An Abbreviated Family Memoir

The men took off their shirts
and the women their dresses.
On a blanket on a hill
we were cousins, aunts, uncles, grandmother

for an afternoon
beneath the red star in the Russian zone
where a knotted handkerchief
was a hat
and underslips

were bathing suits.
Basted with sunshine, nobody cared
about underarm smells

in the seventh year,
the seventh, unwashed, barefoot
year of peace.

Everyone had secrets: grandmother (The name
of the phantom lover
who gave her one last daughter),
Auntie Hele (Why she wouldn’t talk
to her brothers), Auntie Martha (Her husband
was not rich enough),
Uncle Pepy (The reason he rode
away beneath a shooting star
on his roaring motor bike, never
to return), but we posed

together for photographs
around the dinner table. Click. Another film
that would never be developed.

Whatever can we put
in the spot where Hitler’s portrait hung
with the border of lace
and a rose
placed for effect?

The question kept Uncle Leonhard awake for years
but he never surrendered
when he spoke the Führer’s name

describing how he met him.
And he showed us the sensation
each time he shook our hands
with a strong
and heartfelt grip.

When I asked her whether her heart
skipped at the sound
of goosesteps

my grandmother just gazed
out of her window
at clouds changing shape
as they drifted across Vienna
until the sky cleared

and she wondered why everyone
wanted the forecast
for yesterday’s weather.

Every so often I return
to the film set
of The Third Man, looking for Harry Lime
riding the Big Wheel
and hearing his theme
as it was played on the zither
in the year I was born.
I laugh in the German language
with my cousins, tell them
about the red-rock-blue-sky desert
while I remember
in black-and-white.

David Chorlton has lived in Phoenix since 1978. He grew up in England with watching soccer as a major part of life although he has managed to move on to other interests since then, including reading and writing poetry. Read other articles by David.