In “The Blue Raincoat” by Judith Cooper, the writer carries us along on a trip through Germany as she reflects on her father’s life and his experiences, a Jewish WWII vet. With Cooper’s sharp eye and reminiscing voice, you’ll be holding your breath from the very first word: “Listen,” she instructs. Let’s listen.
Listen to the low hum on either side of the deserted road and imagine the huge mass of bees spread throughout the forest. Follow the ancient stone wall on your left that in some places stumbles and falls, in others is patched and stands strong. There is a constant trill of birdsong wherever you go. No people, no cars along the road, few houses. Surrender to this tiny Bavarian village that captures your heart.
Come to Germany a doubter, a Jew. Think about the good chunk of your family lost in the war and carry a big chip on your shoulder about where you are—at the same time that you adore the azure skies barely punctuated with clouds, the winding river that runs past your temporary home, the fourteenth-century ocher castle in charming disrepair just down the street. Cherish your wonderful German friends, both new and old, while imbibing the aura that hangs like a haze over the whole country.
Wherever you go, search out the Stolpersteine, the stumbling stones, the small concrete cubes capped with a brass plate inscribed with the name and life dates of Nazi victims that are then set flush into the sidewalk in front of their last-known address. Let these tiny commemorations of Jews, the disabled, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, Romani, and other members of the spurned and the resistance during World War II invade your dreams.
Before you come to Germany, obey an impulse to revisit the past. Pack the ancient cobalt blue raincoat your parents bought in Bavaria in the 1970s.
Struggle with your own childish broken German, but tell the story of your father, a Jewish World War II veteran who spoke fluent German; a happy confluence of growing up in a half-Yiddish, half-English household and getting a PhD in biochemistry thanks to the GI bill, at a time when German was the language requirement to get an advanced science degree. Smile knowingly when your new friends imply that you understand more than you’re letting on, or compliment you on your accidentally good pronunciation.
Dream of hiking in the blue raincoat in the dense Bavarian woods with your antsy feet and then bumping into your father, very much alive again, also wearing the same blue raincoat. Talk about everything and nothing, something you haven’t been able to do since he died of breast cancer a couple years before. In the space of a dream, take the walks you have missed, name the birds you haven’t recognized since he’s been gone, resolve the family problems that have kept you from moving forward. When you awake, remember the two of you together in twin blue raincoats, and go about your business in Germany, you in the real world, your father in the ether.
Locate your heart. Open it.
Nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best American Short Stories, and Best American Fantasy, Judith Cooper’s stories and essays have appeared in Hypertext Magazine,New Stories from the Midwest, Pleiades, Redux, Shenandoah, The Southern Review, and elsewhere. Her work has been a finalist for the Masters Review Chapbook Contest, the Press 53 Award for Short Fiction, the Glimmer Train Family Matters and Fiction Open contests, and was also a semifinalist for the Black River Spring Chapbook Competition. She is the recipient of several Illinois Arts Council and City of Chicago fellowships and grants. Her work has been supported by fellowships and residencies at Ragdale, The Hambidge Center, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Oberpfälzer Künstlerhaus in Schwandorf, Germany, The Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Annaghmakerrig, Ireland, and Carraig-na-gcat in West Cork, Ireland. She lives in Chicago and is currently working on a short story collection, a novel, and a collection of essays about her family.