A BAVARIAN CRUCIFIX, hand-carved from linden wood, an eight-inch Jesus on a twenty-inch cross, can be yours for 225 euros, on sale.
We have two like that hanging in our house, one by the bay windows in the living room, another on my husband’s side of the office. Others lie in boxes and cabinets, still wrapped in dusty newspaper.
Now that he’s dead, I’d like to remove them. The only thing stopping me is that if he knew, it would make him sad. Since I wish I could believe he’s still around in spirit, I’ve delayed taking them down. Doing so would feel disloyal, but I ask myself whether he’d mind if he knew how much they creep me out.
I was fine with the ceramic statues of Mary, flaming heart jumping out of her chest. I liked the bright blue robe, gold stars, and shell-like halo of the Virgin of Guadalupe. But the big wooden crucifixes, that crown of thorns digging into Jesus’s brown locks, skinny white arms yanked above so that he’s pitched forward—they spook me the way Dracula spooks me. The first time I saw one I gasped, as if it would jump out at me. The angle of the body made me feel like the crucified figure was in flight, a bat, pointy teeth angling for my neck.
We were dating, Josef and I, and he made a sauerbraten, complete with dumplings, red cabbage, and gravy. We sat opposite each other at his candlelit table, the dark rich flavors of the meat, tangy aroma of the cabbage, and lush dumplings in creamy brown gravy all making me think of him as a second course, but whenever I stopped looking into his warm blue eyes for a moment, my gaze inevitably strayed toward the wall behind him—the gory, crucified Jesus.
Did I ever tell him how they made me feel? No, because I knew how comforting he found them, how reassuring. We married among baroque pink-and-gold cherubs and seraphs at the Church of the Guardian Angels in the Bavarian town where we lived—where, in 2018, crosses “in plain sight” were required in all public buildings as a sign of local culture. Culture, not religion—but who would think of separating those conjoined twins?
I miss him so much I might even miss the goddamn crucifixes. When they go, it’ll be hard to avoid the feeling that I am leaving him, abandoning him, instead of what really happened—he died on me, because he couldn’t help it. I’ll never forget his outburst when the priest came to the house. “Meine Frau, meine Kinder!” said my husband, gesturing toward us. It was always his glance at Jesus, for him a source of love and honor, that helped him put us first. In his last email to the priest who would preside at his funeral, he expressed a wish to live like Jesus and in Jesus. I thought the way Josef lived had nothing to do with that emaciated, bent, bleeding thing on those two chunks of linden wood, but I never told him that.
A curious rite of German childhood, since Dr. Heinrich Hoffmann wrote it in 1845, is Der Struwwelpeter (“Shock-Headed Peter”). The title character is a boy who looks as though he’s stuck his finger into an electric socket. Bemoaning the lack of good children’s books, Dr. Hoffmann produced, in rhyme, what he and everyone else deemed whimsical, funny stories. All involve extreme bodily injury—a gigantic “scissors-man” vaults in with shears and snips off the fingers of thumb-suckers, and a girl who plays with matches gets burned right up. Most Germans I’ve met have warm memories of sitting in Mama’s lap and being read that story.
My husband had such memories. Perhaps they gave him the same kind of consolation as those gruesome crucifixes. People are crucified or maimed, burned to death, but that doesn’t seem so bad, because it’s considered over-the-top. The child’s delight in sitting on Mom’s lap at bedtime, the sound of her voice, the feeling that she’s calm and loving, all matter more than the content of the story. My impression is that whenever some story or object becomes very familiar, its content becomes irrelevant—it’s just there so we can project our feelings onto it. The stories in Hoffmann’s Struwwelpeter are not usually read with new eyes, naïve eyes—like my own, looking at Bavarian crucifixes, which, unlike my husband, I first saw as an adult. Hoffmann’s bloodthirsty tales are so known, so accepted, as to go unnoticed. In my German city is an agency that helps children with learning disabilities, Struwwelpeter & Freunde. The implication is no more that the staff will beat and torment their young clients into achieving better grades than that the crucifix endorses the infliction of pain. For the agency, the name is a sign of friendship, as the crucifix was a sign of love to my Bavarian husband. The tender emotions associated with these objects seem resiliently to defy their reality—but that’s to be expected. Whenever a story becomes a symbol of salvation—the crucifix saving our soul, Der Struwwelpeter saving children’s health and happiness—it gets tucked away like a favorite knickknack, no matter how much dust has settled on it.
Opening Der Struwwelpeter’s classic yellow covers, Josef wanted to give our two-year-old a good time, but a few pages in, it must have dawned on him how violent the book was. He attempted to set it down. “Let’s try a different book,” he said.
Our boy was having none of this. Thumping his father’s arm, he demanded, “Read, Daddy, read!” Josef gave in, though both of us thought our son might have nightmares. He slept soundly. The next day as he played in the yard with a friend, we heard him yell, “You better do what I say, or I’ll cut your penis off!” We rushed out, but since both boys were laughing, we left them alone.
Possibly I do understand Josef’s attraction to crucifixes. Possibly he meditated on the inscription of INRI above each one, short for the Latin Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” I guess Josef thought this motto was a way of confronting danger: “Don’t let the bastards get you down,” might have been his translation. Not “I’m Nailed Right In!”—as an ex-boyfriend long before Josef cracked, giving crucifixes the same wide berth I did.
Nailed right into my version of reality, I never stopped seeing torture where Josef saw transcendence, limits where he saw freedom. But we so enjoyed each other. Once, when we were not long married, he showed me a T-shirt, a mashup of Jesus and Bozo the clown labeled “Divine Comedy.” Was it sacrilegious, he asked anxiously? The loudness of my laugh made him drag me into bed.
Melissa Knox’s recent work appears in Another Chicago Magazine and Star 82 Review. She is the author of Divorcing Mom: A Memoir of Psychoanalysis (Cynren). www.melissaknox.com.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.