It is the end of me, and I of it. My German last name belongs to me, my disabled brother, and my female second-cousin. My brother and I do not necessarily expect that we will marry, or that our cousin will keep our name if she does. When my brother and I die, our family line will not. My great-uncle’s three sons have stepchildren and daughters. My father’s brother has a daughter with a son. My father’s sisters have sons, three Conaways and two Ortizes, who have two Ortiz sisters from my uncle’s first marriage. My distinctly all-American grandfather will turn eighty next year, healthier, fitter, and a better driver than myself. In sixty years, he’s barely changed, still the blue-eyed athlete, the loyal Republican, the bass in the barbershop quartet, the husband who built white picket fences for his family. All the grandchildren long for his good health to be our parents’, and ours. However, he does not speak German. He is trilingual, equal parts good-humored and charming in English, French, and Haitian Creole, languages he passed down to my father, uncle, and aunts, the latter of whom are fluent in these and in Spanish. However, they do not speak German. Nobody’s spoken German since my great-grandmother, Elsie, passed away. Immigrants who barely escaped World War II in their own country, my great-grandparents did not teach their native language to my grandfather. Germans were frequently assaulted with slurs and broken windows, even Germans who left before the NAZIs came to power.
I don’t know their motives, or what my grandfather thinks about his heritage. Except the blond waves he passed on to me more than any other grandchild, there is nothing I know to be German about him. Except that stupid name. Hittenberger may have been Hüttenberger, “people of the hills,” before Elsie met Ellis Island; or, it may have always been Hittenberger. We’ve found Austrian business owners who are Hittenbergers through snuck snatches of glances of Google searches. Our homeland is part of Austria now. We are not connected to it, however, or anyone. That name is all my great-grandparents allowed us to keep.
I will never know its importance; except that it is, and I am, here today.