Thea Engst is a poet and bar manager in Somerville, Massachusetts. She is currently tracing the route of her grandfather’s World War II infantry unit abroad. Her stories and adventures have appeared periodically on Spiral Bound since October. Read One, Two, Three and Four.
by Amanda Beland
It began with a name and ended with perspective.
For the last two months, poet and writer Thea Engst has been roughly retracting the route of her grandfather’s World War II infantry. From London to Dresden to Vienna, she’s been on a mission to find out the origin of a piece of herself she speaks and hears every day: her name.
Going into the journey, she had eight months of research and a rough set of facts: Thea was a woman her grandfather either dated or knew during the occupation in Vienna. No last name. No birth date.
With a week or so left in her trip, Engst knows little more about her namesake than when she left Somerville in October. Yet, she has gained something she didn’t expect to.
I fully come to terms with knowing this: I will never know who I am named after. And I have to be okay with that.
“This is when I have a revelation, a memory of an address on an envelope I found as a child,” wrote Engst. “This is when I Google “Thea” and have an actual last name to end it with. This is when I find her, right? No. This is when I am in Vienna, where I always knew I would end up. This is where the sadness of the end of an amazing trip sets in and I fully come to terms with knowing this: I will never know who I am named after. And I have to be okay with that. But I do know a lot more about what my grandpa went through when he was ten years younger than I am now … I understand my grandpa a little better now, I appreciate him even more than I already did, and I really realize how much of an impact he had on my life. Not just in my name, but in everything I became.”
Engst grew up on a farm in upstate New York in a small town called Fabius. She’s one of five, with three older sisters and one younger brother.
She began writing in elementary school and was first published in fourth grade in a creative collection called Inside Out. It wasn’t until she hit her teenage years when she naturally found what her writing would become.
“I was writing in my journal and that’s when it naturally came out as poetry,” said Engst. “It wasn’t much like ‘This is how my day was like’. I don’t even remember making a conscious decision to write poetry, I think it just came out that way.”
Engst, a natural introvert, initially felt uncomfortable sharing her writing. However, a writing teacher recognized the spark in her and pushed her to share her words.
“I had really great teacher who sort of encouraged me to write that way,” said Engst. “He used to say, ‘You aren’t a writer if no one else sees your writing; then it’s just you writing in a journal’ and I was like ‘Woooooah’. I was always an introvert, very shy, and never wanted to show anybody, but he like made a big difference pushing me like that.”
‘You aren’t a writer if no one else sees your writing; then it’s just you writing in a journal’
Engst eventually studied creative writing in college before moving to Boston for an unpaid internship after graduating.
“It was unpaid, so no good, and I really quickly realized I wanted to go back to school,” said Engst.
She began working as a nanny to save up money and applying to grad schools.
“It wasn’t my intention to stay in Boston, but there was something about it, particularly Somerville, that really sort of held me here,” said Engst.
There was something about it, particularly Somerville, that really sort of held me here
She applied to Emerson College with the intention of either studying screenwriting through their LA program or pursuing a professor track. She was accepted into the LA program, which she turned down. She also took one teaching class.
“I took the class and realized very quickly I wasn’t a teacher, which is a good thing to realize early on,” said Engst, laughing.
Engst began studying creative writing and three years later, graduated with a MFA in poetry and creative writing from Emerson.
While attending Emerson, Engst was hired as a host at The Independent in Union Square, Somerville.
“My best friend worked there and said I needed a job and they asked ‘Is she clean and not crazy?’ and she said ‘Yes’ and that’s how I got hired,” said Engst.
Engst eventually picked up a bartending shift.
“I just really loved it,” said Engst. “I had been working three jobs and in school for so long that after I graduated I just wanted to focus on one thing so I stayed on as a bartender. I had the luxury of only having to work four days a week so I took that and really loved it. That’s when I really started publishing more because I would make myself write. I would set a goal of two journals a week or something like that.”
(Read more about her published work here.)
Engst became a manager at The Independent. But with increased responsibility came a decrease in time. She began writing less and less.
“It’s just something that if I’m not doing it, I feel like my soul is dying,” said Engst. “I have to do it.”
Engst moved on to become a manager of Assembly Square’s River Bar, a bar and restaurant owned and operated under the same management umbrella as the Independent.
This is when Engst seriously began researching her trip.
“This name of mine, I always have to repeat it, which is fine, and I always get ‘It’s pretty, where does it come from?'” said Engst. “It’s just a constant theme in my life and has had a huge impact.”
Engst only knew she was named after a woman his grandfather either dated or knew during the occupation in Vienna. She spent the next eight months or so researching the war and her grandfather’s infantry route.
“Part of why I want to make this trip is to remind people that this stuff happened and it’s really important to remember what my grandfather did and I keep going back to this, but they really were just teenagers,” said Engst.
The obvious challenge of the quest was that the man at the center of her project had died and her grandmother had little to no information about his journey in the war.
“When I ask my grandmother for information it’s really hard because I think he ended up throwing away a lot of his memorabilia,” said Engst.”He was 80 years old and really soft spoken. I really wish I had pried with these things, but I didn’t want to upset him. You never really knew what would upset up and who wants to make their grandfather cry?”
Engst flew from Boston to London at the beginning of October.
“To get the writing process started,” said Engst.
Then she traveled to numerous cities in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Czech Republic and Poland. She ends her journey in Vienna, where she is currently with one of her sisters.
“I wonder if Grandpa ever thought I would make it here, Vienna, looking for some pieces of his childhood, when I ended up with ‘Thea’ as a name,” wrote Engst. “I wonder what he thought of when he looked at me. I bet at first it was her, but as I became a new person, my own person, he must have seen less and less of the original Thea. I feel a little bad about that, that I took away some part of her as I grew up with her name and made it mine. But maybe that gave him some joy too, witnessing me grow as he could never witness her. So this is where I leave her: somewhere outside Vienna in a field, flowers to her waist and a blurry face that appears to be smiling.”
Read more about Engst’s journey on her blog.