Living a diverse life
Over the course of one's life, whether it can be thought of as good or bad, one sees the swellings and droughts that punctuate a full life, the comings and goings, the ups and downs. Hanne Steinmeyer is no stranger to these cycles of life. Born in Germany in 1926 and moving to Brattleboro in 1955, she has seen life from many places, in many ways.
Now at 86, from her chair in the small apartment she shares with her husband of almost 60 years, Hanne reflects on her life lived on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, recalling the events that have woven, barer in some spots and richer in others, her experience throughout her life. She talks slowly with an accent that turns W's into V's, taking care not to reveal too much, but sharing small vignettes of a long and substantial life.
Many of Hanne's earlier years were spent living through the second World War in Nuremberg, a city that was heavily bombed. During that time, food was scarce, but Hanne strays from stories knitted with misery and focuses on her favorite, a story that sticks with her and evokes laughter instead. She was surprised and nervous when an American soldier knocked on the front door and asked to speak with her mother. Hanne did not know why he had come and what might happen. He questioned her mother, asking who she was and whether she had a sister in England. Despite the tenseness of the moment, Hanne's mother answered yes to all of the questions the soldier put forth only to find out that he had a package of tea to deliver from Hanne's aunt in England.
"This is the most wonderful story of the war. So, I accompanied him to his station to pick up the package and came home and had a cup of tea," Hanne recalls with a small ironic smile.
Hanne's aunt had sent a package of tea every month to Hanne's family, but it hadn't been possible for many years because of the war. Hanne's family was so surprised and delighted with their package that they forgot in their excitement to ask the soldier how the package had gotten to him. It still remains a mystery to this day, but Hanne breaks out in joyous laughter as she thinks back, recalling it as "the most beautiful story." The American soldier gave her a positive first impression of America.
Hanne studied to be an interpreter and learned English and French in college. This may be where her passion for other cultures began, because before too long, she had transplanted herself in America. For four years, Hanne taught at an American school for soldier's families in Germany. She met many Americans during her time there, but most important was Charlotte, an American woman who'd recently come to Germany to teach. Charlotte had met a German man in Boston a few years before she moved to Germany and, as luck would have it, was the one to introduce Hanne to her future husband, Georg, when he visited Charlotte's classroom one day in 1952. Georg "left that classroom deciding that Hanne was the woman he'd marry," calling her the following night and asking her to dine and dance. Hanne accepted. Their first child, a daughter, was named Charlotte in memory of the woman who'd brought them together.
Hanne and Georg married in Germany, and with 10-month-old Charlotte in tow, moved to Brattleboro in 1955. Georg had been hired by the Estey Organ company to take over the organ department. Because he was from a family of organ makers, he was able to leave the family business in the care of his brothers. Hanne was looking forward to the prospect of moving to the United States to see many of the friends she'd made working at the American school over the years. The times following the move were good ones. Hanne recalls living in the Brooks Hotel and pushing her daughter around in her carriage every day, walking the streets of Brattleboro and acquainting herself with her new home. They also lived in an apartment on High Street before adding one more daughter to the family, Elisabeth. After living in town for a few years, Hanne and Georg built a house on Black Mountain Road just outside of Brattleboro, where they would live for 50 years, before moving together to Vernon in March of this year.
Hanne took a job at Brattleboro Union High school and taught French and later German to the students there. She taught for twenty years and continues to keep in touch with some of her students, even joining one of them for Thanksgiving dinner this year. Sometimes people stop her on the street to let her know they were one of her students, and Hanne has a chance to catch up with them, many of whom she hasn't seen in decades. Hanne was the first North American German teacher after World War II to take American high school students to Germany, and even took them to into the communist sections of her home country. She and 12 students all stayed with host families in Berlin for four weeks. Thus began an exchange program that now involves over 800 schools.
When Estey Organ company went bankrupt and Georg lost his job, Hanne was very happy that she had steady employment, not that she was unused to the idea of living sparsely being from war-torn Germany. She and Georg considered moving back home, but decided to stay and try to make it work. Hanne's job kept them afloat during the tough years while Georg went back to school, and eventually began teaching in Amherst, Mass. Financially, she and George were able to breathe a little easier after he found employment, but another pass through the thin tapestry of life took their oldest child, Charlotte, from them in a fatal car crash when she was16 years old. Hanne tells this part of her story obligingly, as if she'd rather not discuss the events surrounding her daughter's passing. It's a key element in the story of her life, and one that she keeps for herself, wrapped tightly in deeply personal feelings and tied neatly with a bow. Unwrapping her vulnerability is not something she will readily do with a stranger.
Life for Hanne, Georg and Elisabeth went on in the way that life does, pooling in some places and running in others. Hanne recalls an active life, full of the people that make the community to which she moved, the place she calls home. She and Georg traveled quite frequently to Germany for work and were able to keep in touch with family as well as spend time in their home country. Hanne is proud of her heritage and spoke German and English at home so her daughters would be bilingual. She was a member of the Brattleboro Music Center chorus and translated German songs into English so the singers would know what they were singing about.
Hanne is also a poet, having three of her poems published. One of them is titled "Summer Evening in Vermont." Hanne and Georg skied, swam, threw parties inviting SIT students from many cultures, and settled into the fabric of the local community.
Hanne has met wonderful people throughout her years in Brattleboro and as a teacher. As a matter of fact, she recently wrote a letter to the editor of the paper remarking that she "never met anyone in Brattleboro who was not nice," something she expresses often and earnestly, as if people may not take this sentiment seriously.
What really makes Hanne special is her devotion to living a diverse life, beginning her career in Germany working at an American school, and then upon her move to Brattleboro, teaching German to American students and embracing the students from SIT in all of their many cultures.
Hanne's story is one we can all relate to as we observe the winding river of her life with cool clear pools in some places and rocky, turbulent water in others.
Abby Bliss is a regular contributor to the Reformer. To suggest people for this column, write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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