This is a love letter.
You have been an inspiration, role model, and friend since we first met way back in 1972. I was 14, and, to be honest, a gigantic pain in your ass, I fear. You were a handsome young German teacher and I was a not very promising first year German student.
The first thing I noticed about you was not that you were a gifted teacher — although you were — but that you had dreamy, bedroom eyes. One blue, one green. They were expressive, a little bit sad, but twinkled with fun and humour.
I learned so much in your classes:
How to play in a German Ooompah Band,
How to bake and decorate giant gingerbread heart cookies for Valentine’s Day,
All the words to “Mein hut, es hat drei ecke”,
How to ask Otto if the post office is open on Sunday, (“Ist die post often, Otto? Nein! Sie is am Sontag geschlossen.”)
That every poem by Heinrich Heine can be sung to the tune of “The Wabash Cannonball,”
And last but not least, that German is not hereditary and that I wasn’t going to learn it just by living in the same house as a fluent German speaker.
Because I never really cottoned on to that last one, and thus never studied nearly enough to become a German student you could be proud of, I suspect you were not heartbroken when, upon fulfilling my two-year foreign language requirement, I moved over to the Vocational wing and starting taking Graphic Arts, where I learned to operate an offset printer and develop photographic film.
They don’t have those anymore.
Not my wisest career move.
Just about that time, my mother persuaded you, Señora Howell, and your beautiful little daughter, Felicia, to join us at St. Gregory the Great Episcopal Church which, at the time, worshipped out of a God-box stored in the back corner of an Elementary School Cafeteria that smelled of butter beans. You joined us, even though, I reckon, as public school teachers, the last place you wanted to spend half your weekend was a school cafeteria!
You and Carolyn asked Mom to be Felicia’s Godmother, and we became family. Felicia was baptised on the 4th of July 1976, Mum’s 50th Birthday. It was one of her proudest moments.
And I’ve thought of you as family ever since.
I still have the cross-stitch pillow Felicia made for Mom. It was one of her treasures, and one of the few things she kept with her when she finally left the house on 400 Brookwood Drive. It occupies a place of honour in our home, now, on Grandpa Saltenberger’s rocking chair.
And I stand in awe of you to this very day because everything you ever turned your mind to, you did brilliantly.
You sang like an angel.
You cooked German food that rivalled my Mom’s, and that’s saying something.
One Christmas you made us German ornaments woven out of wheat straw that were as beautiful as any I’d ever seen. One of them was our tree topper every year. It’s with me in New Zealand. If we ever have another Christmas Tree, it will top that one, too.
You played the accordion!
And you made the most moving and beautiful art I’ve ever seen. Every time you posted new sketches to Facebook, I was stunned all over again by your gift. What a legacy you’ve left your Grandchildren through your art. The depth of your love and the beauty of your soul shine through them.
I’m grateful to own a signed print of this one, which I will cherish and think of you every time I look at it:
And none of that even touches on how much of yourselves you and Carolyn gave to the generations of students that had the good fortune to study with you and the friends and family who basked in your generosity of spirit and good fun.
Especially my parents. The German Dinner Parties you threw with Mom were among her very happiest memories. You will never know how grateful I am for the patient kindness you and Carolyn offered to Mom and Dad in their last years when it wasn’t always easy to be kind to them.
And I will never forget your matzo ball soup, which was a tonic to my soul every time I made the long trek down to Athens to get the mice out of the pantry and make sure my parents had more to eat than Campbell’s Pork and Beans. Whenever I make matzo ball soup, I say a little prayer thanking the gods for you.
I was already working in Washington when your first heart broke, putting you on the transplant list. But your courage was legendary.
And fortunately, your new heart was just as big, as generous, and as loving as the first one.
I am so grateful for that heart — and whoever blessed us all by giving it to you — for keeping you with us for 27 more years. I know those years were not always easy for you. But you never let it break your spirit.
Time and again you were there for me, for my parents, for your lovely (and loving) daughter and her kids, for your family and friends — for all of us.
I suppose it was only a matter of time before that generous heart grew too weak to keep you with us. When we were last together, just two weeks ago, I knew you were growing weary.
But I wasn’t ready for the news. None of us were.
Today, I am heartbroken that you have left us, but oh, so grateful to have known you.
Rest well, dear Kline. You were an angel among us.
I hope there are accordions in heaven.
Ich liebe dich.