. Sometimes he wore suspenders and when we weren’t chasing each other or playing house, we’d talk about getting married some day.

At Christmas we’d have a nativity play and sure enough I’d be an angel again in the choir instead of getting to be Mary. We made Easter crafts and prayed before meals but it was a pretty relaxed setting overall, we’d talk a little about God and sometimes Jesus but not in a real personal way, like Jesus belonged in our daily life or anything like that.

I remember having a kids book of prayers with pictures of Jesus in it. In some paintings he looked pale, others showed him with a halo or holding up a couple of fingers. Some artists had his head a little tilted like maybe he was in deep thought or not feeling well, like something bothered him. He didn’t seem to smile much but perhaps you don’t have much to smile about when you are suffering for all mankind. Sometimes I felt a little sorry for Jesus, like I wanted to help him carry the weight of the world.

When I was four, my mother’s open marriage affair ceased working, resulting in divorce, followed by remarriage. It was a strange type of divorce in which I lost who I thought was my father to gain a new father in truth my real (biological) father. I relate to what Anne Sexton says: “It does not matter who my father was, it matters who I remember he was.” Losing my non-real father was still a loss worthy of grief. I have often downplayed this divorce and it’s effects on me, not counted it as a real loss since I gained my real father and wouldn’t that be considered a good and normal thing.

I don’t recall my old father leaving or mom telling me I would have a new dad which was in truth the old dad, the real one and he would now be living with us. I am sure this sort of conversation took place, I just don’t recall it happening or what it felt like.

I do remember my teacher taking me out into the hallway at school like I was in trouble or something important needed to be said. She pointed to my coat hook, telling me we needed to change the label, my last name above it. I would no longer be who I thought I was and this felt confusing, even frightening. I wanted to tell her no, please, please don’t change my name, like she had any say or power. I liked my old name, wanting to fight to keep it.

We were starting a new life together my parents told me and it would be good. We’d stop talking about the past and I would no longer see the old grandparents because they weren’t my real grandparents anyways and part of the old life and we were totally done with that. Our new life would be centered around Jesus, we’d follow him together into a new life, always going forward, not looking back.

Jesus was no longer some tame figure on a page. Jesus had come out of the book and into my story a bit like a wrecking ball, transforming everything. Suddenly Jesus felt intense and fierce, radical and dominant. I no longer felt sorry for Jesus when our new life started. I did perhaps what I’ve always done when someone intense crosses my path or when I feel like I am losing control. I close up, guarding my heart, holding back a part of myself until it feels safe enough to be me.

KG1 copy

My lutheran preschool, founded in 1861 survived communism and is still going.

me (4) copy

“Behind the Wall & Under the Steeple” is a series in which I am telling you my story of growing up Christian in East Germany. Part III will continue next week. If you are receiving this post by email, any reply goes straight to my inbox. As always I welcome your comments and questions. If you need to catch up, you can  read Part 1 here.

Love, Astrid


13 Replies

  1. I have no words. Thanks for sharing. This is poignant and important.

    1. Astrid Melton

      Sweet. Thanks, friend.

  2. Hanging on every word.
    Thank you for the beautiful card that arrived in my mailbox! What a fun surprise.

    1. Astrid Melton

      Grateful for your encouragement!

  3. P West

    Enjoying the story very much.
    M. was actually at a communist kindergarten in Chemnitz (Karl-Marx-Stadt), when she moved with to the Erzgebirge her teacher thought her parents must be in the party because she knew all the communist songs by heart. 🙂
    But we’ve kept our kids home until they were (nearly) three. We are very thankful for the Lutheran kindergarten they go to here in Leipzig.

    1. Astrid Melton

      Thanks to elementary school I still know some of the ridiculous songs and slogans…at least they seem funny now.

  4. Astrid, my husband and I spent some time in communist Poland visiting the Christians. Our time there touched me deeply. Your story took me back. I remember the heavy grayness that hung over the towns and people and the generosity and sweetness of the believers. God bless.

    1. Astrid Melton

      Yes. If I was playing a word association game I would pick ‘gray’ for East Germany… That And maybe blah…

  5. Hi! I thought I’d left a note before: discovered now that I didn’t.
    Astrid, as you write you communicate much with so few words. As I read this, I want to reach out and hug that little girl. So thankful I can hug her adult version!
    love you.

    1. Astrid Melton

      Sweet. Thanks Voni. Love you too!

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