Read an Extract

[This page will change from time to time, but for starters here’s the very beginning of the book…]

Always, there was music.

It was music – Puccini, to be precise – that first drew my grandparents into each other’s orbit, more than a hundred years ago.  It was an unusually warm afternoon in early spring, in the grandest municipal garden in Hanover, the Grosse Garten.  My grandmother, Henriette Furst, was taking her usual Sunday stroll among the regimented flowerbeds and manicured lawns so beloved of city-dwelling Prussians.  At twenty-five, she was a fine example of Teutonic rude health: Jette, as she was known by everyone, was six foot tall, and robustly built.  She walked through the park with none of the feminine grace that was expected from ladies of her class.  Rather than making her way by trippingly petite steps on the arm of an admirer, Jette clomped briskly along the graveled paths alone, too busy enjoying the day to worry about the unladylike spectacle she presented to others.  Rather than squeezing her considerable frame into the bustles and corsets that constrained the grim-faced ladies she so effortlessly outflanked, Jette preferred voluminous dresses that draped her outsized form like colorful tents.  She swept along in a dramatic, free-flowing swirl, leaving all those rigidly-contoured women hobbling in her wake.

And then, as she passed a sculpted wall of privet, a song drifted out from behind the topiary.  The singer was male: his voice, as clear and as pure as a freshly-struck bell, fell on Jette like a shower of jasmine.  She stopped, stilled by the tune’s simple beauty.  Even cloaked in mellifluous Italian, Jette could hear hope and enchantment in every syllable.  Unable to pull herself away, alone by the privet hedge, her act of listening felt shockingly intimate.  The invisible singer seemed to be whispering in her ear, performing for her alone.

My grandmother, bewitched by song.  So our story begins.

The voice that had halted Jette’s afternoon walk belonged to my grandfather, Frederick Meisenheimer, and in fact her intuition had been exactly right: he was singing only for her.  Frederick had been waiting for Jette as she made her way around the path.  When she passed in front of the bush he was hiding behind, he crossed his fingers and began to sing.

This was no impromptu performance.  Frederick had been watching Jette walk through the Grosse Garten for several consecutive Sundays, enchanted by her unusual size.  He had spent his time between those delicious weekly sightings wondering how best to attract her attention.  In the end he had chosen to ambush her with an aria, che gelida manina, from Puccini’s new opera, La Bohème.  The opening lines translate as your tiny hand is frozen – not especially appropriate, given that Jette’s hands were not, even by the most charitable standards, tiny; they were also rather clammy due to the unseasonably warm weather.  Still, Frederick knew what he was doing.  When he had finished, he stepped out from behind the hedge and thrust a concoction of lupins, dahlias, and pansies into Jette’s (big, sweaty) hands.  By then, caught squarely in the cross-hairs of Puccini’s gorgeous melody, she was helpless.

Frederick did not look like the sort of man who could pull off a stunt like this.  If you are picturing a suave, attractive suitor, think again.  Physically, he and Jette were a good match, insofar as neither of them quite met the prevailing expected standards, and neither of them especially cared.  He, too, was huge, in every sense: taller than Jette by an inch or two, he possessed a quivering gut of heroic dimensions which he made no attempt to hide.  Waves of thick red hair washed across his head.  Instead of the prim moustache favored by most Hanover men, he wore a magnificent ginger beard that sprouted from his cheeks in chaotic exuberance.

For the next few weeks, Frederick and Jette met each Sunday afternoon by the same privet hedge.  They walked side by side through the park, past the fountains and waterfalls.  Every so often Frederick would step away from Jette and break into song.  He serenaded her with Mascagni, Verdi, Donizetti, and Giordano.  He was a terrible ham, acting out every lyric as if his life depended on it.  He changed from lovelorn Sicilian peasant to fiery French revolutionary with barely a breath in between.  His histrionics earned baleful looks from other passers-by, their quiet Sunday strolls disturbed by this barrelful of song, but he ignored them all.  Jette soon learned to do the same.  With Frederick by her side, the rest of the world retreated.

Before long, the young couple began to live for their Sunday walks, the long weeks in between a grey sea of tedium.  In each other these two oversized misfits found refuge from the choppy, unforgiving sea in which both had been unhappily drifting.  Frederick was enraptured by all of Jette’s big-boned loveliness.  He was simply grateful that there was so much of her for him to worship.  And Jette loved him right back.  She adored the lines he had first sung through the privet hedge:

Per sogni a per chimere

e per castelli in aria,

l’anima ho milionaria.

When it comes to dreams and visions

and castles in the air,

I’ve the soul of a millionaire!

It was Frederick’s capacity to dream that dazzled Jette the most.  When she was with him, anything was possible.


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