Last year, after a winter so long and cold that ice built up six inches on the sidewalk, my daughter joined Little League for the first time. Bella had just turned six and played t-ball for the Red Sox. Like thousands of other mothers my age and make all over the United States, I spent my Saturday mornings at her games. But our diamond wasn’t in Indiana or Texas. Although you wouldn’t have known it from the cheeseburgers, the father-coaches yelling in English at the sidelines, or the national anthem at the opening ceremony; our baseball diamond was in a suburb of Berlin, on the border of what used to be East Germany.
It’s more than twenty years after reunification now and the lines have blurred. Bella’s class built a Berlin Wall out of cardboard boxes, separated into two groups on either side, knocked down the boxes, and hugged. “There was a wall,” she told us at dinner that night. “Where?” We asked. “Right here in Berlin.” “When?” “Ages ago,” she said confidently. “Like a hundred hours. At least a few weeks.”
My German husband had never seen baseball before but he got into it. He asked a lot of questions. “Why do they run counter-clockwise? What’s the difference between a foul ball and a fly ball?” I thought I had absorbed the basic rules growing up, but explaining the game to him I felt like I’d fallen into that Bob Newhart routine, where Abner Doubleday pitches baseball to a game company in 1869. “You see,” says Abner, “There are eighteen players, nine innings, three strikes.” “That’ll never work,” the game company responds, and hangs up.
My daughters were both born in Berlin, so they get their idea of what it means to be American from me. Sometimes I worry that I’m ill equipped to be their guide. When I was Bella’s age, I lived in Kenya and the only other Americans living nearby were Christian missionaries from Oklahoma who had three kids. My social scientist parents didn’t approve of the Moores because, addition to an omnipotent God, they believed in sugar cereal, polyester, Barbie and Ken. But I went over there every chance I got, since all we had of mainstream American culture at our place was the occasional hotdog and a single episode of Sesame Street that my dad showed on a reel-to-reel projector for every birthday and holiday. The year I was six was the bicentennial and to this day I remember our 4th of July picnic, at the edge of the Great Rift Valley, because we ate fried chicken.
Out on the baseball field during games Bella’s coach, Brian, usually looked like he was herding cats. The little Red Sox would come in for a huddle between innings. “I see some great running out there,” he’d tell them. “The singing is all right, and the humming, but try not to pick your nose unless you really need to. Let’s focus on the ball.”
Bella came up with the idea to play baseball on her own, after she heard about it at school. The co-ed league here is a tradition leftover from the American occupation and it’s easy to imagine that Saturdays at the ballpark, in the shadow of the Berlin Wall, provided some comfort for local troops who were stationed here with their families during the Cold War. I find it comforting too. Although I come from Massachusetts, I have never even been to Fenway Park and I wouldn’t have suggested Little League, but I enjoyed our Saturdays at the baseball diamond. Maybe because my daughter was having the kind of typical American experience I longed for as a child?
Probably because I was finally having it myself as a mother.
I admitted this to my own mother, who rolled her eyes. So I reminded her of that bicentennial picnic in Africa. “What? You stayed with the Moores that day,” she raised a critical eyebrow. “Maybe they made fried chicken. Anyway you didn’t come with us on that picnic.” But I cling to my cherished memory of bicentennial fried chicken. “And the Moores?” “Eventually they were mauled to death by lions,” my mother shrugged. “Or by people they tried to convert. I can’t remember.”
At the baseball field in Berlin, when Bella was up to bat, my husband and I leaned into the fence. She’d pull on her hard hat, whack the ball and take off. At the beginning of the season she couldn’t see the bases for the dirt and often ran past them, so we called them out to her. “First!” She’d knock down a boy from the Yankees. “Second!” If the ball went missing in the outfield, she’d just keep running. “Third!” She would take off her hard hat and make a silly face in our direction. After her games we drank grape soda with her teammates and sat in the sun. But first we cheered at the sidelines as she danced the last stretch towards the plate.
Anna Winger’s first novel, This Must Be the Place, is published by Riverhead. She is also a photographer and the creator of Berlin Stories for NPR . She was raised by Harvard anthropologists Dr. Robert LeVine and Dr. Sarah LeVine in Kenya, Massachusetts and Mexico, and now lives with her German husband and two daughters in Berlin. The Mother Culture is an ongoing series of reflections on her experiences as an American mother abroad and conversations with her parents about mothering around the world.