Mother gradually mastered her stutter and learned to speak normally. She never lost the husky Teutonic accent, though, which, combined with her Dietrich-like features and demeanor -- perfect posture and a reserved elegance -- gave her the appearance of a foreign agent in some spy serial. Her aloofness was accentuated by piercing pale blue eyes that could freeze you in your tracks.
Eager to better our station, she studied in her spare time to be a nurse, with a specialty in physical therapy. The bump in pay allowed her to enroll Walt and me in a private school. Nothing was more important to our mother than a good education: "What you learn," she declared, "no one can ever take away from you."
We'd almost get used to her prolonged absences, when some little thing would hit like a hammer. "Take this note home and have your mother sign it," a teacher told me one day. I almost burst out crying. Another time, Walt and I were horsing around outside when he tore his pants leg wide open. We exchanged frightened looks, anticipating the scolding we were in for -- until we realized there'd be none. Mother wasn't due back for another three weeks.
Barely school-age, Walt and I had some adventures straight out of Tom Sawyer. We wandered near Fisherman's Wharf, where we got too adventurous and lost our shoes in the muddy shallows of Aquatic Park. Not wanting to trudge home barefoot after dark, we dug up a mess of worms, which we sold to a charitable fisherman. That's how we made carfare home. Naturally, it was one of the rare times Mother was ashore. We got a thorough lashing when we slogged in, shoeless.
Mother tried to make the most of our limited time together. Once, she took us to Pier 35 to watch the Lurline sail for Hawaii -- cheap entertainment during hard times. I was seven years old and thrilled by the pomp and pageantry, the brass band and colorful streamers and billowing waves of confetti. We got as close as we could to the gangplank, where I stared at an adorable little girl with shiny blond curls and huge dimples, bundled up in a white fur coat -- a doll come to life. Photographers swarmed around, flashbulbs popping like crazy. All this fuss over a kid my age -- I couldn't believe it.
But then, I'd never seen a Shirley Temple movie. "She is a famous movie star," my mother explained. It was the first time I'd ever heard of such a thing. On the way home that day I'm sure I wondered how a kid like me could become a famous movie star.
In the cramped elevator of a hotel on Mason Street, Mother introduced us to Harry Koster. He lived there when he wasn't at sea. Mr. Koster ran a ship's galley, just like my grandfather Opa. Maybe that's why Mother trusted him when they'd met aboard the Monterey, a Matson cruise ship.
Mr. Koster was a huge, dark-haired man with a Dutch accent, who reeked of tobacco. As the elevator rose, Mother dropped a bomb: "Harry and I have been married. You will treat him as your new father."
Walt and I reacted like miserable brats. We didn't get enough time with our mother to share any of it with another man, even one who vowed to provide for his new "family" so that Gertrude Gelien could remain home to raise her children properly. From Mother's perspective, it was a marriage of convenience. Tired of treading water, she saw Harry Koster as a life preserver. If Walt and I had been more mature, we'd have understood that she remarried for our sake, not hers.