This essay, by Jennifer Koski, is part meditation, part memoir, and pure delight. Jen herself is delightful, with an infectious energy, a joie de vivire, and a penchant for unfettered laughter. I hope you enjoy this lovely, lilting, and lively essay as much as I do.
By Jennifer Koski
The words I love change. Year to year, month to month, week to week.
There was the summer of "ineffable." The fall, my junior year in high school, of "languid." The brief span of "histrionic." The decade of "cacophony."
Today, this week, this month, it's Lorelei.
Beautiful Lorelei with its narrow lines and round vowels. Its soft femininity. Its emotional core.
My grandfather says it to me on a sunny day I don't remember. But there it is on the DVD my husband slides into his Mac, saying, "Look what I found when I cleaned my office."
I'm holding the camera, shaky and uneven, in my grandparents' lake cabin. My toddler's arms cinch my knees as he shouts, "Mommy! I a big boy!" My sister laughs somewhere off camera. Her husband crosses the back of the frame, opens the refrigerator. My grandma feeds her great-grandson a bottle.
But I have eyes for only one man. His silver hair combed back and to the side, his striped, collared shirt picked out by his wife, his robin's-egg blue jeans ending at stark white tennis shoes. He reclines in a familiar, blue leather chair, looks up at me in curiosity, a stack of completed crossword puzzles, a box of Milk Duds, a dictionary, on the table next to him.
"Say something witty," I demand.
"Ich weiß nicht, was soll es bedeuten," he says, not missing a beat.
"Daß ich so traurig bin;
Ein Märchen aus alten Zeiten,
Das kommt mir nicht aus dem Sinn.
"Die Luft ist kühl, und es dunkelt,
Und ruhig fließt der Rhein;
Der Gipfel des Berges funkelt
The room around him silences. My camera moves in time. It's five years before his death, a time when he frequently grumbled about how it was ridiculous to still be alive at 89, 90, 91. About how his mind didn't work for shit anymore. About how he couldn't remember a goddamn thing.
He finishes the poem ("…Und das hat mit ihrem Singen / Die Lorelei getan"), his gaze holding the lens. My son, in Batman undies, dashes into the kitchen in a slapping, flat-footed run. My nephew yells for his mom from a bedroom.
"I think I caught 'gesundheit,'" I say. "What does it mean?"
My grandfather laughs. "It's 'The Lorelei'," he says. His hands fold in front of his chest. He studies them. Lines his fingertips up, one by one, starting with his thumbs.
The camera steadies.
"It's a legend about a boatman on the Rhine. He hears the song of a beautiful woman—the Lorelei—sitting high up on the mountain. Her song is so beautiful that he watches her instead of the rocks, which will cause him to crash and die."
I settle on his face, his sparse, white, five o'clock shadow. I want to impress him by knowing the legend already. I want to recite it to him, like I did with a dozen poems of my youth—the ones from the leather-bound Treasury of Best Loved Poems he gave me when I was nine.
"Do you want a piece of cake, Van?" my grandma asks.
"No," he says, dismissing her question with a raised hand, a flick of his wrist. "I'm OK."
I turn the camera to my grandma. Follow her to the kitchen.
* * *
My husband gives me the DVD. I write "Grandpa" on it in red Sharpie, adding a heart below his name. I put it on the shelf next to my bed.
The next day, I look up "The Lorelei"—in English first, then its original German, written by Heinrich Heine. I memorize, "She sings a song as well; Whose melody binds an enthralling, And overpowering spell."
I try it in German: "Und singt ein Lied dabei; Das hat eine wundersame, Gewaltige Melodei."
I think maybe I'll teach it to my sons—now 11 and 14. Maybe I'll even pay them to memorize select verses, like my grandfather did me: 50 cents for "Jenny Kissed Me." $5 for "No Man is an Island."
Maybe Heine's Lorelei is their Donne.
A week later, when I claw through the recycling bin for the crossword puzzle, I've already forgotten. I push aside Monday's newspaper (too easy) and Sunday's (too hard). I settle on Wednesday's. The puzzle is on B7, the same section as my weekly column, "Jen's World." For this edition, I'd written about watching the DVD with my husband. About seeing my grandpa. About poetry and other unexpected gifts.
I fold the page into quarters. Crawl under a blanket with my blue pen.
1 Across: School dance.
14 Across: Writer Anais.
34 Across: Rock producer Eno.
I'm buzzing through them—until I get to a clue I've never seen before. One that fills me with love and gratitude and belief and the final turn in a new favorite word.
37 Across: Lorelei's river.
** ** **
Jennifer Koski is a weekly columnist for the Rochester, Minn-based Post-Bulletin, and the associate editor of Rochester Magazine. A graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, she holds an MFA in creative writing. She is the founder of the Write @ writing workshops, because she knows that everyone has a story (or twelve) to tell. She can be reached at jenniferkoski[at]gmail[dot]com.