{ Five Dollars, All You Can Stomach }
Meghan Holohan
photo by Jessica Knight

knockwurstThe Chicken Dance is playing in the background. It's a June Saturday. The temperature is in the mid-70s, not too much humidity, sun is shining, and a ninety-three-year-old woman with tightly coiffured silver hair hums along with the strains of the accordion. She takes a bite from a grayish piece of sausage, and asks her daughter where her beer is. She has lost her beer. It's good beer too, dark, the kind they all prefer.
   She turns to me: "Do you know me?"
   "I don't think so."
   "What do you mean you don't know me?" she screams as loud as a ninety-three-year-old woman with a thick German accent can. If she doesn't find her beer, I hope I find mine. This woman adopted my family's table, boldly sitting down, directing her daughters to sit with her. We let her. What kind of person would make an old woman stand? She is dominating, controlling the conversation. This is my day with the Germans.
   I had been telling my friends, co-workers, and family members about my day with the Germans, weeks before it happened. In spite of my Irish-sounding last name, I am in fact half-German. My great-grandmother's last name is Braun, like Hitler's wife. When my sister and I were younger and were mad at our mother we'd say she was related to a dictator's wife. I guess calling them "the Germans" sounded bad, but really they are the Germans, mostly first-and second-generation Americans.
   It is a picnic, complete with knockwurst, bratwurst, weisswurst, and hot dogs. The sausages lie in tin warming pans, just rows and rows of gray and pink cased meats, pungent aromas wafting from the kitchen as gray-haired German-American grandmothers cook more and more, slathering the sausages with sauerkraut, making the meal complete. The Pittsburgh German Club has this picnic annually at North Park. Five dollars, all you can drink beer. They never run out of beer, but always run out of food.
   I've been going to these since I was a kind, so they aren't strange to me. I can polka—that gets the guys every time. When I was younger, my mother would scoop us up in her massive bosoms and we'd swing wildly across the floor, two-stepping to crazy polkas the whole time. She'd hold me tightly, alternatively forcing my sister and I to dance with her because my father absolutely refused. He doesn't dance. He says it's because he's Irish, and he's not participating in such silly activities. We practiced in our kitchen, spinning wildly around the counter all spring, getting ready. My sister and mom still dance a little in the kitchen.
   So I come to this picnic to relive something. I never appreciated the beer, sausage, and dancing as a child, but now I recall these picnics with fond nostalgia, and I'm here trying to regain that innocent fun. I want to twirl and turn around the dance floor with a fine young man in lederhosen. Unfortunately, those in the traditional German dress aren't attractive young men as much middle-aged men in a motley assemblage of too-short leather shorts, leather suspenders, and pit-stained Iron City Beer T-shirts underneath. Men drinking from foot-tall beer steins. Men talking in booming voices about the Steelers prospects for the upcoming season. Men drunkenly slurring jokes and telling "war" stories from that fishing trip or touch football game. Men wearing worn canvas tennis shoes, leaning against trees so they can stand upright. It's not these Germans' finest moment.
   Another woman approaches me, asking if I'm German. I tell her my ancestry; she admits the Irish and Germans often marry, explaining that Germans need to marry people who also enjoy drinking. Then she tells me this story about her experience in Ireland: She was returning from Germany and there was something wrong with the plane, so they had to stop at Shannon Airport. She and her husband ended up going to Limerick, and she couldn't believe how much it rained. It's an odd story, and I think she might be a little tipsy, or maybe I am, because it seems spotty and incoherent in parts.
   Maybe she is struggling to relate to me. I guess I'm struggling to relate to her.
   I'm also struggling to gain something from this picnic. Is it all about drinking? I feel like I've lost my beer. There's something off about the whole thing. This is not what I wanted—I wanted to relive a part of my childhood that seems almost mystical now. I wanted to capture the fun, the innocence, and now it's gone. The people that I, as a child, thought were wildly funny are, today, just drunk. Many of the older men who would find the quarter behind my ear are now dirty old men, hitting on me, as they fight to get me a beer and pull out my chair, joking about redheads, telling me they like my dress. When I was younger I thought their job was to entertain me. I thought all they did was play those silly card tricks, while doling out candy, singing sad German songs. Don't tell your mom about the candy, they'd warn. I'd oblige easily, sucking on the hard candy I was never allowed to eat at home. It was our secret. The money, the candy. Still they're trying to keep the secrets, only hitting on me when I'm out of sight of my parents.
   Maybe the thing about picnic wasn't so much the fun but the innocence. I came back for card-tricks, candy, and silly dancing. I wanted to finally lift my beer during a drinking song and chant the guttural toast. I really wanted to twirl around the dance floor with my mother. I didn't even see the dance floor. My mom didn't want to dance. It was too hot. She was too tired. I remember being so embarrassed when I had to dance with her and when she dragged me onto the floor—not only was I flailing around ridiculously, but I was also doing it with my mother, who was of course my archenemy of childhood. I was unhappy I had to live with her where evaluative eyes couldn't see us, but now she was making a public display of our relationship. Maybe she did it to prove a point. It doesn't matter if I hated her or was embarrassed of her, she will always be my mother. And, damn it, she makes sure the whole world knows. Maybe this is the pride she had in me that I failed to see.
   The old woman starts talking again. No longer yelling for her beer, she explains how she met her husband at a German picnic: She just came from Germany and couldn't speak English, and she saw this tall man with beautiful eyes. He spoke German too, but also knew English. He taught her. She never learned to drive, but they had two daughters, and a nice house. They did it together. She loves the picnics. Maybe when she closes her eyes she can still see that young man, who enclosed her in a strong grip, spinning her around the floor. Their polka wasn't comical like mine with my mother. They connect, turning as one. Living life as one. Maybe she thinks of their dreams, and how they came true. Maybe the dancing and the beer remind her of home.
   She came to the picnic to find something, and I think she did. She at least is able to share her memories, reflect a bit, and really understand what a gathering like this is about. I went for the wrong reasons. I wanted to claim something, find something that I cannot possible find. I'm not five; the experience is going to be different. I don't even eat sausage anymore and the men in the lederhosen aren't interesting—they're weird, almost pathetic, and I leave feeling this unbelievable emptiness. I feel like something was stolen from me. But I realize I'm not paying attention. It's not about dancing, quarters, costumes, and beer. It's more about sharing. Coming together for that moment in time where we can all stop and just talk about the way things were and the way things can be.

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