Chapter 1: Introducing Helena
The ‘Chicken Dance’ can be many things. It is a mix of silliness coupled with country pride, pure joy, a dash of humility, and even a little romance. It was the magic dance of love for my German parents.
My dad was born just outside Munich in Bavaria, Germany. His parents left for the United States when he was a young boy and settled in Los Angeles. He met my mother in high school. They both dreamed of going off to college and being the first in their families to graduate. My mother was the daughter of German immigrants as well. It was fitting they would meet at an Oktoberfest celebration doing the ‘Chicken Dance.’ I still laugh when I think of my dad flapping his arms like chicken wings.
Their college dreams were put on hold when my mother got pregnant. Though they were disappointed, they knew the only option for them was to get married. They married and I was born. I imagine, if they were more selfish people, they would have made a completely different choice. I don’t know that I would have had the courage to make the decision they did.
They lived a happy life even though they struggled to make ends meet. Dad worked for his father’s company as a delivery driver. They would write down their dreams and imagine a better life for their daughter. Sadly, those dreams would never be realized.
My mother died when I was six years old. I have wonderful memories of her. My father did a magnificent job of preserving those memories. Our house had pictures of her everywhere. My dad told stories about her. Even though I missed her presence, in my heart and mind I felt her everywhere.
My dad and I moved to the mountain after she died. He couldn’t face seeing the physical reminders of her or passing the corner where she had been killed. That was the memory he did not want us reliving. As a cruel twist of fate, she gave her life to save mine. She was seven months pregnant at the time. My unborn brother didn’t survive. The drunk driver that killed her pleaded no contest and proceeded to commit suicide. It was a small consolation to my father for losing his wife and an unborn child.
As much as my dad harbored anger and resentment for that tragic turn in his life, he was an amazing, loving, giving father. He did everything for me. When we moved to the mountain, he carried out his and my mom’s dream: to open their own restaurant. My dad put his heart, soul, and bank account into Schmitty’s. Schmitty’s became a huge success allowing my dad to lose himself in the dream that he and mom had shared.
Dad never forced me to be part of the restaurant. I would hang out at the restaurant when I wasn’t at school, talking with the locals, doing my homework. It was my home too. I knew mom was there in spirit. It just felt right.
Once I got into high school, my friends and I would hang out there on the weekends. Dad liked it. He could keep an eye on me all the while knowing I was still being a teenager. I really wasn’t like most of my friends, though. I didn’t like to party or drink. I liked boys but the ones I liked didn’t like me back. I concentrated on doing well in school and running.
I became a runner when we moved to the mountain. In retrospect, I imagine I started running to escape the ghosts of mom’s death. In the process I became a really good runner. The only time dad would leave the mountain was to take me to cross country meets. I was passionate and my passion paid. I was one of the top runners in the state. By my senior year in high school, several colleges wanted me to run there. I only had one university I wanted to go to and that was Harvard. Harvard had always been my dream. It had been my mom’s dream when she was younger. She didn’t get to live her dream, but I knew I would. It would be for the both of us.
I left the mountain the day after my 18th birthday and headed to Cambridge, Massachusetts. I had visited Harvard once with dad during my junior year. I knew he was breaking inside that I was leaving. He put on his best game face, squeezed me harder than he ever had, and left me at my residence hall that fall.
I graduated in the requisite four years. I set school running records. I had my first real boyfriend and felt the heartbreak of the first real breakup. Running always helped me stay focused.
I spent my summers on the mountain. I would help dad at the restaurant and train on the mountain. There is nothing better than a high altitude run. It burns the lungs and stings the legs. It’s a runner’s thing loving pain like that.
I always loved coming home but never thought I would live there again. I think dad knew this too. While it hurt him to say good-bye each fall, we both knew this was as much for mom as it was about my education. Although dad never said anything, I know he had hoped I would choose a graduate school closer to home. But Harvard offered me what I wanted in a grad school, and I loved it in Boston. I was beginning to feel more at home there with its cultural and historical feel than I did on the mountain. Even running had its own benefits evoking strong images in the mind of our country’s history.
We never talked about me taking over the restaurant someday. I’m sure dad thought he’d sell the place at some point and retire. That all changed one spring morning when I got the call that my dad had died from burns he had received trying to put out a grease fire in the kitchen. I’m sure he fought the flames until the end never wanting to lose their dream. The restaurant was saved, and I returned home leaving my studies mid-semester. Grad school could wait. My dad’s legacy needed tending.
My dad’s funeral was a celebration of a mountain legend. I felt so proud that my dad had positively touched the lives of so many. I was sad at losing my dad. I felt guilty that I wasn’t there when he died. I did a lot of running on the mountain in those days following his death. But it was the words of the pastor that resonated with me most:
“While the passing of Johann Michael Schmitt, our Schmitty, has left a void in our hearts, it is with great joy that we welcome back his beloved Helena Maria, our Harvard.”
Harvard is what they called me. It was who I always wanted to be and who I had become. I was now faced with making a choice to run towards the Harvard I wanted to continue evolving into or towards the Harvard I knew in my heart I was supposed to be.