Maria Wachelhofer is an only child, so when she would go into the fields to tend her family’s potatoes, hay and other crops, she would take her geese, sheep and goat with her.
The sheep and the goat would follow behind. If she was riding her bicycle to the fields, she would put the geese into the basket on the front.
“I digged the potatoes, do the hay, rake the hay, turn it over,” the soon-to-be 90-year-old woman said. Her accent, the ever-rough cadence and sound of German, is still present and her ability to speak her mother tongue has slowly slipped away with time and a lack of use.
“I feel English is so much easier than German. Of course, I don’t remember everything any more. We talked in slang over there (Austria.) We also used different words. It’s all gone away.”
Wachelhofer is Maria’s maiden name. The one she goes by now is much more English: Steelsmith. Her eyes, a deep blue, act in unison with her speech. Even at 90, Maria is still as sharp as ever, even if her hearing is just a few notches below normal.
She will be 90 on March 24 and with five children and eight grandchildren. On Saturday, the surprise party her friends and family threw her wasn’t enough of a shock to slow her down.
It was, however, a very pleasant surprise.
“That was a great party. I didn’t know nothing about it … They came here and said it was a dog party. All those many, many people.”
Maria was a war bride and, as the family story goes, she met her ex-husband when he was charged with finding a place to house his commanding officer’s horse. He went door to door trying and finally reached Maria’s house. Her parents did not speak any English, so, they sent their teenage daughter to talk to the young American. Maria didn’t speak English.
“He barely did either,” she said of the young soldier.
In 1947, she moved with her husband to the United States, first to Long Beach, Calif.
When Maria came to the United States, she didn’t speak English. But for her, learning the new language and culture was not a great surprise or burden.
“Well, I had to,” she said. “I watched TV but that was years ago. We barely had a TV. I read the newspaper. I took classes. I had to talk there,” she said.
In the late 1970s, she and her husband divorced and she moved to Stateline and juggled her children and two business: housecleaning and babysitting. She knew, too, how to work the system, something her children are still awed by when they consider her agrarian roots. Maria would made Apfelstrudel, a type of German sweet, and bring it to the operators and concierges at the casinos in Stateline. By sweetening those relationships she was able to get more referrals from the casinos’ guests. She became a house cleaner and a babysitter to the stars, or, at least, to the star’s sometimes-spoiled children.
Meanwhile, she was investing in the stock market and made a pretty nest egg for herself. It wasn’t until her children cajoled her into moving to Carson City 10 years ago, so she could be closer to the hospital, that she gave up her babysitting gigs.
Now, Maria lives with her cat, Lucy, a beautiful, manipulative tiger-patterned domestic shorthair.
“Lucy, she’s like a part of me.”
Although she adores Lucy, what she misses most about Austria are her pets, the sheep, the goat and the two geese, many decades since gone.
“Those were my pets. They went with me everywhere … I had to go to work in the field. Those animals, I could bring them with me. They knew what they had to do (to get home.)”
Living in suburbia, she couldn’t have goats or sheep, ducks or geese.
“I miss it but I can’t go back.”
She did go back in 2007, and found herself unable to understand much of what was being said, having been immersed in English-only for so long and the change in diction.
“Hitler? Forget Hitler.”
Maria and her family lived under the specter of fear that was a Germany-annexed Austria, under the fist of Adolph Hitler, the dictator and warmonger of World War II.
“We didn’t have much to eat because we only got so much to eat,” she said. Food wasn’t the only thing Hitler controlled. The family would put curtains over their windows to make sure no light would escape their house to make it seem like it was unoccupied.
“We had to make it so no one knows we were living there. It was scary, living then.”
The family originally lived in what would became Russian occupied territory and fled to another village, occupied by the Americans, which brought the teenager in contact with her husband-to-be.
Maria was pressured to join the female wing of the Hitler Youth, a type of youth paramilitary organization of the Nazi party. Maria and her friend Anna were staunchly against it.
“We said no! We wouldn’t … Hitler wanted us to go and work for the party … We always had a way of getting out of it. I had to work on the farm (as an only child.) Anna had a bicycle shop (she had to run.)”
Her thinly-veiled hostility toward the madman went as far as sticking her tongue out at him during a parade through her town. Fortunately, no one important saw her, lest her children and grandchildren never be born.
In the end, Maria does not like talking about that part of that time in history.
“Hitler? Forget Hitler.”