A matching set of seven sisters
For those of us raised on the myth that Texas is all cowboys and Indians, it comes as somewhat of a surprise to learn that the language most frequently spoken in the Lone Star State, after English and Spanish, is German.
It turns out that in 1831, Friedrich Ernst, a German settler in Austin, began writing glowing letters back to the Fatherland, and in a few years the Hill Country of Central Texas was sprinkled with Teutonic towns like Frelsburg, New Ulm, an Bleiblerville. To this day in Fredericksburg, Texas, you can still hear German spoken in shops and see the old "oompah" bands at local festivals. Sauerkraut and potato pancakes are ubiquitous in the restaurants of New Braunfels (named after its founder, Prince Carl of Solms-Braunfels), which holds a wurstfestm every November.
In all of German Texas today, there is hardly a German family that is such a living legend as the seven Timmermann sisters. Descendants of the Rev. L. C. Ervendberg, the first German Protestant minister in Texas, the sisters live in a gabled farmhouse on an oasis of deciduous trees in the prairie land near Geronimo Creek, northeast of San Antonio. (Their property once belonged to Jose Antonio Navarro, a signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence, and the land was surveyed by Alamo hero Jim Bowie -- two historical details to which Texans tip their Stetsons in reverence.)
What is unique about the seven Timmermann sisters is that they are all unmarried, all dress alike, all speak German, and have all lived together on this small cattle ranch since 1916, when Willie Mae, the youngest, was born. White they rarely dabble in politics themselves, the sisters did grow up with former Watergate prosecutor Leon Jaworski, whose father preached at their family church. The Timmermanns boast of having baked Christmas cookies for President Johnson when German Chancellor Ludwig Erhard visited the LBJ ranch, not far from here.
Many historians credit German settlers in Texas with having introduced the tradition of the christmas tree to the United States, and every year some 1,500 Texans drive from all over the state to view the cedar tree the Timmermann sisters lavishly decorate with old German ornaments and homemade cookies.
"When in Texas, do as the Texans," as the famous Texas adage goes, so while visiting New Braunfels recently, I made the pilgrimage to Geronimo Creek to pay my respects to the Timmermann sisters and their famous tannenbaum. Arriving one foggy Sunday morning at their house off Highway 123, I was met at the door by Meta, sister No. 6, and ushered into the kitchen to meet Willie Mae, sister No. 4. who was peeling potatoes with Tekla, sister No. 1. They wore identical red pants, white turtlenecks, and red and green print blouses. (whoever gets up first in the morning, they later told me, picks out what she would like to wear that day, and the rest follow suit, literally.) As we introduced ourselves, Hulda, sister No. 2, and Stella, sister No. 3, came into the hallway. More red pants and white turtlenecks.
"We just keep coming out of the woodwork," Meta says, "but there's no time to talk now. We'll see you after church." Wanda, sister No. 5, had already left to teach Sunday School, and Melitta,sister No. 4, who sings in the choir, was waiting for me in the driveway.
In the Timmermann's old yellow Ford station wagon, Melitta was revving the engine. "This old plantation car acts up on cold mornings like this," she says. By mistake I call her Meta and then apologize. "No, I'm Melitta, the middle one ," she says, "but don't worry about getting us mixed up. We just had three cousins here, tall girls from Houston; there was Jennifer, Cecilia, and a third one. I can't remember her name. I just couldn't get them straight."
A thick fog blankets Highway 123, but that doesn't seem to phase unflappable Melitta, wrapped in her red choir gown. Spunky, quick-witted, and eager to be interviewed, Melitta frankly confronts this reporter, who has thus far remained silent and awestruck by her not rodding: "Well, you're a reporter, go ahead and ask me some questions. Don't mind interrupting. As you can tell by now I'm the jabberlady in the family."
Before I can get in a question, we pull into the parking lot of a red brick church with white doors and a gallery of stained glass windows. It is surrounded by acres and acres of rich black prairie fields, lying fallow in winter. "This is the Friedens Church," Melitta explains. "It was organized in 1896 and our parents attended it back then. Until 1936, the men sat on one side of the church and the ladies on the other. On Goon Friday the service still is in German." (In 1951, the sisters will tell you, the Friedens Church won the "World Church of the Year Award.")
She continues without missing a beat: "Leon Jaworski's father preached here between 1907 and 1914. They lived right here in the old parsonage," she ways, gesturing out the passenger window. "But $600 a year isn't enough to raise a family on, and they finally moved on. I was the same age as Leon, but that was in the horse and buggy days and Sunday School was just for the few children who lived close by. So Leon and I didn't see much of each other."
After the morning church service, Melitta took me on a tour of the Confirmation Gallery in the Sunday School and pointed out a photograph of the 1908 confirmation class, over which the mustachioed minister, Joseph Jaworski, presided. In the fron row, wearing a white dress and broad white bow in her hair was Melitta's oldest sister, Tekla.
On the way home from church, I asked Melitta why neither she nor any of her sisters had married."I suppose the Lord had something to do with that," she responded. "I had boys asking me out for dates, but my mom said I was too young and I suppose they just gave up. My father gave us a happy home and we always had everything we needed there. I guess there was no reason to leave."
One thing William Timmermann did give his daughters was the German Christmas tree tradition. From the age of 7 he had cut and hauled out of the woods his family's Christmas tree. In keeping with the tradition, the seven sisters pile in their station wagon and drive through a friend's wood lot every December in search of the "perfect cedar."
Says Melitta of the other decorated trees in their front yard: "Meta and I dragged the tree out of the woods and Willie Mae decorated it. That may sound like honest-to-goodness Texas stinky bragging, but they weren't so big."
