Let Me In On The Secret
— why a Texas gal would embrace learning and languages

As the plane touches down, my stomach remains in the air and my thoughts return to the reunion ahead. I am back, and they are waiting for me. They know I am not the same person now. I have gained a new perspective, and I will never look at life the same way again. I will never be the same because now I know their secret.

The secret has always been around, ever since I was alive, and probably even before I was born. The secret was there when I was young, but then again, I was always young because Elisabeth was born the baby of the family. Mark was never young because he was my big brother. He was six years older and could do wonderful things. Mark could ride his bike without training wheels and he could stay up late to watch Star Trek with Mommy and Daddy.

Mark’s snapshot taken in the camper during April of 1975. Pictured is me, Mommy, and Daddy’s camera.

Mark even took pictures with his own camera just like Daddy. He took a picture of me one day in the family’s Volkswagen camper. Obviously I was telling Mommy something very important when Mark pressed the little red button. I was probably showing her which way on the map we should all go because I was very good with directions for a four-year-old. Where we actually ended up that time or all the other countless trips, I can’t recall. We may have gone to Spain, Italy, France, or just for a drive through the German countryside near our home in Heidelberg. All I can remember is that we listened to John Denver, and that I knew all the words to “Rocky Mountain High” and Mark didn’t. In the same picture, you can see Daddy’s camera in its slick black case shining in the sunlight. That camera was very important, and I was not allowed to touch it unless I had special permission. It was actually able to capture the secret sometimes. “Hands off, Elisabeth, don’t touch!” Although Mark had a camera that could do the same thing, he didn’t really know how to use it yet. But Mark was learning, and then he would know the secret just like Mommy and Daddy.

The secret was there everyday, and my search for it became a passion. I began to look for its essence among the many mysteries in my life. For a time, I thought the U.S. Army held the key. Daddy joined the Army before 1971, when I was born in Houston, Texas. The Army was important enough to be the secret because it made big decisions. The Army could make Elisabeth forget Daddy and fear him like a stranger when he returned from Vietnam. Later the Army moved us all to Germany. I couldn’t think of anything more powerful than the Army, and I always wanted a strong man like Mark’s G.I. Joe when I played with my Barbie Dolls. Somehow Joe’s presence was not enough, and my questions about why Daddy was something called an “officer” were never really answered. I soon gave up on the Army’s ability to provide me with the secret. The Army just became something that perplexed me from time to time with its Officers’ parties that I saw through the keyhole of my bedroom at hours past my bedtime.

The Camera and the Army were only two of the many mistaken ideas of what I thought was the secret. These and all other aspects of my life would eventually become blurred and distorted images in my mind. Yet, I never gave up in my search for the secret because even if i didn’t know exactly what it was, the rest of my family did. They knew because they were all older. Their knowledge was a private bond that only the three of them shared. I felt left out and alone. My need to be in on their secret became a hunger, and I desired to know what it was at all costs. “I’ll tell you when you’re old enough to understand” That promise was their end of the bargain, and all I had to do was be a good little girl and do as I was told. I was told that I should always pray and sit still in church. This was not always so easy and Mommy or Daddy often had to remind me outside the church with a spanking. I was told that I should go to school. I am still going there. I did as I was told, but they never told me the secret. I found it out instead.

Mother’s Day 1973. Pictured is Elisabeth, Mommy, and Mark. Note the “secret” of reading that Mommy and Mark share. Elisabeth still thinks cameras hold the secret.

My realization wasn’t sudden, and I didn’t just know the secret one glorious day. I had started to understand long before I even knew what the words “camera” or “Army” meant. I began to comprehend the moment that I loved something. I don’t know what I loved first, but all that matters is that I loved something. After that instant, my life became an explosion of moments that were dictated by my love for a particular thing like Mommy and Daddy, Mark, God, boys, my kitty-cats, America, or anything. I always knew the answer, even as I searched for that “secret” that I thought only grown-ups knew. I always knew, but I could never put it into words until I separated myself from all that I knew and loved.

When I made what would be my last attempt at discovering my family’s secret, I chose to live my Junior year of high school in Denmark as a foreign exchange student. My family had moved from Germany back to a small town in Texas, where we had stayed since I had started school. I was convinced that I had stayed in my hometown too long, and that the secret lay in my experiencing something radically different. I decided that Denmark was different enough. I spent my time devoted to learning the Danish language and customs. I dreamt, talked, ate, and breathed Danish. I became as Danish as possible and felt a real part of my own Danish family. I put all of my old self behind and allowed my Danish self to grow. I learned to love another culture and that was the answer. I had learned the secret. Embrace some culture other than your own and you can understand yours.

As I walked off the plane and left my year as a foreign exchange student behind, they were all waiting there: Mom, Dad, Mark, and all the American things I loved. We embraced and perpetuated the secret.


Storyteller: Elisabeth Mueller Nylander, Aleholm, Sävsjö kommun, Sweden — partner in the Erasmus+ project GuLL

More info about GuLL: www.pleasemakemistakes.eu

Guerilla Literacy Learning is a project co-funded by Erasmus+ (Agreement no. 2014–1-BE02-KA200–000472)