Verzicht. Small skies.

By John Magee

I reflect, try to imagine how it was back then. It is 1944. My mother is fourteen years old. No father at home. Killed in an automobile accident in 1938. My grandmother at the time with seven small children. The oldest was nine. The youngest an infant. My grandmother carrying her eighth child. The coal supplier comes by the house. He informs my grandmother that he can no longer supply her. He demands that she pay the bill. Money was very, very tight. Grandmother is behind in her payments.

It is winter. Unusually cold. My mother is hiding in the corner, hearing for the first time how her mother pleads with the coal supplier to give her more time. He does. My mother has never forgotten that day, that conversation. It put its stamp on her, made a deep impression. Thirty years later, her husband, my father, Frank, would die at the age of forty-four. Heart failure. My mother then, 1974, with six children. His first heart attack was at age thirty-five.

“What does it cost to heat those places?” A question my mother asks spontaneously whenever we drive by oversized houses in suburban Philadelphia. Not just one of those curious questions, but a question of survival. For my mother, back then.

True, not to be compared with the experiences of the German people in terms of limited resources during certain periods of their recent history. Nonetheless, an imprint on my mother, 1944 and the coal-man. A far greater influence on Americans is living in a country of abundance, in many cases over-abundance. Land, natural resources, freedom and opportunity. I’ve never been to the Upper Midwest – Wyoming, the Dakotas, Montana. Big Sky Country it is called. Literally: “Land as far as you can see!”

This must have been what the multitudes of immigrants to America had imagined, as well as the recently-arrived immigrants who moved west from the cities of the East Coast. But not only they, also the Germans. Yes, the Germans, back then. Many generations grew up reading Karl May, the author of best-selling books of fiction about the American West. 

Cowboys and Indians. Germans of today, who travel through the U.S., who live there a few years, who dream of settling in America, see, imagine and experience that abundance. Who in their imagination is not attracted to the idea of no limits?

These days, to have to accept that there are limits, to reorient one’s own thinking, through self-reflection and self-critique, to change deep-seated habits of mind. Who wants to do that? Is able to do that? Painful and disconcerting. Verzicht. To do without. To do with less. To accept limits.

Verzicht. Small skies.