As Melitta and I come in the front door, a family from the next county had just arrived to view the Timmermanns' tree in the parlor. Meta and Melitta are on hand to greet them.
"WE've heard so much about the seven Timmermann sisters and your beautiful tree," the mother in the family says. "But where are the other sisters?" The two sisters smile knowingly at each other and Melitta explains: "Well, this is Sunday and we have dinner guests. I suppose the other sisters are in the kitchen getting ready."
Meta and I slip into the kitchen and find the five other sisters glued to their color TV set watching the Dallas Cowboys-Los Angeles Rams football game. Willie Mae is by the sink slicing up homemade pork sausage, but hasn't missed an instant replay.
Each year the sisters throw a dinner for the entire football team, which, including waterboys, comes to around 40 people. There high school football players who have eaten the Timmermanns' home cooking over the last few decades have gone on to the pros.
"Milton Hardeway was such a sweet boy," Meta says. "At 6 feet 9 inches I always thought of him as a mild-mannered giant. He went on and played lineman for the San Diego Chargers."
While the Timmermanns have no children of their own, they seemed to have adopted half the athletes and drum majorettes in central Texas. Throughout their home, on the staircase, on pillars, in hallways, are photographs of a volleyball team here or basketball team there, or pictures of the reception they put on for the Miss Texas contestants. In return, the teams give them sweaters and blankets imprinted with the high school insignia, or sometimes a game football signed by each of the players.
When Meta and I returned to the kitchen, it was nearly half-time half time in the Cowboys game, and the table was spread with a luncheon buffet of cheese and sausages, German potato salad, brownies, and fruitcake -- all homemade. The sisters were circling the table and filling their paper plates. Melitta, Meta, and Wanda rolled TV tables into the front hallway and the four of us had lunch by their famous Christmas tree. Over the stereo came "O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum" which completed with the cheers coming from the Cowboy fans still in the kitchen.
Next to the Christmas tree in a 1792 sea chest which Heinrich Timmermann brought over from Germany when he came to Texas in 1848 at the age of 19. "He landed in Indianola and caught a wagon train and ended up picking cotton on a slave farm," Wanda, one of the family historians, says, "Our grandfather soon became on overseer on the farm and was sent to buy slaves. He became outraged at a sale which would have split a Negro family, and against orders bought the entire family. He was eventually discharged."
When I first arrived at the Timmermanns, I found it difficult to match the seven names with the seven sisters. They were dressed identically and most had snow-white hair. At first I found myself looking for slight differences in their dress. (Wanda wore white shoes. Melitta wore black shoes. Meta wore a holly corsage in her hair.) But after spending the afternoon, I became more and more aware of how distinct and individual is each of the seven components of this collective referred to as "the Timmermann sisters." I asked Wanda what distinguished her sisters from one another.
"We all show our individuality. Tekla is the oldest and always took care of our clothes. Today she makes sure we have enough bread in the house. Hulda, I remember, would always comb my hair and pull up my socks and make sure my shoes were tied. She's the tidy one in the bunch. She's always warmhearted and does the laundry. Though we prefer sundried clothes, we're anxious to get a dryer so Hulda doesn't have to walk out to the line.We've also wanted to buy ceiling fans to stay cool in the hot weather. but because we're so functional -- we know that on sunny days we can sit under a shady tree, but on rainy days we can't dry our clothes. so we'll buy the dryer before the ceiling fan."
Returning to the description of her sisters, Wanda says: "Stella works faster than anyone else. We always said if she were running the world, she could do it with one hand and have her other hand free for other things. Melitta, we call her out public relations gal. She does a lot of talking. She keeps the Freezers in order and cuts all our hair. She's the family barber. She also does a lot of the writing for our newspaper column." "Along the Geronimo Creek," a sort of rural "Talk of the Town," appears in two local newspapers every week.
"Meta, she's the little one. She feeds the cattle. She knows where everything is, from a deck of cards to fruit jars and last year's sweaters. She's the family detective and has a great sense of humor. She's also our cook. She can shake a sleeve and out comes a beautiful lunch when we didn't think we had any food in the house. She also washes the dishes so Tekla can dry them. For a year or more now we haven't used the diswasher so Tekla will have something to do and feel needed. This is the secret of healing.
"Willie Mae, she's the artist. I've never heard any criticism about her work." For 20 years, the Tammermann sisters ran a florist shop out of their house, but were forced to close down last year because they couldn't afford the gasoline to make home deliveries. "No, I take that back. She once made a wedding bouquet, which the bride loved but the mother thought it needed more leaves."
The other sisters call Wanda "the executive," but the most she would say about herself after bragging on her sisters was, "I suppose I'm a jack-of-all-trades."
Wanda, normally responsible for taking care of visiting reporters, offered me a tour of the house. First we ducked into a downstairs closet with seven white coats, seven red coats, and seven blue shawls. Each hanger was color-coded with distinguishing ribbons (red, orchid, black, gold, brown, blue, and green). We proceeded upstairs to their "dormitory" of seven single beds set in a "T" formation. As one might expect to find in a girls' dormitory, there is a wall of movie-star memorabilia and autographs.
I followed Wanda downstairs and back through the kitchen to the pantry to their four freezers stuffed with enough food to last until next Christmas. "We freeze everything but the squeal of the pig."
Returning to the kitchen, we pass through a new room under construction. "We're putting in a guest room and bathroom back here," she comments. "most people our age sit back and relax. We're always looking for new projects to take on. that's what gives us our spunk." It is the end of our tour, and finally, back into the kitchen Wanda checks with her six sisters camped around the televi sion: "Anybody know the score?"