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Begrudgingly I started to admire her as I grew older. But something grated. That sing-song voice. That optimism. That living in a different time. That refusal to fully condemn America (as I and my friends did) for its role in the Vietnam War, for its ecological depredation, racism, militarism, and homophobia. Everything that was important to me separated me from Mimi and my mother. I thought the world was rotten to the core and would have to be made new. They felt (in spite of Hitler and subsequent genocides) that it was miraculous to be alive. They still had faith in “humanity”—and found ways of letting music, poetry, and nature console them for whatever was wrong.
The first true affection I felt for Mimi was after my mother’s death in 1979.
I saw how much she had done for my mother—was still doing: helping with the posthumous publication of her last book; helping to find an archive for her work; transliterating letters in German I had received from my mother as a child in a Gothic script I had forgotten how to read.
Once I had to deliver some pages of my mother’s manuscript to Mimi’s apartment. Two tiny rooms in Washington Heights—books everywhere, an upright piano, dust, doilies. She served tea in fine porcelain cups and said she envied Grete for having such a good daughter to look after her work. I felt embarrassed. I was not a good daughter. I admired my mother’s poems but didn’t care for their romantic subject matter. I had my own life to lead; I could hardly wait to be done with the job of literary executor.
During my visit I began to notice that Mimi never talked about herself or asked me anything about my life. I existed only in relation to my mother, the poet. And Mimi existed only in relation to Austrian literature and the Austrian Exile writers.
“Why do you want to give your life to that stinking little country, that drove you out, that persecuted and killed its Jews?” I wanted to scream. But she was so much of a piece, so fiercely organized around a core: her mandate. Her single-mindedness frightened me. I could see that if I didn’t watch out she would try to conscript me to carry on her work. I got up to leave.
“Will you come again?” Her eyes were not fishy now, they almost seemed to have some warmth in them. I embraced her.
Earlier, while I had sat there, listening, I had discovered to my surprise that I no longer was put off by her manner of speaking. It struck me how very Austrian it was, and how endearing I found that, even against my will. In her accents I recognized my mother; in her peculiarly lilting melody, the sound that once meant home.