Worthiness, not Pride
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; before you were born I sanctified you.
As with many Americans, I was a child of determined immigrants seeking freedom and a better life in a new country with countless opportunities. My parents, Roland and Ilse Jaeger, longed to leave their native homeland of Germany, where everyone they knew told stories of the ravaging effects of two world wars. They had both lived through horrors of their own, and this added to their personal strength and determination to make a new life for themselves and, eventually, a better life for the family they hoped to start.
My father was a gifted athlete, but his frequent bouts with sports injuries curtailed his dreams of becoming an international soccer or boxing superstar. As much as this disappointed him, these injuries might have saved his life since they prevented him from being drafted into the German military.
War had been difficult for the Jaeger family. While my dad's father, my grandfather, was fighting at the front, his mother battled the ravages of a brain tumor and died in the prime of her child-rearing years. My dad's father was then taken prisoner by the Russians and held captive for four years. Filled with sorrow and despair, my father was determined to keep the remains of his family together to rise up against the death and decay all around him.
My mother had a fateful encounter during the war that, if acted upon differently, would have altered the course of many lives—including mine. In the pastoral German countryside, in view of the Rhine River, a soldier broke into my mom's home at the end of the war. French troops had captured the town of Brennet, Germany. The Americans were in Berlin. The Nazi regime was falling. As in all wars, bullets, mortars and bombs bring down innocent bystanders. Soldiers have to make split-second decisions to spare and take lives, including their own. This particular soldier was securing the perimeter around my mother's home when his attention was drawn to a noise in the kitchen. He made his way inside.
My mom sensed a presence behind her and turned from the kitchen counter where she was undertaking her daily chores of preparing a meal. Startled by the invasion, her eyes locked on the soldier. She feared for her life. He slowly came closer to my mother, lowered his firearm and withdrew a long blade. The soldier lifted the knife high in the air, apparently ready to slash my mother, but she didn't flinch. She watched the knife slice through the air. If it was her time to die, she certainly wasn't going down as a coward. But rather than harming my mother, the soldier decided to smash the knife down on the counter. In a mark of compassion, in the blink of an eye, the soldier spared my mom's life.
Staring at my mother, the soldier expressed that this was not her time to die. She had her own destiny to fulfill. Long seconds passed as they stared at each other, taking in how quickly life can turn to death and vice versa. The soldier made the next move, slicing himself some cheese, and then proceeded to quietly make his way out the door, never to be seen again. With the life-threatening situation over, Mom, in her typical no-nonsense fashion, continued about her chores. Nothing would deter her from her duty of making sure the family had food on the table.
My parents survived these rough challenges and more harrowing ones as well. No one lives through war without scars—emotional, spiritual or physical, or worse yet, all three—but it gave them an even stronger will to succeed and more reason to focus on their future and fulfill their hopes and dreams.
My mother's aunt lived in Chicago. Roland and Ilse, in love but not yet married, were encouraged by her stories of life in America—the land of prosperity. With few possessions, but a wealth of dreams, they set sail for the strange new land that would soon be their home. They had to travel separately, as my father had difficulty getting a visa from the German government, which wanted to keep as many of its citizens as possible—especially the men—to help in the rebuilding effort. In February 1956, undaunted by the challenges of traveling alone, my mother bravely ventured by boat to the United States of America, where her aunt met her in Chicago. My father finally joined his teenaged sweetheart in November of that same year. By January, they were married.
Roland and Ilse sought their own version of the American success story as they started their new life together in Skokie, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. Knowing little English, they jumped with blind faith into a culture they knew almost nothing about.
With a clean slate, and their inherent dedication and never-give-up attitude propelling them forward, my parents hit the ground running. They learned the language and acquired skills that would help them build promising careers. My father began in construction, eventually becoming a foreman. This ultimately provided him with the leadership skills and financial resources to fulfill his real desire: opening his own restaurant and bar.
Ilse helped Roland in his quest to own a restaurant by working as a beautician to help save money. Being a hairstylist alone did not satisfy my mom's drive for success, and with her own determination and fortitude she eventually opened up her own beauty shop.
In just over four short years, my parents saw their dream realized. The Postillion Lounge opened its doors in 1961. Roland and Ilse treated their American customers to a family restaurant with a definite European flavor. They were proud to be Americans, but held fast to their heritage.
In spite of these accomplishments, Roland and Ilse felt that something important was missing from their lives. They longed to start a family. In 1962, they received their wish with the birth of my sister, Susy. Another dream was fulfilled.
My mom said that Dad cared for his newborn as if 'the sun rose and set with Susy.' And she loved that about him. He would put his daughter on his new red Corvette, proudly wrapping his arm around her as my mom snapped away with the camera. The Jaegers were the quintessential immigrant success story: a young, beautiful family proudly living the American dream for all it was worth.
Susy, an ideal child, made life easy for them. While some parents could never think of taking their young child out to dinner, my parents could take Susy anywhere without a fuss. She behaved well beyond her years and never cried or threw temper tantrums in public places. Even at home, Susy was well-mannered and rarely needed discipline.
This atmosphere gave my parents reason to expand their family. When Susy was nearly three years old, my mother became pregnant with me. Very quickly, my parents learned how different children born of the same parents can be. As my mom drove along Lake Shore Drive, on June 4, 1965, her labor pains began fast and furiously. From the outset, I had a sense of urgency to get things done in a style all my own. Through the pain, Mom somehow safely drove herself to the hospital. It was a difficult labor for my mother. She was a small woman and I was a large baby. Fortunately, the doctors managed to remove me with a minimal amount of damage while using forceps to safely deliver me. My mom survived the ordeal with few problems, but I came into the world looking decidedly unlike the Gerber baby. Pronounced forceps marks on my head, along with a bruised face, led my parents to hide all delivery and hospital photos.
Susy was charming and persuasive from the start, always looking and acting as if she was born to lead more than just our family. She was a child model, featured in many catalogs and magazines with great success. She was also highly intelligent, easily reading books written for adults even as a child.
I was completely different from Susy. While she was an extrovert and liked being in a crowd; I was shy and preferred to play alone. It was as if I was in a world of my own. Susy was charming and entertaining, while I 'disappeared' into fascinating internal ventures. Susy could always be trusted to do the right thing and behave impeccably, making people feel welcome. I was being trained by unseen forces to follow my spirit. This made me appear aloof, indifferent and unresponsive to others.
My parents had a perfect built-in babysitter for me in Susy. I fondly called her 'Foofin' until I could properly pronounce her name. I was enthralled with trying to crawl, walk, run and even bike to have fun with Susy and then excitedly escape to my own retreats. I found it very entertaining to watch Susy captivate people with her colorful intellect and considerable beauty. This eventually served me well since one of my favorite activities became studying how people interacted with one another.
As do all successful restaurateurs, my parents worked long hours. But this hard work made it possible for us to visit our relatives in Germany every year. Since countries in Europe are so near to one another, my parents would always add scenic and educational side trips along with our visit to their home country. They wanted us to appreciate the culture and history of all of Europe.
The scenery and European way of life thrilled me. It seemed that every nook and cranny in the quaint little villages that dotted the countryside were somehow historically important, and conducting business always took a backseat to something as simple as eating lunch. And unlike America, where we were the newcomers, every place we stepped here was part of my family's history. The butcher, baker, neighbors, grocery store owner, wine merchant, restaurant staff, even gas station attendants, all knew my parents. We were treated as visiting royalty. The butcher gave us free snacks; the baker, samples of his tastiest dessert. Every merchant grabbed a handful of his or her fa...